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Photo by Rory McNamara

Freedom's Burden: Jasmine Belenger works through her grief by making artworks of her dead son's effects.

Nothing Left to Lose

Her dead son's body found, this mother worries about his soul

By R.V. Scheide

Bobby McGee stands at the foot of his mother's bed, murmuring softly. It's the middle of a June night in 1986, and his mother is sleeping soundly, but as Bobby continues whispering, she stirs and opens her eyes. Jasmine Belenger looks into her 18-year-old son's boyishly handsome face. She and her son have been inseparable since, at age 16, Jasmine gave birth to him, a single hippie mom and her young son, now almost a man. Bobby brushes a lock of straight, brown hair from his dark eyes and fixes Jasmine with a solemn gaze.

"Mom, I just wanted to say goodbye," Bobby says. Then he slowly dissolves into shadow.

Jasmine bolts upright out of the bed. "Wait!" she screams. The room is empty. She rubs her eyes. Was she dreaming? A horrible concrete weight fills her heart. Somehow, she knows she will never see her son alive again.

Sitting in the kitchen of her Santa Rosa home off Stony Point Road last month, Jasmine recalls the dream as though it happened the night before. Perhaps that's because for her, the nightmare has never really ended. Sixteen years passed before Bobby McGee's decomposed body was found in a lonely ravine outside of Willits, Calif., in July 2002, and his skeletal remains have yet to be laid to rest.

Jasmine says she told police to look on property she then owned, from the very beginning of the case. But thanks to a series of near misses and miscommunications between Jasmine and Mendocino and Sonoma County law enforcement officials, Bobby's corpse lay rotting in a hasty grave for over 15 years, even as his killers walked the earth above him.

What happened? In the words of one detective who worked the investigation, it was "one of those cases that just fell through the cracks."

What's left of Bobby is home now, his bones neatly arranged in a small, metal footlocker plastered with Betty Boop stickers. Jasmine takes them out from time to time and touches them. Months passed before she could touch the skull, shattered by two bullets. As a kind of therapy, she arranges the bones in patterns, photographs them and makes collages for the makeshift shrine in her living room.

If it seems odd, Jasmine holding on to the bones like this, well, she has her reasons. She went a long time without seeing Bobby, and it's a strange comfort to have him near. Some Native American friends have asked to perform a ceremony with the remains. And truth be told, she can't afford a traditional burial. The $800 a month disability check--she suffers from depression and high blood pressure--doesn't leave her a lot of room for extra expenses.

But more than prudence keeps Jasmine from burying her son. There's pride, pride that bursts through a hardened heart like a weed cracks through the sidewalk. A pride that won't allow her to accept that her son was no better than a common criminal. So she clutches the bones a little longer, with a mother's pride, hoping the system will somehow change its mind.

Bobby McGee was gunned down in cold blood by a 20-year-old drifter named Joe Truby. According to one account, Truby and as many as five others drove the body around Willits, showing it off like a hunting trophy. Truby, who confessed to the crime and was sentenced to 15 years to life for second-degree murder last March, claims he killed Bobby in a dispute over profits from a marijuana patch. He was ordered to pay $10,000 in restitution, money that's distributed by the state to help the families of victims cover expenses like burial costs and grief therapy. But the California Department of Corrections' Office of Victim Services and Restitution has repeatedly denied Jasmine funds, because it has ruled that the "victim was directly involved in an illegal activity at the time of the crime."

The primary source for that claim?

Joe Truby.

Was Bobby McGee going into the marijuana business, as asserted by Truby and other alleged accomplices to the murder? Or did he go up to Willits to evict Truby and Brian Mercer, one of the alleged accomplices to the murder, from the family's property, as he told Jasmine and two other women before the disappearance?

Such questions never saw the light of day in open court, because Truby agreed to a plea bargain with the Mendocino County district attorney that reduced the murder charge from first degree to second degree, circumventing a trial. Jasmine says the plea bargain came as a surprise and as another broken promise by law enforcement officials involved with case. District Attorney Norm Vroman remembers the plea bargain arrangement a little differently.

"At the time, she was in complete agreement with it," he says by telephone from his Ukiah office. Because of the case's age and the condition of the evidence, Vroman says, "we decided we didn't have enough evidence to prosecute him."

Why does Jasmine's recollection differ?

"I can understand it," he says. "Most survivors, when they have a chance to think about it, change their minds."

But Brenda Starr, one of several longtime friends who accompanied Jasmine to the meeting, confirms Jasmine's account. "We discussed a plea for second-degree murder, but it wasn't acceptable," she recalls, asking, "If the case is so solid, why plead it out?"

Starr sits patiently by her friend's side as Jasmine takes out a small plastic packet containing some of Bobby's finger bones. The packet fits easily into her palm. The bones are yellowish-brown and look ancient, like one of Dr. Leakey's fossil finds. She lays the bones out on the table to form a hand. Bobby's hand. Without the flesh and muscle, it's surprisingly small, like that of a five-year-old's.

Bobby wasn't much older than that the first time Jasmine took him by the hand to hitchhike across America. In Texas, they met a cowboy who drawled, "My name's Bobby McGee!" To which the boy childishly replied, "Why, that's my name too!" Thereafter, Robert Belenger was known to family and friends as Bobby McGee.

Jasmine took Bobby everywhere with her; he was the kind of kid who could curl up next to a stereo speaker at a party and quickly fall asleep.

Eventually, mother and son met Wayne Rhoads, a man with a wooden peg leg who wore pirate garb and went by the name of Long John Silver. He and Bobby took to one another immediately. Silver became Bobby's surrogate father, taking the youngster and friends such as Aaron Varvares camping on the dozen or so acres he owned in the woods near Willits.

When Bobby was 12, Jasmine became pregnant with Silver's child, another boy. Bobby was ambivalent at first. But he stayed by her side for the entire 12-hour labor, fetching wet rags and anything else that was needed. "It wasn't gross at all, it's different when you see your own brother being born," he told her afterward, holding brother Zachary in his arms. "That's right," he said to the newborn, "I'm your big brother and I'm going to take good care of you."

Caretaking turned out to be something Bobby would get a lot of practice doing. Not long after Zack's birth, Silver suffered a debilitating stroke that left him in a wheelchair barely able to speak. Bobby took it hard, not used to seeing the vital, eccentric man give in to any strain. He helped as much as he could, taking young Zack under his wing at the same time. Zack came to idolize his big brother. When Bobby was 16, Silver died, leaving the land in Willits to the Belengers.

Silver's death crushed Bobby. He began to wonder what he was going to do with the rest of his life. At 17, he dropped out of high school and began hitchhiking back and forth between the property in Willits and his mother's Santa Rosa home, often joined by Varvares, also 17, still his best friend.

Bobby had done well in high school wood-shop class, and told his mother he was considering opening a handmade furniture shop in Willits. He'd also taken and passed a test at the Navy recruiting office, and was considering enlisting after he turned 18. If he couldn't get a loan from a local businessman for the shop, then the Navy it would be.

In May 1986, not long after he turned 18, Bobby returned from Willits and told Jasmine he was close to getting the loan. But there was some bad news, too. Two homeless men he'd allowed to move onto the property had been stealing from the neighbors. He told two of his mother's friends the same story. The drifters were troublemakers, and he didn't know how to handle them. He was afraid to go back.

"What are you gonna do, just let them stay there?" Jasmine asked him. "You have to go up there and kick them off."

Heeding his mother's advice, Bobby went back to Willits. Jasmine never saw him alive again. A few nights later, Bobby came to her in the dream and said goodbye. Jasmine couldn't help thinking she'd sent her son to his death.

The next day, Jasmine waited for Bobby to phone. He usually called every day. But the phone remained silent. After two days, a businessman from Willits called and said her son's loan was ready, but that he couldn't locate him. Jasmine knew something was wrong, so she and Starr drove up.

The property near Willits is off Covelo Road, Highway 162, on a thickly wooded hillside. Bobby usually stayed in one of its dilapidated cabins. As Jasmine and Starr pulled up to a cabin, Varvares walked out.

"He was evasive; he wouldn't look me in the eyes," Jasmine recalls. When she asked where Bobby was, Varvares told her that Bobby had gone to San Diego with some guy named "Johnny" [his name has been changed] to sell LSD. The story sounded wrong. Jasmine knew Bobby smoked pot, but he didn't drop acid--he'd seen too many bad trips growing up. The two women gave Aaron a ride back to Santa Rosa. He seemed remote, distant, and added no further information on the way.

The next day, Jasmine reported Bobby's disappearance to the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department. A cadet trainee in the missing persons department took the report. Jasmine told the cadet that she feared the two drifters might have harmed her son on the property in Willits. Even though she didn't believe it, she also told him the story about Bobby going to San Diego to sell LSD.

The cadet told Jasmine that because Bobby was 18, there wasn't much the department could do unless she declared her son a danger to himself. Jasmine insisting on filing a missing persons report anyway, giving the cadet Bobby's medical and dental records and his last-known whereabouts. Yet according to Jasmine, the cadet failed to notify the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department or the Willits Police Department, the two logical law enforcement agencies to investigate the report.

Whether this was a breach of police procedure is hard to determine. Time, the enemy of the missing person's case, erodes institutional memory, too. Sgt. Steve Freitas, current supervisor of the Sonoma County Sheriff's violent crimes unit, says it would certainly violate present procedure, which has been in place for the past 10 years. But he doesn't know what the exact procedures were 18 years ago, when Bobby disappeared, and couldn't recommend anyone in the department who would know.

Freitas describes the reporting system now in place as "fantastic." Called the Missing Unidentified Person System, it requires that all applicable law enforcement agencies be notified promptly of a reported disappearance--in the case of missing children, within four hours. The system, which has been refined over the past 10 years, now contains a sophisticated database that enables quick comparisons of dental records submitted by the families of missing persons. It also serves as a nation-wide network for law enforcement agencies at all levels. Today, if someone files a report in Sonoma County about a person missing and last seen in Mendocino County, Freitas says a BOL ("be on the lookout") is issued immediately to the appropriate authorities, including text messages beamed directly into patrol cars.

That's not what happened when Bobby disappeared back in 1986. No one beamed or passed on Jasmine's information to Mendocino County. If they had, the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department would probably have noticed that Johnny was in the county jail at the time of Bobby's disappearance, making Varvares' claim that Bobby was in San Diego selling acid highly unlikely. Perhaps then police would have searched the property off Covelo Road, where Truby and Mercer squatted for months after the killing.

A month after Bobby disappeared, Johnny was transferred to the Sonoma County Jail in Santa Rosa. The sheriff's department notified Jasmine of their intent to question him. But Johnny was shipped off to the state prison in Susanville without being questioned. Finally, after six months, Jasmine called the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department for the first time. The officer who took her call was, in her memory, furious that Mendocino was not notified immediately by Sonoma County--that, in fact, it was never notified at all. "Why wasn't this reported to us within 48 hours!" Jasmine remembers the officer saying and adding that the chances of picking up the trail now were slim.

Photo courtesy of Jasmine Belenger

One Mother's Son: Jasmine and Bobby in happier times.

The stress of not knowing what happened to Bobby began eating away at Jasmine. She sought solace in her large circle of friends, many of whom remained involved in what was left of the hippie movement in the mid-1980s. Not long after reporting the disappearance to Mendocino County, she met Susan Loughan, a New Age author who claimed to be a psychic, and asked her for a reading.

Jasmine says Loughan went into a trance and contacted Bobby's spirit. Loughan began repeating verbatim the same murmurings Jasmine had heard in her dream. Jasmine spun around the room, ecstatic. "That's exactly what he said to me in the dream, that's exactly what he said!"

"You already know where your son is," Loughan said. "He was killed up there in a ravine."

Part of Jasmine was convinced that her son was dead. For the next decade, any time she saw a report of a body turning up in the area, she called the coroner to see if it was Bobby. She recalls how she was bounced from one police department to the other during her search. When she called Mendocino County, they told her Sonoma County hadn't sent Bobby's records. When she called Sonoma County, they told her the records had been sent, or that they had been lost or that the case was closed.

She's been told that the case was solved; she's been told that it's no longer on the computer. To this day, she says no one knows where the only copy of Bobby's dental records are that she gave the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department.

Through all the grief and disappointment, Jasmine kept it together as best she could, teaching preschool, working in a photography studio and even serving a brief stint with the Santa Rosa Police Department as a desk sergeant. But getting to work became increasingly difficult because Zachary, six at the time of his brother's disappearance, was not faring well.

One day, Jasmine and Zack were in the mall, and she spotted someone who looked like Bobby. She called out his name and the kid turned around. It wasn't him, and Jasmine burst into tears. "Don't cry mommy," Zack said, trying to soothe her. "I'm Bobby."

"No, you're not," Jasmine sobbed, alarmed at her son's reaction.

"Yes, I am," he insisted. "Zack is dead. I am Bobby."

It went on like this for a dozen years before there was a break in the case. In April 1998, a new Willits neighbor called Jasmine and told her that several locals had told her a story about two homeless men who had killed Bobby and buried him in the ravine. The men lived on the property for months afterward, openly bragging about the murder. Their names were Joe Truby and Brian Mercer, she said, and they were still believed to be in the area.

Elated, Jasmine dragged the woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, down to the Mendocino County Sheriff's office. With its first solid lead, the case was assigned to detective Christy Stefani, who was shocked to hear the case had dragged on for a dozen years.

"I didn't blame her for being upset," Stefani told the Bohemian in a phone interview. Stefani promised to work diligently on the case. But after the detective discovered that Truby and Mercer were in hiding, Jasmine says the search inexplicably bogged down again. Jasmine might have pressed Stefani and the department harder, but a new weight was added to her already burdened heart.

On Dec. 31, 1998, Zachary was struck and killed by a car while riding his bike near his home. The driver was high on methamphetamine. Zack was just 16.

Parents who've been through the experience say that no pain in life compares to losing a child. Jasmine had lost two. Her health began to fail. The sorrow was so intense she pondered suicide. The only thing that kept her going was the circle of friends who've always been there when she's needed them.

Susan Loughan knows something of the pain of losing a child, too. She lost a step-daughter not long after Bobby disappeared. The shared loss bonded the two women, and over the years, Loughan kept tabs on her friend's condition and the case's progress.

Police had gotten nowhere since Zack's death. Then, in May 2002, Jasmine received a copy of an anonymous letter sent to the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department. The badly worded letter began: "This is info I think you would love to hear concerning a cold-blood murder that happened around 14, 15 years ago up Covelo Road at some property this young kid inherited from his father."

The writer explained that a former girlfriend who now lived in Sacramento had told him the story.

"She was bragging how she, Brian Mercer, Don Barhite and Joe Truby, all out of Willits, and some other girls went up to steal this kid's plants and he caught them," the letter continued. "They tied him up and took him down to some creek bed and let him go and said 'run' and they shot him in the back. They threw him in the back of the truck and brought him into Willits, showing him off to some friends. Then they went somewhere and buried him. She said she knows exactly where it is. I hope this info puts them in jail so the kid can finally rest in peace."

The letter's details were similar to the rumor the new neighbor from Willits had repeated to Jasmine four years previously, with the addition of four alleged accessories to the murder--Barhite and three unnamed females--gruesome new details that cut her anew. Several of the alleged accessories were known to be in the area and involved in marijuana cultivation. An arrest in the case seemed imminent.

But right around the same time that the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department received the letter, Detective Stefani was promoted to the county district attorney's office. The case was transferred to a new detective, and much to Jasmine and Loughan's dismay, appeared to grind to a halt yet again. Jasmine's heart gave in to the weight.

Loughan, seeing her friend and the case slipping away, took action. On June 28, 2002, she wrote a letter to America's Most Wanted, the FBI offices in San Francisco and Sacramento, the state attorney general and a half-dozen other news organizations and law enforcement agencies, including the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department.

Closing her letter, she wrote, "My question to you is, who is stonewalling this case and why?"

The Sacramento FBI office called Loughan first. The anonymous letter writer with the former girlfriend in Sacramento was actually the woman's ex-husband. He wanted custody of the children and wrote the letter to prove her an unfit mother.

The fresh lead--and perhaps Loughan's peppery epistle--rejuvenated the case, which was reassigned yet again, to Detective Kevin Bailey. And this time, it moved forward.

On July 17, 2002, Bailey called Jasmine at 11:30pm from Huntsville, Ala. "I just wanted you to know we found your son's body and the man who murdered him," he said. Don Barhite, the man alleged to have been behind the wheel according to the letter sent in May, was still living in the Willits area. When pressured by investigators, he caved in and admitted that he'd been present during the murder. According to Barhite, Truby, Mercer and Bobby McGee were growing marijuana on Bobby's land. On the night in question, Truby, Mercer and Barhite drove up to water the plants.

"Barhite states that he was near the vehicle that he came up in and Truby, Mercer and [Bobby] were near or inside a metal shed," a court summary of the case reads. "He states when he heard the shot he looked up and saw Truby standing over [Bobby's] body with a gun in his hand. He said he did not hear any words exchanged prior to hearing the shot."

There were no mad dashes around Willits to show off the body in Barhite's version. According to court documents, he simply helped Truby and Mercer cover the body and load it in his vehicle. Then they drove to a nearby ravine and buried Bobby McGee. For cooperating with investigators and leading them to the body 16 years after he helped cover up the crime, Barhite was granted immunity from prosecution.

Detective Bailey had found Joe Truby living in Huntsville with his wife and stepdaughter. He was training to become a minister. Bailey phoned him, explaining that he was trying to clear up the case, but gave few details. Truby said he'd be happy to meet with the detective, so Bailey flew to Alabama. The interview had barely begun when Truby suddenly blurted out that he'd shot Bobby McGee two times in the back of the head. He even had a picture of the body.

"Maybe God made him talk," Jasmine sighs, reflecting on Truby's ministerial yearnings.

"God didn't make him talk," Bailey growls.

Jasmine Belenger's nightmare should have ended there, but it didn't. On March 5, 2003, the Mendocino County district attorney's office plea-bargained Truby's first-degree murder charge down to second-degree murder with special circumstances: use of a firearm and committing murder for financial gain--the financial gain being potential profits from the marijuana farm. This bargain accepts as plain truth Truby's story that he and Bobby McGee were fighting over money.

The motive, according to District Attorney Vroman, is "based on the facts, based on what Truby told us, that [Bobby] didn't want to share it with them."

The killer conveniently blames the victim. Couldn't it be that Bobby just didn't want Truby and Mercer growing marijuana on his land, as his mother and two other women claim Bobby told them?

"Anything's possible," Vroman says.

Even though Detective Bailey believes marijuana is part of the equation, he's more inclined to believe that Bobby was trying to kick Truby and Mercer off his land.

"Mr. Mercer is a rather notorious figure in Mendocino County as far as cultivation goes," Bailey says. "I believe [Bobby] did try and stop it. People think growing marijuana is a victimless crime. It isn't."

Joe Truby, 37, will be eligible for parole when he's 52. Mercer is currently in state prison, and has not yet been charged for his alleged role in the murder. Bailey would like to change that, but it won't be easy. Although Truby and Barhite have implicated Mercer, by law the testimony of a co-conspirator is not enough evidence to bring someone to trial.

Apparently, though, the testimony of a murderer is more than enough to deny a victim's family court-ordered benefits. In mid-January, the Department of Corrections' Office of Victim Services and Restitution, the state agency that disburses criminal fines to the families of violent crime victims, denied Jasmine's appeal for restitution stating that the "victim was directly involved in an illegal activity at the time of the crime."

But can anyone say for certain that Bobby was directly involved in an illegal activity?

No. That's the crazy, depressing thing about this case. After all these years, we still don't really know what happened to Bobby McGee.

If there's one person who does know what happened that night in the woods outside Willits, it might be Aaron Varvares, Bobby's childhood best friend. Varvares has not been interviewed by law enforcement officials since Bobby first disappeared in 1986.

The Bohemian reached him by phone at his home in St. Paul, Minn. "I'd heard that they found his body, and I wondered what happened," says Varvares, 36. He dismissed the idea that Bobby was involved in any sort of major growing operation.

"We had a couple of small plants," he says. "but it was just for our own personal use."

He sounds nervous at mention of Joe Truby and Brian Mercer. "I knew those guys," he says, like they're bad news. "I didn't spend as much time with them as Bobby did."

Although he remembers Johnny, Varvares can't recall telling Jasmine the story about Bobby accompanying Johnny to San Diego to sell acid. In fact, he claims that he left Willits two weeks before Bobby disappeared and can't remember Jasmine giving him a ride home.

He says he'll call back if something jogs his memory.

He hasn't called yet.

"I believe [Varvares] has a lot of information," Bailey says. "He must have been pretty scared at the time." Maybe he is still pretty scared.

Jasmine Belenger knows she needs to let go. Loughan and countless friends have told her so. But some things just keep hanging on. They say nothing hurts worse than losing a child. Jasmine's lost two, and nothing in this world will ever bring them back. She's trying to take care of herself, put the past behind her. But for now, let her play with Bobby McGee's bones, her heart heavy as a stone.

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From the January 22-28, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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