A Lawrence woman's ashes are headed back to Kansas more than 10 years after she died -- unbeknownst to her family -- apparently of complications from having her teeth pulled.
The Poeverlein family's quest to learn what happened to their estranged sister ended earlier this month when a police detective in Oklahoma helped lead them to information about her 1992 death.
"We thought she might have been in trouble and needed some help or something," said her older brother, David D. Poeverlein, Waverly. "We sure never thought she was dead."
Early in life, Gail Poeverlein and her five siblings suffered a series of upheavals.
She was born July 27, 1959, in Lawrence. A few years later, her mother, Gwendolyn, died in childbirth with her youngest child. Two years after that, the children's father, William, died in a house fire, family members said.
The children went to live with an aunt and uncle who had four children of their own. Gail grew up to be sweet, but was hot-tempered and wild at times, family members said.
"I didn't like my sister's ways, some of them, but I loved her," said her older sister, Judy Phelps of Waverly.
But Gail had a falling out with her family in the late 1980s and left Lawrence with a man her siblings knew as Renegade Parker. As family members in Kansas went on with their lives, they simply lost touch with her.
"I don't know if she was trying to hide, didn't want to get ahold of us or what," said David Poeverlein, an over-the-road truck driver. "I think she just got it in her head that we didn't care. I hate to think she died thinking we didn't care."
Phelps, who lived in Mississippi for 10 years, said she had been looking for her sister steadily since coming back to Kansas four years ago. She learned Gail visited Kansas once and left an Oklahoma address with a distant family member. But when Phelps tried the address, it was no good.
Earlier this month, Phelps made another attempt. She called the Tulsa Police Department and ended up speaking with detective Gene Watkins.
The only information Phelps had was a date of birth and the name "Gail Parker," Watkins said.
"It's normally nothing we'd work. I decided I'd do a little bit of checking," Watkins said.
He searched police records and found that a "Gail Parker" -- also known as "Gail Potter" or "Gail Poeverlein" -- was arrested there on a minor offense in 1990. The record showed she was married at the time to a man named Michael Potter, and Watkins tracked down Potter by phone and connected him with Phelps.
"There wasn't much to it," Watkins said. "It was pretty easy."
'I want her home'
Family members learned from Potter that, after Gail moved to Tulsa, she broke up with Parker, became homeless and struggled with substance abuse. As she tried to put her life back together, she married Potter, whom she'd met at a homeless shelter.
Potter told Phelps that about two years after their marriage in May 1990, Gail went to a low-income dental clinic to have some teeth pulled. She died shortly afterward of brain hemorrhaging from an infection related to the dental work, he told them.
He told Phelps an attorney told him it wasn't worth undertaking a lawsuit against the nonprofit clinic.
Phelps said she believed the story. She has seen paperwork to corroborate it. Detective Watkins said he had no reason to doubt the story, either. And his department doesn't have a report on the death because it happened in a hospital.
After Phelps visited Tulsa earlier this month to meet Potter, he agreed to allow his late wife's ashes to come back to Kansas.
Soon, they'll be placed in a crematorium at Hardy Oak Cemetery in Jefferson County, Phelps said. Memorial services are pending.
Gail's youngest brother, Roger, still lives in Lawrence. Two older brothers have moved away.
Though she's relieved to have found her sister, Phelps said those feelings now are mixed with regret.
"I hate it because she didn't have much of a life," Phelps said. "I'm just sick about it. I want her home."