Lisa Stebic’s sister always knew.
She knew on May 1, 2007, the day a neighbor reported the Plainfield mother of two missing to police.
“I knew my sister was dead from the start,” said Debbie Ruttenberg, Stebic’s older sibling.
But in the eyes of the law, Stebic is a missing person, one of thousands of unexplained cases across the country: 119 from the Chicago area as of last week and 12 of those from Will County, according to one database.
She’s also one of two missing women who captured national attention when they vanished without a trace in 2007. Neither she nor Stacy Peterson, of Bolingbrook, were ever found, dead or alive.
But their husbands were swiftly named persons of interest by authorities. Seven years later, neither man has been charged in connection with either disappearance, though one is serving prison time for another murder. Both men have denied any wrongdoing.
This year, Stacy Peterson’s sister said she will file paperwork to declare her sibling legally dead — enough time has passed to make that process easier, legal experts said. No such move appears to be on the horizon for Stebic.
That doesn’t give the families of these missing women the closure they seek. In her first public comment in more than two years, Ruttenberg said Lisa Stebic was “made to be ‘missing.’ ”
“It’s been more than seven years since Lisa was murdered,” Ruttenberg said, “and my sister’s killer needs to be brought to justice.”
There are 10 other cases of missing people in Will County, nine of them involving females. The oldest case dates to 1975 when 33-year-old Delores Griffin, of Romeoville, disappeared; another one involves Robin Abrams, an auxiliary sheriff’s deputy who disappeared in 1990; and the most recent is Anne Gay, 52, a Joliet waitress who went missing in June 2013.
Meanwhile, prosecutors lack a key piece of evidence to prove Stebic or Peterson was murdered: bodies. If either case went to trial, they would be challenged by defense attorneys to prove the victim truly is dead.
That’s a high bar. Prosecutors can’t try someone twice for the same murder, and there’s always a chance new evidence could surface.
But authorities say they “absolutely haven’t given up.”
It’s possible to convict a person without a body. The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office in California took this risk and won in 2008. Prosecutors there convicted a man of his estranged wife’s first-degree murder after she disappeared. He rewarded them by confessing after his conviction, leading authorities to her body.
“We would have never, ever, found her,” said Paul Hora, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case.
But as Hora points out, when it comes to cases like these, the devil is in the details.
‘I want to bring her home’
Cadaver dogs still hunt for Stacy Peterson.
Her sister, Cassandra Cales, leads them. She never stopped looking. She conducted one search for Stacy’s body this month, and she’s planning another soon.
Cales said she has given authorities time to investigate her sister’s disappearance, but now she doesn’t know where the case stands. So by the end of the year, she said she’ll set out to declare Stacy Peterson legally dead.
“That way it’s known that she didn’t run off,” Cales said.
The circumstances of Stacy Peterson’s and Lisa Stebic’s disappearances were eerily similar. Both mothers of young children wanted out of their marriage. They lived fewer than 10 miles apart. Stebic vanished just six months before Peterson.
Stebic disappeared after mailing paperwork to evict her husband, Craig, from their Plainfield home. He lives there still, having raised the couple’s children.
No one answered the door when a Sun-Times reporter recently visited the Stebic home, and Craig Stebic’s attorney declined to comment.
Lisa Stebic’s family members say they never had a chance to mourn her properly.
“There is no grave,” said her cousin, Melanie Greenberg. “There’s never been an official funeral, because we don’t have a body. We don’t have the answers.”
Peterson vanished shortly after asking a divorce attorney whether she could gain leverage over her husband, Drew, with information she claimed to have about the death of Drew’s previous wife, according to courtroom testimony.
Drew Peterson, a former Bolingbrook police sergeant and 30-year veteran of the department, has long denied wrongdoing in either of his wives’ demise. In 2012, he was convicted of the murder of his previous wife, Kathleen Savio, and is serving a 38-year prison sentence.
But Cales wants justice for Stacy, and that includes a trial. Meanwhile, she’s been told to let authorities dig if something catches the cadaver dogs’ attention.
A state police spokeswoman said they follow every lead. But Cales said they’ve been slow to respond.
“I don’t follow that rule any more,” Cales said. “If they want the evidence, they can be out there looking. I want my sister. You figure out your case. I want to bring her home.”
‘We absolutely haven’t given up’
After Drew Peterson’s conviction in 2012, Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow promised to “aggressively review” Stacy Peterson’s disappearance and put the Lisa Stebic case “on the front burner.”
“It’s a promise that’s being kept,” Chuck Pelkie, a spokesman for Glasgow’s office, said.
Both cases are high priorities involving top prosecutors in Glasgow’s office, Pelkie said. They’re exploring new theories, taking advantage of improved technology and considering whether new legislation could open doors.
“These are not cases that are gathering mothballs right now,” Pelkie said.
And while he said prosecutors cannot have someone declared legally dead, such a declaration could “open access to records at least in one of those cases.” He wouldn’t say which case.
State police spokeswoman Monique Bond offered no updates on the Peterson case.
Plainfield Police Det. Sgt. Kevin McQuaid acknowledged there have been no major revelations in recent years regarding Stebic, but he said investigators pursue leads as they come in. “We absolutely haven’t given up.”
Earlier this month, cameras on street lights could be seen overlooking the backyard of the Stebic home. McQuaid acknowledged that police cameras are there, but he wouldn’t say if they’re because of Stebic.
McQuaid and Pelkie expressed sympathy for the women’s families, and Pelkie said prosecutors have shared information with both.
Because prosecutors only get one chance to put someone on trial for a murder, he said they sometimes have to “hang tough” until they have the evidence they need.
Will County prosecutors charged Drew Peterson with Savio’s murder in 2009 — five years after her death was ruled a slip-and-fall accident. The evidence used to prosecute the case was roundly criticized, but jurors returned a guilty verdict.
Those jurors, however, saw photos of Savio’s body. That wouldn’t be the case with Stacy Peterson or Lisa Stebic. Their missing bodies are a “significant hurdle,” Pelkie acknowledged, but “not necessarily an insurmountable hurdle.”
And he said the Savio prosecution proves that Glasgow is willing to take on tough cases. “He’s got the record to prove that,” Pelkie said.
‘Society has no reward’
Before Nina Reiser vanished in California in 2006, after dropping her children off at her estranged husband’s home, she bought $144 worth of groceries. They were found rotting in her car.
She paid rent. She accepted a new job. She invested in her future “down to every single detail,” said Hora, the California prosecutor.
Hora used those details to persuade an Alameda County jury to convict Hans Reiser in 2008 of his wife’s murder. He did so with little forensic evidence and no confession. That came later.
Further complicating things, Nina Reiser’s Russian citizenship offered Hans Reiser’s lawyers another theory: Nina Reiser was living overseas.
But that didn’t fit with her investment in the future or her commitment to her children, Hora said, which he used to prove her death. Nor did it explain Hans Reiser’s strange behavior at the time of her disappearance, which Hora used to prove the murder.
Nina Reiser’s death at the hands of her husband “explained everything,” Hora said — all the bits of evidence discovered after she vanished added up.
For example, Hans Reiser’s car mysteriously vanished, but authorities followed him to it. The car’s carpets were “soaking wet,” and the front passenger seat was missing, Hora said.
Hans Reiser also called his mother on his wiretapped phone to tell her “what a rotten person” his wife was, Hora said.
That’s the kind of evidence that distinguishes the Reiser case from Lisa Stebic’s or Stacy Peterson’s, even though the narrative sounds familiar.
“These things depend so much on the details,” Hora said.
The Reiser case is, however, one example of how murder charges can be prosecuted without the victim’s body.
But Pelkie pointed out that laws can be applied — and jurors selected — differently from state to state. “You have one opportunity to prove your case, and after that, it’s over,” Pelkie said.
Today, Hans Reiser is serving 15 years to life in prison. He confessed after his conviction in a plea deal and led authorities to Nina Reiser’s body, buried 4 feet deep on a remote hillside.
Making a deal with Hans Reiser was not difficult, Hora said. The “gutsy” call was filing charges in the first place, he said, and the decision wasn’t his. But he ultimately was surprised by the power of the evidence.
In his closing argument, Hora borrowed from a California appellate ruling in a case against Charles Manson that involved a murder victim whose body had not yet been found: “The fact that a murderer may successfully dispose of the body of the victim does not entitle him to an acquittal.
“That is one form of success for which society has no reward.”