Family searches for answers in death of Frances Wartenburg

ERIN BECK | Sunday Gazette-Mail
Frances Wartenburg’s family lights a candle above this plaque every night. Wartenburg disappeared in February, but her body was not found until May and her death remains a mystery.

Around 8 p.m. every day, Kimberly Hoover and her family step outside their St. Albans house and light a candle hanging from a wreath above a plaque resting on a bed of rocks.

A glittering butterfly hangs from the wreath. Frances loved butterflies.

“Frances Wartenburg,” the plaque reads. “July 19, 1981. Departed 2015. In Loving Memory. We Love You.”

The friend who made the plaque left a blank space between “Departed” and “2015.” Frances’ family doesn’t know exactly when she died.

She was last seen in late February, but her body, stuck in a tree along the Ohio River in Gallia County, Ohio, wasn’t found until early May.

Her family also doesn’t know how Frances died or how her body got there. Police say they are still waiting on additional test results from Ohio’s medical examiner.

“I just wish that I had a crystal ball and could see what happened to her,” said Hoover, Wartenburg’s aunt.

Hoover lives with her sister, Frances’ mom, Sandra, and Frances’ brother, Shirde.

“When she’d come and spend the night, she’d sleep in my bed,” Hoover said. “She used to kick me all the time. All that now seems so trivial.”

She said they will continue to light a candle for Frances every night, until the case is solved.

“It just helps us, and I think it lets her know that we’re not going to give up until we find what happened to her,” she said.

Hoover described Frances, who was 33 and had a teenage daughter, Alyssa, as a free spirit and a kind-hearted person.

“When she loved, she loved unconditionally,” Hoover said.

Frances was also the type of person who saw the good in other people.

“She didn’t see the bad in anybody,” Hoover said. “Sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes that might be a bad thing. We wonder, in a case like this, did she trust the wrong person?”

Hoover said Frances was last seen on Feb. 22 at the America’s Best Value Inn, near Smiley’s Lounge in Jefferson. She said Frances told her boyfriend she was going to visit family, and he offered to have his cousin come pick her up.

“She said ‘I’m going to go out and smoke a cigarette,’ ” Hoover said. “When he went out to check, she was gone.”

More than 1,500 people joined the “Find Frances Wartenburg” Facebook group after her disappearance. Friends raised funds to put up a billboard, distributed fliers and sent out news releases.

Hoover said she is grateful for the outpouring of support. It helps the family as they grieve.

But each day that goes by, she says, they lose a little bit of faith that the case will be solved.

“It’s the not knowing,” Hoover said. “You don’t know if something happened, and somebody just threw her away like trash, if she fell in the river. We don’t know. There’s just too many unanswered questions.”

It breaks Hoover’s heart watching her sister grieve.

“She told me that every day she takes a breath, it hurts,” Hoover said.

Hoover used to watch “Cold Justice,” a TV show about unsolved murders, with her sister.

“We always used to say how we couldn’t imagine how families would feel and how they dealt with that, and now we’re on the receiving end,” she said. “We still watch them every now and then, but it’s harder because now, we’re one of them families.”

Sandra doesn’t laugh like she used to, either, according to her sister.

“There are some nights that she yells in her sleep,” Hoover said. “A couple of times, she’s had dreams and Frannie comes to her in her dreams. I just hope that when she comes to her, that she comforts her, because I hate to see the pain that she goes through every day.”

Detective Ana Pile, lead investigator on the case, said several detectives have helped with the case and that “family, friends, co-workers, intimate partners, neighbors and others” are typically interviewed in missing-persons cases, and have been interviewed in Frances’ case.

“Information, or tips, have been received and were/are investigated accordingly,” she said in an email. “Information was never received that would have led us to find Frances’ body any sooner than it was.”

Sgt. Brian Humphreys, of the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Department, urged members of the public to help, if they know anything about the case.

“We have received a great deal of information in the form of evidence and interviews, and we are hopeful some of the evidence being examined will yield more clues and conclusions,” Humphreys said, “but we believe someone knows more about what happened to Frances, and we are asking anyone with information to come forward and help fill in a few blanks.”

Hoover also pleads for anyone in the community who knows more to contact police.

“We know the police are doing what they can do, but they can only do so much,” she said. “We just feel like there might be somebody out there that knows something or has seen something and maybe doesn’t want to get involved. All I can say to them is, ‘What if that was your daughter or your sister or your granddaughter’s mother?’ ”

Anyone with information is asked to call 304-357-0169 or submit a tip at www.kanawha sheriff.us.

“Until then, that’ll burn,” Hoover said, gesturing toward the candle in her front yard.

Reach Erin Beck at erin.beck@wvgazette.com, 304-348-5163 or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.

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