Monday, October 31, 2005

St Louis Post Dispatch Newspaper

St. Louis Post Dispatch, Jan 04,2004 by Aisha Sultan

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. - In the middle of a bitter family feud and a dead-end criminal investigation is a missing 74-year-old widowed great-grandmother. Mary Lee Grobe was last seen three months ago sitting on the wooden swing in her front yard. Her tiny frame house faces a rural two-lane highway. Inside remain signs of a homey existence: a stack of Westerns she loved to read; the pervasive smell of her black lab and best friend, B.B.; and nearly 40 framed photos of her vast array of kinfolk. The mysterious circumstances surrounding her disappearance have perplexed the authorities and deepened discord among Grobe's children. They suspect foul play. They rule out more benign explanations, such as her wandering off, by pointing out the unanswered questions: Why was Grobe's front door locked behind her? She didn't drive or own a car, and she never left the house without a relative. Why were her purse, medicine and glasses left behind? Why didn't she activate the medical alert button she wore around her neck? And most mysterious of all: Why did her hundred-pound dog disappear with her, then return four days later, looking as though it had been bathed. "Anything is possible," says Butler County Sheriff Bill Heaton, "but it just doesn't add up." Grobe stuck to a daily routine. Every morning, she made oatmeal for herself and sometimes, her dog. She looked forward to the daily "Meals on Wheels" lunch delivered to her house. Although the meal is free, she always paid $1 for it. She kept a three-ring binder tracing her family tree back to the 1800s. But, beyond her interests, the family accounts diverge. Her seven children have divided into camps. On one side are the three children who stayed in Poplar Bluff (population 16,651) their whole lives: Sons Kenny Grobe, 50, and David Grobe, 47, and her daughter, Christine Collins, 40. Also siding with them is Dale Grobe, 53, who lives in Frisco, Texas. They say their mother was well cared for and surrounded by dozens of relatives who loved her. She was determined to live independently as long as she could, they say. "I believed my mother had the right to live (in her home) until she died," said Kenny Grobe. "That's what she wanted." That's not how the other side tells it. That includes siblings who left Poplar Bluff years back: Joyce Caldwell, 44, of Wentzville, and Ronnie Grobe, 52, of Kansas City. They say their mother did not get good care and was unable to take care of herself or her finances. Another sibling, Mary Lois Williams of St. Charles County, also held this point of view until her death last year. Caldwell and Williams filed a lawsuit two years ago to have their mother declared incompetent and a guardian appointed. "I wanted to stop people from taking all of her assets," Caldwell said. Butler County Circuit Judge William J. Clarkson ruled that Grobe was incapacitated and needed the county's administrator to oversee her finances and assure her physical well-being. He noted that the lawsuit was filed after the sisters learned their mother had deeded her home and adjoining 18 acres to her son, Kenny Grobe. The property is probably worth about $30,000, officials say. In his ruling, Clarkson noted that Caldwell and Williams "indicate that Kenny had skimmed respondent for years." Later he wrote, "Clearly, there is dissension in the family, no doubt fueled by notions of financial improprieties and distrust. Some evidence suggests Kenny obtained a deed to the family home against respondent's (Mary Grobe's) wishes and she is fearful of him." Kenny Grobe did not testify in the suit upon the advice of his attorney, but he denied in an interview last week ever taking advantage of his mother. She received $750 a month from Social Security disability, which largely went toward her living expenses and medicine, he said. In fact, the local siblings say he spent years taking care of their mother, mowing her yard, getting her groceries and checking in on her at night. After the judge appointed public administrator Sharron Payne as Mary Grobe's guardian, the family fights went from bad to worse. And Mary Grobe was stuck in the middle.
Religious differences The two sides constantly accuse each other of being untruthful. But they all agree that their sister Mary's funeral last year was a disaster. They bickered at the gravesite about whether their mother should return to her home or attend a memorial service near St. Louis. Kenny Grobe says he didn't attend the funeral for fear of being arrested for a perceived slight. Caldwell says some of the mistrust stems from religious differences between the siblings. She, like her sister Mary, is a Jehovah's Witness. "They heckled the prayers. They made fun of the people," she recalls. Her brother, David, is Pentecostal and says he respects religious differences but didn't want his sisters' views forced upon their mother. Christine Collins is married to a Baptist minister in a small town near Poplar Bluff, while Kenny Grobe's wife is Mormon. Their mother was not religious, and some of her children are not, either. She was most passionate about her garden. She loved to can vegetables and fruit and even fish. She often could be seen sitting on the swing in her yard. The investigation Caldwell called her mother every day. She became concerned when she couldn't contact her for more than 48 hours. So, she called the public administrator on Sept. 29 to have her check on Grobe. There was no sign of Grobe at home. The administrator called the sheriff's office. Jerry Armes, the chief deputy, says police have conducted four ground searches of the property and nearby woods. Helicopters have scanned the area twice. Cadaver dogs have sniffed for a body in several places, he added. They have put out national alerts and followed up other cases in surrounding counties. The siblings in Poplar Bluff say they have faxed fliers with their mother's picture to hundreds of nursing homes. They have given authorities her Social Security number and Medicaid number in case someone tries to fill her prescriptions. Grobe was a diabetic, and investigators have told the family that she could have lived about a week without her daily medication. The efforts have produced no leads. The family members in Poplar Bluff believe their mother was kidnapped. The other side believes she may have been murdered. "In any major crime, you got to clear the family," Sheriff Heaton said. Kenny Grobe told a reporter that the investigators asked him if he had murdered his mother, and he responded: "No, and I don't believe she was murdered." His brother, David, bristles at the suggestion that Kenny Grobe could have harmed his mother: "It's ludicrous ... We're too traditional and too redneck" to do something like that, he said. Plus, he added, what's the motive? The Poplar Bluff siblings have their own theory. The Poplar Bluff siblings, along with their older brother in Texas, believe their mother was spirited away by someone she trusted. They are convinced that she is being taken care of by this person. "If I truly thought Mom had wandered out in the woods and something had happened to her, it would be an extremely hard thing to take," said David Grobe. He says he has to believe that she is being taken care of because otherwise, "she vanished without a trace." Caldwell, their sister in Wentzville, says her siblings are in denial. "I loved my mother. I wish she was alive. I wish I had her." The reality is, she says, her mother is dead. The sheriff's office says there isn't any evidence to suggest Grobe is dead, but once a person has been missing for more than 72 hours, the outcome is usually not good. The investigators have had to straddle both sides of this family feud, sometimes offending various family members. "I don't care how mad the family gets at me," Heaton said. "I want Mary Grobe"


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