In Arkansas, a disappearance baffles investigators

Tuesday, February 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MENA, Ark. (AP) -- After a quiet breakfast in this town a few miles from the Oklahoma line, Daniel McDonald and three family members drove up a nearby mountain to hike Lovers Leap Trail.

The four headed down the narrow, muddy path in Queen Wilhelmina State Park, McDonald said. But his 68-year-old wife, Gloria, soon turned back toward the park's lodge, he said. She hasn't been seen since.

What happened Jan. 26 has baffled authorities and set residents theorizing about kidnapping, murder and mystery the likes of which this scenic western Arkansas town has never seen.

Did Gloria get lost? Was she abducted? Did she decide to run away? Police even wonder if she ever was in the 460-acre park.

"This woman disappeared without a trace in 30 minutes," Polk County Sheriff Mike Oglesby said. "We have no motive, no evidence of any kind. We've got nothing."

This is a part of the state where people move a little slower than the rest of the world, flannel shirts are considered business casual and the tractor is more than just a workhorse -- it's a mode of transportation.

Gloria McDonald's daughter and her husband feel certain she is dead -- speculations that disturb investigators who say they can't link anyone to a crime.

"I was the No. 1 suspect," Daniel McDonald said a week after his wife disappeared. "I demanded to take a polygraph test,"

which state police investigator Lynn Benedict said he passed.

Daniel, 63, says it was about noon when the family arrived at the park 14 miles south of town. His son from a past marriage, Sean McDonald, was visiting from Florida with his girlfriend, Erin Jemmott.

Not 250 yards down the trail, Daniel says, Gloria decided to head back to the lodge. She wasn't a "woodsy person," Daniel said. Broken tree limbs and debris from recent ice storms littered the path.

Park workers say the woman never returned to park headquarters.

Surely, a woman with red hair wearing a bright yellow jacket would be noticed, they said.

A maintenance worker says he may have spotted a woman in a yellow jacket but can't be sure. Authorities say the worker is the only person who might be able to place Gloria in the park -- except for Daniel, Sean and Erin.

Daniel complains authorities spent too much time questioning him before bringing out search dogs the next day. Searchers aided by helicopters have found nothing.

"In my mind, she's dead," Daniel said. "I think she saw something she shouldn't have seen ... so they took her. Or maybe she was snatched up by someone and tossed in one of these buildings."

Kerri, Gloria's daughter from a previous marriage, who asked that her last name not be used, also wasn't holding out much hope.

"The first thing I think is that more than likely, she's dead," she said. "I know my mom. If someone did get her into a car, she would've mouthed off so much they would've had to kill her."

But authorities have few clues: "Nothing points to the fact that there is foul play and nothing points to the fact that she ran off," Oglesby said.

Police are looking south, extending their investigation to Cedar Key, Fla., a Gulf coast town where the McDonalds lived before moving to Mena six months ago. "We're trying to see what their lifestyle was like," Oglesby said.

Less than a week after his wife's disappearance, Daniel said he would move back to Florida. "I don't want to be the guy in Mena whose wife was killed on the mountain," he said.

The sheriff says he hasn't ruled out Daniel as a suspect, but authorities didn't have any evidence to keep him from leaving, even if some of his comments seem caustic.

In an interview, Daniel said he couldn't imagine anyone abducting his wife "for her body" because she could not be considered pretty.

Gloria was Daniel's second wife. His first wife died in her home of natural causes, according to a funeral home in Chiefland, Fla.

Gloria and Daniel had been married a year.

Sean McDonald said in a telephone interview from Florida that sometimes his father can come across the wrong way: "He's a great man, but he'll say whatever's on his mind and he doesn't care what anyone thinks."

Sean said all three family members were interrogated separately the day after Gloria disappeared. Police seized his camera and found pictures taken the day of the hike, but no shots of Gloria.

"They were so focused on us but we didn't have anything to do with this," he said. "You see this stuff in the movies and on the news, but this one hit home."

Gene Clifton, a friend of Gloria's from Chiefland, is stumped.

"If she's dead, we need to find her. If she's alive and wants to be found, we need to find her," he said. "If she's alive and doesn't want to be found, then we need to let her be."

------ On the Net: Mena: Polk County Sheriff's Office: