By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily
Kelly Pehringer was 14 when her mom Kathleen disappeared from their Riverton home in 1989.
The last time Kelly saw her, Kathleen was standing at the front door in her bathrobe as Kelly headed off to school.
Today, more than three decades after Kathleen’s disappearance, Kelly continues to seek answers about what happened that day.
For Kelly, that morning marked a new beginning as she woke up resolved to be a better kid. Her actions in recent months had landed Kelly in a group home and she was very happy to once again be home with her mom.
She’d been acting like a brat, she realized, and had resolved to do better beginning with not fighting Kathleen about going to school.
They parted on a pleasant note that morning, and after school, Kelly came home with a couple buddies. Oddly, her mom was gone and hadn’t left a note.
Odder still was the fact that her mother’s normally overflowing ashtray on the coffee table in the living room had been cleaned and was empty — except for two cigarette butts. One she recognized as her mother’s while the other she identified as belonging to her mom’s new friend Donald Pack, based on the way he always “squinched” the filter down to a tiny nub.
Admittedly, Kelly was not a fan of Pack. In fact, he creeped her out ever since he started coming over to see her mother, ostensibly with the excuse of buying her computer.
He was a friend of Kathleen’s ex-boyfriend and began hanging out after the two broke up.
The afternoon that Kathleen disappeared, Pack stopped by looking for Kelly’s mother. He said he’d been over that morning, too, and she wasn’t home then either. He asked if he could come in and use their telephone.
Kelly reluctantly let him in and watched while he quickly dialed a number and waited a few seconds before hanging up without leaving a message.
That struck Kelly odd at the time because their phone was “old and crappy” and some of the digits stuck when you tried to press them.
For this reason, it was nearly impossible to make a quick call. And why had he just hung up without saying anything, she wondered?
He left after using the phone. Kelly then went over to a friend’s, leaving her mom a note.
When she came home later that night for dinner, the note was still there and there was no sign of her mother. When Kathleen still hadn’t returned, Kelly called a friend whose mother came and got her, then they called her grandmother who also had not seen Kathleen.
Then they called the police.
When questioned, Kelly shared her suspicions about Pack having something to do with her mother’s disappearance. It’s not clear from the police report obtained from the Riverton Police Department whether Pack or anyone else was ever questioned in Kathleen’s disappearance.
All that’s on file is a sparsely written report with basic details shared by Kelly about that morning.
Kathleen had not indicated that she had plans of going anywhere, no clothing was taken and her car was still parked in its normal spot behind the house.
According to RPD Captain Wesley Romero, this is the only document still on file from the 32-year-old case. Any detectives who may have worked the case have long since retired and no active members of the staff have any knowledge of Kathleen’s disappearance.
Kelly doesn’t know if Riverton police ever interviewed Pack. She can’t remember much from that time although she recalls she asked the police to contact her brother Frankie, who was in prison, to inform him that their mother was gone. Later, she learned Frankie was told about his mother’s disappearance by a friend.
What she does remember vividly, however, is the way her entire life was turned upside down.
With her mother gone, Kelly became a ward of the state and was put into foster care after deciding not to go live with her grandparents — who she did not get along with — or her father, who had remarried and started a new family.
Instead, she cycled in and out of foster homes, one worse than the next as she struggled in the wake of her mom’s disappearance. As a senior, she was placed in a girls group home in Lander, where she was able to graduate from high school. Had it not been for that last placement, she’s certain that she never would have made it through school.
“Those four years were living hell,” Kelly said last week from her home in Sheridan, where she now lives with her father as they two continue working to repair their relationship.
Now in her late 40s, Kelly is sober after years of alcohol and drug abuse. Though she’s attempting to get her life together, the emotional scars continue to haunt her as she struggles with a myriad of psychological issues.
Over the years, she’s turned to a mediums and empaths for insights into what might have happened to her mom. The closest she came was a medium who told her that Kathleen loved her and was proud of her but wanted Kelly to stop looking for her.
Her mother was smiling at her daughter from the other side, the medium told her, which Kelly believes is her mother’s attempt to keep Kelly from knowing the details of what actually happened to her.
Over the years, the Riverton Police Department handed off the case to the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, where it remains open. A request to see the case file report was denied by the agency, according to Ronnie Jones, DCI Region 2 operations commander, who said the agency does not comment on open cases.
All Kelly has to go on is what she can remember, including a visit from two female detectives who found her in a treatment facility around 2006, asking to take a sample of her DNA.
They’d apparently searched a property outside of Riverton that could be linked to Pack and had searched the grounds with cadaver dogs. The dogs had repeatedly returned to an area where they’d found a plastic bag buried underground that were testing for Pack and Kathleen’s DNA.
In the end, the bag was too old to recover any DNA, Kelly said.
However, it appears that Pack had been on DCI’s radar, according to a Feb. 2, 2018 article in Jackson Hole News & Guide. As DCI agents searched for evidence in a locker at the Jackson Police Department, they recovered underwear belonging to a rape victim dating back to the late 1970s that tested positive for Pack’s DNA.
His DNA was by then on file from a prior arrest and prison sentence for a rape in 1976 in Sublette County that led to his imprisonment for an unknown period of time before he was released in the mid-1980s, approximately two years before he met Kathleen.
Kelly sat with the two rape victims at Pack’s trial in Jackson in 2018, where he was sentenced to eight to 12 years in prison. Pack reportedly confessed to the rapes and apologized to the victims during his trial, saying he’d committed them for the thrill, according to the Jackson Hole News & Guide, but he denied having anything to do with Kathleen’s disappearance.
Attending Pack’s trial with the two other victims had been empowering for her, Kelly said.
It was the closest she’s come to feeling like one day her mom’s body will be found and there will be justice.
Kathleen is one of 51 Wyoming residents listed on the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NAMUS).
Anyone with information about the case or Kathleen’s whereabouts is asked to contact the Wyoming DCI at (307) 777-7181.