60-year-old Stephen Pearson was last seen by his daughter Julie on December 23rd, 2000.
“My dad was a good man, he really was,” says Julie Pearson, recalling her father.
Stephen Pearson worked as an engineer at Ingall’s Shipyard in Pascagoula and was well loved by his friends and neighbors in rural south Mobile County. So his disappearance was startling.
Ten days after he was last seen, Pearson’s car was found in some dense woods near his home in Grand Bay. A massive search using helicopters, dogs, and searchers on foot failed to come up with Pearson or his body. Detectives later determined the car had been planted there.
Neighbors who knew him say they know Pearson met with foul play
“He just didn’t have no enemies,” said Bernice Hayes. “He didn’t seem like the type who would run off at all. And he wouldn’t hurt anybody. He’d let you hurt him before he’d hurt you.”
Investigators quickly honed in on a misdirected package Pearson brought to a neighbor just before Christmas. A delivery driver couldn’t find the correct address. So, Pearson signed for the package and later brought it to his neighbor. It turned out that package wasn’t meant for his neighbor, and what was inside had a lot of value.
“It was between 10 and 15 pounds of marijuana in it,” said Capt. Paul Burch, the lead investigator on the case and now a top ranking official in the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office.
Burch says Pearson’s neighbors kept the drugs, and sold some. When Pearson found out, he immediately went to the postal authorities.
“He said ‘look I reported this. You need to return it. Law Enforcement is involved,’” recounted Burch. “Well, the next day, after that report, Stephen Pearson vanished off the face of the earth.”
Burch says those neighbors, a father and son, were then, and are now, the only suspects.
“It was very rural, densely wooded area and it would be easy, if you knew where to take someone, to bury a body and it would never be found,” he said.
But there is no body, and there are no credible witnesses, and so there has been no arrest
“It haunts me because I know who’s responsible but we don’t have enough yet,” lamented Burch. “And I emphasize ‘yet.’ Because to the day I retire I won’t stop looking into this case.”
The younger of suspects took a polygraph in 2009 about Pearson’s disappearance. His test was “inconclusive.” The elder suspect, Burch says, has never cooperated. And Stephen Pearson’s daughter Julie, who now lives out of the state, has lost hope that anyone one will ever be arrested.
“I know Grand Bay is still small, and I know people are afraid to come forward for their well being,” she said. “So I don’t know if I’ll ever get closure.”