It was three years ago when Julie Wurtzbacher was last in the news because of her quest of finding her father, a man who vanished from her life when she was a little more than 3 years old. She was interviewed by local TV stations and newspapers; she did an hour-long segment on the valley’s Watchdog Radio Network; and then she waited.
She’s been waiting ever since.
Lee Moncer was 21 years old when he left his home on Indian Run in Bellaire on Feb. 18, 1982. He told Irene Zimmerman, the wife he was divorcing at the time, that he had a date. He kissed his daughter, Julie, on his way out, and he has not been seen again.
The next day a note was found in the family’s mailbox: “Leave Things Alone Or You Are Dead.” It was spelled out using snipped headlines from magazines. There was no postmark on the envelope. It was delivered personally. Moncer, family members have reported since, didn’t take the threat seriously.
Two days later, Zimmerman found his vehicle pulled to the side of Ohio 331 near Bannock. The keys were in the ignition, and his jacket, smokes, lighter, and some cash were all discovered inside the car. Authorities believed there were signs of a struggle.
Although Moncer was never found, Belmont County officials pronounced him dead on Nov. 16, 1988, after his mother filed a request. His widow moved on, and Julie has siblings today who completely support her efforts to discover the truth. She believes her father is still alive despite what the evidence may indicate. What she knows for sure is that there exists zero proof of his whereabouts, dead or alive.
“I think he’s out there. I don’t think he’s dead, but I can’t really explain to you why I have that feeling,” the 36-year-old said. “That’s what it is – a feeling. I just want to know, one way or another. It didn’t really bother me when I was younger or when I was in school, but the older I get, the more I want to know.
“If he did something that got him in trouble, or if his hot date was just leaving, that’s something I want to know, one way or the other. I don’t know what he was doing,” she continued. “And I know that he was hanging around in a lot of the bars during those days, and some of my relatives have told me that he did do drugs. My aunt told me that his nickname was the ‘Candyman,’ and that it was a reference to the drugs he was dealing.”
What she does not know is how she would react if Lee Moncer turns up alive.
“I’d probably be very mad at him if I ever met him. I’d be mad because my grandparents’ number is still the same as it was when he vanished. But I don’t exactly know what I will say to him when I meet him again, whether it’s here on Earth or in Heaven, if he goes there,” Wurtzbacher said. “I just want to know what happened, and why he didn’t come back.
“If I find out that he is dead, at this point I’m not concerned with who did it. I’d just want to know where he is so I can put him to rest next to my grandfather. If he’s dead, that’s where he belongs. That would be proper.”
Wurtzbacher has her reasons to believe what she believes. Since her mother filed the missing person report with the Belmont County Sheriff’s Office, three people told deputies they had seen him during the months that followed. Julie’s mother also reported receiving anonymous phone calls about what had happened to her husband, and she also told authorities she believed they were being followed.
Her mother has told her that Lee Moncer was a heavy drinker, a chain smoker, an abusive spouse, and a cheating husband. Wurtzbacher doesn’t care.
“Nothing those callers told my mom was ever proven true, though,” Julie said. “And I have learned about other leads that were followed about my dad being murdered, but nothing ever turned up in those cases either. If something would have been confirmed, that would have been fine. Then I would have known something.”
There’s another reason why Julie believes her father chose to run from the Upper Ohio Valley for whatever reasons. She visited a psychic in central Ohio who helped Columbus law enforcement solve a murder case a little more than 10 years ago.
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“I never know how people are going to react when I tell them about going to a psychic and about believing what she had to tell me, but she told me that my father is still alive and that he has watched over me during my lifetime,” she said. “She also gave me a name that he was living under … James Johnston. She said that he went away, got re-established, and changed his name. But she said that he was keeping track of me, too.
“And then after that, I filed an I-Report on CNN.com, and I put my phone number on it because the story of his disappearance was finally getting a lot of attention. I got a phone call from a man from California who said his name was James Johnston, and that freaked me out because I didn’t put that name in the I-Report,” Wurtzbacher explained. “He told me that I could call him anytime I ever needed anything, but he never claimed to be my dad. I don’t know if the psychic had him call so I would believe what she told me even more, but when I tried to call the number after that, it was disconnected.”
But the number – 503-300-3761 – remains saved on Wurtzbacher’s cell phone. It’s listed under, “Strange.”
“At this point I don’t know what to think. But someone has to know something. That’s probably the only thing I know for sure,” she said. “There’s just no way someone just vanishes like that unless someone took him, killed him, and did whatever with the remains, or because he left on purpose.
“I’ve heard he was involved in some things, and the note said what it said. No one has told me anything about what the note was about. No one has told me what he was supposed to leave alone. At this point, honestly, I just don’t know what to think.”
Wurtzbacher moved from Bellaire to Valley Grove when she was in seventh grade, and she attended Bridge Street Middle and Wheeling Park High School. Few of her new friends were aware of the case concerning her “real” father, so the topic never came up in conversation.
She is married today to Kevin, and they have a 12-year-old daughter, Morgan Lee. She recently transferred to Moundsville’s Huddle House as a server, and their house’s front porch is in West Virginia, and the back porch rests in Pennsylvania.
Through the years Wurtzbacher had learned of the few leads followed by law enforcement. Several years ago a basement in Columbus was excavated in search of his remains, and Lee Moncer’s dental records were sent to a county corner in Indiana. Both investigations turned up nothing as far as Wurtzbacher is concerned.
“I know there are not a lot of reasons to believe he’s alive. I get that. And if he is alive, I know if he really wanted to contact me, he could have dialed my grandparents’ phone number because, like I said, it’s been the same number all of my life,” Wurtzbacher said. “He knew that number. They said he called all the time. And who forgets their parents’ phone number?
“But now that I am 36 years old I feel like the clock is ticking louder than ever because he would be in his 50s now if he’s still alive. We’re running out of time,” she continued. “The only think I really know is that he vanished. He came up missing, and we haven’t found him. My mom told me that my dad loved me very much and that he was always with me. She tried to find him for days. It was hard on her, and it’s still hard on her. He just said he had a date, he left, and he never came back. And no one knows whom he had a date with,” she said. “They were divorcing at the time, so I still don’t know what to think. “
Wurtzbacher Googles her father’s name from time to time to see if there are any developments of which she is not aware, and she follows her own leads when she’s told something new. She is considering a posted reward for information that leads to her father’s whereabouts – dead or alive – and she has her family’s support.
“They let me do what I feel I need to do because they know how I feel,” Wurtzbacher said. “I also feel I need to do this for my grandfather because he tried and he tried, but he passed away without answers. When I was young, it wasn’t this hard. It was what it was, but the older I get, I feel like I am missing something,” she said. “My mom is happy about it, and my brothers and my sisters tell me to keep going.
“I really believe someone knows something, and I wish they would just tell me,” Wurtzbacher said. “But money talks these days, so maybe a reward will help.
“I am very frustrated, but I’ll only stop when I’m dead. That’s when this will stop for me,” she admitted. “I just keeping thinking that if I keep pushing, someone will eventually feel guilty enough to come forward and tell me what I want to know … what I need to know.”