Victims are still missing 20 years after trial

? Twenty years later, the secret remains locked away in a killer’s mind.

The motive for his silence is as mysterious as the final fate of three young Johnson County women unfortunate enough to cross paths with Richard Grissom Jr. that June two decades ago.

The shockingly random crimes targeted young women with no known connections to their killer. New victims vanished even as police scrambled to hunt down Grissom. A pall of fear blanketed the city for nearly three weeks — until authorities cornered Grissom at a Dallas airport after he attempted to coax another young woman to meet him there.

In his wake he left a trail of evidence that linked him to the missing women. But his criminal carelessness did not extend to their bodies.

No trace of Joan Butler, Christine Rusch and Theresa Brown has been found. Grissom has never revealed how he chose them, how he killed them or what he did with them.

For the women’s families, the silence is a final and ongoing act of evil.

“He’s arrogant,” said Jim Brown, Theresa’s brother. “In his little pea brain he still thinks someday he’s going to use this bargaining chip to benefit himself.”

For the law-enforcement authorities who put Grissom in prison for the rest of his life, that success is tempered by one lingering, haunting question: Where are the women?

“His only claim to fame is that people are still interested in what happened to them,” said former FBI special agent Mike Napier. “He’s hiding behind them. He’s a real coward.”

Early leads

Joan Butler was 24 and ambitious. Following her father’s career path, she graduated from Kansas University with a degree in advertising.

A media buyer for a Kansas City advertising firm, she also worked part time at a gourmet cheese shop on the Country Club Plaza. Early in June 1989 after a car wreck, she called her father in Wichita and said something that would prove to be hauntingly prescient.

“I guess my luck’s running out,” she told him.

Father’s Day that year fell on June 18. She told her father to expect a call. Back home in Wichita, Ralph Butler waited all day for the call that never came.

Joan Butler last was seen alive early that morning leaving a friend’s house in Kansas City headed to her Overland Park apartment. Police know she made it home because the black dress she wore while dancing with friends the previous night was hung neatly on a closet door.

When she didn’t show up for work on Monday, her family reported her missing.

Her case garnered more attention than a typical missing person because her advertising co-workers blanketed the area with thousands of leaflets and several billboards. The publicity paid off a week later when a tipster spotted her missing rental car in Lawrence.

The officer who responded saw a man open the car’s trunk. But when the officer tried to question the man, he took off running and escaped, eluding a search by officers and dogs. A wallet and checkbook left behind in the car gave police the name of a suspect: Richard Grissom.

After eluding police that night, Grissom called a friend and asked for a ride back to the Kansas City area.

His friend last saw Grissom at a Lenexa motel — about a half-mile from the apartment complex where 22-year-old roommates Rusch and Brown lived.

The next day, they vanished.

Johnson County search

Theresa Brown and Christine Rusch shared more than an apartment. They were born on the same day.

Brown, a cheerleader and prom queen at Camdenton, Mo., High School, worked as a dental assistant and planned to become a dental hygienist.

Rusch, a Shawnee Mission South High School graduate, worked in retail marketing at the North Kansas City optics company owned by her father.

On the morning of June 26, she called in sick for both herself and Brown.

No friend, relative or co-worker ever spoke to either woman again.

With two more families reporting missing women, law enforcement officials geared up what was to be one of the most extensive criminal investigations in Johnson County’s history.

Grissom, 28, was handsome and athletically built and dated numerous women. He owned a small painting and maintenance company that contracted with large apartment complexes around the area. The job gave him key access to hundreds of apartments.

He was also a career criminal on parole for burglary and theft. At age 16, he had killed a Lansing, Kan., woman. He had connections to a Wichita woman found dead in her apartment about two weeks before Butler disappeared. Someone had viciously mutilated the body of 25-year-old Terri Maness.

Dozens of officers on both sides of the state joined the investigation.

A day after the roommates vanished, authorities found Grissom’s car abandoned at a Grandview apartment complex. Identification cards belonging to Rusch and Brown were inside, along with keys to the women’s apartments.

Acting on tips from the public, police searched areas of southern Johnson County, around and in Longview Lake in Jackson County and near Lawrence.

Detectives conducted surveillance on some of Grissom’s known girlfriends locally and in other states. Weeks later, when they got a tip that he was in Dallas, a team of detectives flew there.

Napier, an FBI specialist in prisoner interrogation, had just arrived July 7 when he spotted Grissom entering the terminal. Other members of the arrest team were in another part of the airport. When Grissom started to leave, Napier drew his gun and ordered him to stop.

Grissom complied.

Small window closed

In the hours after Grissom’s arrest, authorities may have had their best chance ever to find out what happened to the women.

At first defiant and refusing to admit anything, Grissom began to offer hints of his involvement, according to Leawood Police Detective Joe Langer. Off and on for almost eight hours, Langer and Napier interrogated Grissom in an airport police detention room.

“He wanted to make a deal,” Langer recalled. “He said he could give us everything.”

The possibility of a death sentence came up. Grissom was aware that Missouri was a death penalty state and Kansas at the time was not. He told the officers that “everything” happened in Kansas. He also said “you’ll dig them up.”

But that’s as far as they got. They were required to stop the interview so Grissom could appear before a judge. After that, his court-appointed lawyer prohibited contact.

Searchers continued to scour woods and farm fields. Authorities drained ponds. Some detectives followed private hunches, looking on their own time in locations where evidence had been found or where Grissom may have been familiar.

As the search continued, prosecutors began preparing for Johnson County’s first murder trial without a victim’s body.

The fall 1990 trial proved to be one of the biggest and most complex in Kansas history. Officials summoned a jury pool of 600 because of the massive pretrial publicity. They also sequestered the jury, the first time that had been done in Johnson County.

Prosecutors called about 100 witnesses. The plethora of circumstantial evidence coupled with the things Grissom said during his interrogation convinced jurors he was guilty of three counts of first-degree murder and associated crimes.

Under the maximum, consecutive sentences imposed by the judge, Grissom will not be eligible for parole until 2093.

He did not respond to written requests for comment for this story.