Custody battles can drag on for what seems like forever. Those involved, though, stick it out for the sake of their children, and with the hope of a positive outcome.
Twenty-five-year-old Elizabeth Hornbeck disappeared just days before her own custody battle was set to end.
“She was in the process of going to court to get custody of her youngest son – she told me it was supposed to be released any day,” Elizabeth’s mom Lisa Hornbeck told Dateline. “The last time we saw her, she was here at my house and she was upset. I think that’s why she was so upset when she came over that night, because she was waiting for that decision.”
Elizabeth would never get to hear the judge’s decision. According to a report by the Howell County Sheriff’s Department Criminal Investigator Shannon Caldwell, Hornbeck left her mom’s house in Mountain View, Missouri on Thursday September 24, 2015. She was headed to her car, parked at a nearby Town & Country Supermarket.
But Elizabeth never made it to her car. Investigator Caldwell’s report says a person matching Elizabeth’s description was seen walking near the supermarket parking lot, and then entering a nearby park.
“Apparently there were two guys there who she got into an argument with,” Lisa said. “Then they forced her into a car. And we never saw her again.”
The next morning, Lisa says her daughter’s live-in boyfriend Jacob Loo called at 7:00 a.m. saying she never came home last night. Jacob confessed the couple had been fighting the day prior, though, because he had gone to the dentist without telling Elizabeth, so she’d been upset because she didn’t know where he was.
“That’s typical of my daughter, so I thought she was probably hanging out with one of her friends,” Lisa told Dateline. “So I wasn’t concerned at that point.”
By 5:00 p.m. Friday, though, one of Elizabeth’s friends called Lisa, concerned that nobody had heard from her.
“The friend apparently knew more about Elizabeth and her boyfriend’s relationship than I did,” Lisa said. “She told me there had been a lot of abuse and Elizabeth always went to her when they were fighting. I didn’t know the boyfriend well – they’d been dating for a year and half but I hadn’t met him face to face.”
Over the course of the weekend, Lisa says Jacob’s account of the night of Elizabeth’s disappearance changed multiple times.
“The first story he told was that they were arguing over him going to the dentist. Then he said he was mad because he didn’t want Elizabeth to get custody of the child,” Lisa said. “The third story that came out was that Elizabeth had caught him doing meth with friends. If there was meth, she was probably trying to get away, because she was in the middle of a custody battle.”
Lisa grew worried and told Jacob she was going to call the police to file a missing person’s report; but before she could pick up the phone to do so, Jacob called the police himself.
Since Elizabeth is an adult, the sheriff called Lisa to ask if this behavior was typical of Elizabeth.
“I told him yes, but I was still concerned,” Lisa said. “I know she will not miss the court date for custody of her son – and that was set for the Monday or Tuesday at the latest. I knew she wouldn’t miss that. So I had to wait at the courtroom and sit and wait and see if she would show up.”
Elizabeth never showed up to the court house, a moment Lisa called “heart-wrenching.” Seven-year-old Leighkyn, Elizabeth’s son at the center of the custody battle, remains under the guardianship of his paternal grandparents.
Unfortunately, there was more heartbreak to come. Lisa says that weeks later, she answered the phone to hear a young girl’s voice.
“She said, ‘Mom?’ and it sounded just like Elizabeth,” Lisa said. “The connection dropped and I tried to call back and I got scared because, you know, so many things run through your mind -- what if she got ahold of her phone and she’s not allowed to have it and now I’m calling and it’s ringing?
“I called the highway patrol immediately and they were on it in a heartbeat. It ended up just being a girl looking for her mom who accidentally called the wrong number,” Lisa told Dateline. “It was so upsetting because that’s just what you’re waiting for.”
Lisa would have to wait 18 months for any breaks in the case. One evening in March 2017, Lisa said there was a knock on her front door.
“The police came to me the night before they publicly announced they had found remains, and that they thought it was her,” she said.
The next day, Lisa said the report was all over Facebook and on the local news.
“I tried really hard to focus on my day and not think about it, because I was really praying it wasn’t her,” Lisa told Dateline. “I don’t know all the details about it… I didn’t even ask. I couldn’t at the time. It was hard enough seeing the objects we identified.
“They did take me out [to the scene]. Because I had to know where she was,” she said. “I looked around and said, ‘How? How could she have been there all this time and it was just off the road? It’s a heavy traffic area. How could she have been here 18 months?"
DNA results of the remains have yet to be published. Lisa says waiting for the official identification is like losing her daughter all over again.
“I don’t know if there’s ever any kind of closure for something like this,” she said. “I want her home, and I want her somewhere where she can be at peace. That's the one last thing I can do for her.”
Dateline NBC reached out to the Howell County Sheriff’s office for comment; Deputy Brad Bonham told Dateline that no suspects have been named in the case and it's an ongoing investigation, but declined to comment further.
If you have any information concerning what happened to Elizabeth Hornbeck, please contact the Howell County Sheriff’s Office at 417-256-2544. You may request to remain anonymous.