Break in cold case mixed blessing for mother

Image: Andy and Mary Wegner
Andy and Mary Wegner look at pictures of their missing daughter, Laurie Depies, at their house in Winneconne, Wis., on May 18. Depies, who disappeared in 1992, was never found, but a recent confession by a North Carolina convict could mean the Wegners might finally get the closure they've sought for 19 years. Dinesh Ramde / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The giftwrapped calendars sat untouched in Mary Wegner's rural Wisconsin home for nearly 20 years. The Christmas labels are faded but the name is still clear — Laurie, her adult daughter who vanished in 1992.

Wegner bought the calendars for herself as much as for her missing child. She hoped one would eventually mark the day they were reunited. But after a convicted child kidnapper suspected in dozens of cases recently confessed to kidnapping and killing her daughter, Wegner has become resigned to the idea that the reunion may never happen.

She hadn't touched the calendars in years, but she brought them out of storage recently. She doesn't know if she can ever unwrap them.

"It's hard, it's like Pandora's box," she said. "Maybe one day."

The 64-year-old Winneconne woman ran her fingertips over one present and added softly, "Not today."

Laurie Depies was 20 when she disappeared on a summer evening in 1992. She left work and drove to her boyfriend's home. He heard her car in the parking lot. When she didn't come upstairs, he went outside and found her vehicle locked and her soda cup sitting on the car roof. There were no signs of struggle, no tracks in the gravel suggesting someone was dragged, and if she'd screamed, he likely would have heard.

She was never seen again. Nor has her body been found.

Within 24 hours, her family and friends organized search parties and set up a telephone hotline. Vietnam veterans took on the cause and rode around the state on motorcycles putting up "missing" posters.

Most of the events were a blur to Wegner. She tried to maintain hope that Laurie was alive, even as days turned to weeks and months turned to years.

Larry DeWayne Hall's jailhouse confession ended that. The 48-year-old became a person of interest in Depies' case after he was convicted in the 1993 kidnapping of a teenage girl in Illinois. But without enough evidence to make an arrest, the Wisconsin investigation grew cold until last November, when Hall told investigators at a North Carolina prison he'd kidnapped and killed Depies.

Authorities cautioned Wegner that Hall could be lying, perhaps angling for a transfer to a Wisconsin prison because the state doesn't have the death penalty. But, police also told her that Hall provided information that only the killer would know.

As long as there's uncertainty, Wegner said she won't allow herself to fully believe Hall killed her daughter. However, she added, it helps to have someone on whom to focus her anger.

Her husband, Andy Wegner, reminded her that Hall may not be the killer.

"Although I do have a feeling that if he is the guy, there's going to be a deeper level of hate than either of us could ever imagine," he said.

It's hard not to feel hatred, the Wegners said. The killer took Laurie's life. He stole whatever joy the family should have had on Christmases and Thanksgivings and replaced it with despondence, and he caused unnecessary pain to a sweet young woman who had done him no wrong.

On days when the anger threatens to overwhelm her, Wegner pulls out the lawnmower and takes out her aggression on weeds. That tamps down the anger, but it returns in a flash when she's asked what punishment Hall should face if he's guilty.

"They ought to put him on the rack, you know, or bury him in sand and let the, I don't know, just torture," she said. She chuckled and then took a deep breath. "I know, that's not very nice. But sometimes that's where the anger goes."

A prison official where Hall is being held didn't know whether the prisoner had an attorney. Repeated calls to Hall's mother's home rang unanswered.

Wegner has another daughter who is a year older than Laurie, along with five stepchildren and five grandchildren. Her other daughter and Laurie's father did not respond to interview requests.

Police in the Town of Menasha, where Depies disappeared, are following up on the leads Hall provided. Police Chief Rod McCants said he hopes to wrap up the investigation in three to six months. He declined to go into detail.

The Wegners know the investigation could turn up gruesome information but they say they want to know — need to know — if they're ever to find closure.

"When I'm in public or talking to the media I'm OK," Wegner said. "But when I'm by myself, I become more of a mess. In my quiet time, when I'm alone with my thoughts then I'm not so good.

"It's just draining, just the thought of your daughter's life stopping at the age of 20. It's just not fair."