LEAD UP TO DISAPPEARANCE:
On the morning of December 23, 1974, Lisa Renee Wilson, Julie Ann Moseley and Mary Rachel Trlica travelled to the Seminary South Shopping Center in Fort Worth, Texas to do some Christmas shopping. Lisa and Mary, who both went by their middle names, were friends and Julie was the sister of Renee’s boyfriend, Terry Moseley.
Rachel and Renee had initially planned to go shopping with Terry, but he’d made plans to visit a friend in the hospital. Julie wanted to go along with them, but was told she needed permission from her mother, Rayanne. She was able to get permission after complaining about having no one to play with at home, but was told she needed to be home by 6:00pm. The curfew was no issue, as Renee was to attend a Christmas party that evening with Terry and wanted to be home by 4:00pm to get ready.
At 12:00pm, the girls departed and first travelled to the Army/Navy surplus store to retrieve some jeans Renee had on layaway. They then drove to the shopping center, parking Rachel’s 1974 Oldsmobile 98 in the upper parking level, near the Sears outlet.
Witnesses would later inform police they’d seen the girls inside the mall throughout the afternoon, and it’s their belief they returned to the car at some point to drop off items. What happened after is where the mystery begins.
When the girls failed to return home, their families became concerned and drove over to the Seminary South Shopping Center to search for them. Terry was charged with staying by the phone at home, in case someone called with information about their whereabouts.
Rachel’s Oldsmobile was discovered in the parking lot at approximately 6:00pm. It was locked, and there was single present on the backseat floorboard. There were no sign of the girls, nor signs of a struggle in or around the vehicle.
The families waited at the mall all night. Renee’s mother, Judy Wilson, had them paged at each store and called local hospitals and the police, while Rusty Arnold and his mother went from store to store looking for them. Richard Wilson and a neighbour climbed onto the roof of a nearby building with a shotgun and stood watch over the Oldsmobile overnight.
Each of the girls’ friends were called, but they’d heard nothing. With the police informed, the case was handed over to the youth division of the Fort Worth Police Department’s Missing Persons Bureau.
Police initially believed the three ran away, but their families felt otherwise. However, due to the runaway distinction, the case wasn’t investigated as thoroughly as it should have for the first year. This meant Mary’s car wasn’t processed for evidence, nor did investigators dust for fingerprints.
The runaway theory was further spurred by a letter Rachel’s husband, Thomas, received in the mail on the morning of December 24, 1974. It was in the mailbox and addressed to Thomas from “Rachel”. It stated the girls had gone to Houston for the week and provided directions to where the car was parked at the mall:
“I know I’m going to catch it, but we just had to get away. We’re going to Houston [Texas]. See you in about a week. The car is in Sear’s [sic] upper lot. Love Rachel.”
The letter had been written on a sheet of paper that was wider than the envelope in which it had been placed, and the writing was termed a “childish scrawl”. The stamp on the envelope had been cancelled the morning it arrived at the Arnold residence, and there was no city on the postmark, only a blurry Postal Service number: 76083.
The “3” was printed backwards, leading some to believe the last two numbers had been hand-loaded in a stamp. If this were indeed the case, then the letter was stamped in either Eliasville or Throckmorton. However, others feel the final two numbers were meant to read “88”, meaning it was postmarked in Weatherford, Texas.
Both Rachel’s mother and Thomas believed the letter wasn’t written by her, as she affectionately called her husband “Tommy” and the letter had been addressed to “Thomas A. Trlica”. Handwriting tests proved inconclusive, and investigators are still unsure of the writer’s identity. It was initially believed Rachel had been forced to write the letter or did so of her own volition, but this assumption has since changed. The original loop in the “L” of Rachel appeared to have originally been a lowercase “E”, leading some to believe it was initially a spelling error.
The letter remains the only piece of physical evidence investigators have in the case. When DNA technology was developed, it was sent for testing, but no match was found to anyone in the police database, nor to the girls.
At the time of the trio’s disappearance, Rachel’s sister, Debra, was living with her and Thomas. Thomas and Debra had previously been engaged, but the relationship had never been too serious and the pair ended up calling off their wedding. They stated it wasn’t uncomfortable having the three of them living under the same roof.
It’s the belief of some members of the Moseley, Wilson and Arnold families that Debra knows more about the disappearances than she’s letting on. They sent her a letter after an interview with her was published in the Fort Worth-Star Telegram in 2000. In it, they asked her to divulge any information she might have and to “fully cooperate with the Fort Worth Police Department and the FBI” investigations. They also asked her to take a polygraph test.
Debra maintains she knows nothing about their disappearances.
The three families distributed missing persons flyers across Texas and contacted newspapers throughout the United States in order to spread awareness about the disappearances.
A store clerk came forward, saying a woman had approached her to say she’d witnessed Renee, Rachel and Julie being “hustled” into a yellow pickup truck parked by the Buddies grocery store at the mall on the day they vanished. This was similar to a 1981 report from another witness, who’d said he’d seen an unidentified male force a girl (or girls) into a van in the mall’s parking lot. When he’d approached the group, the man had told him it was a “family dispute” and to “stay out of it”. Both stories have not been verified by police, and investigators have never been able to locate the woman who’d spoken to the cashier.
Investigators interviewed a night watchman who was working at Alcon Laboratories, just down the street from the Seminary South Shopping Center, on the night of the disappearances. He’d reported seeing a car containing three women and two men pulling into the building’s driveway that night. Unfortunately, the lead was a dead end.
They also spoke to a ticket agent at the local bus depot after he claimed three girls had asked about trips to Houston and other destinations the morning after Renee, Rachel and Julie disappeared. However, they aren’t sure the information is reliable.
A few weeks after the disappearances, the families hired a well-known psychic named J. Joseph. He offered his services free of charge and donated money to a growing reward fund. He told them he had a “sense” something was wrong with the letter allegedly sent by Rachel, and that he had a “feeling” the trio had gone north toward “Oklahoma or Illinois”. He also stated they were being held against their will and “dope is possibly involved, along with three or five people”. While at the Arnold home, he shared an ominous message along the lines of if they never saw him again, it was a sign the girls were deceased – he never did speak to or visit them again.
In 1975, a man claiming to be an acquaintance of Rachel’s came forward to say he’d seen the three girls at a record store in the mall a few hours before they went missing. He’d noticed another individual with the group, and he and Mary had spoken briefly.
That same year, women’s clothes were found in Justin Texas. While initially thought to belong to one of the missing girls, they were later determined to not be related to the case.
The families hired private Investigator Jon Swaim in 1975, due to their frustration over how the police were handling the investigation. He called numerous press conferences and forced investigators to allow him access to the case files. Throughout the year, he made national headlines, with one report stating that an unidentified man had tried to collect the reward money in exchange for offering what turned out to be false information as to the girls’ whereabouts.
In April 1975, Swaim travelled to Port Lavaca, Texas with a group of 100 volunteers to search beneath local bridges after a tip came in saying the girls’ bodies had been dumped in the area. The city had previously been searched by investigators, who’d uncovered nothing. The same was true with Swaim’s search.
In August of that year, he discovered that a 28-year old man was making a string of obscene phone calls in the area. He’d worked at a local store where Rachel had applied for a position prior to her disappearance, and it was learnt he’d once lived in the same neighbourhood as her. Nothing ultimately came from this lead, but it was learnt he’d been using his position at the store to collect information from young women. A total of six female applicants reported receiving crude phone calls from him.
In 1976, three skeletons were found in a field in Brazoria County, Texas by an oil drilling crew. Swaim had the remains checked against x-rays and dental records, but they turned out to belong to one male between the ages of 15 and 17 and two other females.
Swaim died in 1979 of an apparent suicide. Upon his death, he requested all his records be destroyed. It’s currently unclear if those files contained any legitimate information regarding the case.
Throughout the course of the search, the families have been subjected to prank phone calls. Renee’s parents had to purchase a secondary phone because random individuals kept calling and claiming to be their missing daughter.
In 1999, Rachel’s brother, Rusty, contacted private investigator Dan James to help further the investigation. The pair looked into several witness sightings of Rachel and Renee at stores and a gas station in the days following their disappearances. There are additional reports that Rachel has been seen in the Fort Worth area during numerous Christmas seasons.
Both Rusty and James believe Renee and Julie are deceased, but cite the recent witness sightings as evidence Rachel is likely still alive. They believe an unidentified person or persons are keeping her away from her family, but they have refused to share what, if any, evidence they have to support this claim.
In December 1999, James offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the girls’ disappearances. He is also one of the sponsors of missingtrio.com, a website offering updates and information regarding the case. He offered the money from his own savings, and maintains he’s never received any financial compensation for the work he’s put into the investigation.
James has said he’s received death threats from anonymous callers warning him to remove himself from the investigation.
The case was officially reopened by investigators in January 2001. A few months later, in April 2001, they held a press conference, where they shared they’d interviewed at least 20 new witnesses who’d seen the girls at the mall on the afternoon of December 23, 1974. They also shared that they’d narrowed down the possible suspect list to just five individuals.
That same month, a former Fort Worth policeman and security guard at the Seminary South Sears outlet approached news station KXAS NBC-5 with information he had regarding the case. He claimed to have seen three girls and a young male security guard inside a pickup truck at approximately 11:30pm on the evening of their disappearances. The girls appeared relaxed and were in the vehicle “willingly”, laughing and exchanging words before the security guard drove away with them in the truck. When they left, the youngest girl was sitting next to the driver, the second-eldest in the middle and the oldest next to the passenger’s side door.
According to the witness, he’d contacted police just a few days after word spread of the girls’ disappearances, but that investigators failed to follow up with his information until April 2001. When approached by the media, investigators said they’d located the security guard seen with the girls, but that he denied they were in his vehicle that evening.
Over the years, the families have had to deal with claims that their bodies have been located. Unfortunately, none of these remains have proven to belong to either of the three. Investigators have also searched through state medical examiner records in New Mexico for unidentified females, but had no luck. The trio’s dentals and DNA are available for comparison should their remains be found.
In September 2018, Rusty, with the help of Texas EquuSearch, organized an effort to raise two submerged cars out of Benbrook Lake. It was believed the cars were connected to the case, so a GoFundMe campaign was set up to pay for divers from North Texas Marine Salvage and the equipment needed for the job.
Rusty was led to the lake after learning about an individual who lived five miles from the mall and whose vehicle went missing in the mid-1970s. The lake is located roughly eight miles from where the shopping centre, yet investigators didn’t believe there to be enough evidence to warrant a search, which spurred Rusty to organize his own search effort.
The first car was pulled on September 22, 2018 and the second on October 13. Five scientists were brought in to analyze them, but neither was determined to be related to the case. Their VIN numbers were collected, in case they’re connected to other unsolved cases in the area.
There is a third car still beneath the waters of Benbrook Lake. Rusty had planned to bring it up, but it was found to be too dangerous a job, given how disintegrated the frame had become whilst submerged.
Crime Stoppers has issued a $1,000 reward for information leading to a resolution in the case.
Rusty once received a call from a woman claiming to be Julie. She’d contacted him over skepticism over her upbringing, believing she’d been abducted as a child. She’d seen a picture of Julie online and tracked down Rusty. After seeing her picture, both he and Julie’s mother thought it possible she was the missing girl, but a DNA test came back negative.
According to investigators, the last time they had a lead was in 2001, when they collected DNA evidence. Due to the active nature of the investigation, the results have not been shared with the public. It is their belief the girls left the shopping center with someone they trusted and met with foul play.
Few details have been released regarding the investigation, which has frustrated the families. Richard Wilson claims to have been lied to about potential searches in the case. In one story relayed to FWWeekly, he said he’d been told by officers that they were going to look into a lead that the trio’s bodies were at the bottom of a well in Aledo, Texas. Richard decided to follow and trailed them to a Paris Coffee Shop on the Near Southside, before they returned to the station and called the family to say nothing had been found. They’d never actually travelled to the well’s location that day.
Thousands of leads have been investigated and dozens of searches completed throughout the course of the investigation. Searchers have combed through the Texas brush and have explored hundreds of back roads, while the families have walked along creek beds and country roads.
Cotton Trlica passed away of stage 4 melanoma just six months after his daughter’s disappearance. Her mother remarried a few years later.
Thomas left Fort Worth, remarried and went on to become a supervisor at a Texas-based water company. He’d initially believed the girls would be found within a few days and put up a $2,000 reward, but less than two years later, he requested a divorce from Rachel on the grounds of abandonment. He’s since remarried numerous times.
Renee’s family still resides in her childhood home in the Fort Worth area. Throughout the initial search, Richard participated in numerous volunteer efforts and knocked on neighbour’s doors in his pursuit for answers. In 2015, Judy passed away due to pulmonary hypertension.
Rusty continues to look into the case almost daily. He has worked with several private investigators and searched various areas across Texas, including a bayou in Port Lavaca and a wrecking yard in Kennedale. He also runs the Missing Ft. Worth Trio Facebook group.
According to Rusty, his pursuit for answers has frayed his relationship with his mother and sister. Fran believes Rusty’s obsession is partially the result of Dan James’ involvement in the investigation and blames him for how the case has destroyed her family.
For two decades after Julie’s disappearance, Rayanne broke down, visiting psychiatrists and psychologists. She even spent some time in hospital. In order to explore her pain and move on with her life, she began journaling her thoughts. She has since passed away without ever knowing what happened to her daughter.
The case has been featured on numerous podcasts, including the popular Trace Evidence podcast.
CASE CONTACT INFORMATION:
Lisa Renee Wilson went missing from the Seminary South Shopping Center in Fort Worth, Texas on December 23, 1974. She was 14 years old, and was last seen wearing purplish-blue hip-hugger pants, red and white sneakers or Oxford-type shoes, and a promise ring with a single stone. She also had on either a pale yellow or green shirt, or a white pullover sweatshirt with the words “Sweet Honey” imprinted in green along the front. She is commonly addressed by her middle name. At the time of her disappearance, she stood at 5’2″ and weighed approximately 110 pounds. She had shoulder-length wavy brown hair with reddish highlights, and brown eyes. She is fair skinned with acne, and she has a scar on the inside of her thigh.
Mary Rachel Trlica, née Arnold, went missing from the Seminary South Shopping Center in Fort Worth, Texas on December 23, 1974. She was 17 years old, and aside from her wedding ring, what she was wearing is currently unknown. She is commonly addressed by her middle name. At the time of her disappearance, she stood at 5’6″ and weighed approximately 108 pounds. She had long brown hair and green eyes. Her upper front tooth is chipped, and she has a small scar on her chin.
Julie Ann Moseley went missing from the Seminary South Shopping Center in Fort Worth, Texas on December 23, 1974. She was nine years old, and was last seen wearing a red shirt, a pair of dark jeans and red tennis shoes. At the time of her disappearance, she stood at 4’3″ and weighed 85 pounds. She had shoulder-length light brown-to-sandy blonde hair and blue eyes. She has a small scar under her left eye, one on the middle of her forehead, and a round scar on the back of her calf.
Currently, all three cases are classified as non-family abductions. If alive, Renee would be 60 years old, Rachel would be 63 and Julie, 56.
Those with information regarding the case are asked to contact the Fort Worth Police Department at 817-877-8345. Tips can also be called into the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office at 817-496-9402 or the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Missing Persons Clearinghouse at 512-424-5074.
Image Credit: Unidentified Wiki/Texas Department of Public Safety/missingtrio.com