By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily
Jess Oaks briefly knew Renee Yeargain before she disappeared more than 17 years ago.
The two had worked together at the Little Moon Supper Club in Henry, Nebraska, in spring 2003. Oaks had been charged with training Yeargain to be a fry cook. Both young 20-something mothers at the time, the two bonded over discussions about their kids and parenting.
Sometimes they’d get together outside of work but not that often. Oaks remembered Yeargain talking about her boyfriend, Josh Minter, and once showing up to work in his green Mustang.
After Little Moon shut down that fall, the two drifted apart. Then Oaks learned that the house where Yeargain was living with Minter and her four children had burned down just after Christmas.
Oaks had heard about the fire on the radio and reached out to Yeargain to see if they needed anything since the kids had lost all their Christmas presents. Later, Yaergain and Minter met Oaks and her mom at their storage unit and took what they needed.
A few months later, Oaks randomly ran into Yeargain on the street in downtown Torrington. Both had been running errands, but they stopped to talk. Yeargain said things were going really well and she was getting married in August and was also following her dream of becoming a tattoo artist. Oaks, meanwhile, had taken a job as a reporter at the Torrington Telegram.
Yeargain told her former co-worker she was excited to see where her life would take her, Oaks said. Words that ultimately haunted Oaks when not long after she saw her friend’s face on the front page of the newspaper on Aug. 10, 2004.
Disappeared Without A Trace
According to news reports, the then-24-year-old woman had disappeared without a trace, leaving her boyfriend of three years and four children, 12 days prior to her planned wedding to Minter.
When questioned, Minter told police that Yeargain left the borrowed car she was driving at a rest stop in Meriden, midway between Torrington and Cheyenne.
In the car were her purse, keys, cell phone, wallet, checkbook and other items. Minter further told investigators that Yeargain had walked out of the home they shared with a grocery sack full of clothing and refused to say where she was going.
At the time, her mother, Diane Van Horn, said that her daughter would never have voluntarily left for this long without contacting her children.
Yes, Yeargain had struggled with her mental health and drugs in the past, Van Horn told the Scottsbluff (Nebraska) Star-Herald in a 2009 interview, but she’d since cleaned up her life and was looking forward to marrying and had just gotten her tattoo license and planned to open up a shop in their home.
“She had all these plans,” her mother said in the interview. “I believe something has happened here, and I have questions that I want answered.”
Van Horn’s request for answers remains unmet. To date, Yeargain has not returned home nor has her body been found.
In between those facts lie a lot of questions and few unsubstantiated facts which Oaks has been meticulously tracking for nearly two decades in her 12-pages of detailed notes as Yeargin’s case passed through the hands of at least five different investigators at the Torrington Police Department.
Oaks personally knew Minter from high school and remembers him as a loner who frequently wore a dark trench coat and hung out with another student that her peers called “creepy.”
Minter was artistic, Oaks said, recalling a troubling profile image of himself on his Facebook page that a detective alerted her to following Yeargain’s disappearance.
The illustration is of a brooding man in a black hoodie and dark-rimmed glasses surrounded by cryptic words and phrases in red ink including “sacrifice,” “involved,” “burden,” and most hauntingly, “I know the grave.”
The profile has since been taken down, but Oaks took a screenshot.
“It was really creepy,” she said.
Efforts by Cowboy State Daily to contact Minter via social media were not returned.
Yeargain had a pretty troubled life in general, Oaks said, including mental issues and a past history of drug abuse. She’d gotten pregnant with her first child at 15, and her fiancé had been killed in a motorcycle accident when the child was still a toddler.
His death had apparently haunted Yeargain, Oaks was told by friends, leading to Yeargain’s self-medicating to the point she might be gone for a couple of days.
She was also estranged from her mother, according to what Oaks has learned, as well as her biological father, a reported sex offender who has since died.
Her troubled past, Oaks believes, might account for the way in which her case was investigated.
Oaks, who is no longer a reporter but instead works in the graphics department at the Torrington Telegram, is frequently asked why she’s so invested in a case involving a person she barely knows.
For her the answer is simple, if it can happen to Yeargain, it can happen to anyone. It could happen to her. She’s also a single mother and worries about what would happen to her children if she disappeared.
Would there be justice? She’s not so sure.
She doesn’t have much family left; it’s just her in Goshen County.
She can’t wrap her head around this happening in a community she’s always considered safe.
She also feels a complicated connection to her former co-worker given that she’d run into Yeargain just two weeks before she disappeared. She feels maybe that was meant to be and that it’s her responsibility to help find Yeargin.
She recently brought in a new private detective from We Help the Missing to investigate, and for the first time in 17 years, a press release has been shared with both media and the community.
“It hasn’t been easy to continue,” Oaks admitted. “You run into one closed door after another.”
Like Oaks, Yeargain’s youngest daughter, Angelina Schirmer, believes that her mother is likely dead but is still seeking closure and would like to have her mother’s body returned and someone prosecuted.
Now 21, Schirmer is making a life for herself in Wolf Point, Montana, where she works as a cashier at a gas station. Things are going pretty well, she said. That wasn’t always the case. After her mom disappeared, Schirmer admitted, life was downright shitty. All of the kids were put into different foster care families and lost touch with one another over the years.
Her older sister Mariah has since died somewhere in Alaska and her older brother Johnathon has no contact with the family.
As far as helping law enforcement solve the crime, she doesn’t have much to tell them from that time. She remembers the house catching on fire and being in a car accident with her mother, but otherwise, memories are hazy.
She has her theories, but they are just that, theories. Ultimately, she doesn’t blame Yeargain given that she was battling “a lot of mental illness at the time.”
At the time, Schirmer was pretty certain her mom would return home like the other times she’d briefly left them.
She, too, has a lot of questions and feels like the case could have been handled better.
“There’s a lot of ‘what ifs’ I had to grow up with,” she said. “And there’s nobody to ask.”
She feels betrayed by the police who she thinks never gave her mom’s case much time.
“I could have had a whole other life,” she said, “and feel like the police failed me and my siblings, and it’s very heart breaking.”
It’s time for some real action and effort, she said.
Time For Justice
Torrington Police Chief Matt Johnson agreed that it’s time Yeargain had justice. He’s relatively new to the position and department but said there’s a real effort on his part and the part of Detective Becci Morris. Assistant Chief Pat Connelly, who has also been working the case over the past few years, is eager to revive efforts to find Torrington’s only person missing under suspicious circumstances who has not been recovered.
Johnson said he can’t comment on any of the details of the case – past nor present – nor could he discuss whether or not they were investigating any persons of interest. All he could say is that evidence suggests she did not leave her home willingly, and that the Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigations is also helping.
“There’s clear indications of felonious intent,” he said, “and finding justice for this young woman is something we care about.”
He’s hopeful that some new detail will emerge through technology that wasn’t available 17 years ago. All they can do is pick up from the clues they have, he said,
“We’re optimistic that there will be a breakthrough,” he said, and encouraged anyone with information to present it to the Torrington Police Department. “We will talk to anyone and will follow up on all leads, and I hope those efforts are ultimately going to lead to the truth.”
Anyone with information is asked to contact the Torrington Police Department at (307) 532-7001 or WHTM private investigator Amanda Waldron at (307) 797-0363 or the WHTM tip line at (866) 660-4025. Tips can remain anonymous.