Life in Fort Worth, Texas, as in many parts of the country, differed in the 1970s from today’s reality.
“My dad was out of the picture and my mother was having to work, so she wasn’t home,” Terry Moseley told Dateline. It was December 23, 1974 and Terry, then 15 years old, was home from school for Christmas break. “I would be more careful now, but back then we were able to stay at home without a parent.”
Terry told Dateline that his younger sisters – Janet, 11, and Julie, 9 – were also home, but he went across the street that morning to see his girlfriend, 14-year-old Renee Wilson.
“Renee and I grew up together because her grandma lived across the street from us,” Terry said. “For me and her, it progressed to being more than just buddies in the neighborhood. I went over early that morning – she had spent the night at her grandma’s – and I gave her a promise ring. She was happy.”
Before Terry left Renee that morning, he says she told him she wanted to go to the store to pick up some jeans she had on layaway.
“She wanted me to go with her,” Terry said. “I backed out at kind of the last minute, because a friend of mine was going to go to the hospital to have an operation, and I told him I would hang out with him. I didn’t really want to renege on that.”
Renee told Terry she was going to go to the store with her married friend Rachel Trlica, a 17-year-old who lived nearby. That’s when Julie, Terry’s youngest sister, saw an opportunity to hang out with the two teenaged girls.
“I know Renee and Rachel didn’t want Julie to go because she was only 9 years old,” Terry said. “But Julie got our mom on the phone and begged and begged to go. And, for some reason, this time she said OK. [Our mom] knew Renee well since I was in a relationship with her.”
Sometime before noon, Rachel drove Renee and Julie to the Army Navy Store. After stopping to get Renee’s jeans, the girls continued on to the Seminary South Shopping Center in south Fort Worth.
Dateline spoke with Rusty Arnold, Rachel’s younger brother, who said the girls were not expected to be home till around 4:00 p.m. for a party.
But 4:00 p.m. came and went. The girls never showed up to the party.
“When they didn’t arrive, people started to get worried,” Rusty said.
Soon, the sun began to set. And when the kids’ parents started arriving home from work that evening and the girls still weren’t home, the worries grew.
Richard Wilson, Renee’s father, told Dateline he and some other members of the neighborhood drove the less than 10-minute trip to the mall to search for the girls that evening. Meanwhile, Julie’s older brother Terry stay at the house.
“I was designated as one of the people who had to stay by the telephone in case someone called while other people searched for the car,” he told Dateline.
The Oldsmobile the girls had driven in to go shopping was found in the mall parking lot. Rusty says there was no sign of a struggle on or around the vehicle, but it did seem as if the girls had made it back to the car after shopping in the mall – a single Christmas present was found in the backseat.
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“My mom and I went to every store in the mall as the mall was closing that night,” Rusty told Dateline. But they had no luck. The girls were nowhere to be found.
Rusty told Dateline that the Fort Worth Police Department was notified that evening. The next morning, Rachel’s husband, Tommy Trlica received a handwritten letter. Scrawled on the note was a message the girls’ families immediately saw as suspicious:
“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.”
While the content of the letter was already unbelievable to the families, a misspelling of Rachel’s own name added further doubt that the letter was actually written by the missing girl. There seemed to be an extra “e” in Rachel’s name and it had been written over to form the “l.”
“It is of my opinion that Rachel did not write that letter,” Rusty said. “But that letter remains the only physical piece of evidence we have in their disappearance.”
“I don’t understand the letter at all,” Terry told Dateline. “The letter seems to me like it almost points to someone who knew them. People say it’s to throw us off the track. Throw us off of what track? There has never been any track. I don’t know if we will ever know what happened.”
Family tells Dateline the girls were listed as runaways by the Fort Worth Police Department for the first year, then were reassigned to the Major Case Unit after a private investigator for the families expressed frustration over the status.
“I don’t think the girls ran away. Renee wanted me to go with her to the mall – I am pretty sure I would have known if we were going to run away,” Terry said. “ And Rachel had this nice car to drive. If you’re going to run away, why would you ditch it in the parking lot?”
Renee’s father Richard, now 79 years old, told Dateline that prank calls became a cruel joke in the years following his daughter’s disappearance.
“It’s been really bad since they disappeared,” Richard said. “We had to get an extra phone in the house because people would be calling and saying it was the girls when it wasn’t them.”
The Fort Worth Police Department did not reply to Dateline’s request for comment by Monday afternoon. Authorities have released few details on the case over the years, leading some family members to grow frustrated. But Julie’s brother Terry says he understands their predicament since it’s an open investigation.
“The current [investigators] – they’re doing what they can do off of old information,” Terry told Dateline. “They’re having to question people who have 44-year-old memories of this.”
“But we are still in the same exact spot that we were 44 years ago,” Terry added. Rachel’s brother Rusty is one of the people who is trying to change that.
“I started working on their disappearance ever since I was old enough to do so – pretty much my whole life,” Rusty told Dateline. He’s one of the administrators of the Missing Ft. Worth Trio Facebook page, which has over 13,600 members.
“We were looking at the statistics of the 13,600 people who are in the Facebook page and there are people from cities and countries all over the world,” Rusty said. “It makes me feel like what we are doing is working and we have to keep talking about it and getting others to talk about it, too.”
Rusty’s efforts to find his missing sister go beyond the screen. In September of 2018, with the help of Texas EquuSearch, Rusty organized a dive team to search Benbrook Lake, a lake near where the girl’s disappeared. Rusty told Dateline he was lead to Benbrook Lake after learning about someone whose car went missing around the same time that the girls disappeared.
“If that person had wanted to dispose of a car, the nearest reservoir to do it would be Benbrook Lake,” he said. “We didn’t just find one car – we found three.”
Rusty says five local scientists have analyzed two of the cars. Unfortunately, neither was determined to be tied to the disappearance of the missing trio.
“But the third car – the diver went down there and brought up a piece of it and I was able to identify what kind of car it was before we even brought it out of the lake,” Rusty said. “We are going to bring it out of the lake this spring. All I can say right now is, it is a car of interest.”
Many of the family members of the missing girls have passed away since their disappearance in 1974. Rachel and Rusty’s mother, Fran Langston, is now 80 years old. Rusty says their mother has never let go of the pain.
“My mom puts out three angels on her lawn every year at Christmastime to symbolize the girls,” Rusty told Dateline. “Fort Worth was changed forever on the day the girls went missing.”
Rusty added that his sister’s disappearance later affected how he parented his own children.
“It has significant emotional ties to the way I was with my own children,” he said. “I was way overprotective of my kids. When they started elementary school, they started with cell phones in their hands. I was going to know where they were.”
Terry, who lost both his little sister Julie and his girlfriend Renee in the disappearance, says he still struggles with the pain.
“I have learned to live with it. But it’s hard not to let it affect me and I try not to let it rule my life,” Terry said. “I try not to let it ruin Christmas, but I am glad when it zips by.”
All three family members with whom Dateline spoke say they don’t know what happened to their loved ones that day at the mall.
“I don’t really know what happened. But if [my daughter] has passed away, she needs to be put to rest,” Richard told Dateline of Renee.
“Closure would be getting the person or persons involved in their disappearance to be put in prison for life, or sentenced to the death penalty,” Rusty said. “And to have their bodies recovered so we can have a proper burial and move on, ourselves, toward a normal life. And when I say ‘a normal life’ -- I don’t even know what that looks like.”
Rachel Trlica would be 61 years old today, Renee Wilson would be 58 years old today, and Julie Moseley would be 53 years old today. If you have any information on the disappearance of the missing trio, please call the Fort Worth Police Department at 817-469-8477.
Bianca Hillier covers missing person and homicide cases for NBC News.