Christmas fell on a Friday the year Larry Riegel disappeared.
“This year, all of the dates line up exactly the way they were in 2009. We had our Christmas family dinner on the 26th and that’s when we knew something was wrong,” Larry’s sister Susan Riegel Vaughn told Dateline.
Larry, a 57-year-old contract pilot, had briefly seen his mother Christmas morning when she dropped by the Yakima, Washington home he shared with his girlfriend, Ladena Mann, to drop off some holiday gifts. He phoned her again later to say thank you and that he was looking forward to seeing her at the family party the following evening.
But the 26th party came and went without word from Larry. Several days turned into several weeks, and then several stories soon emerged about what may have become of the social, outdoorsman father of two.
Where was Larry? It’s still a question to which his family will simply not give up hunting for answers.
“My poor mother. She’s 86 and doesn’t know what’s happened to her only son,” Sally Green, another of Larry’s four sisters, told Dateline. “We’re going to do whatever we have to in order to get those answers.”
A Family’s Search
It’s fair to say the first “investigator” in Larry’s case was one of his sisters, Susan Vaughn. Since the winter Larry disappeared, she has chased down leads and kept binders of information that could possibly one day hold the ticket to crack the case.
“I remember driving from my house on the west side of the state to Larry’s on the 28th. I just knew something was up and he wasn’t there. I sat in my car and called my husband in tears and just said it’s something really bad. Something is really wrong,” recalls Susan, who added that she and her brother were incredibly close.
Countless calls were made to all of Larry’s friends. No one had heard from him since Christmas day; not his friends at any of the hunting lodges from across Idaho and into Montana he visited, nor local buddies he was known to play cards with from time to time, not even his two now-adult children had their calls to Larry returned that holiday.
Susan says she began driving back to Yakima more and more, going door to door to talk to people who may be possible witnesses and asking whomever she could about her brother’s last movements.
Years soon ticked on, but answers never came. A private investigator was hired, funded by the family, and a cadaver dog was brought in during the summer of 2010 to sniff around an area they thought Larry could have been buried. Nothing, however, was uncovered.
To make matters more troubling, family members say Larry had undergone neck surgery to address some neurological and pain issues in his upper back just a few weeks prior to his disappearance.
They say he was physically weak and “vulnerable” at the time.
“My brother told my mom about a week before he disappeared that if something happened to him, Ladena did it,” Larry’s sister Sally told Dateline. “As simple as that. And now he’s been missing for years.”
The Last Person to See Larry
Police have said they consider Ladena Mann, Larry’s girlfriend at the time, a possible suspect in the case.
Ladena told authorities that she and Larry began to argue the night of January 4th, 2009. That’s when she said he tried to physically assault her before he walked out of their home into the night and simply never returned, although family members say she has told them varying other stories before this one.
Ladena could not be reached for comment for this article, but gave an interview to the Yakima Herald-Republic in 2013 disputing any ideas that she was involved in Larry’s disappearance.
"Right off the get-go, they started saying horrible things about me," Mann told the paper. "They didn't have no reason to say those things ... It's just snowballed."
In 2013, Ladena was charged with welfare fraud for allegedly using Larry’s electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card several times in the weeks after he disappeared for roughly $1,500 in financial assistance, according to state welfare-fraud investigators.
She told the Yakima Herald-Republic, following her arraignment on those charges, that she had always done the shopping and expected Larry to return home some day, expecting food to be in the pantry.
Also, Ladena has told authorities that Larry had at times physically abused her, especially after he had been drinking.
Family members admit Larry’s main vice was alcohol and that his drinking played a big role in the break-up of his first marriage. However, they dispute Ladena’s claim saying there is no way Larry would have hurt anyone no matter how many drinks he had.
A Death Investigation Without a Body
Lt. Nolan Wentz of the Yakima Police Department has been running down leads in Larry’s case for nearly three years. Wentz was doing internal investigations at the time when the department’s captain recommended he take a look at the case.
“Usually when people hand me a missing person’s case, it’s a homicide. And I believe this is the case here too,” Wentz told Dateline.
Countless hours have been spent tracking each person who may play a role in the puzzle of the case. But perhaps the people who may hold the best possible key have not yet been identified.
“The neighbors across the street from Larry and Ladena's home said that shortly after Larry went missing, two men moved a lot of boxes out of that place. They thought maybe she was moving away. But I have not been able to find those men,” said Lt. Wentz. “I would love to talk with them.”
The last calls Larry made were to a man who was renting a family property that Larry was overseeing. Lt. Wentz says he believes Larry made several calls that day as the man’s rent was past due. That gentleman has since passed away though, so it’s unclear if he may have seen Larry that Christmas afternoon or if he knew anything about the case.
Family members continue to push Larry’s face and story out in the community. Fundraisers, flyers and online postings are a frequent part of the family’s mission.
Over the years, several billboards have been put up asking for tips.
Authorities hope that the consistent exposure may spark someone to finally saying what they may know. It’s a thought Larry’s family echoes.
“They say eventually people divorce and friendships go south. And pretty soon people will rat out other people,” said Larry's sister Susan. “As sad as it sounds, you just hope someone comes across a bone.”
Larry Riegel was an avid hunter and outdoorsman. He was social, always making conversation with whomever surrounded him, and he is consistently described as a gregarious guy. He’s a father of two and attended his daughter’s wedding four months before he went missing.
The Riegel family has funded another billboard to be put up in Yakima, to go up Monday January 4th of this year. It has the phrase ‘WE WILL NEVER STOP’ with a photo of Larry’s mother bookended by his sister Susan and Lt. Wentz. The family’s website is printed in red letters along with the anonymous tip line through the Yakima County Crime Stoppers.
Those in the community know which case the billboard is in reference to.
“Some of the guys in the department laugh at me sometimes because I always have a shovel and gloves with me,” said Lt. Wentz. “I’ll go exploring. I’ve dug holes all over this county just looking.”
The family continues to update the FindLarryReigel.com webpage, designed and coded by a family friend. One of Larry’s nieces runs the ‘Find Larry Riegel’ Facebook page. Whatever they can do, the family says, they will, until justice is found for Larry.
“Larry deserves justice and we’re going to find it,” Larry’s sister Sally told Dateline. “Whatever we have to do.”
If you know anything regarding Larry’s case, please contact the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office at (509) 574-2500 or the Yakima County Crime Stoppers at (800) 248-TIPS. You can leave a tip anonymously. There is a $10,000 reward, offered by the family, for information leading to the recovery of Larry's remains.
The family also mentioned that Larry has worn a custom-opal ring on his ring finger since his early 20s, adding that it’s almost one of a kind. It’s never been found. They hope that, perhaps, if that ring can be uncovered, it may lead to Larry’s body.