AUSTIN (KXAN) – Forty-two years after Debra Kay Stewart disappeared, her family is speaking publicly for the first time with the hope that someone comes forward with new information that could lead to a break in her missing persons’ case.
“I just still believe that somebody somewhere knows something,” said Katrina Trotman, Stewart’s younger sister. “I can’t forget and I don’t want anyone else to forget either.”
Stewart, a student at the University of Texas, disappeared in 1976. She was just 19 years old. Stewart was last seen on May 21, 1976, leaving the Sears where she worked at the Hancock Center near Hyde Park. Coworkers told police she was not feeling well and left work early.
Stewart’s car was found abandoned on Ferdinand Street in east Austin. Her car keys were still in the ignition.
“It’s a hard thing to not be able to put this to rest, and to know for sure what happened,” she added. “You can’t have a funeral without a body, and so there was just never any closure.”
Trotman was 7 years old when she met her big sister. Despite the fact she only ever spent a single day with her, Trotman says she still vividly remembers that visit in her Houston home, where she grew up.
“Someone knocked on the door and it was her, and I didn’t know who this person was and my dad was so excited,” explained Trotman.
Her father introduced the two as sisters.
“It was the greatest thing. She had such a warm spirit and just a bubbly personality and this beautiful, genuine smile,” said Trotman. “I thought that this was going to be the beginning of a beautiful relationship and it was just snatched away.”
The Mystery Boyfriend
Trotman says she also remembers the man with her big sister at that meeting – Stewart’s boyfriend at the time. However, she recalls little more, not even his name.
“He was not warm. He was not friendly,” said Trotman. “They drove from Austin to Houston to visit us and then they went back that same day.”
Shortly after the two sisters met, Stewart disappeared.
“My mind automatically went to him. I just wish we knew what happened,” she added. “It’s just hard to lay this memory to rest.”
The Austin police case file shows officers in 1976 followed up on all the usual leads when Stewart went missing – including her mystery boyfriend.
“They brought in other people from all over the department to go down every avenue, everybody she knew, any acquaintances she had, looking for anybody on any pathway between Sears all the way to where her car was found to see if anybody had seen anything,” said Detective Richard Faithful. “Somebody had reported that they had seen a black male and they described his clothing, that was getting out of the car or near the car.”
However, because police back then crossed Stewart’s boyfriend off their list, cold case detectives today say they haven’t pursued him because they have no reason to do so.
Detective Faithful says in order for any progress to be made in this case, someone who knows something has to come forward because they have no physical or DNA evidence in Stewart’s case.
“Unfortunately, we have many cases that we don’t have answers for and that eats at everybody. It eats at the family. It eats at all of us,” said Faithful. “We just rely on people. People are what make most of our breaks on this. Somebody that may have even the smallest bit of information comes forward and tells us, it’ll be a little piece that helps us with the bigger puzzle of what happened to that person.”
Stewart’s case is one of more than 190 cold cases the Austin Police Department is still working to close. This includes both missing persons and homicide cases that date back to the 1960s.
Undeniable Similarities: Young, Black and Vanished
Detectives within the Austin Police Cold Case Missing Persons Unit are still searching for Stewart, as well as the missing link connecting her disappearance to two other young, black women, all of whom went missing in Austin within a three-month time period that year.
Before Stewart’s disappearance, police say Brenda Moore, 20, disappeared in March 1976 from an area where US 183 now runs on the east side. Moore’s car was found on March 12 in the 1900 block of Coleto Street – less than a block from where Stewart’s vehicle was found. Her car keys were also left inside the vehicle, but she hadn’t been seen since March 7.
Just one week before Stewart went missing, Jennifer Joyce Barton, also 20, vanished on May 16, 1976. She was a known prostitute.
Although these cold cases share undeniable similarities, Trotman says her focus remains on the man whose face she has not been able to forget in four decades — Stewart’s boyfriend. She believes he could shed light on her sister’s case.
“I don’t know if he’s alive or dead, or anything, but I just want to know what happened.”
Hope for Another Cold Case Arrest
“I can’t stop thinking about it because it gives me hope that one day we’re going to actually get some answers,” said Trotman. “I believe that we’re going to find something. If we just keep digging, we may be able to come up with something.”
In the Reiding case, it was new DNA evidence recently tested that helped detectives in the same unit positively link a 64-year-old Austin man to the crime.
In May, a Travis County grand jury indicted Michael Anthony Galvan on one count of capital murder and one count of murder in Reiding’s death.
At last report, Galvan remains in the Travis County Jail with bond set at $750,000. However, he is scheduled next week for a bond reduction hearing.
Reiding was 18 years old when she was found dead in her apartment in south Austin on Jan. 22, 1979.
Reiding and her husband, Robert, were newlyweds originally from Montana. Robert found his wife’s body in their bed when he came home from work. Investigators found evidence she’d been sexually assaulted and strangled.
Looking through the original case files, Detective Jeff Gabler realized Galvan, who was always a person of interest in the case, was never ruled out as a possible suspect. He was 25 years old at the time of the crime.
Detectives say they remain committed to solving these crimes – even decades later.
“We work for the families and for the person that can’t speak for themselves,” said Faithful. “We really want to help them with closure.”