All That Remains
Roxanne Paltauf vanished three years ago, leaving her family with only memories and investigators with few clues
In the shadows of the hallway outside the bedroom door, the air feels thick and gloomy; it's hard to see what lies ahead or behind, or any details of the surroundings. At the far end of the hall, the front door suddenly opens, and there is Roxanne, wearing her yellow shirt, her hair brushed smooth and falling over her shoulders. She walks into the house – bright and light and so very real. Your eyes widen, and you walk toward her. You can smell the powdery scent of her Love's Baby Soft perfume. You are full of questions: "Where have you been? What happened to you?" She smiles nonchalantly and quickly brushes aside your inquiries. "I'm fine," she says, "don't worry about me. The real question is," she says, "how are you?"
And then you wake up.
If you are Elizabeth Harris, or one of her four children, this is the kind of dream that consumes your sleep. When you wake, you know at least one thing is real: Roxanne Paltauf – your first born, your big sister – is gone. She's been gone for nearly three years now, vanished in the dusk of a July evening outside the Budget Inn near Rundberg Lane and I-35. There are leads to finding her – some very good ones, in fact – but as yet there are no answers. There is little hope that she will be found alive. Indeed, for Roxanne's siblings and her mother, the reality that haunts waking life is that Roxanne is likely dead. Murdered. And what now remains are only questions: What happened, where is she, and will her family ever be able to bring her home?
'Have You Seen Roxanne?'
The last time Elizabeth Harris saw her daughter was just before July 4, 2006, when Roxanne dropped by her mother's Cherrywood neighborhood home to pick up a few personal items. She had been staying for the previous few days with her boyfriend, then-30-year-old Louis Walls, at different motels off the interstate near Rundberg Lane. She and Walls, with whom Roxanne had been romantically involved for nearly two years, had made a habit of spending time together at one of the motels along that stretch of southbound I-35. Mostly it was out of necessity: Roxanne's mother did not like Walls, and for whatever reason, Walls' mother, with whom he lives with his two young children, didn't particularly care for Roxanne. If the two wanted to spend any time together, they had to find somewhere away from home to do so.
Truthfully, Harris didn't like the idea that her daughter would spend any time with this man – and at 18, Roxanne was still just a girl, Harris says – let alone in a motel near Rundberg Lane, an area known as a crime hot spot. But what could she do? Roxanne was legally an adult, and she was going to do what she wanted. Walls is "a hustler. He's a player. I think he's a burden to society, to tell you the truth. ... Before Roxanne went missing, I told her that," Harris recalled recently. "I said, 'This guy is no good.' [But] the more you pull her away, the closer she gets to him. It was just one of those things. She was a young girl – she is young."
Indeed, Walls isn't exactly a saint. According to court records, he's been in and out of trouble since 1995 – for robbery, selling fake crack, and more recently, for threatening his current girlfriend (who, like Roxanne, is also significantly younger) and for violating a protective order she has against him. Harris said Walls boasted of being a member of the Bloods street gang, but she thinks his involvement is likely marginal, that he only fancies himself a player. Nonetheless, Walls' behavior toward her daughter made her nervous, and she made it clear to Roxanne that she didn't want him around the house. (Walls did not respond to phone messages requesting an interview for this story.)
Despite how Harris felt about Walls, Roxanne and her mother were close. "She [told me], 'We talk two or three times a day,'" said Tim Young, a private investigator who has worked pro bono on Roxanne's case. "Mothers say that all the time, so I didn't necessarily believe it" – not at first. "But [Roxanne's] phone records showed that was true." Everyone connected to Roxanne's disappearance – friends, family, and Austin Police investigators – agrees Roxanne and her mother had a special relationship. In fact, their close bond made Roxanne's disappearance – and Walls' account of what happened – all the more disturbing. "Wild horses couldn't have kept that girl away from this house," says Harris' longtime boyfriend Patrick Doyle.
According to phone records, Harris last spoke with Roxanne on the afternoon of July 7, 2006. "The day she came up missing ... I asked her to come home," Harris recalls. The family planned a shopping trip to San Marcos the next day, and Harris wanted Roxanne to join them. Harris wasn't "jealous of her time with Louis," but Roxanne had been with him for nearly a week, and her mother thought that was enough. "She said: 'I'll be home mom. I'll be there; we'll go shopping.'" Roxanne never showed up, "so we went ahead and went without her." By the time the family got home, Roxanne still had not returned to the house – Harris was puzzled by her absence but not yet worried. That changed several hours later when Harris received a call from Walls. "He goes: 'Have you seen Roxanne? Have you heard from Roxanne?' I said: 'Well, what do you mean? She was with you.'"
Walls said he hadn't seen Roxanne since roughly 8:30pm the previous evening, when the couple got into an argument "about the past," Harris said Walls told her, and Roxanne stormed out of their motel room. Walls told Harris that he went out after her but that she told him to leave her alone and continued walking, along the service road toward Rundberg, making a left onto Middle Lane. Walls told Harris that he went back to their room to "cool off" and that 20 minutes later he went back out to look for Roxanne. He couldn't find her. She had simply disappeared, he told Harris. "Four hours after I talked to my daughter she came up missing," Harris says.
Harris called police to report the disappearance and, at her urging, so did Walls – although he'd already checked out of the Budget Inn and returned to his sister's apartment at the Walnut Creek complex. But because he'd cleared out, taking Roxanne's belongings with him, neither Harris nor the police were able to search her belongings, as they were when she left the room, for clues to her whereabouts.
More disturbing was Walls' behavior in the hours and days after Roxanne disappeared: According to Harris, he was not at all interested in helping her search for Roxanne. He kept her cell phone for nearly a week after she went missing and used it to make some 300 phone calls, beginning with a breakneck pace of dialing all over town: to the main number for a series of motels strung along the Rundberg/I-35 corridor, to local singles "chat" lines, to a strip club, to various friends and ex-girlfriends – one call after another, literally, for hours and hours on end – before finally returning it to Harris. He also kept her purse and other personal effects – including clothing that has never been returned. Indeed, when Harris finally got Walls to meet her to return Roxanne's property, she said he provided her with a bag of clothing belonging to some other female – clothes that were way too large for Roxanne, whom some friends lovingly referred to as "the pencil," and that were not at all her style. Although Walls maintained – and continues to maintain to police – his initial account of the circumstances surrounding Roxanne's disappearance, his behavior was quickly making Harris very wary. Even the initial conversation she had with Walls the night after Roxanne supposedly took off started to take on a different tone as she replayed it in her mind. "It was the way he asked about Roxanne, he didn't ask, 'Can I speak to Roxanne?' He said, 'Have you seen Roxanne?'" she recalled recently. Walls was perfectly aware of his girlfriend's close relationship to her mother, and it would seem logical, Harris thinks, that he would assume she'd left him and gone home. "To me, he was saying he already knows that something happened to her."
An Insane Situation
Harris' suspicions were not without basis. The two-year relationship between Roxanne and Walls had been volatile. "I never approved of Louis from the beginning," says Rachel Gonzales, who had been friends with Roxanne since the two met as students at Kealing Junior High. The relationship didn't exactly start on a positive note: According to friends and family, Walls lied about his age to Roxanne, telling the 16-year-old that he was just 19, when in truth, in the summer of 2004 when they met, he was already 28. It wasn't until well over a year into their on-again-off-again affair that she finally learned he was actually closer to 30. The deception felt purposeful and manipulative, say Roxanne's friends and family. The relationship was also abusive – starting "at the beginning," says Gonzales. "He would cheat on her every once in a while and push her around." Gonzales said she tried to tell Roxanne that she should end it, but Roxanne defended Walls. "It got to a point that we were being separated, that she was telling me less and less [about] things that were going on."
According to another friend, Elizabeth Ellis, Roxanne was simply too trusting and too generous. Roxanne stayed with Walls in part, she believes, to help take care of his two young children to whom she had grown attached. She would buy them presents at the dollar store – dinosaur toys for his son, for example, and pretty accessories for his daughter's hair. She'd go to the apartment Walls shared with his mother and babysit for the kids by herself when Walls wanted to go out, sometimes overnight. "She had a big heart and was a nurturer," Ellis says. Ellis says that she and Harris tried to convince Roxanne that she was being used. "She really didn't know how to pick 'em," Ellis recalled recently. "Roxanne was always trying to [get Walls to] get himself a job, to be a man. And that's something that her mom and I would always tell her: 'You can't tell a man to be a man; he needs to just be one.'" But Roxanne would always stick up for him – and, perhaps, lie for him.
That's what seems to have happened in 2005, when Harris found Roxanne sitting alone at a bus stop, her face bruised and puffy. Her nose was not just broken but internally detached, requiring serious surgery. Roxanne told Harris that the injury had been an accident: She and Walls had been down on Sixth Street when a group of guys began to catcall her, saying she should leave Walls and go off with them. Before she knew it, Walls was fighting the whole group – Roxanne tried to break up the fight and instead got popped in the face. Walls had gone off to have a doctor at Brackenridge Hospital look at his hand.
That was the story Roxanne initially told Gonzales too, and Gonzales didn't believe a word of it. "She stuck to it, but I knew it wasn't the truth. He was pushing her, slapping her," she says. "I honestly believe he did that to her." Ellis says that Roxanne ultimately admitted to her that Walls was responsible for the damage to her face but shrugged it off. "It was just an insane situation," Ellis says.
Time to Go
In the months leading up to Roxanne's disappearance, it seemed to her friends and family that she was finally pulling away from Walls. Although she'd dropped out of McCallum High School as a junior, she had found her way to the Goodwill job training and GED program and was thriving there, said her case worker, Sandra McDowell, and her teacher Jane Comer. "She wanted to grow, to become more, to get a good education and ... a good job," says McDowell. "She had friends who did not have those credentials and wants in life, [but] that was her ambition." Roxanne was "very artistic," Comer says, and she was excited to land an unpaid mentorship spot with Charlotte's Fiesta Flowers on Lamar Boulevard, near the cluster of hospitals and medical facilities off 38th Street. "Everyone loved working with her," says flower-shop owner Charlotte Wainscott. "She was just such a sweet and nice person." She did so well in her mentorship that after it ended Wainscott hired her on. "She learned and caught on quickly. She was one of those people that really loved flowers." Indeed, says McDowell, Roxanne thought that one day she might be able to have her own flower shop.
Roxanne was also making progress in her school work, says Comer, and by early 2006 had passed all but one of the tests needed to receive her GED – only math was standing in her way. But like many young adults who fail to secure a GED on the first try, Roxanne began to drift from the program; she didn't come around as often and put off further study. But she kept working and eventually took a second job, working for the Census Bureau.
Not long after that Walls began to reappear, says Ellis. According to phone records, in the month before Roxanne disappeared, Walls was calling her constantly. Roxanne would tell Walls what neighborhood she was working in that day doing Census business, and then "she'd run into him at a park on that side of town," Ellis recalls. "He'd just randomly show up places where she would say she was going to be. He was way weird." Less than two weeks before she disappeared, however, it seemed to Comer that Roxanne had made up her mind: She wanted to get back to school and get on with her life. "I think the job made her think, 'I need to get my GED and do something else,' so that's when she decided ... that 'I'm going to go back and do this.'"
Yet Roxanne had also apparently reconciled with Walls – at least enough to go with him at the end of June to spend a week together, ending up at the Budget Inn just south of Rundberg. Harris, Ellis, and Gonzales now insist they believe Roxanne was truly and finally done with the relationship. Ellis called her the last weekend in June and caught Roxanne crying. Was there trouble with Walls, she asked? "And she was like, 'I can't talk about it now.'" Ellis told Roxanne to get dressed, and she would pick her up; Roxanne agreed.
Ready to go, Ellis called back, but Roxanne never answered. Gonzales says she had a similarly cryptic conversation on July 4, 2006. "She told me that they were arguing," she recalls. "She was trying to leave him alone, but he wasn't letting her. I said, 'Just leave; don't talk to him anymore.' But you can only tell a person so much."
Harris and Patrick Doyle now wonder if Roxanne had decided to break things off with Walls for good – and if, perhaps, that's what kicked off the argument they had on the evening of July 7, 2006. "I think that argument he said they had, I think it finally clicked for her ...," says Harris.
"That it was time to go," finishes Doyle.
"Time to go," agrees Harris. "I've got nothing else to go on."
Walls has never wavered from his version of events – that he and Roxanne argued and she walked out, alone, and disappeared completely within 20 minutes. But in the years since, police investigators have developed a more complete picture of Louis Walls, and it's not impressive. "Louis, among his peers, is an idiot," says 15-year APD veteran Detective James Scott, one of two investigators assigned to the department's missing persons detail. "I mean ... you can look at his criminal record and tell he's not the smartest criminal out there." Indeed. In March 2005, for example, he was popped for agreeing to sell three rocks of crack for $50 to an undercover APD officer. The cop had spotted him walking along Rundberg, and gave him a ride to the Ramada Limited just off the highway. Walls fetched the rocks and was promptly arrested. After testing, it turned out that the crack was fake. (Walls was handed a 120-day jail sentence.)
Walls has also exposed a far darker side, and particularly a history of trouble with young women – trouble that started before he met Roxanne, says Harris, who made contact with an ex-girlfriend Walls called numerous times in the hours after Roxanne disappeared. The girl told Harris that she had taken out a protective order to keep Walls away. More cryptically, Harris says the young woman told her that when Walls called her he told her that he was "in trouble" but did not elaborate. (The ex-girlfriend, who lives out of state, did not return a call from the Chronicle.)
Since Roxanne disappeared, Walls has apparently not changed his ways. In March 2008, he was charged with making a terroristic threat against his current girlfriend, Cassandra Tolbert. According to court records, she told police she'd met Walls to make arrangements for him to see the son he'd conceived with her but that he wanted instead to talk about her getting "back with him." When she said no, Tolbert recalled, he whispered in her ear, "I don't want to kill you like I did that girl Roxanne," and, "I really did kill her; I know how to do something with bodies." (He pleaded no contest to the charge, was found guilty, and sentenced to 140 days in jail.)
More disturbing, says Harris, is that Tolbert told her that Walls had tried to pimp her out. Could it be, Harris wonders, that Walls tried the same thing with Roxanne? That is a possibility, says Scott. "I don't think she was straight-out tricking for him," he says, but he could have been trying to groom her for that role. Ultimately, Scott says, he thinks Roxanne did not see the writing on the wall: "She was naive; she was in over her head and didn't know it. Of course, in missing persons there are a lot of young ladies who feel like they're part of the 'in' clique – they're with a gang leader, or whoever, and they don't realize who they're with."
Working missing persons is a daunt-ing task. APD's two-man missing persons investigation team works roughly 4,000 cases each year – including runaways (the bulk of the cases), disappearances, and abductions. In the first five months of 2009, the unit already had 1,681 cases in its queue. And working these cases is a distinctly different proposition than working, say, a robbery or homicide. There, says Scott's partner, Detective David Gann, you've got a distinct crime scene, and the question becomes: Where did the perp go from there? In missing persons, the first order of business is to determine whether a crime even happened (see "Missing in Austin").
In the case of Roxanne Paltauf, there wasn't necessarily anything at first to suggest she'd done anything else than just walk off. "The case came [to us] as, they got into an argument, and she walked off – with just that information," Gann says. "Well, you can imagine, working missing cases in a city with a population the size we have, that's a pretty common occurrence. Boyfriends and girlfriends get into arguments, and one of them walks off. They don't come home that night, [and the] very next morning their significant other reports them missing." Often the question of how to proceed in such cases turns on a consistency of behavior – for example, has the person walked off before? According to Walls, Roxanne had done just that.
At first, police had no reason to suspect that Walls – the one who initially reported the disappearance – wasn't being honest. "It's really hard in this profession to pick and choose which cases have nuances that make you say, 'There's something to this; we need to immediately grasp what happened,'" says Scott. "And in that sense, I guess everything that could go wrong [with Roxanne's case] did go wrong." Not that police didn't, as Scott puts it, "use due diligence." Roxanne's name was immediately put into a be-on-the-lookout alert for all patrol officers, and vital information was fed into the state and national crime computers. But it wasn't until later that police had enough information to suggest that there might be far more involved in Roxanne's disappearance than just an unremarkable lovers' spat.
For example, there was the purse: Roxanne's pink purse that she supposedly left, with her cell phone, her wallet, and her jewelry, inside the hotel room. Roxanne never went anywhere without her purse. Never. On that point friends and family completely agree. Ellis says she would actually get into arguments with Roxanne about her always needing to carry her purse everywhere they went. Gonzales agrees: "Anywhere she goes, she's got that purse on her shoulder." When Harris told Gonzales it had been left behind, "I knew immediately that something was wrong." The fact that her jewelry was also left behind, inside her wallet, let Ellis know something was not right. Roxanne never went without her rings: "No. ... Even when we went swimming, that girl wore accessories." If Roxanne was going to storm out of the room – even to cool off – she would have taken her purse and certainly would have taken her cell phone. Harris is adamant about that – and she would have called home, say those who knew Roxanne well. "That made me very nervous, the fact that her mother never heard from her," says Comer, Roxanne's teacher. "I couldn't see her being strung out, or whatever, so bad that she wasn't going to call her mother."
Everyone insists that Roxanne talked to her mother two, three times, or more, each day. On the evening of July 7, 2006, those calls ceased. "The one thing that struck me, the day she disappeared, the calls stopped," said private investigator Tim Young. To him, that clearly means that whatever happened, Roxanne did not simply disappear of her own volition. "At that point in the investigation, it seemed clear that she was not with us anymore. There was absolutely no trace of Roxanne."
There was, however, one additional clue that appeared just six days after she went missing. A security guard named Bryan Parker noticed Roxanne's Texas identification card tucked into the wallet of another man who was accused of assaulting a woman at the Motel 6 just up the street from the Budget Inn. According to the police report of that July 13, 2006, incident, a man named Geoffrey Moore, now 33, picked up a Perfect 10 Men's Club dancer and her husband, outside the Chevron station at Rundberg and I-35. Moore asked, "How much for her?" She replied that she was not a prostitute but would do a private dance for him at the motel. The three went to the motel, and Moore and the woman entered the room. He locked the door, however, before the husband could get inside.
The woman alleged that Moore attacked her and tried to rape her. The husband heard his girlfriend shouting, got Parker and a passkey, and the two men tried to get into the room. When they finally got the door open, the husband attacked Moore, who fled, leaving behind his wallet and his hearing aid. When Parker picked up the wallet, he found Roxanne's ID. Moore later came back to the scene, to retrieve his things, and was arrested by police. He was never charged – in part, it seems, because the chain of events that led to his alleged attack of the woman aren't entirely clear. Moore, for example, told police that he tried to get intimate with the woman but she refused. He then went into the bathroom and came back out to find her rifling through his pockets, trying to steal from him. Could it have been that the woman and man lured Moore and then tried to roll him? Or was it an unprovoked sexual assault? Ultimately, the Travis Co. District Attorney's Office declined to pursue sexual assault charges against Moore, and the case was closed. (Moore could not be reached for comment.)
But the incident did provide Harris and police with yet another lead. How had Moore gotten Roxanne's license? To date, that is not entirely clear – even though detectives have spoken with Moore about Roxanne's disappearance. But police say they're certain that neither Walls nor Moore have told everything they know about Roxanne. Walls' attitude is especially frustrating. "People don't realize that although I feel that he could be more forthcoming," says Scott, "I don't have any legal rights to force him to do anything. And until I get the kind of forensic evidence that would allow me to go to a grand jury, to force him to answer questions, I can't. I mean, it's not like in the movies, where you can just go to somebody and say, 'Well, we're taking you downtown.' Because if they don't want to ... all we can say is, 'Well, that's a real bummer.' We can't just throw you in a car."
More importantly, says Scott, Walls "just doesn't care that he's a suspect. [H]e's no stranger to bad-acting, so it's not a huge burden for him."
Ultimately, though, Scott says he will find the truth, from Moore or Walls (or whoever else), to solve the mystery of Roxanne's disappearance. "Basically, I've got two violent offenders. Both of them are lying to me," says Scott. "[T]hey're both hiding criminal activity. But I think one of them is hiding a murder."
Waiting for Answers
The questions continue to haunt Harris. Where is Roxanne? What happened to her? As the years have passed, the questions have become more detailed and more disturbing: Did Walls try to roll Moore? Could he have used Roxanne as bait to do just that? Did Moore, who had been popped before for carrying a butcher knife in his car while trolling for hookers along Middle Lane, happen upon Roxanne and try to solicit her? Or maybe, did he recognize her as Walls' girlfriend, from a previous encounter?
The questions, the possibilities, feel endless. Harris and Doyle have staked out motels near Rundberg, they've walked the streets handing out fliers asking people to "Please Help" Harris find her daughter, they've posted alerts and questions on the Web, gotten Roxanne's story featured on America's Most Wanted, and in turn they've been approached by psychics. So far they've made little progress. Harris still holds great hope that the right person, with the right tip, will finally have the courage to tell the truth. "My biggest thing is, is Roxanne out there? Is she alone? Is she scared? Is she crying out for help and I just can't hear my daughter?" she asks. "I need my closure. I need to find my daughter one way or another."
Anyone with information about the disappearance of Roxanne Paltauf can call an anonymous tip line at 800/670-6760 or APD's missing persons unit at 974-5250.