Theresa, our Tree.
A seed is planted in the earth.
Vibrant color, blossoming beauty.
Small, but strong.
Changing with the seasons, yet still rooted.
Bending but not breaking, even in the worst of storms.
Branching out into different directions, but always giving of itself and providing comfort.
Theresa, our Tree.
Vibrant, beautiful, strong, giving.
You will be forever rooted in our hearts.
The poem was written by an aunt and two cousins of a young woman named Theresa Insana.
A copy of the poem hangs on the wall at the home of Maribeth Paul, Theresa’s younger sister by a decade.
It serves as a reminder of the young woman they called Tree. “A lot of people called Theresa ‘Tree’ for short,” Maribeth said.
Theresa Insana was only 26 years old when she was murdered in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2004.
“After Theresa’s passing, I think we really did think of her as a tree,” Maribeth said. “I have tons of jewelry with trees on it, you know? Because I feel a little bit closer to her when I’m wearing something like that.”
Maribeth told Dateline that she had always been close to her sister. “You hear 10 years and that feels like a lot,” she said. “But with us, it wasn’t.”
Maribeth said that growing up she often followed Theresa around, as little sisters do. “She brought me everywhere,” Maribeth said. “I got to know all of her friends.”
One of those friends is Grace Carducci. “Theresa was my best friend from the get-go,” Grace told Dateline. She was 15 when they first crossed paths. “I met her working down at the Falls serving ice cream together.”
They grew up in Niagara Falls, New York and their friendship continued into early adulthood. “I ended up going to high school with her and to college at Binghamton University,” Grace explained. “She was my roommate, my sorority sister and she was family to me. Tree was my person in this world.”
After graduating from college, Theresa took some time to figure out her next steps. “Teresa studied psychology,” Maribeth said. “Graduated with her bachelor’s degree, and then she came back to Niagara Falls for a short time.” Then she took a trip west. “She felt, you know, compelled to go out to Vegas,” Maribeth recalled. “And she went out there and she loved it.”
“Theresa’s motto was: ‘Carpe diem.’ Seize the day,” Maribeth said. “That’s how she was with absolutely everything.”
So it was no surprise when Theresa decided she’d be moving to Las Vegas. “So she had come back and literally, I think, packed a suitcase or two,” Maribeth said. “And she just said, ‘I’m doing it.’” Theresa told the family she’d be starting a career in sales when she got there.
And in 2000, she did just that. “She started with nothing and she just built her way up,” Maribeth said. “She did fantastic in sales.”
While her friends and family were thrilled Theresa was doing so well, they were also sad that she was living more than 2,000 miles away. “I was pretty upset because she was going to be so far away. But I knew it was a good thing for her because she wanted to live in a big city,” best friend Grace told Dateline. “They have people, lights, energy around her. So I knew that was like a perfect place for her.”
Theresa’s loved ones made it a point to visit her as often as they could. “I was going out to see Tree on my own and that’s when I had met her boyfriend, Jeff,” Maribeth said. “Theresa was, I thought, very, very happy. Very, you know, smitten with — with him.”
Theresa and Jeff Fenton started dating in 2002. “She met him working at the Rio in the sales department,” Grace told Dateline. “Their relationship did move quickly.”
After just three months of dating, the couple got engaged. “She, you know, was so excited when Jeff and her got engaged,” Maribeth said. “And they came back to Niagara Falls. They were going to be married in Niagara Falls.” The wedding was planned for April 2004. “She was just really excited to take that next step in her life,” Maribeth remembered.
But the relationship didn’t last. The couple broke up in March, just weeks before the wedding. According to Maribeth, Jeff claimed he wasn’t ready to get married. “Theresa was so devastated,” she said. “Our hearts were just broken for her.”
Grace told Dateline the same thing. “She was so excited about planning her wedding, getting everything ready, and was so positive and excited about it. And then she was just completely let down,” she said. “My heart broke for — for Tree.”
In the months following the breakup, Theresa tried to pick up the pieces of her life and move on as best she could.
In May of 2004, Grace made her yearly visit to see her friend. During that visit, Theresa mentioned to her that something odd had been happening. “I had went out there to visit her for a long weekend and one of the days we were sitting in her house and she said, ‘Grace, there’s something weird that I feel that is going on here. Some days when I return from work, I turn on the television and it’s not on the same channel that I left it on when I left for work,’” Grace told Dateline. “She felt that somebody had been in her house when she was not there.”
Theresa didn’t have a security system or an alarm, and there weren’t security cameras on houses then to the extent there are today. According to Maribeth, the neighborhood where Theresa lived was considered safe. “She was in, like, a very, I feel like, family-oriented place where she felt safe,” she said. Also, Maribeth and Grace told Dateline that Theresa did not live a high-risk lifestyle. “Tree did not have a wild life or any bad habits or anything that she was doing that could cause her danger,” Grace said. “She basically went to work every day, came home, walked her dog, hung out on her patio, and went to bed.”
And that is exactly what Theresa did on Tuesday, October 26, 2004. “It was a typical week,” Maribeth said. “She had left early from work that day, she went to go vote, she came home, walked the dog, got comfortable.”
Grace told Dateline that on that evening, she received a call from Theresa. “This is very hard for me to — to share,” Grace said. “I didn’t pick up the phone at — at that minute. And she left me a voicemail.”
Then, according to Maribeth, Theresa called their mother. “She had just eaten dinner — eaten dinner. She was just kind of hanging out,” she said referring to her sister. “And so that, I believe, was the last contact someone had with her.”
Grace told Dateline that in the voicemail Theresa left, she talked about her day and asked Grace to call back when she could. “When I did call her back, probably like an hour later, it was too late,” Grace said. “She didn’t pick up the phone.”
Theresa’s family and friends believe that whatever happened to her, happened on Tuesday, October 26 between the time she spoke with her mother on the phone and when Grace returned her call.
On Wednesday, October 27, Theresa didn’t show up for work. She didn’t show up the next day, either. “With her not coming, you know, showing up for work for two days in a row,” her coworkers at the hotel/casino were concerned, Maribeth told Dateline. “She wouldn’t do that one day, let alone two.”
According to Maribeth, Theresa’s boss was also worried and on Thursday, October 28 reached out to the head of security at the Rio. Two of her colleagues, including her former fiancé, Jeff Fenton, then went to Theresa’s house.
Detective Ken Hefner, a cold case investigator with the Las Vegas Metro Police Department, and Det. Dean O’Kelley have been assigned to Theresa’s case since 2017. Hefner confirmed that “on her second morning of not showing up for work, two of [Theresa’s] male coworkers came over to her house to see what was going on.” He added that “one was very well known to Theresa.”
The detective said that “they were able to get inside and once they got in there, things looked -- not normal.”
Theresa’s colleagues called the police.
“When they got there and found some things that just didn’t seem to fit with her lifestyle -- you know, her dog was left unattended,” Det. Hefner said. “Which was, I guess, considered a mortal sin and she would never do voluntarily.”
The arriving officers further assessed the scene and decided to call in the homicide unit. “Homicide detectives responded out there, agreed with the assessment,” the detective noted.
Hefner said homicide also notified missing persons detectives since Theresa was not found in the house. “Not knowing exactly what we had at that point, we got the assistance of the missing person detectives,” he said. “That team, like, led the search efforts for Theresa.”
Word that Theresa was missing spread to Theresa’s family and friends back in upstate New York.
“My family found out Thursday evening,” Maribeth said. “And that next day my dad and mom flew right out to Vegas.” A teenager at the time, Maribeth stayed back in Niagara Falls and prayed that her sister was OK.
When Theresa’s friend Grace heard the news, she knew something was wrong. “I just immediately started praying and I knew in my heart that something really bad had happened to Theresa,” she said.
Detective Hefner described the search efforts for Theresa. “The neighborhood was canvassed right then and there,” he said. “And then missing persons got involved, taking advantage of their experience and they did… neighborhood canvassing, horse-mounted searches, bloodhound searches, and cadaver dog searches.”
Hefner went on to detail Theresa’s last known movements as assembled by investigators.
He said that Theresa left work at 5:12 p.m. and that it “looked like a normal home arrival for her.” According to the detective, Theresa “made herself something to eat, changed into comfortable clothing for the night.” She was on the phone with her mother and sister at 6:30 p.m. “And then, by 7:30 p.m., a call to her phone from a known friend went unanswered,” he said.
The detective told Dateline that it didn’t seem like Theresa’s house had been robbed or broken into. “There wasn’t anything that overtly suggested forced entry into her house,” he stated. “[The coworkers] were able to get in without force and there were no indications that somebody had used force earlier to get in.” He said nothing had been stolen or seemed to be missing from the home.
While officials searched for Theresa, her family and friends prayed hard that she would turn up safe. “There were several vigils that were held out in Vegas at nighttime, you know, praying for Theresa, praying for her to be found,” sister Maribeth said. “And we did the same thing at our local churches here in Niagara Falls.”
About a week later, the Insana family got some answers. But it wasn’t the news they were hoping for.
“Her body was found on November 1 of 2004 at 11:12 hours,” Det. Hefner said. “It was under a culvert on this street called Hualapai, south of Tompkins Way.”
He added that at the time, the location of the culvert was “on the outskirts of the rapidly developing southwest portion of the Las Vegas Valley.” He stated that it was accessible by developed roads, but that the nearby area was full of land being leveled for development.
“Nobody would have any reason to go into the culvert. I don’t know if an average-sized person can even stand up straight underneath it,” the investigator said.
Because the surrounding area was filled with construction zones, it is not surprising that it construction workers found Theresa’s body. “I think maybe they were sent out there to rehab the culvert or the channel and they were out there with some small-scale heavy equipment,” Det. Hefner explained. “And so, as they’re getting ready to do what they do, they noticed the body which was wrapped in some carpet.”
Theresa’s cause of death was ruled by a medical examiner as “strangulation and blunt force trauma.”
When asked if investigators believe there was just one perpetrator, Hefner replied, “That’s still an open question.” He added that they don’t have any evidence to determine how many attacker/s there were. “We just don’t know.”
Best friend Grace recalled getting the news. “I felt a sense of shock,” she said. “But also relief that she wasn’t being tortured any longer and that they found her body and could bring her home.”
The Insanas and their loved ones mourned the loss of Theresa.
A loss they still feel today, 19 years later.
“It’s just something that is really hard to — to come to terms with,” Grace told Dateline. “And it’s just the not knowing and not having any indication of what happened to our sister, our best friend for all these years.”
Theresa’s case is still unsolved. According to Det. Hefner, LVMPD’s investigation was robust, starting with the collection of evidence and DNA at the scene. In 2011, Dateline reported that spots of blood belonging to one male were found in Theresa’s half-bathroom, and on a piece of clothing she was wearing.
Investigators also interviewed those closest to Theresa — including her former fiancé, Jeff Fenton, and his new girlfriend at the time, Melissa Ball. “They were close to the victim -- he was extremely close,” Det. Hefner said. “We spent time on them during the investigation and they have been essentially cooperative.”
He also confirmed that they both had an alibi for the night Theresa disappeared. “They were car shopping,” Hefner said. “The salesman and dealership confirmed they were there.”
Authorities considered other avenues, as well, including looking into the possibility of a hit man having been hired to kill Theresa, but ultimately he feels that it is just not really a possibility in this case. Hefner said not only is there no evidence of a hit man being hired, he noted that hit men “don’t go through that much effort.”
“If they’re hired to kill you, they’re going to kill you and -- and you’re going to be found where you died,” he elaborated.
Despite the investigative efforts, Theresa’s case went cold.
So in 2011, the investigators did something unprecedented. They shared their cold case files with Dateline and Josh Mankiewicz. The episode on Theresa’s case, “Lost in Sin City,” is available to watch on Peacock TV or listen to on our podcast.
It’s now been more than a decade since Dateline first covered Theresa’s case, but sister Maribeth is still hopeful it can help develop additional leads in the case. “The more people that listen to the Dateline episode or learn more about the case, maybe -- maybe someone will have something else to share,” she said.
In 2017, authorities got a break -- of sorts.
Parabon, a lab dedicated to DNA phenotyping services, created a sketch of what they believe the perpetrator might look like using DNA gathered during the investigation. “The phenotyping came out originally as Southeast Asian and then later on that lab updated it to Filipino,” Det. Hefner said. “So that’s our working assumption now, is that our suspect is probably Filipino.”
The cold case investigator told Dateline that he believes the DNA in Theresa’s case is being run every single week. “In our world, you’re just whittling down the pool of suspects,” he said.
“That’s been our most active lead, is the phenotyping and the [forensic genealogy] work,” Hefner said. Authorities are hopeful the results will lead to answers in Theresa’s case, but there is one potential obstacle. “It appears that culturally, Asians -- they’re underrepresented... in the genealogical database realm,” Det. Hefner said. “Perhaps it’s because they have such valued, written family records,” so there is less of a need to look for answers elsewhere, he’s gathered.
Regardless, Det. Hefner says that the database is limited for Asian samples. “If it’s small now, it’s only gonna grow,” he said. “So hopefully, maybe that will help us some time on the -- down the road.”
“The sketch was actually funded by a retired Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Detective, Yolanda McClary,” Maribeth told Dateline. “We can’t thank her enough for doing so.” Josh Mankiewicz interviewed McClary, then a crime scene investigator, in the 2011 Dateline episode on Theresa’s case.
Everyone Dateline spoke with believes the sketch and genetic genealogy will be the best bet for finding answers in Theresa’s case. “If we push the sketch out and the sketch gets noticed -- that maybe there’s somebody out there that recognizes the individual depicted in the sketch and will come forward,” Grace Carducci said.
“There’s a good possibility that this -- this crime was committed by somebody unknown to her,” Det. Hefner told Dateline. “Maybe somebody’s talked to somebody, or somebody’s heard somebody brag about it and mention it to someone and they’re not sure. We -- we need to hear from those type of people, if they exist. I mean, because a young woman’s life that was just ended -- for — for what?”
A Determined FriendMay 5, 202300:15
Even though nearly two decades have passed, Theresa’s loved ones remain determined as ever. “No matter how long it takes — we pray that it’s not much longer — but if it takes another 19 years, another 40 years, we’ll never stop believing that Tree will have justice,” friend Grace told Dateline.
“It has been a very long 19 years we’ve been waiting,” sister Maribeth said. “But to Grace’s point, we’re not gonna stop.”
In 2017, Theresa’s loved ones started a Facebook page. “That’s more of a memorial page to post about Tree and her life,” Maribeth said. But they recently formed a coalition to keep the case in the public eye. One of their ideas included expanding their presence on social media with the creation of both an Instagram account and a TikTok page.
A Father’s LoveMay 5, 202300:24
The family started a scholarship in Theresa’s name shortly after her murder. Maribeth says their father, Joe, who has since died, led the charge. “He felt like this was a positive response for — from our family to be able to give back and to celebrate Tree’s life each year,” she said.
They gift scholarships to two girls who attend Niagara Falls High School — Theresa’s high school. “It’s really based on all of their attributes. So someone who’s well-rounded -- doing well from a grade standpoint, involved in sports and extracurricular activities, who’s working, involved in her community,” she said. “Just really those things that Theresa did in high school and throughout her life.”
Maribeth said that in total they’ve gifted around $30,000 in scholarship money. “We couldn’t do it without family and friends and the support of the community,” she said. “It really is just a great way for us to think of Theresa each year.”
Grace told Dateline they are extremely grateful to the Las Vegas Metro Police Department. “The two investigators that have been working on the case have been really wonderful,” she said. “They’re always willing to answer our questions and I know that they are continuously fighting for justice for Tree.”
If anyone has information regarding Theresa Insana’s case, they should contact the Las Vegas Metro Police Department at 702-828-3521. They can also contact the cold case voicemail line at 702-828-8973 or email email@example.com.