Police, Daughter Want Answers in 35-Year-Old Cold Case of Missing Wyoming Mother

Kathleen Pehringer disappeared from her Riverton home 35 years ago, and while investigators say they have a person of interest, a daughter left behind is desperate for answers to one of Wyoming’s decades-old cold cases.

Jen Kocher

April 20, 20247 min read

Kathleen Pehringer was 42 when she disappeared from her home in Riverton, Wyoming, 35 years ago.
Kathleen Pehringer was 42 when she disappeared from her home in Riverton, Wyoming, 35 years ago. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

It’s an anniversary Kelly Pehringer would prefer to forget. The day her mother, 42-year-old Kathleen Pehringer, vanished 35 years ago was the day her life altered permanently.

Kelly was 14 when she returned home from school with a couple friends in tow April 17, 1989, to find her mother missing with her car parked out front. At the time, the pair lived together in a one-story white house with black trim, just across the street from Ash Grove Elementary School on 1st Street in Riverton.

Kathleen was attending class at Central Wyoming College and working part-time at the Hilltop Bar.

Though it wasn’t unheard of for the single mother not to be home after school, Kathleen always left her a note informing Kelly of her whereabouts and expected time of return. That afternoon, however, there was no note.

“She always left a note,” Kelly said. “It was the first sign something was wrong.”

Nothing else seemed amiss in the house, however, nor were there any discernible signs of a struggle. The only thing that stood out to Kelly was the relatively empty ashtray on the coffee table. Normally, it was overflowing with her mother’s spent smokes, but now was completely cleaned and empty except for two butts.

One she recognized as her mother’s brand 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.

The Ex-Con

Pack had recently started coming around to visit her mother, ostensibly under the guise of buying Kathleen’s computer.

Admittedly, Kelly didn't like Pack. In fact, she said she found him unsettling.

He was friends with Kathleen's ex-boyfriend, who he’d met while incarcerated at the Wyoming Honor Farm, and Pack began spending more time with Kathleen after they ended things. Kathleen reportedly knew several people from the state prison.

The afternoon Kathleen disappeared, Pack stopped by looking for her when Kelly and her friends were at the house. Kelly explained her mother wasn’t home, and Pack asked if he could come in and use the phone, Kelly said.

She reluctantly let him in and watched while he quickly dialed a number, then hung up without leaving a message. He left after using the phone.

Kelly then went over to a friend’s, leaving her mom a note, but when she returned later to find the note untouched and still no sign of her mother, Kelly called her friend, whose mother came to get her.

After a quick call to her grandmother who also had no idea of Kathleen’s whereabouts, they called the police.

What we know

To date, nobody has seen or heard from Kathleen since the day she vanished.

When questioned that day 35 years ago, Kelly shared her suspicions with police about Pack potentially having something to do with her mother’s disappearance. It’s not clear from the initial police report Cowboy State Daily obtained from the Riverton Police Department if Pack — or anyone else — was questioned about Kathleen’s disappearance. All that’s on file is a sparsely written report with basic details shared by Kelly about that morning.

The case was handed over by Riverton police to the Wyoming Division of Investigation in 2012, said Ryan Cox, DCI commander who also oversees the cold case unit.

Cox said that Kathleen was declared legally deceased in May 1998, and her case has since been reclassified as a homicide investigation.

He said investigators have identified a person of interest, though declined to provide that person’s name, citing an active investigation.

He also urges anyone with information, no matter how seemingly small the detail, to come forward by calling 307-777-7181 or submitting an anonymous tip on DCI’s website.

On The Radar

Though not formally named a person of interest, it appears Pack is nonetheless on DCI’s radar in conjunction with Kathleen’s disappearance.

Pack had been arrested in 1975 and spent 15 years in prison for raping a young server on her way home late one night, but is thought to have terrorized many more women during this period, according to a Buckrail report.

In 2018, a DCI agent asked to look through the evidence locker at the Jackson Police Department in conjunction with his inquiry into Pack’s potential involvement in Kathleen’s disappearance. During his search, the agent found a pair of panties with semen stains, which were tested and traced back to Pack as well.

He was then charged and found guilty of two more rapes dating back to the mid-’70s and served an additional 55 months in prison for those crimes. He has since been released and is living in Cheyenne, where he’ll be on parole through January 2027.

Small Victory

Kelly had driven to Jackson and sat beside the two rape victims during Pack’s trial, where he reportedly confessed to the rapes and apologized to the victims, 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 was empowering for her, Kelly said.

It was the closest she’s come so far to feeling like one day her mom’s body will be found and there will be justice.

Upside Down

This week as the anniversary of her mom’s disappearance ticks off another year, Kelly recounts the morning she last saw her mother. She’s now older than her mother was when she first vanished, but recalls waving goodbye in the door of her mother’s bathroom as she headed off to school that day.

The two had been in a good place, Kelly said, and seemed to be doing fine after a tumultuous period of Kelly acting out and getting into trouble. Her behavior had earned Kelly a short stint in a group home, but she’d just returned back home and was resolved to do better.

“We were in a good place,” Kelly said. “We were both trying really hard and doing our best.”

Following her mother’s disappearance, Kelly’s life was turned upside down.

She became a ward of the state and was put into foster care after her grandparents declined to take her. So did her father, who had since remarried and relocated with his new family.

She cycled in and out of foster homes, Kelly said, one worse than the next until she finally landed in a girls group home in Lander her senior year, where she was able to graduate from high school.

“It absolutely destroyed my life,” she said, describing the years following where she struggled with drug and alcohol addiction as well as issues with her mental health. “I have to have angel guardians because that’s the only reason why I’m alive right now.”

Hope For Justice

Today, at age 49, Kelly is sober, doing well and has since repaired relationships with her father and other family.

Still, without her mother or answers about what happened to her, she still feels a hole inside of herself that is impossible to explain to those who have never had a family member go missing.

“It's like there's a whole different life, a whole different part of me, that is completely missing,” she said.

Though she still harbors resentment toward the Riverton Police Department for not doing what she felt could have been much more by taking her statements more seriously, she continues to work with DCI in hopes of one day finding her mother and getting justice.

Jen Kocher can be reached at jen@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Jen Kocher

Features, Investigative Reporter