A love story turned mystery
May 3, 2009
1st day of the rest of my life
Your call was an answer to my prayer. I have been thinking of you everyday lately & many times over the years and regretting leaving you under the conditions at the time.
-- Bob Harrod
She sits alone on a sofa in the living room of his home, the curls of her short blond hair teased and sprayed in place. A 60-year-old diamond in a platinum setting is on her right ring finger. A white gold band is on the left.
A painting of Sassy, Bob’s golden-haired Pomeranian, hangs on the wall. His fishing hats sit on the bookshelf. His cane leans against the door frame.
They were engaged 60 years ago. She was 15, he 21. But he left Missouri for California to serve in the Marines and they lost touch. He married, had children and was widowed, as was she.
But Fontelle never forgot Bob Harrod. She held on to the engagement ring he gave her, even wore it at times. Finally, last spring, she asked her daughter to look him up on the Internet.
It’s been nine months since they tracked him down. Nine months since he wrote that letter, saying her call was an answer to his prayer and misspelling her name.
After eight weeks of chatting daily on the phone, Fontelle came to California. Their courtship lasted only days before they decided there was no time to waste and got married. She flew home to Missouri to pack up her things.
The years of wondering, the frequent but fleeting moments of imagining how life might have been different if she’d married her first love, were over. At 74, Fontelle Heeter -- now Fontelle Harrod -- was happy.
Then, two days before Fontelle was to move in, Bob Harrod disappeared.
So many times I wondered where you were, how you were, but it’s so hard to locate someone and . . . if I did find you, could we get together? Or would it end in disappointment for one reason or another?
They met in early spring, 1949. A mutual friend set them up.
“When I first met him I looked in his eyes, right straight to his soul and he just seemed like a good person,” Fontelle said. “I just felt he was a good man.”
Black and white photos of the young couple sit on a coffee table. Here we are fishing, she says. Here he is wearing the beard he grew for the Kansas City centennial, she says.
Jan. 12, 1950, was Fontelle’s 15th birthday. Bob gave her the diamond engagement ring.
But he had joined the Marine reserves and six months later was ordered to report to Camp Pendleton. She rode with him as far as Strong City, Kan. -- 130 miles away. Her brother drove her back.
She wrote letter after letter to a Southern California address he’d given her, but they all came back. She believes a woman Bob was staying with might have decided he ought to marry her niece and returned the letters before he could see them.
After a couple of months, Fontelle gave up. In his letter last May, Bob explained that he didn’t know whether he’d “survive any military action,” so he thought it unfair to hold her to a commitment.
She married in 1953 and the union lasted about a year -- just long enough for her to have a baby, she says.
“We were young. And I think Bob was married by then, too.”
Fontelle’s second husband died in 2006. A homemaker most of her life now left with no one to care for, she would wash clean clothes just to pass the time.
Her daughter, Leisa, needed just minutes on the Internet to find Bob. She picked up the phone, dialed and without giving her mother a chance to reconsider, handed it over. He answered.
“Is this the Bob Harrod that was raised in McFall, Missouri?” Fontelle asked.
I always wondered how to get in touch with you because you were my first love and always will be, nothing can change that. This last year has been very difficult for me, you will never know how many times I have thought of you.
He was, by all accounts, a lonely man when he got the call.
He’d married in 1951 and had three daughters. His wife, Georgia, died in 2008 after a prolonged illness. Bob had spent the last years of her life caring for her and rarely left the house, friends and neighbors said. After her death, Bob’s dog, Sassy, was his constant companion, but the Pomeranian got sick in the spring and was put to sleep.
One person who stayed in touch with Bob was his barber -- a woman in her 40s who occasionally visited. The friendship was a source of frustration for his daughters, who thought he spent too much money on the woman, said his friend and neighbor Paul Estes. At the beginning of last year, Bob decided he needed some time away from his daughters and he asked them to leave him alone for six months, Estes said. It was during those months that Fontelle called.
Fontelle and Bob spoke nearly every day after the first call. They talked about the past -- about fishing and hay rides and drives through the town.
At the end of June, when she arrived at John Wayne Airport, she wore a hot pink jacket so Bob could recognize her. He was in white loafers and a Hawaiian print shirt.
Bob was bald and wore glasses that obscured his gray eyes. But when she looked him in the eyes, she says, it was just like the first time they met.
“He was older and I was older. But I still got that same feeling. He was a good man.”
He brought her home. They sipped warmed-over coffee. He looked down at her hands and smiled, seeing the engagement ring she’d kept for so many years.
They spent the days talking endlessly -- they went for drives and sometimes out for lunch. They visited Bob’s friends.
They were married at the local courthouse.
They drove to Sam’s Club the next day and bought each other wedding rings -- a gold band for him, a white gold one for her.
She extended her stay until July 7, then returned home to pack. The day she left, a local TV news crew interviewed Bob about the reunion.
In the video, he blew a kiss to Fontelle on the phone when she called. He smiled broadly and laughed as he recounted her first call.
“When she talked, I knew it was her,” he told the reporter. “I could just tell by her voice. And that spark was still there. I just wanted to hold her forever.”
This is an opportunity of a life time we must get together. . . we must never again tempt fate as we did in the past.
The last day anyone claims to have seen Bob Harrod is July 27.
The day before he disappeared, his daughters -- Paula Borcher, Roberta Brady and Julie Michaels -- went to his home in Placentia. The four argued about money, police say.
According to Fontelle, Bob said his daughters became upset when he told them he planned to include his new wife in the estate. According to court filings, his daughters estimated Bob had property and savings worth at least $1 million.
The day he disappeared, Bob was preparing for Fontelle’s arrival. He asked his housekeeper to stop by because he wanted the house clean for his new wife, police say.
About 9:30 a.m., Bob’s son-in-law Jeff Michaels arrived to help get the house ready.Michaels told police that he worked at the home, then went to Home Depot about 2:40 p.m. to buy supplies. When he returned about 3:30 p.m., Bob’s housekeeper was sitting on the front stoop because no one had answered the door. Michaels let himself in the back door and the housekeeper followed and cleaned.
Bob was not there.
Michaels told the housekeeper his father-in-law might have gone to visit a neighbor, police say. Michaels left about 6 p.m.
A couple of hours later, Fontelle called Bob as she always did, hoping to catch her new husband after dinner. He didn’t answer. She called again 20 minutes later and again and again every 20 minutes until after midnight, when Julie Michaels called to say her father was missing.
Fontelle called the Placentia Police Department to file a missing person’s report.
After Bob disappeared, someone -- police won’t say who -- told officers he might have regretted the decision to marry. For three days police thought they were dealing with a case of cold feet.
But if he wanted to leave, he left little trace of the decision. His wallet and keys were gone but his car, glasses and credit cards were left behind. He made no large withdrawals from his bank accounts before he disappeared -- and no withdrawals since, said Det. Corinne Loomis, who has worked on the case.
A family member told the media that Bob was showing early signs of dementia. Detectives who interviewed his doctor say Bob was of sound mind, Loomis said.
Police have looked at flight and phone records, bank statements, address books and more to figure out what happened -- to no avail. They’re now treating the case as a possible homicide.
They have worked to nail down alibis for the people around him. The younger woman with whom Bob had a friendship has a solid alibi. Michaels, reportedly the last person to have seen Bob, has receipts verifying he was at Home Depot around the time he said he was, police say.
In the 26 years Loomis has worked with the Placentia Police Department, she says this is the biggest mystery. In trying to piece together scraps of information, there are times she finds herself simply wondering, “What in the world could have happened to this guy?”
Fontelle waits for answers in Bob’s home. His daughters stopped talking to her soon after their father disappeared. Roberta and Paula have filed a claim in probate court for control of Bob’s estate. The judge hearing the matter has not issued a ruling.
Roberta says she is reluctant to talk to the media because she’s been unfairly represented in the past. But, she says, she is determined to find out what happened to her father.
“We feel helpless,” she says. “We really wish someone would come up with a lead so we could get some answers about what happened to our dad and bring him home if he’s out there.”
For the most part, Fontelle’s days are quiet. Her eyes are bad, so she can’t drive. One of Bob’s former neighbors is helping her, bringing her food or taking her shopping. There are days when the desire to return to her own family makes her ache, but she resists leaving.
“I want to find out who did this to him,” she says. “I want whatever is left of him to take home.”
In his absence, she guards the tokens of their romance: the photo of the day they married, the rings she wears and the letter he wrote the first day she called.
You have already given an old man hope for the future.