Uncommon bonds: Families of missing persons unite to find answers

Danya Hooker

Stephanie McNeil and Susan Olsen have a bond no one would want to share.

Both are searching for missing loved ones. Both are adamant about finding closure.

And both are frustrated over the lack of media attention given to the men missing from their lives.

McNeil’s brother, St. Charles resident and West Chicago business owner John Spira, has been missing since Feb. 23. Olsen’s son, Bradley, was last seen at a bar in DeKalb Jan. 20.

“(The lack of exposure) is incredibly frustrating and I think the simple reason for that is because he’s a man,” McNeil said. “For some reason, (stories of) missing men don’t get picked up by the media.”

Finding Support in Each Other

“It shouldn’t matter whether it’s a woman that’s missing — an attractive young white woman — or an African-American woman, or a man that’s missing,” Stebic’s cousin Melanie Greenberg said. “Everyone should have equal attention.”

The families gathered at Brian’s Charhouse in West Chicago on Saturday, hoping to organize a ground search for Spira. Although a layer of snow prevented the search, volunteers distributed hundreds of fliers and the families found comfort in each other’s shared understanding of unimaginable grief.

Listen to Lisa Stebic's cousins, Melanie Greenberg and Don Zimmerman, discuss their decision to join other families in their searches for missing loved ones.

“Unless you’ve been through it you can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like. You can’t say goodbye, you can’t grieve, you’re in limbo,” McNeil said. “These people know and so we kind of have a bond. We can talk about how it’s affecting us and our families and not feel uncomfortable about it. We all understand where each of us is coming from.”

Within a couple hours of the gathering, local and national media descended upon the restaurant, one of Spira’s favorite hangouts. Family members of Peterson and Stebic offered to participate in a joint press conference Monday, knowing their presence would help draw exposure to the Spira and Olsen cases.

“You might as well take advantage of (the exposure) and spread the word," Peterson’s step-sister, Kerry Simmons, said. "She’s not the only one missing.”

They were right. The press conference outside of Peterson’s home drew media from around the Chicago area and, for the first time, Olsen and McNeil saw the spotlight on their missing loved ones.

“I’m just holding my breath,” Olsen said. “This is the most coverage I’ve ever had for Brad and along with John Spira or Scott Arcaro. This is like a Christmas present for me.”

Looking for Answers

John Spira, 45, was last seen at about 7 p.m. Feb. 23 at Universal Cable Construction, near West Chicago. Around that time, Spira placed a call to a friend confirming their 8:30 p.m. dinner in Oak Brook, according to McNeil. 

He never made it to the dinner. Nor did he make it to a Saturday night gig with his blues band, the Rabble Rousers. Spira’s brother, Tom, said the lead guitarist hadn’t missed a gig in 25 years.

Spira’s cell phone continued to “ping” off of two cell phone towers until about 11 p.m., McNeil said. His vehicle remained in the company’s parking lot.

Lt. Daniel Bilodeau, with the DuPage County Sheriff’s office, said the disappearance is still under investigation. With no evidence of foul play at Spira’s home or business, the investigation is still being treated as missing person’s case and not a homicide.

But McNeil knows her brother, a well-known blues musician, and an aviation and racing enthusiast, would not just leave.

“He’s a very gregarious, outgoing, friendly person,” McNeil said. “I don’t know anybody who didn’t like him.”

The Sheriff’s Department is also investigating the mysterious fire that destroyed Spira’s business in September. Within days of the fire, someone also dismantled and completely removed a large missing person billboard friends and family had hung up across the street from the business. A replacement sign was removed shortly after.

Although McNeil is in constant contact with investigators, she said she’s frustrated over the lack of answers. She’s teamed up with Texas Equusearch and Aerial Image Inc., two search companies who have also assisted in the Peterson case, to try to find answers on her own. She said she would like to organize other search efforts or gatherings on Jan. 20 and Feb. 23, the dates that will mark the one-year anniversaries of Olsen and Spira’s disappearances.

“I wish I could stop so badly and get on with my life. I’m consumed with this every waking moment, all I want to do is find John,” McNeil said. “I need to know what happened to him, did he suffer, how did it happen, why did it happen. Until that happens, how can I move on? I need to do this.”

For McNeil, the hardest day was Sept. 24, her brother’s 46th birthday. She’ll soon turn 45.

“We always used to joke about it, because we’re so close in age,” McNeil said. “’You’re catching up, you’re gonna pass me,’ he’d say. And now I am.”

A Mother’s Search

Susan Olsen knew something was wrong the minute she and her husband returned home from Mexico Jan. 24 and saw their son’s car keys sitting on the table. 

“We started calling his friends but no one had heard from him,” she said.

Olsen’s friends had picked him up at the Maple Park home he shared with his parents on Jan. 19 for a night on the town. His friends left Bar One in DeKalb while Olsen stayed behind. At closing time, he called a friend for a ride home. The friend said he couldn’t pick him up, and that was the last anyone has heard from him.

The last anyone remembers seeing him was about 2 a.m. Jan. 20, when he was trying to find a ride home. Olsen said investigators have found little information about what happened to her son.

“He was always smiling, and his daughter is just the same now,” Olsen said. “He lived every day to the fullest.”

Olsen said the hardest time came when her granddaughter was about to celebrate her seventh birthday and told her “Daddy better be home in time for my birthday.” She said her granddaughter understands that her dad is missing, but the family hasn’t found a way to explain to her that he will likely never be home again.

“She waves to his (missing person) billboard and says ‘Hi Daddy,’ Olsen said. “It’s heart-wrenching.”

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