http://www.naplesnews.com/news/2008/nov/15/gone-10-years-mystery-remains-what-happened-wendy-/Gone 10 years, the mystery remains: What happened to Wendy Hudakoc?
By VICTORIA MACCHI
2:15 p.m., Saturday, November 15, 2008
NAPLES — Wendy Hudakoc is still 14, frozen in time by the picture her family gave police and her description in a missing person report.
Hazel eyes, a light complexion, and a thin build. Braces. Light brown, straight, shoulder-length hair.
Wearing a red, white and blue tank top and jeans the last time anyone saw her.
That’s how the Naples High School freshman is described on missing children’s Web sites and fliers from Florida to Ontario, immortalized by the simple descriptions of a Collier County Sheriff’s Office missing person report from 1998.
“I never would have dreamt that it would be 10 years of not finding anything on her,” said Wendy’s mother, Shelley Campbell, 49.
In August, a few days before her youngest daughter would have turned 24, Campbell reflected on the past decade.
“I don’t think there’s a scenario that anybody could possibly say that we haven’t thought of yet,” she said between cigarette drags, sitting in the lanai of the family’s North Port home.
She said she smokes a lot more since Wendy disappeared.
Someone phoned Wendy at the family’s Golden Gate home around 11 p.m. on Nov. 14, 1998, a Saturday night.
Her mother, Shelley, and stepfather, Dan Campbell, were in Tampa for the weekend.
Her sister, Sharlene Hudakoc-Boyatt, then 16, was at home with a friend. Dan’s co-worker was staying with the three girls.
“Wendy said ‘I’m sneaking out and I’m going (to a party)’,” Shelley Campbell recounts from what the people who were in the house told her.
“She took Dan Campbell’s pager and said to Sharlene, ‘If I get busted, call me right away and I’ll come right home.’”
Sharlene, then a Naples High junior, decided not to go to the party.
Exactly what happened between Wendy sneaking out of her bedroom’s jalousie window not long after the phone call and the next morning when Sharlene went in to wake her sister is unknown.
“I was going to jump on the bed, because she was going to be hung over,” Sharlene, now 26, recalled with a half-smile.
The candle that Wendy left lit on the window sill was still burning after dawn on Sunday; the teen’s bed was still made.
Sharlene paged Wendy for two and a half hours to no avail.
The Campbells were checking out of their hotel in Tampa that Sunday morning when the clerk at the front desk said there was a phone call for them.
“Right away, Sharlene says: ‘Oh my god, mom, Wendy didn’t come home last night.’ Well that was it; we just flew all the way home. We called the cops as soon as we got home. They put it as a runaway,” her mom recalled.
The label irked her.
Wendy had run away once before, to a friend’s house in Naples, but this time felt different.
The family and investigators know that Wendy went to a party in Old Naples with Ronald DePeppo, then 20, whom Wendy had met at a Naples bowling alley that fall.
Wendy and DePeppo left the party around 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 15, sheriff’s investigators said.
She received a page, and DePeppo told investigators they stopped at a pay phone at the corner of Airport Road and Davis Boulevard so she could make a call.
When she got back into the car, DePeppo said she told him she wanted to go home because she was meeting up with someone else.
Authorities weren’t able to determine if there was in fact a page, who she called, or if she met with anyone else that morning.
She hasn’t been seen since.
Authorities have identified some people as “persons of interest,” but have no suspects.
After 10 years, leads slow down, said Sgt. Ken Becker of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office Special Crimes Bureau.
The last one came in about 18 months ago regarding “suspicious activity” by DePeppo, he said.
“I sat down with him for a long period of time. His details of the evening were the same then as they were the night of the incident,” said Becker, who discussed the case with the Daily News on Friday.
DePeppo told authorities he dropped Wendy off at her home after they left the party.
“The only thing we know with any certainty was that he was with her last,” Becker said of DePeppo.
At the same time, there were leads early on from people who said they saw Wendy at different locations after her disappearance, but not with DePeppo.
“This is a true mystery that we haven’t been able to solve,” said Becker, who was the first detective on the case in 1998.
The Collier County Sheriff’s Office receives about 400 missing person reports a year. On average, there are 20 to 30 missing people in Collier County at any given time.
Wendy’s case has gone on longer than any other that Becker has worked on; yet he hasn’t ruled out the possibility that Wendy is still alive.
Her DNA is in a national database, but no one has used her name or identity since her disappearance.
Adding to the mystery was an event that occurred on Dec. 1, 1998, two weeks after Wendy vanished.
DePeppo’s 1991 blue Mazda, the car he was said to have used to drop Wendy off at home in the early hours of Nov. 15, 1998, was destroyed in a fire. Sheriff’s investigators concluded the fire was an accident.
DePeppo turned his charred vehicle over to the Sheriff’s Office for forensic processing and photos.
“There was nothing in there (after the fire) that linked Wendy to that car even though we know she was in there,” Becker said.
Polygraph tests given to immediate members of Wendy’s family ruled them out as suspects.
Marking the 10 years of her disappearance, the Collier Sheriff’s Office issued a press release and posted a video Friday morning on YouTube with Becker describing the case and seeking information.
Police reports don’t take note of the family and friends Wendy left behind.
Sharlene is now 26, married and expecting her second child. Her little sister never got to be maid of honor at her 2002 wedding.
Shelley and Dan Campbell live in a North Port house that Wendy has never seen, in a city where the teen never lived. The family dismantled her bedroom, gave away most of her clothes, and sold their Golden Gate home in 2004.
Wendy was trying to find her niche in high school at the time she disappeared. She missed her native Ontario, Canada, where the family had move from when Wendy was in middle school. She shared her feelings with a friend in a letter dated June 15, 1998.
“Hey what’s up? A lot here, you might be seeing me. I hate my life here,” the teen wrote to her friend Lynda Balaniuk, now 24, who recited the letter over the phone from Ontario two days before the 10-year anniversary of Wendy’s disappearance.
“Free-spirited, everyone’s so attracted to her. She’s magnetic,” Balaniuk said, recalling the girl who lived down the street from her in the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill.
Balaniuk started a page on the social networking Web site FaceBook called “Have you seen Wendy Hudakoc?” to inform people about Wendy’s disappearance and provide a way to get in touch with Wendy if she is still alive.
“I always am hoping she’ll find me someday,” said the 24-year-old, who works as a nanny in Toronto. “I just sort of try to think of all the possibilities instead of just ‘she’s dead somewhere’. Maybe I’m just in denial.”
The family waited for answers from investigators after Wendy disappeared.
Dissatisfied and anxious, they followed up leads on their own and drove north to Crystal River, near Tampa, chasing one lead down.
They hired a private detective and even psychics to find out more.
Both Shelley Campbell and Sharlene admitted to themselves within a year of Wendy’s disappearance that their girl was gone.
They are both candid about the scenarios that have run through their heads: that she was sold off, that she was drugged, that someone “got fresh” with her and when she fought back, she was killed intentionally or not.
“I don’t believe in a lot,” said Shelley Campbell, whose mother died within a year of Wendy’s disappearance. “But after my mom died, I went outside to have a cigarette.”
“I went (said to my mother), ‘at least you’re up there with Wendy.’ And this hand went on my shoulder, and I turned around and thought it was Dan or Sharlene. And there was nobody there.”
It was a sign from her mother, Shelley Campbell believes, that Wendy is with her.
“That’s when I knew for sure there wasn’t a hope in hell. Up until then, I was 95 percent sure she was gone, but I still had that 5 percent of hope. And after that, it was like my mom told me, she’s got her.”
There is a memorial site in Ontario with Wendy’s name. It’s next to Shelley’s mother’s grave.
Wendy’s stepfather keeps her library card on his key chain.
“We understand Wendy’s gone,” Sharlene said. “We don’t even want to know who did it, just what happened. Can I have my peace?”
An age-progressed photo of Wendy Hudakoc and information on this case, and other missing persons in Collier County, can be found on the Collier County Sheriff’s Office Web site under “Missing Persons” at www.colliersheriff.org
, and also on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Web site at www.ncmec.org
Tips on this and other missing persons cases can be phoned in anonymously to 1-800-THE-LOST, or to the Collier Sheriff’s Office at (239) 774-4434.