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‘The whole time she was right there’: Family begins to find closure in missing person case

Car of Esther Westenbarger's found in pond; family awaits confirmation that person inside was Westenbarger

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A vehicle was pulled out of a retention pond yesterday that's believed to be that of missing person Esther Westenbarger's.

The family of a woman who had been missing for nearly 11 years is beginning to find closure after her car was dragged from a northside pond yesterday, and human remains were found inside.

On Nov. 11, 2009, Esther Westenbarger and her gold 2005 Cadillac CTS with personalized license plates went missing. Now, according to her family, her car has been located after individuals who were fishing in the pond saw the submerged vehicle. While the family awaits confirmation that the remains were that of Westenbarger’s, her brother, William Pelfee, believes they are.

“This whole time we thought somebody abducted her. What happened to her? How did she go? You know? What happened to her? And the whole time she was right there,” Pelfree said.

After spending more than a decade wondering what happened to his sister, Pelfree said he’s thankful to be getting some answers.

When Westenbarger went missing, she was newer to the area. She lived most of her life in Fostoria, Ohio. She attended Fostoria High School and worked for Findlay Industries, an automobile parts manufacturer, for nearly 20 years. According to Julie Wise, the Indiana State Director of the CUE Center for Missing Persons who worked the case since around 2014, the company had just unloaded a lot of employees, and Westenbarger was one of them.

Westenbarger accepted a buyout from her employer and decided to move to Kokomo to be closer to her mother and siblings. She moved into a trailer on the north side of Kokomo.

On the night Westenbarger went missing, she went out with some new friends to bar hop. She parked her Cadillac at Hoosier Bar and then went to Miller’s Tavern, which was about a quarter of a mile away. She was last seen leaving Miller’s Tavern on foot, presumably to get her car at Hoosier Bar.

In a 2019 interview, Wise said Westenbarger was a drinker, and while she was described as independent, her judgment “probably wasn’t all that good” the night she went missing.

Ahead of her disappearance, Westenbarger had been planning a surprise birthday party for her mother who was turning 73 on Nov. 14. She paid to bring her sisters to town and had planned where they would go to have a girls’ weekend.

When Westenbarger couldn’t be reached ahead of the party, her family realized something was wrong.

In the years since, several physical searches were held in an attempt to locate the missing woman, and Pelfree has held a number of missing persons events, but no solid leads ever were found, though several individuals were questioned over the years, including the people Westenbarger was with the night she went missing. Pelfree believed someone had murdered his sister.

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“The thought I had in my mind, I thought someone done something to her. I feel like I almost need to go apologize because it’s like, you know, there were a few people I thought for sure had done something to her,” Pelfree said.

Now, he believes what happened was much less nefarious. It was an accident, he said.

“I pretty much realized that I’m sure that’s what happened because she left the Hoosier Bar. That’s Webster Street right there, and she was probably drunk, not wanting to go down Washington Street, probably jetted down Webster, just going to go around the loop and turn and come back down Washington Street to go home,” he said. “Apparently she was probably going too fast and drunk and didn’t make the turn, didn’t stop. It’s just kind of mind-boggling that nobody ever seen the tracks or anything off the road right there … That pond is so little. It sits 17 feet deep.”

Around the time of her disappearance, Pelfree said construction was going on in that area, and there may not have been any grass yet. The retention pond is located in the area of Webster Street and 300 North by Abby Place subdivision.

Last year, on the 10-year anniversary of Westenbarger’s disappearance, Pelfree hoped his aging mother one day would be able to find closure. Now, he said she’s relieved to finally be getting some answers.

“She is relieved too because she’s 84. Now she knows where her daughter’s at, and we’ll be able to have a service of some kind and put her to rest and do it in a proper way once we get proof that was Esther,” Pelfree said.

Westenbarger's car donned an Ohio-issued personalized license plate that read "MSESTER." The plate still was on the car when it was dragged from the pond, according to Pelfree.

An attempt to reach Howard County Deputy Joe Underwood was unsuccessful at the time of publication. According to a release from the Howard County Sheriff’s Office, the case is active and remains under investigation by the Howard County Sheriff’s Office and the Howard County Coroner’s Office.

According to Captain Jordan J. Buckley of the Howard County Sheriff's Office, an autopsy is scheduled for this afternoon, and detectives still are processing the vehicle.

"When the coroner advises me of a positive identification, I will release that information. It may or may not have a preliminary cause of death depending on the findings of the autopsy," said Buckley in a statement. "Although social media has already solved the case, I will not release information based upon speculation or assumption as it’s not fair to the families involved or others who may have lost/missing loved ones."