Updates on Five Tri-Cities Unsolved & Missing Persons Cold Cases
No area is immune to unsolved crimes. Investigators do their best to solve each case, but for a myriad of reasons, not all crimes reach a definitive conclusion.
A number of cold cases have recently been solved due to the advancement in DNA technology and the ability to use Genealogy sites to find matches. It certainly provides hope for some families who have gone years, even decades, without answers.
I recently had the chance to talk with Benton County Sheriff Tom Croskrey, Benton County Investigations Division Commander Lee Cantu, and former Kennewick Police Chief (now Port of Kennewick Commissioner) Ken Hohenberg regarding some longstanding unsolved and missing persons cold cases.
When looking on line, many sites are not completely up to date on the current status of cases. That's why I went to those involved in the investigations to try and get the most up to date info on these cases. Here is what i was able to find.
Diane Merckx - Murdered July 18th 1977
Diane Merckx was 20 years old when her body was found in a shallow grave at Sacajawea State Park in the industrial area of Pasco. It appeared as thought the young woman was strangled by her assailant. This case has been worked by multiple detectives over the years. There was speculation at one time that serial killer Stanley Bernson may have been involved, but no proof ever materialized to link him to Diane's death.
Commander Cantu informed me that the Sheriff's Department does have two persons of interest in the case, and that those persons have invoked their right to legal counsel. They remain persons of interest in Diane's murder as all other leads have been exhausted. Commander Cantu believes there are people in the Tri-Cities that have information regarding Diane's death and hope they come forward to give the family closure and help close this case
June Lynn Howard - Went Missing June 16, 1978 from Kennewick
June Howard was a 27 year old wife and mother when she disappeared from her Kennewick home. Her husband, Steve Howard, told police that his wife went to the store and did not return home. Howard reported his wife missing 11 days after her disappearance. June Howard has not been seen or heard from since the date of her disappearance.
In 2015, then KPD Chief Ken Hohenberg hired retired Richland Police Captain Al Wehner to look over the department's cold cases. June Howard's case was one Wehner took a fresh look at. After additional investigation, Wehner submitted evidence to then Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller for review pointing to Steve Howard murdering his wife.
Miller reviewed the submission and, based upon what was presented, concluded that it was likely that June Howard was murdered by her husband, effectively closing the case in February of 2017. Steve Howard would not see the inside of a courtroom as the former auto repair shop owner died in 2000.
Diane Robbins - Left Her Kennewick home June 18, 1985
Diane Robbins took a trip to Seattle to meet up with some friends in Seattle and was never seen again. Initially, it was thought that Robbins ran away. That thought quickly shifted when the body of her friend, Molly Purdy, was found a month later in King County. It is thought foul play also befell Diane Robbins.
After speaking with Commander Cantu I learned that a human skull was found atthe end of last year by some hikers not far from where the body of Molly Purdy was found in 1985. A river that ran through some property may have changed course revealing the skull. It was sent for DNA testing along with DNA from one of Robbins living relatives. The test came back negative and her disappearance is still unsolved.
Timothy Rice - Left his Kennewick Home in 2001 and was never seen again
Timothy Rice was 40 years old when he disappeared from his home on January 11th, 2001, along with one of his dogs. One of the odd details about Rice's disappearance is that he left everything behind including leaving his horses and pets unattended. Rice simply vanished without a trace and has not been heard from since.
Commander Cantu told me that law enforcement believes Rice is no longer alive and that he may have met a tragic end. Rice was believed to have an association with a motorcycle gang that was prominent at that time in the Tri-Cities. One theory is that Rice's disappearance could be linked to that association. Rice's body has never been found and his case is still unsolved.
Sophia Juarez - taken from her Kennewick home February 4th, 2003
The disappearance of Sophia Juarez is one of the most high profile unsolved cases in Tri-Cities. She was taken one day before her 5th birthday near her Kennewick home. Sophia's case garnered national attention. A witness that Kennewick Police deemed credible came forward with information in 2021 that indicated they may have witnessed Sophia's abduction.
The witness claimed they saw a young man (pre-teen to teen) approach Sophia and lead her to a waiting van that then left the area. In February 2021, a Tiktok video featured a young woman in Mexico that some believed may have been Sophia. After investigation by KPD, and the result of DNA testing, the woman in the video was not Sophia Juarez. Sophia's whereabouts are unknown to this day and her disappearance remains unsolved as KPD continues to follow leads.
KPD has a page dedicated to updates on Sophia's case that you can follow by clicking here.