After developing new information from an interview in a 25-year-old cold case involving a missing Phoenix mother of five, Phoenix police began searching a Tempe residence on Thursday where it recently was discovered she was last seen alive.
A search warrant, which was served at 1024 S. Parkside Drive on Thursday, is in connection with a case involving Vernette Wester, who went missing on Nov. 22, 1985, while running errands for the Thanksgiving holiday. Her ex-husband has been an investigative lead in the case since her disappearance, according to Sgt. Trent Crump, a Phoenix police spokesman.
Although Bruce Wester, who has lived at the Parkside Drive home since Vernette Wester’s disappearance, has been uncooperative with authorities for 25 years, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge issued the search warrant on Monday and recently ruled that Wester must provide DNA and biological evidence. Police hope to determine in a few weeks whether Bruce Wester’s DNA is linked to any of the physical evidence police retrieved from the woman’s car 25 years ago.
The home is located south of University Drive and west of Hardy Drive in an older neighborhood described by one of its longtime residents as dominantly transient because of Arizona State University students “constantly moving in and out.”
Phoenix police investigators began searching through items in the house Thursday morning, and planned to do so throughout the day. A cadaver dog also was being brought in to search for possible clues.
Crump said investigators recently re-interviewed people involved in the case, and an individual provided information that revealed that Bruce Wester’s home in Tempe was where Vernette Wester, then 38, was last seen alive. Wester’s car, a 1979 white Chevy Chevette, was found in the area of West Howe and Judd streets three blocks away from the residence five days after her disappearance was reported, Crump said.
At the time of Wester’s disappearance, Vernette and Bruce Wester’s divorce, which Crump described as “tumultuous and difficult,” had just been finalized and the court awarded Vernette Wester their house in Phoenix and he was ordered to move out within 30 days. Being ordered to move out of the home and losing full custody of two of his three children, who were minors, also infuriated Wester, according to a daughter.
“Vernette Wester was in an abusive marriage and her divorce was tumultuous and difficult,” Crump said. “Bruce Wester has always been an investigative lead, but has never cooperated with authorities. Now, through re-interviewing people who likely misled investigators in the beginning, we have received some new information.”
Vernette Wester left behind five children, who have disowned Bruce Wester because they believe he is responsible for their mother’s disappearance, police said. Foul play is suspected and Bruce Wester had pressured one of her sons to have a court rule her dead, Crump said.
Wester was declared legally dead in 1992, soon after one her sons turned 18.
Wendy Rawson, one of the Westers’ daughters who was 12 at the time of her mother’s disappearance, told the Tribune on Thursday that all five of the siblings believe their father had something to do with their mother’s disappearance and they are estranged from him.
Rawson said she learned Thursday about the search being conducted at her father’s home but did not know what information led them to being able to search the house.
“I was surprised,” Rawson said. “Twenty-five years is a long time to carry this,” Rawson said. “We just need to be able to get to the end of this so we can grieve like normal people. It’s important for me and my siblings — you can’t have closure when questions are lingering.
“Our father was very possessive and very controlling,” Rawson said. “He was beyond bitter that our mother didn’t want to be with him anymore. At the time of her disappearance, he never checked on us. He was mad that she was able to get ‘his’ house because it was his V.A. benefits that paid for it. After he was able to clear the house out, he sold a dark green 1970s Pontiac our mother had inherited from her mother to our neighbor across the street for $50, and he used it in the demolition derby at the Arizona State Fair. Why would he clear out the house and sell her car? That reeks of ‘I know she’s not coming back.’ ”
Bruce Wester has lived in the Parkside Drive residence since his ex-wife’s disappearance and now is in failing health, Crump said.
He has not been arrested or charged with any crime at this time, Crump said.
Some neighbors along Parkside Drive watched from across the street as investigators searched through items from Wester’s single-story house with yellow crime tape placed around it, but said they did not know him.
“He didn’t mix with the neighbors,” said Keith Rogers, who has lived in the neighborhood with his wife, Rose, since Jan. 1, 1985. “He was homebound. “This is the kind of thing you only see on TV. Police cars pull up, tape goes up and they start bringing things out of the house. We had only lived here a few months when we found out about the case, but we heard very little about it.”
Crump told the Tribune on Thursday that a 40 percent decrease in homicides from last year and a drop in other serious crimes has given detectives more time to look into cold cases that have a high probability rate of being solved, citing the Wester case as one of them.
“Technology that wasn’t available then is a big reason we’re being able to solve these cases now,” Crump said. “Networking and databases that weren’t available 30, 40 years ago are helping. New information also gets developed through re-interviewing people who were questioned early on in the investigation. Relationships people had with suspects break down and deteriorate. Ties break down and everyone’s life changes. Witnesses recant because their love or fear is gone.”
Vernette Wester was 5 feet 2 inches tall, 125 pounds with hazel eyes, and brown hair. She had a scar on her forehead.
Phoenix police would like to speak to anyone who knew Vernette at any point in her life or who has any knowledge of her disappearance.
Anyone having information regarding this case is asked to contact the Phoenix Police Department Missing Persons Unit at (602) 534-2121 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Police also can be reached in the evenings at (602) 262-6141.