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Seeking a break in Wells case
Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed, front, speaks Wednesday during a press conference regarding the disappearance of Karen Denise Wells in 1994. (Jason Malmont/The Sentinel)

The family of an Oklahoma woman last seen in Middlesex Township in 1994 is joining investigators in urging people to come forward if they know anything at all about the disappearance of Karen Denise Wells.

“I don’t know if they’ll ever find her,” said Joanne Wells of her cousin’s daughter, who was known as “Denise.”

But, she said Wednesday, she hopes that getting people talking about the case again will unearth turn up a piece of information that will allow investigators to finish the puzzle so the family can finally have get some closure.

“There’s some inconsistencies in there,” she said Wednesday of a timeline she has assembled using publicly reported information about the case. “But if you look at it close enough, the answer may be there.”

“I know and feel in my heart, as a mother, that there is someone out there that knows something,” Denise’s mother, Deorma Wells, said in an e-mail to The Sentinel. She wants that person to know that she can forgive a past inability to come forward, she said, but still pleads for the information.

“Please come forward for Denise’s son, William, and yourself, so you do not have to live with the guilt any longer,” Deorma Well said. “This young boy needs a hero, even if you have made a mistake.”

Investigators held a press conference Wednesday to remind the public that it has been 15 years since the disappearance of Denise Wells, who was then 23 and the single mother of a young child. She may still be alive, they said, but they consider that unlikely, as does Wells’ family.

“Locally there have been persons of interest” in the case, state police spokesman Trooper Karl Schmidhamer said. Out-of-state people have been scrutinized as well, he said, but there isn’t enough information to identify anyone as a suspect.

Wells had been driving from her home to New Bergen, N.J., to visit Melissa Shepard, a long-time friend of hers who was working as an exotic dancer and according to Wells’ family was having “personal problems.”

Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed said investigators have repeatedly interviewed people “who we believe know more than they’ve told us.”

Getting a break from the physical evidence available is “a long shot,” Freed said. Police have chased down every lead they had over the years, he said, and even went so far as to use ground-penetrative radar at the Pike Motel, where Wells was last seen.

However, he said, over the past few years local law enforcement officials have solved several cases at least as old as Wells’.

“What is consistent is that law enforcement continued to work on these cases,” Freed said, crediting a state police policy of checking in on even long-dormant cases every 60 or 90 days. “We never give up.”

Investigators don’t necessarily need to find Wells or her body to crack the case, Freed said, but they do need more information than they currently have.

For instance, Freed said, police believe there were indications of criminal activity in Wells’ rental car, a white 1993 Plymouth Acclaim that was discovered abandoned and out of gas more than an hour away on a remote stretch of Route 274 near Tuscarora State Park in Perry County before 6 a.m. that day.

Freed declined to specify what those indications were, but police have said in the past that they discovered a small amount of marijuana in the car.

That’s where the time that has passed since Wells’ disappearance may help investigators, Schmidhamer said. The statute of limitations has expired on smaller crimes that may have been involved in what happened, such as theft of a vehicle, he said, and police hope that knowing that may inspire people who have previously been afraid to come forward with information to do so now.

As for the inconsistencies Joanne Wells noted, police have long puzzled over them. They include the following:

• Someone called Melissa Shepard from a pay phone at the Sheetz market in Middlesex and spoke to her voicemail about 17 hours before Wells is believed to have arrived in the area.

• Before she checked into the hotel that day, Wells was seen in Scheafferstown, which is about an hour closer to New Jersey than Middlesex is, and then traveling the opposite direction in Bernville a few hours later.

After telling Shepard that she got lost several times that day, Wells checked into the motel and made arrangements for Shepard to come meet her there. Shepard reported arriving with a boyfriend, but police said she actually showed up with two men she met at a bar where she worked and “went ballistic” before it was even clear her friend was missing.

Wells’ car had logged about 700 miles more than it should have during the trip.

Wells had been dating a married man, and about six months after she disappeared his wife reported receiving a call from a person who claimed to be Wells and said, “Tell Mike I’m not coming home. I’m already married.” Investigators do not believe Wells made the call.

Police have said one of the reasons they do not believe Wells is still alive is that her son William, whom she left with her parents and who is now 16, has not had any contact from her.

“Denise had a beautiful, heartwarming smile, her laughter and her ability to make people feel loved and comfortable,” Deorma Wells said. “She loved her son so much and was truly devoted. She was devoted to her family and friends as she proved in this trip to save her friend, Melissa.”

Deorma Wells said she has no idea what could have happened to her daughter but that the family still feel helpless not knowing.

“I don’t think it ever gets easier,” she said. “The wide range of emotions is unbelievable and sometimes hard to bear, but the only thing we have to concentrate on is our wonderful grandson and his future, making sure he finds his path in life.”

Police ask anyone with information about Wells to call Crime Stoppers at 866-898-8477.

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