It was a chilly December evening and Janet Wardrip was nearing the end of her long drive home. For Janet, “home” meant the family-owned and operated Bethany Motel founded by her father and currently managed by herself and her younger sister, Judy. Judy had been running things all day while Janet attended a photography class in Kansas City, almost 90 miles south and west of Bethany. Janet and Judy were the only regular motel employees, and Janet planned to relieve Judy for the night as soon as she returned. When she reached the motel around 10:00 pm, she saw that Judy’s car was in the parking lot. However, as soon as Janet went inside, it became obvious that something was wrong. There was no sign of Judy or her dog, a female Lhasa Apsu named Moppet. Neither of the women left the motel for any length of time when working except to pick up food, and Janet knew that Judy’s car was still there. In one of the motel’s unoccupied rooms were Judy’s purse and keys. The television was on, the bed was unmade and there was a cold cup of coffee sitting on one of the surfaces. It appeared as if Judy had been in the process of cleaning that room and just vanished into thin air.
Judy Tolane Wardrip was born on November 13th, 1955. Not much is recorded about her early life, but it is known that she completed community college after finishing high school, then went to help her sister manage their father’s motel. She is described as someone who liked animals and enjoyed riding her motorcycle. She usually went by her middle name, “Tolane”, but for clarity’s sake I will be referring to her as Judy in this article. She had light-colored hair, wore prescription eyeglasses, and spoke with a lisp. At the time of her disappearance, she had just turned twenty-nine years old. It’s not clear from any of the sources I have discovered if she lived on site at the motel or if she commuted there from someplace else, but it’s unlikely to be relevant to the case.
Despite Judy’s absence, nothing else in the Bethany Motel seemed unusual. There was no money missing, and a gun that the two women kept for protection was still in the place it was usually stored. Although Janet was immediately alarmed, I have not seen any source state exactly when the police were contacted or when the official search for her began. Once it did, investigators checked the motel freezers, searched a nearby lake, and questioned several of the guests staying at the motel that day. Judy had checked in guests around noon on December 10th, placing her time of disappearance between 12:00 and 10:00 pm on that day. One concern that was raised was connected to the death of Judy and Janet’s mother two years prior, who had suffered from depression and taken her own life. However, Judy’s remaining family had never seen any signs of depression in Judy herself. She had been getting Christmas presents for family members and had just returned from a visit with her retired father in Texas the day before her disappearance. I plan on discussing this fact later on, as I’m curious as to if the timing was a complete coincidence, but I want to get through some more introductory material first.
Another lead was Judy’s boyfriend, Irving Pavlek, a divorced welder living in Texas. He was some years older than Judy, and some sources have stated that her father did not approve of the relationship, although none specify why. Also unknown is how far from Bethany Pavlek actually lived, and how he and Judy usually went about meeting given the geographic distance between them. According to Janet, she spoke on the phone with Pavlek right after the disappearance, but he quickly drifted apart from Judy’s family (understandable, given he likely knew Judy’s father wasn’t his biggest fan). Most important to the case, however, is that Pavlek is reported to have had a solid alibi for the afternoon of December 10th, although I have not been able to find out what this alibi was. One source made a brief mention that, at the time of her disappearance, Judy was involved in a lawsuit involving a traffic accident in Kansas City. There do not seem to be a ton of details available about this incident, other then that Janet was stuck handling the costs of the lawsuit due to Judy’s absence.
Material covering this case is sparse, and because of this, I’m even more hesitant than usual to draw strong conclusions. However, there are enough things that stood out to me to merit discussion. First and likely least relevant: the motel was apparently small, but I still have a hard time believing that it could be reasonably managed by Janet and Judy alone. I don’t pretend to understand all the intricacies of motel management, and maybe it was a simpler operation in the 1980s, but that still seems to leave a lot of cleaning, bookkeeping, reservation scheduling, desk manning, telephone answering, and state health code complying for two people. The only reason this is even slightly pertinent to Judy’s disappearance is that I wonder if anyone else ever worked at the motel in an occasional capacity, or if Judy and the hotel guests really were the only people known to be there that day. I’ll continue with the assumption that this was in fact the case, but I did want to touch on that for a moment.
One of the many, many things that are unclear in this case is to what extent people staying at the motel were ever investigated. Police evidently questioned some of them and learned that they had not seen or heard anything unusual, but were any of them ever scrutinized under the suspicion that they might have been involved with what happened to Judy? She disappeared in a ten hour window, plenty of time for a hotel guest to lure or force Judy into a vehicle, take her somewhere, and return without being noticed.
The Bethany Motel no longer seems to exist, or else it exists under a different name. Given that thirty-seven years have passed it’s difficult to get an idea about what the landscape looked like around the motel at the time of Judy’s disappearance. Contemporary photographs show a one story building facing a parking lot, but few other details. The reason I bring up the lack of geographic information is because it makes it difficult to assess the possibility that Judy fell victim to some kind of accident outside the motel. I checked the Farmer’s Almanac for the day, and it lists the high as 55 degrees Fahrenheit ( a little less then 13 degrees Celsius)–solid jacket weather. It would not have been out of the question for Judy to take her dog outside for a quick walk. If the Bethany Motel was bordered by several other commercial properties–as seems to be the case with the central section of present day Bethany–it’s rather unlikely that she simply left the motel for a short period of time to walk her dog and then became injured in such a way that her body was never located. However, if there was considerable unoccupied space around the motel, this becomes a genuine possibility, especially if there was a source of running water nearby. Since I am working with very limited information about the terrain–as well as the extent of any searches for Judy–I am going to be looking at her case primarily through the lens of foul play. Still, I do want to stress that this by no means rules out the possibility of some kind of accident.
I am also completely aware that Judy could have committed suicide, despite not having any obvious signs of depression. She may have been facing financial problems as a result of the vaguely-described lawsuit stemming from the traffic accident. It’s even possible to read her trip to visit her father as a chance to say goodbye to him if we’re looking at the case from that angle. However, if Judy left the motel of her own accord with the intention of taking her life, she would either have been on foot or gotten a ride from someone else–someone who has remained silent about it for the almost forty years. We also have to contend with the fact that she took her dog with her, when she could have easily left the animal behind for her sister to take care of. We’re left with essentially the same problem we have when considering the possibility of an accident. There is nothing that rules it out, but also nothing that strongly points in that direction, and then there’s the fact that her remains have never been found.
There are few details that nag at me, although it’s just as likely that they don’t indicate anything in particular. The first is that Judy’s purse and keys were also found in the room that she had evidently been cleaning. Maybe this was part of her normal routine–maybe she did not like to store her things by the front desk and always took them with her during her other duties around the motel. However, it’s also possible she had them with her because she was planning on leaving the motel and going somewhere else. If true, it raises the possibility that she was going somewhere with someone. Maybe she and an unknown person had plans to go out to get something to eat, and as they were getting ready to leave, the other person said something to the effect of, “Oh, I’ll drive and treat.” Pure and unbridled speculation on my part, as much of this article will be, but without the freedom to speculate, we wouldn’t be left with a great deal to discuss and Judy’s case would get even less attention.
I also can’t help but wonder if there is any significance to the fact that Judy disappeared the day immediately following her return from Texas, where she had gone to visit her father. Presumably, if Judy was gone, Janet was the one manning the hotel during this time period. Is it possible that someone came to the motel and did not expect her to be there–someone who in fact expected to find her sister there instead? If that’s the case, it may not be the people in Judy’s life that need scrutiny, but those close to Janet. If whatever happened to Judy was originally meant for her sister, the individual responsible evidently did not pursue the matter further, possibly because they did not want to risk detection again by attacking Janet.
I want to briefly discuss Judy’s boyfriend, Irving Pavlek, who may seem somewhat under-discussed until this point. Without any further detail, I am going to have to take his “solid alibi” at face value. This is not to say that he couldn’t have been involved in some kind of indirect capacity–for instance, hiring someone else to abduct and murder Judy. After all, he likely would have known when she was returning from visiting with her father and could have planned accordingly, knowing full well that nothing could be readily traced to him. What is missing is any known motive. Based on what little is known about him, Pavlek would have no reason for going to such lengths to get rid of a girlfriend who already lived in another state. This doesn’t mean there could not have been one, obviously, but there’s still no actual evidence.
At this point, I want to return to a discussion about the geography of Bethany, and how it might relate to Judy’s disappearance. In 1984, the highway I-35 had not yet been built, and Highway 69 was the primary roadway connecting Bethany with points north and south. South would take a motorist to Kansas City, and north would take them towards Des Moines, Iowa. Anyone who managed to get Judy into a car with them would have been able get on the highway and quickly take her towards any point between or beyond those locations. In light of this, the possible search radius for Judy is very large indeed.
It’s impossible to tell what might help to advance this case, but it could be the smallest thing. While researching it, I came across a reddit thread in which someone mentioned that a family member living in the area adopted a dog meeting Poppet’s description around the same time that Judy would have gone missing. Whether or not this was actually Judy’s dog and if it had anything to do with her disappearance or not, it’s the exact kind of thing that I think people should feel free to mention. A stray Lhasa Apsu. A discarded pair of eyeglasses. Suspicious activity from a neighbor.
Shana Gammon, a writer who has researched the case extensively and guest wrote a blog post about it on True Crime Files, thinks someone might have had a crush on Judy or been stalking her. This person might then have been able to lure her out to the parking lot without resistance. This type of situation is entirely feasible to me, although I don’t have a strong opinion on what sort of relationship existed between Judy and her abductor or what their motive might have been for harming her. I do think Judy likely left with someone she either knew or had no reason to be suspicious of, given the lack of indication of any kind of struggle. This person may have been specifically seeking her out, or they may have been looking for someone else and encountered her in the room she was cleaning. At this point, they got her to come with them in their own vehicle and took Judy somewhere more remote, either via Highway 69 or one of the back roads going through Bethany. Any murder or assault would have taken place at some secondary location, and her body either disposed of there or at a tertiary location.
I really wish there was more I could say about this one, but I’ve tried to do the best I can with what’s available. I have included contact information for the relevant law enforcement agencies below.
Harrison County Sheriff’s Office: 660-425-3199
Missouri State Highway Patrol Missing Persons Unit: 1-800-877-3452