This Tri-Cities mom went missing 40 years ago. Cops now call it murder
Ken Hohenberg recalls being an 18-year-old Richland police cadet assigned to detectives for eight months working on “dead-ended investigations.”
The Kennewick police chief credits that experience with instilling in him at a young age the importance of getting answers for victims, even on property crimes.
“We have the duty and honor to bring justice for victims, and also their families,” he said.
Hohenberg then was hired on with Kennewick in 1978 as the department was busy handling the disappearance of June Howard and the brutal rape and murder of Lisa Martini.
He also had heard talk about Carole Tyler, a 19-year-old stabbed to death one morning in 1976 as she arrived to work at the Tri-City Herald’s circulation department.
All of those cases went unsolved at the time.
But 18 years later, when he became commander of the detectives division, Hohenberg developed a commitment and exposure to cold-case work and knew evolving DNA technology could help clear up older cases.
Cold case investigations
The first he assigned to detectives was the 1989 murder of Laurie J. Harm.
They got a DNA hit, a confession and eventually a conviction, and that’s when Hohenberg realized it was more than just an obligation and honor to solve those cases.
“If we didn’t do it, nobody else was going to do it,” he told the Herald. “It was just that simple.”
Hohenberg, appointed chief in 2003, has made it a personal mission for years to dedicate time to unsolved homicides and other mysteries that have long troubled investigators.
In April 2015, he coaxed former Richland police Capt. Al Wehner out of retirement and gave him a contract with the sole task of investigating Kennewick cold cases.
Hohenberg said it’s not that his own detectives can’t do a good job, but they have limited time and ability to work a case with fresh crimes happening around the clock.
Wehner started as a Richland cadet after Hohenberg in the 1970s, but the chief says they both had the opportunity to learn from the best of the best and their careers ended up paralleling each others.
“I have to say it’s probably the most lucrative contract that Kennewick ever cut. He works long hours, doesn’t get paid much and is one of the most thorough investigators,” Hohenberg said of Wehner. “He is smart, articulate and really, really thorough.”
June Howard disappearance
Wehner spent five months in 2016 digging up files, reviewing case notes and interviewing people about the 1978 disappearance of June Howard.
The 26-year-old mother of three had been gone 11 days when her husband, Steve Howard, reported to police that his wife went to the store and never came back.
And while her body was never found, Wehner concluded, and Benton County prosecutors agreed, that her husband killed her. But there will be no trial because Steve Howard died 19 years ago.
“They have done a thorough, fantastic job,” said a grateful Gayle Broussard, June Howard’s first husband and a retired law enforcement officer. “This is the best news I’ve had in this case for a long time.”
Doug Fearing, the initial lead detective on the case, said Wehner’s “amazing work” on it was both relieving and satisfying and verified what he already knew.
“You have to go beyond that a little ways and look at the dedication that Chief Hohenberg has to the citizens of this community and to that department, because he’s the one who created that position that Al’s filling right now. It is his dedication that brought all this about,” said Fearing, who’s now retired.
Time can be both an enemy and a friend to investigators, he said.
Evidence can be destroyed over time but technological advances and a suspect’s future actions can make a big difference.
Fearing said he worked with the tools available to him at the time, but that Wehner’s work brought the closure he has long sought in the case.
It’s those fresh eyes, different organizational skills and newer resources that Wehner and Hohenberg are hoping to use again in other cold cases.
“Any homicide is a tragedy, I don’t care what the circumstances are. But at the end of the day you want to be able to explain to a person’s loved one what happened,” said Hohenberg.
“Sometimes you don’t have why, but you can answer what happened and who is responsible.”