Portrait of a True Crime Character
The Swiss Pastry Shop is a longtime Fort Worth establishment, the kind of place with wood floors, bingo hall chairs, and black forest cake staring at you from behind a glass. It had recently celebrated its 40th anniversary when Rusty Arnold suggested I meet him and Richard Wilson there in December of 2016 to talk about Rusty’s sister, Rachel, and Richard’s daughter, Renee. The last time anyone saw either girl was two years before the diner served its first meal.
Two days before Christmas 1974, Rachel Trlica, Renee Wilson, and Julie Ann Mosley piled into Rachel’s beige Oldsmobile and headed for the Seminary South Shopping Center in Fort Worth to go shopping. When the mall closed later that night, the Oldsmobile was in the Sears parking lot, with Christmas gifts locked inside it. The girls were nowhere to be found. Rachel was 17. Renee was 14. Julie was 9.
The four decades of aftermath that their disappearances produced would include devastated parents, a much-debated letter from Rachel, suspicious family members, strange coincidences, torn relationships, mysterious phone calls, an ominous psychic, numerous suspects, a potential love triangle, supposed Rachel sightings around Christmas every so often, horrific rumors, and dozens of relatively convincing theories.
It also crushed an 11-year-old boy named Rusty, who would never see his older sister again. Rusty is 57 years old now with balding blond hair and a patchy goatee, and he couldn’t believe what he’d heard when the Swiss Pastry Shop hostess blurted it out.
“Rachel! Party of three!”
We were barely 10 minutes into our meal, three days before the anniversary of the disappearances of Rachel, Renee, and Julie. I had to admit it was an eerie coincidence, but Rusty reacted like he’d seen a ghost. Then it was like a switch had flipped. He was talking faster than I could take notes. He was jumping from theory to theory, leaving little time for follow-up questions or even the foundation of facts that I needed to make sense of them. Renee’s father, Richard Wilson, sat more quietly and answered any questions directed toward him.
Rusty’s many stories involve trespassing and digging. He’s searched land and water (his boat is called the “Mary Rachel” — his sister’s given name) for what happened to those girls. His findings include a bag of human teeth and a trash bag of bones and hair. (“It was a dog,” he said, still dismayed. “We thought we had it, but it was a dog.”)
If there’s a suspicious connection to one of the girls, then Rusty, who roofs houses for a living, has probably looked into it. Sometimes he doesn’t have to try. He recalled getting a call at work from a woman claiming to be Julie Ann Mosley. She was skeptical of aspects of her past and believed she was abducted as a child. When she saw a picture of a young Julie online, she tracked down Rusty and sent him a picture of herself.
“Dude. Dude,” Rusty said, his glass of water paused in the air, halfway between his lips and the table. “It was so convincing. It was so overwhelmingly, powerfully convincing that that was actually her.”
Julie’s own mother thought the woman was her daughter, but a DNA test came back negative.
When he discovered that convicted serial kidnapper Mike DeBardeleben, known notoriously as the “Mall Passer,” had lived only minutes away from Rachel’s house around the time of the disappearances, Rusty looked into it.
“I’ve been to his house,” Rusty told Blog Talk Radio in 2013. “I’ve been through his house. I’ve been in his attic.”
To the police, the case of the disappearances of Rachel Trlica, Renee Wilson, and Julie Ann Mosley is an open investigation. To you or me, it might prove to be a compelling story. To Rusty, it’s his universe.
So what makes something a true crime story? Clues would seem like a necessary ingredient, but what about a case rich with juicy clues that don’t seem interested in collaborating with one another? By his own estimation, Rusty has personally looked into hundreds of theories on this case. “We work leads every day,” he told me flatly. He’s made many accusations and burned almost as many bridges. Rusty’s life isn’t a podcast or a Netflix documentary. Rusty’s life is a mess.
“I wish I had time to work,” he told me in 2018. “I don’t have a life anymore.”
Rusty doesn’t remember much about the first half of that day in 1974.
The Arnolds and Wilsons lived only a few blocks away from each other in a middle-class neighborhood in South Fort Worth known as Greenbriar. The two families went camping together and took trips to Benbrook Lake every month when the weather was nice. Rachel was particularly close to Renee Wilson, who was two grades below her at Southwest High School. The Wilsons owned some pigs in nearby Crowley, and sometimes Rachel would tag along to go feed them.
That December day, the girls were expected back from the mall by mid-afternoon. Rusty remembers Renee’s younger brother Ricky saying that she was going to be late for a Christmas party. The next memory Rusty has of that day is scouring the mall with his mother from about 6 p.m. until 11 p.m., going through every store and paging the girls until the entire mall was empty and closed.
“Christmas was unusual without Rachel there,” Rusty remembered. But the Arnolds’ three-bedroom house was hardly quiet in those next few days. Various grown-ups and police officers were in and out, speaking in not-so-hushed tones about this possibility or that. Rusty was too young to have a theory of his own and barely old enough to understand what was going on. His other sister, Debra, then 19, had been a rebellious teenager who ran off for days at a time before coming home. “I was kind of used to a sister disappearing on me,” Rusty said. So maybe Rachel and Renee were just doing the same thing. But even to Rusty, it seemed odd they would take 9-year-old Julie Ann Mosley with them.
While Rusty’s recollection of the day his sister disappeared doesn’t start until it was halfway over, the only part of that day that anyone can trace for Rachel, Renee, and Julie is the first half. Seventeen-year-old Rachel Trlica wanted to go Christmas shopping for her 2-year-old stepson, the child of her husband of six months, 22-year-old Tommy Trlica.
“They were going to have him on Christmas Eve, so they went shopping to find a bunch of toys to put under the tree,” I was told by Rusty and Rachel’s mother, Fran Langston.
Late-teenager Debra told police that her younger sister had invited her to the mall that morning but that she declined because she was tired from their game of canasta that had stretched until 4 a.m. that morning. Instead, Rachel invited 14-year-old Renee, who had recently started dating the older brother of Julie Ann Mosley. Nine-year-old Julie was bored and begged them and her mother for permission to tag along before they eventually relented.
When evening came and none of the families had heard from them, panic started to creep in.
“I feared they were gone,” recalled Langston, who is now 79. “When we didn’t find them by the time the mall closed, and her car was still there — you know something happened to those girls.”
Today, Rusty and his wife, Terri Arnold, live in the same neighborhood, not far from the house he was living in 45 years ago, where his mother still lives. Richard Wilson is still in the neighborhood as well.
At the time of her disappearance, Rachel had been living with husband Tommy only a few minutes from the house where she grew up, close enough to still be a part of Rusty’s life. (Older sister Debra lived with Tommy and Rachel as well.) Rusty looked up to her. When McDonald’s ran a promotion giving away collector’s edition drinking glasses to any child able to recite the Big Mac ingredients in four seconds or less, Rachel would take her little brother to collect them. Now, in his early 50s, he can still deliver the phrase in one breath: “Two all beef patties, pickles, lettuce, cheese, onions on a sesame bun.”
The lasting image of Rachel is one of youthful allure. At 5’6’’ and 110 pounds with light brown hair and green eyes, she was pretty, on her way to beautiful.
“She was a wonderful girl,” Rusty said with a smile from his living room, having invited me back to his house after lunch. “Charming personality. All the guys loved her. She taught me how to play guitar.”
Rusty would later start a band called Rock-N-Rusty. Think: Ted Nugent crossed with the James Gang. They released an album a few years ago.
He insisted that I sit in his truck in the driveway so that I could hear on its sound system the song he’d written dedicated to Rachel titled, “In Memory of You.”
It begins with a spoken voiceover:
You weren’t just my sister; you were my best friend.
You taught me my first guitar chords with your guiding hands.
Other lyrics include:
On that cold December night,
So many questions left unanswered
Did you try to fight?
You were with your two good friends,
Why did they have to go, too?
Rachel, Renee, and Julie Ann,
Where on Earth are you?
On Christmas Eve 1974, the day after Rachel, Renee, and Julie went to the mall, Rachel’s husband Tommy and Renee and Rusty’s older sister Debra showed up to the Arnold household with a letter in hand. The police were already at the Arnolds’ when the two arrived. The letter, they explained, was from Rachel.
I know I’m going to catch it, but we just had to get away. We’re going to Houston. See you in about a week. The car is in Sear’s [sic] upper lot. Love Rachel.”
The piece of paper was passed around the room. Even 11-year-old Rusty held it in his hands. All these years later, it remains perhaps the most confusing element of the case. Langston’s immediate reaction was that her daughter did not write it.
When examined closely, the handwriting in the actual letter seems different than the handwriting on the envelope. The letter is signed “Rachel,” but it appears that the final “l” has been traced back over, as if she had begun to spell her own name incorrectly. The envelope was formally addressed to “Thomas A. Trlica.” Rachel exclusively referred to her husband as “Tommy,” as did most people who knew him closely. The envelope was smaller than the letter that purportedly arrived inside of it.
The following morning, Detective Billy Wilbanks of the Fort Worth police department’s Youth Police Division told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the police believed Rachel had written the letter, before adding, “but I don’t know if she was forced to write it.”
Four years later, a police investigator named George Hudson, who was later assigned the case, told the Star-Telegram, “We sent that letter to the FBI three times. Each time, they asked for more samples of her writing. We sent stacks of things she had written.”
All attempts came back inconclusive.
Richard Wilson, the father of 14-year-old Renee, was skeptical of the letter’s quick arrival. “Back then, the post office wasn’t near as fast as it is today,” he said. The postmark on the envelope also contained an inconvenient error. The first four postal service numbers are 7608, but the final number is indecipherable. It is perhaps a faded “8,” but, strangely, it also looks like an inverted “3.”
If the final number were an “8,” making the zip code 76088, then the letter would have come from Weatherford, which is about 40 minutes west of Fort Worth. The final number being an inverted “3” initially seems unlikely as “76083” is not currently an active zip code, but records show that in 1974, the zip code for Throckmorton, Texas, was 76083 before it was changed years later. Neither Weatherford nor Throckmorton is on the way to Houston.
“We can go over there right now.”
The phone was already pressed against Rusty’s ear and ringing before I had time to protest that I didn’t have any questions prepared for a mother about her missing daughter or that it felt rude to show up at the front door without having reached out in advance. I just sat on Rusty’s couch and grimaced through a conversation I could only hear one side of.
“I have a magazine writer here who’s going to write about Rachel’s case. He needs to talk to you.”
The exchange was already taking an urgent tone that I wasn’t particularly comfortable with. The awkward silence signified what I could only imagine was an attempt to decline on the other end.
“Mother, we need this.”
If Langton’s house has changed much in the 45 years since Rachel lived in it, you probably wouldn’t guess it. Langston was sitting in her recliner watching a black-and-white Western when I arrived. She turned down the volume to speak with me and pulled out a thick binder she kept next to the couch full of short newspaper clippings “from way the heck back,” all concerning her daughter’s disappearance.
“I’ve got that one over there,” she said, pointing to a big feature in the Star-Telegram. “ ‘Crimes of the Last Century.’ It starts with Jack Ruby.”
She spoke of the girls’ inclusion in the feature with a sort of melancholy pride, like a fractured version of a typical parent showing a stranger that her child had been written up in the newspaper for a less tragic reason. The living room was full of pictures of Rachel, frozen in childhood.
The letter was the first and only major lead in the girls’ whereabouts, even after a week had passed and the girls had not returned as the letter had promised. Langston confirmed that, until Hudson eventually took over the case, all three families were upset with the police handling of the case. The police, Rusty interjected, “treated it like a runaway [case] 100 percent.”
At lunch, Richard Wilson, father of Renee, was adamant that the police weren’t being entirely forthcoming. “They were lying to us,” he had said, recounting a story about being fed up with the lack of progress made by the police until, one day, officers told him and his wife that they had a tip that the girls’ bodies were at the bottom of a well in Aledo and that the police were heading over there to check it out. Richard decided that he would follow the officers, unbeknownst to them. Instead of going to Aledo, the officers allegedly traveled directly to the Paris Coffee Shop on the Near Southside. Richard parked across the street at Shorty Brown’s Barbershop and waited. From the coffee shop, the officers allegedly returned to the station and called the Wilsons to tell them that nothing had come of the tip about the well.
Some weeks after the disappearance, Langston said the families hired a supposedly well-known psychic named “J. Joseph” to visit the Arnold home. Joseph, who apparently did not charge for his services but instead donated to a reward fund, sat with all three families in the Arnolds’ living room and shared an ominous message before beginning the session. Langston recalled that, before he began, he warned them that when he finished, if they never saw him again, “then they’ll know that the girls are dead.”
In that same living room 42 years later, Langston told me, “And we’ve never seen or heard from him again,” with gentle finality in her voice.
The psychic also left the families with vague hints, including a “sense” that something was wrong with the letter from Rachel and a “feeling” that the girls went north toward “Oklahoma or Illinois” or that they were being held against their will and “dope is possibly involved, along with three to five people.”
Langston would plan a funeral six months after the disappearances, not for Rachel but for Rachel and Rusty’s father, who died while the case of his missing daughter was going nowhere. Cotton Arnold was terminally ill with stage 4 melanoma at the time of the disappearances. The Arnolds didn’t have life insurance. Langston, who would remarry a few years later, had to take a part-time job at McDonald’s while trying to raise Rusty and cope with the mystery of what happened to Rachel.
“It wasn’t easy,” she told me. “I guarantee you. Lots of tears. I cried myself to sleep a lot.”
She remembered her late husband that night at Seminary South, waiting for answers in the Sears parking lot with a shotgun in hand. He was “so sick, and he was running a fever that he was just freezing to death, but he still sat there on that lot.”
“Some people say that’s why he died: a broken heart,” Rusty said, in commiseration with his mom.
But he was only humoring her. Rusty’s memories of his father are less rosy than Fran’s. Raymond “Cotton” Arnold raced cars for a living when he was young and eventually opened up Arnold’s Transmission Shop in Fort Worth. “If your car’s rotten, bring it to Cotton” was the slogan. He had a dark side, though, and his daughters were often on the receiving end of his demons. Rusty later told me that he could talk his way out of physical punishment because he was the son whom Cotton always wanted. Debra and Rachel were less fortunate.
“He was very abusive to the girls,” Rusty said. “I’d seen him whip Debra so hard that she had blood running down her legs.”
At one point, Rusty claims, Cotton put a gun to Fran Langston’s head in front of all three children and threatened to kill her.
Rusty’s adolescence was a front-row seat for traumatic chaos. He grew up with an abusive father who spared him the beatings that his sisters had to endure. In the span of six months, Rusty grappled with a sister dropping off the face of the Earth and the death of his father that sent him and his mother into financial crisis. There’s no course of action for events like those. Just keep being an 11-year-old boy.
“I went ahead with my childhood,” Rusty said. “Of course, I missed my sister. She was one of my best friends, but what am I to do at that age? Just wonder what happened and go on with my life.
“Until I got old enough to take charge myself, and I’ve been in charge ever since.”
We found something under the dirt.
It was a small, light blue women’s button-down, the cloth so thin and tattered it looked as though it had been there for years, maybe decades. Part of it was buried so deeply under layers of soil that pulling at it felt like yanking at the roots of a shrub. It was an unusually humid March day in 2017, and I was sweating and thinking to myself that I would rather have been any number of other places than the South Fort Worth property I was trespassing on. Scattered a few paces away from the shirt were some dirty old soda cans. Beyond them were the collapsed remnants of a house, now taken over by squirrels and rabbits. Some 150 yards from there was a divot in the ground, likely just a dry creek bed. Or, as Rusty put it, “a perfect place to hide a body.”
We found ourselves on this ramshackle 17-acre stretch because Rusty was following a tip from a retired Fort Worth police officer. Alex Falter spent part of his childhood in the same neighborhood as the Arnolds and remembers when the girls went missing. Though he was only 9 at the time, he told his mother he would someday solve the case. The case has had that type of resonance with local law enforcement. Months later, talking to another retired officer with the Fort Worth police department, I asked whether the disappearances sounded familiar. You’d have thought I’d asked whether the JFK assassination rang a bell. “Everyone knows that case” was his response.
Falter’s tip was an attenuated one: Another cop had reminded him that, back in the ’70s, the former property owner’s nephew had been a suspect in “the murder or disappearance of some girls,” Falter said, but in all those years, the property had never been searched.
Rusty wasn’t worried about getting caught. He had already crafted a cover story: the land was for sale and, if approached, we could just claim to be interested buyers.
“Believe me, I’ve done this a hundred times,” he assured me over the phone before the search.
And so we — a ragtag group of sleuths including a great-grandfather, a former cop who walked with a cane, and Rusty’s wife Terri — followed Rusty across a busy road to the land. We came upon a spot Rusty had scouted out where the barbed wire fence was down and walked right in. It wouldn’t be until almost an hour later, when Rusty bent down to pick something up off the ground, that I noticed the handgun tucked into the back of his pants.
But apparently none of the girls was wearing a light blue shirt when she disappeared, so Rusty moved on, leaving me there thumbing the fabric. He had moved on to the next rabbit hole: A couple hundred yards away was a dry creek bed that, he thought, deserved a closer look. After all, at breakfast, Falter had mentioned that, “Nine out of 10 times when someone puts a body underground, trying to hide it, it’s near water.”
So as fire ants climbed up the shirt and onto my hand, I dropped the garment and hustled to catch up with the group, giving in to the wandering attention span this case seemed to bring out of interested parties. The shirt was the wrong color.
Waiting to be seated at the Westside Cafe earlier that morning, I asked Terri how many expeditions like this she had been a part of. She looked up from her phone and smiled. “Well, we’ve been married for 26 years, so a lot.”
All of this searching began when Rusty got out of the military — four years served in the 49th Armored Division of the Texas Army National Guard — in his late 20s, and he started to reflect back seriously on the events surrounding Rachel’s disappearance. Around that time, he divorced his first wife, and the case became a bigger and bigger part of his life. The more he discovered, the less he could justify “moving on.” Terri supports his mission for truth. Their wedding anniversary is the anniversary of the girls’ disappearances. Rusty and Terri have two children, now 29 and 27 years old, and a 4-year-old grandson, and Rusty has another son, from whom he’s been estranged for over 20 years.
These days, Richard Wilson, 81, is the first one to get a call when Rusty has a new lead. When Richard’s daughter Renee disappeared, the Wilsons still had a 12-year-old son. Richard had a career in the steel industry. Moving on might have been impossible, but moving forward was mandatory. He still remembers his wife Judy going to the courthouse every week begging whoever would listen to upgrade the status of the case, put more men on it, anything. Around the same time, Julie’s mother, RayAnn Mosley, was getting calls that were either silent or sounded like the distant voice of a young girl. Police eventually reprimanded prank callers. Judy died of pulmonary hypertension in 2015, but Richard’s infant great-grandkids manage to keep him busy.
“They get all the money the grandkids used to get,” he told me with a chuckle.
Richard rarely instigates new leads, but he tends to serve as Rusty’s right-hand man or at least a source of knowledge of the case from his perspective. Of course, Richard has had theories over the years. It’s patently obvious that the disappearance of his daughter doesn’t sit right with him. If Rusty were to find some answers, Richard wants to be there every step of the way.
But when Rusty first became dedicated to the case, before Richard retired, Rusty and Debra would work together, looking for clues to what happened to their lost sibling. That went on until Rusty came to a realization of his own.
“Hold on now,” he thought to himself. “She could be involved.”
Debra was not only living with Tommy and Rachel in 1974. She had also been previously engaged to Tommy, though she later maintained that it was not a serious engagement. Rachel met future husband Tommy through Debra. All of Rusty’s childhood memories of Debra tend to emphasize her reputation as a problem child. Rachel, he said, “was more of the responsible one. Debra was the rebellious one. She always wanted to cause trouble.”
A closer look at Tommy’s marriage records shows an eventful timeline. On August 23, 1971, he married Shauna Ford, with whom he had a son, Shawn. On April 26, 1974, he and Ford filed for divorce. He married 17-year-old Rachel only 43 days later and was engaged to Debra before that.
The disappearances occurred a little over six months into the marriage. Less than two years later, Tommy requested a divorce from Rachel on the grounds of abandonment. On December 15, 1976, he married Josephine Beck, who was also 17 years old. He and Beck were divorced by June of 1978. Less than three months later, he would marry 23-year-old Ruby Fox.
Tommy now lives in South Texas and has been married to his current wife, Linda Trlica, for 40 years.
Tommy’s marriage applications to Beck and Fox were both conducted in the same city: Weatherford, Texas, 76088. Both applications requested that the marriage licenses be sent to the same address in Throckmorton, Texas, 76083. A recovered deed has Tommy buying a house in Throckmorton, which currently has a population of 828, and including Rachel’s name in the deed. The document was dated in May of 1976, nearly 17 months after Rachel disappeared.
These are many connections in a saga of connections, some real, many imagined. Tommy categorically denies any involvement in the disappearance of the girls and rejects any accusations that he may be involved.
In an email, he said, “If you are writing things Rusty has said, then you could be opening up to legal repercussions. Rusty Arnold has done nothing but lie and put money is his pocket from this. To answer your question, I had nothing to do with the disappearance of my wife. I have done everything that law enforcement has ask me to do.”
Over the course of my years reporting the case, I did not come across any implication that Tommy did not cooperate with law enforcement or any evidence that he obstructed the investigation in any way. The connections between him and the marriage applications in Weatherford and him and Rachel’s letter and the city of Throckmorton are simply part of the same twisting story, a tale littered with abundant, apparent leads that do not go anywhere but that form the fabric of the knotty, paranoid narrative, that form what we consider a “true crime” yarn.
“There has been so much information to come to light that you may want to do more investigation into it before you run the story,” he ended.
Rusty tends to draw intense conclusions from his theories. He says that police have threatened to arrest him numerous times for his meddling. He claims that after searching a property that he says the owner gave him permission to search, an officer named Cheryl Johnson told him, “If you ever do that [again], I’ll throw you under the jail. I will arrest you so fast your head will spin.” Johnson, who has since retired from the Fort Worth police department, declined to comment on the case, but she told me that she never said anything along those lines. She did, however, confirm that Rusty was admonished for interfering with a police investigation.
One day he called me, despondent, to tell me that an email virus had caused all his records on the case to be erased from his computer. “I feel like I’ve been raped or something,” he told me. Another morning, I stopped by his house to borrow a few binders of old notes on the case, which he had happily volunteered to lend me. As I carried them, he followed me to my car and took a picture of my license plate “just for my peace of mind,” he assured me.
At the end of the song he’d played for me back in his truck — the one dedicated to Rachel —he played another one, a more ominous one, dedicated to whoever was behind her disappearance.
But in the end
You didn’t really get away with it
You can hide
Your secrets from us all
You live with your conscience
I stand tall
He advised me against meeting with “psychopath” Tommy, claiming he would “fear for [my] life.” He gave me Debra’s phone number but, in 2017, warned me that his now 63-year-old sister is “pure evil, but she’ll come across like June Cleaver.”
Still, he isn’t the only one who holds suspicions of the two. Richard never liked Tommy. “I got it in my head that him and [Debra] were involved,” Richard said, “and until [the police] find someone who stands up and tells me face-to-face, ‘I did it,’ then I’m going to have that on my mind. Quite a few parents died with that thought.”
The parents Richard spoke of are likely his late wife, Judy, and the mother of Julie, RayAnn Mosley, who died in 2014. In a 2000 story by Mary Rodgers in the Star-Telegram, Debra is quoted as saying that she “has nothing to hide.” Afterward, Mosley, Rusty, and the Wilsons wrote an open letter addressed to Debra “begging and pleading” with her to take a polygraph test administered by the Fort Worth police or the FBI.
Left off this plea is the name of Fran Langston, who has never entertained the notion that her surviving daughter was involved in the disappearance of her missing daughter. Langston’s theory boils down to what she refers to as “white slavery.” She believes the girls were abducted by someone from another country and sold into the world of human trafficking. The fact that Rusty and Debra did not speak to each other pained Fran deeply.
Meanwhile, it’s common when discussing a person even remotely related to the case who had died in the last 45 years for Rusty to use air quotes when describing their cause of death, as if to suggest an unknown conspiracy. But no death sticks out to Rusty more than Jon Swaim’s. In the months following the disappearances, frustrated with the police and wanting to take matters into their own hands, the families hired Swaim as a private investigator. He worked the case for nearly three years and supposedly did good work. Richard credits Swaim with getting the police to more actively investigate it.
Whatever Swaim uncovered, when the case was still relatively fresh, will never be known. In 1979, Swaim died of an overdose of pills and alcohol in what was deemed a suicide. He had supposedly requested that all the records of his cases be destroyed in the event of his death.
“Why would he destroy all the evidence he worked all his life to gather?” Rusty asked me. “That makes no sense.”
The explanation the families were given is that a private investigator might have dirt on a number of different people and wouldn’t necessarily want all of that information to be revealed. Perhaps it was to protect his wife from those who might be incriminated by those records.
“He had something on everybody downtown,” Richard said. “Judges, lawyers. That’s the story [Swaim’s wife] told us.”
Rusty, who can revisit the circumstances only through other people’s recollections, chooses to take a different perspective on the same idea.
“Plenty of people had motives to kill him,” he told me.
About 20 years after Swaim’s death, Rusty would cross paths with another P.I., Dan James, whose investigations into the case actually predated Swaim’s. If the divide between Rusty and Debra was once merely the difference in how two people mourn the loss of a sibling — one looking for ways to move on, the other obsessed with finding the truth — then that gap became unbridgeable around the time that James came into the picture.
He’s a man whom Debra has called “a scumbag.” Langston has referred to him as “the devil.”
Rusty does not share those opinions. “Dan James is the most decent man I’ve ever met,” he told me.
In early 2017, when I visited with James, a calm deliberate man in his early 60s, he had been hired to work on the high-profile John Wiley Price case in which the veteran Dallas politician stood trial for bribery and fraud.
But James’ career as an investigator was in its infancy when the girls vanished. At the time, he was living near Seminary South Shopping Center and began looking into the disappearances in his spare time out of curiosity. Over the next 30 years, he claims to have spent over $30,000 of his own money investigating the case. When he took a job as a chief investigator for the office of the Federal Public Defender in Dallas in 2001, a position he held until 2013, he had to leave the Seminary South case behind, but some of his findings put Rusty on a path he never turned back from.
“My mother says Dan James poisoned my mind,” Rusty told me. “Well, that’s not true. He opened my eyes.”
Through various interviews with neighbors and friends, including two people living in an RV in Tommy and Rachel’s backyard, James learned that around the time leading up to the disappearances, there were numerous arguments between Tommy, Rachel, and Debra, including a physical altercation in a bowling alley the night before the 23rd, an account left off Debra’s recollection of the two playing canasta.
James believes that Tommy and Debra were having an affair. He also points toward certain individuals with loose connections to Debra and criminal associations who were in town only for the specific window of the disappearances, though this is all just anecdotal, and he doesn’t consider his findings to be proof of anything.
James admitted to me that he believes Rusty is overzealous in his approach to the case.
“This is something that’s a criticism of Rusty: Rusty has no concern of what people invest in time or money,” James said. “He’s wasted a fortune of people’s money on this case. He’s got people doing freebie stuff all over everywhere, and so much of it is a waste.”
He is also aware that he is despised by Rusty’s sister and mother but claims that he handled the case with the same professionalism as any other gig. It was his information in the hands of Rusty that led to inevitable drama.
“Rusty would go and torment his mother, and, boy, he would just needle Debra terribly,” James told me.
James still comes across the occasional tip in the case. He’ll look into it if it seems particularly credible, but these days he rarely passes information on to Rusty, aware of the lengths the brother might go to investigate it.
Debra did not respond to requests to speak for this story, but in 1999, she typed a three-page letter to Rusty chastising him and begging that he end the accusations toward her, which I found in one of many binders of records and notes that James had compiled on the case.
The letter criticizes Rusty’s inability to move on, points to the pain his obsession has caused their mother, and speaks to the trauma that she and Rachel endured at the hands of their father, reminding him of the bond the two sisters shared and the age difference between him and them. She cites an incident when she nearly died of a drug overdose: “What did you do? You sent detectives to the hospital because you were afraid that I was going to die and believed that I had some information about Rachel that I might want to confess in my dying breath.”
Perhaps most notable, though, are Debra’s direct challenges to aspects of Rusty’s own memory, which clearly became part of his narrative long before I met him.
“Rachel didn’t teach you to play guitar,” Debra wrote in 1999. “I did. She didn’t even know how. You have an uncontrollable need for things to be the way you need them to be. Not the way they were.”
Rusty told me proudly this year that he and Debra have reconnected and put aside their differences after years of estrangement.
Even James’ investigations seem to contradict the angelic image that Rusty has of Rachel. “He has an oddball assessment of Rachel and her character,” James said. Rusty is keen to highlight Debra’s troubling past, but according to James, Renee and especially Rachel were caught up in the same bad crowd. James also said friends of Rachel told him Rachel was having multiple affairs while married to Tommy. “She just made bad, bad decisions.”
Closure and acceptance are two different things.
There can be nobility in the search for truth, but theories don’t always exist in a vacuum. Exploring one can mean putting a greater importance on the value of What if I’m right? than on the potential consequences of What if I’m wrong?
One afternoon, when I was sitting with Rusty in his living room, he warned me, “This is going to get dark.” He paused, as if unsure whether to go on. What followed was a conversation about Rusty’s father that really became clear to me only over the following months, as more information and context came to light.
Back in her own living room, Langston said of Cotton Arnold, “When he died, he didn’t have any brain left. It was full of nothing but tumors.”
Rusty nodded along, but tumors or not, Cotton was a deranged man, according to his own son. Rusty can’t shake the idea that Cotton had something to do with the girls’ disappearances, that he might have been the one behind whatever happened that day, and that he had been putting both of Rusty’s sisters through hell before December 23, 1974.
Rusty’s ability to think that his father was capable of such evil again comes back to alleged claims found by James. “I’m trying to find a way to parse this so it’s unbiased,” James told me. “Mr. [Cotton] Arnold was really an awful person.”
Interviews around the transmission shop led James to determine that Cotton was having numerous relationships with minors. In a 1997 fax to a Detective Fortinberry of the Fort Worth police department, James cites alleged medical records that said that Rachel was six to eight weeks pregnant not long before she disappeared. James told me that he found no evidence pointing to Cotton’s involvement in whatever happened at Seminary South, but he didn’t temper what he thought Rachel’s father was capable of.
“I don’t know that Mr. Arnold necessarily had active involvement in the girls missing,” James said. “He had motivation for Rachel to be missing. I think Rachel was pregnant with Mr. Arnold’s child when she went missing.”
This is a reckless theory to posit without definitive proof. To someone like James, who is no longer working the case, it is only that: a theory. He was responding to my line of questioning with his honest opinion. Still, he may have walked away from the case but not before that seed was planted in Rusty’s mind. As you’d probably guess, Rusty took this idea and started digging. Literally.
This is going to get dark.
On September 24, 2016, three months before I met Rusty and Richard for the first time at the Swiss Pastry Shop, Rusty arrived at Colonial Gardens Cemetery and Mausoleum in Marshall, Texas. He had paid the cemetery approximately $3,000, and when he showed up to the grave of Raymond “Cotton” Arnold, they had already broken ground. Fran Langston had relented to Rusty and given written consent for exhumation of her late husband.
The wooden casket was dilapidated. What was inside barely represented Rusty’s father. The body had gone through over 40 years of decomposition. Rusty needed only one bone.
Dana Austin, a forensic anthropologist with the Tarrant County Medical Examiner, accompanied Rusty. She was not working on behalf of her employer and was not compensated for her assistance. She allowed Rusty to pay for gas.
Austin climbed into the casket and removed Cotton’s femur. They took it to a building on the cemetery property where Austin sawed off a sample of the bone as Rusty stood watching.
“I had bone dust all over me,” Rusty said. “In my hair. In my lungs.”
When they returned to the casket, Rusty climbed down and personally returned the femur. “I just wanted to do that, because that was my dad,” he said.
Rusty needed DNA. He was trying to connect dots that didn’t even directly lead to the disappearances of Rachel, Renee, and Julie. He had heard horrible things about the sexual actions of his father, and he thought he could prove them.
A DNA profile was unable to be obtained because the particular sample of bone taken was degraded, which had been a clear possibility considering the time passed since death. Rusty said he is prepared to go through the entire process of exhuming his father’s body again. Austin told me that before assisting Rusty, she had a discussion with him about the realistic “value” of such action. She has since had a similar discussion about a second attempt.
When I reminded Rusty that these drastic paths could lead to neither a conviction nor even any sort of proof of what happened to Rachel, Renee, or Julie, he expressed that he just wanted clarity and asked me if I could blame him for that. Clarity, though, is not what tends to come out of Rusty’s searches. And any results from a DNA test are likely to push Rusty only further from closure.
Detective Jeremy Rhoden, who represents the entirety of the Fort Worth police department’s Cold Case unit, inherited the position back in March of 2017, including “five banker’s boxes of information on the case.” When he spoke with me in late 2017, he told me that with plenty of cases to investigate, he felt he had barely scratched the surface on catching up and piecing together the previous work done on this one.
“So many detectives have actively worked on it,” he said. “I don’t have one roadmap. I have about seven.”
Austin, the medical examiner, told me that over the past 20 years she has worked in tandem with the Fort Worth police on multiple investigations into the case.
In some sense, Rusty is part of the case himself now. “Every person who worked this case in modern history has dealt with him,” said Rhoden, who expressed to me that Rusty was a man who had lost a loved one and, above all else, he sympathized with him for that. “We’ve talked, and we are at a point where we see eye to eye,” Rhoden said. “For now.”
In late 2018, Rusty orchestrated a team to dive down and pull a car out of Benbrook Lake based on a thin rationale that the girls’ bodies might be in the trunk. If it seems like Rusty has been playing detective for most of his adult life, it’s because he keeps finding intriguing clues that bring him no closer to the truth. Given all the strange circumstances surrounding the case, whatever happened to those girls could very well be as bizarre as one of Rusty’s theories. One of his theories might actually be what happened to them.
“The reason that I help Rusty and take his calls is because he is driving this case,” Austin told me from the Anthropology Lab of the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s office. “If Rusty wasn’t doing this, nothing would be happening on the case.”
One of the last things Rusty said to me before I finished writing this story was that he was pursuing another big lead that he wasn’t yet at liberty to talk about. He referred to it as the “smoking gun” and assured me I would be writing a follow-up piece. This is not how any reporter would prefer to leave a story. It’s not out of cynicism or impatience that I didn’t wait out this lead. I think it’s more about accuracy. Whenever you’re reading this, Rusty Arnold is likely just on the verge of a huge breakthrough in the case that has consumed his life.
Or maybe — hopefully — he’s found some closure. If alive, Rachel would be 63 years old today. Renee would be 60. Julie would be 55.
Maybe “true crime” is a genre to everyone except those who feel they have no choice but to live inside it. Does that make their stories true crime stories?
Like Rachel and Rusty, my older sister and I grew up in Fort Worth. In 2000, when I was 11 years old, she was 17.
I don’t know how many of Rusty’s theories, deep down, he truly believes. I don’t believe he’s ever intentionally misled me. He almost always provided me with names and phone numbers to follow up on his claims. His motivation for speaking with me was to publicize his Facebook group, Missing Fort Worth Trio, in hopes of generating tips or information.
The only thing I’m sure that Rusty believes is that, even 45 years later, someone out there knows something about what happened to Rachel. At some point in my interactions with him, I stopped asking myself whether or not I agree with him. Instead, I started wondering if I did and she was my sister, would I ever stop looking?