As the sun began to rise eight years ago today, Charlie Bell Jr. told his wife goodbye for the last time.

He had been acting strange the night before and, over the past few months, had several ups and downs battling methamphetamine use. That morning, however, he was frustrated he had overslept an anticipated hunting trip.

From the residence in Fulton where the couple was staying, Bell, 34, apparently traveled to his other home on Route E near Harrisburg. There, a friend was cleaning a red Ducati motorcycle that would later become synonymous with his disappearance. Bell allegedly told him he was going to meet an associate — who was not a friend — to cut a deal. He would be back that afternoon and the two would go out to hunt deer.

Bell then drove his BMW sedan to the construction site of his nearly completed home a short distance away, also on Route E, and met a lifelong friend who was working as the lead contractor. They spoke for about an hour and a half. It would be the last conversation the two would ever have.

Since that day, Sept. 15, 2011, Bell has been missing. He is believed to have been murdered in a drug deal gone wrong. The Boone County Sheriff's Department has worked hundreds of tips and leads in the case, and while obstruction and evidence tampering arrests were made, a suspect has never been charged in his death, nor has his body been recovered.

Thousands of pages of investigative files obtained by the Tribune show justice in Bell’s death remains elusive — and always may, as the man many have pointed to as the primary suspect died years ago.

Detective Tom O’Sullivan, when pitched that information, said such a claim was “speculative,” and he was not in a position to respond. He did say the case is still active and the agency has worked tirelessly.

“This has been a very exhaustive investigation,” O’Sullivan said. “There have been very few other cases that come to mind that we have expended so much manpower and resources to find out what went on.”

Bell, whose family said was generous to a fault, had loaned or given many people money over the years. Some theorized his death resulted from a disgruntled beneficiary. Others believed he wrecked his red Ducati. Another rumor emerged that he had fled the country and was traversing the European countryside.

Rumblings of a drug deal came from a few sources in the early stages of the investigation. Those claims were supported in October 2011 by Patrick Curl, one of two people eventually charged in Bell’s death but not with murdering him. Curl told Detective David Wilson he heard a rumor Bell was involved in a deal with a group of Mexicans out of Kansas City, but that he personally had not witnessed anything.

Suspect identified

It was not until August 2012 that some light began to emerge in what remains the most corroborated account of Bell’s death.

That month, Wilson received a tip that Curl had the license plate from Bell’s Ducati. He told investigators he simply picked it up from the missing man’s shop one day because he needed one. Curl said he didn’t realize it was the plate off the Ducati until he passed a missing person’s poster. Curl “freaked out,” he told Wilson, cut up the plate and threw it in the trash, where it was never recovered.

On Sept. 26, and unbeknownst to the public until now, a short story in the Tribune named the man placed by a witness at the scene and pulling the trigger — Kenneth E. Cook.

The article was about the execution of a search warrant in the 7400 block of State Route VV that yielded a meth lab and firearms. Cook decided to turn himself in for on the drug warrant and arrived Oct. 8, 2012 at the Boone County Sheriff’s Office with his pastor, Chester Lahmann. Shortly before his booking in the methamphetamine case, he sat down for the only interview he would ever give regarding Bell.

Cook told detectives he had not seen Bell for three or four months and the last time was at his house near Harrisburg. He didn’t care for some of Bell’s associates and wanted Bell to do business with him, but he declined. He declined to provide authorities with the names of Bell’s associates, and after some conversation about his whereabouts, he was booked on charges related to the lab.

Based on a tip, authorities about a week later searched a pond for clues near a Millersburg address where Cook once lived, and found nothing. There is no indication the pond, near the Route VV address where Cook was linked to drug manufacturing, was ever searched.

The elder Bell, who says it was only because of his tip that investigators raided the Route VV residence in the first place, and he doesn't understand why the pond at that location wasn't searched. It was one incident in many he took issue with in regards to the county-conducted investigation.

Detective Heath Chinn was assigned to the case, the elder Bell said, and he "wouldn't tell me nothing, but wants me to tell him everything. I called him one day and told him they were looking for Kenny Cook, I told him where he was living. Well the next morning they raided the house.

“My son had a lot of guns and I asked Chinn ‘did you recover any weapons I might be able to identify.’ He said ‘we can’t give up any information on what we recovered but if you give me a description we might be able to match it up.’ I said ‘Charlie had 40 or 50 guns, I don't know which one, but might be able to recognize one.’ Just that kind of shit.”

Two more ponds ultimately would come into play, one near Columbia Freightliner and the more infamous farm pond on Route J near Rocheport, which garnered substantial media attention when drained, but neither brought authorities any closer to locating Bell.

In January 2013, Cook died before prosecutors had a chance to secure a conviction. And as it had many times in the past year, the case had seemingly come to a dead end.

Smoking gun

Jennifer Freeman, who along with Curl was the only other person ever to be charged with a crime in Bell’s death, had also struggled with methamphetamine addiction and was a longtime cohort of Cook. She first entered the investigation in April of 2014 when she was in jail on an unrelated charge and another inmate heard her talking about the case.

Freeman denied any knowledge of Bell at that time, but in July of that year came forward with new information in an eyewitness account, saying she was tired of the nightmares. Detective Tony Perkins drove to Freeman’s residence in rural Randolph County on July 28, 2014 to meet with her.

She told Perkins she was with Cook when he shot Bell in his garage on Route E, although she was outside getting beers out of a cooler at the time. After hearing a bang, she walked back in and saw Cook holding a smoking gun and Bell bleeding out on the floor.

Freeman said the altercation was over a drug deal between the two involving a hefty amount of cash, although she did not know for certain the details of the transaction. Curl was there, she said, and he and Cook wrapped Bell up in plastic, chicken wire and chains with cinder blocks attached. Bell’s body was then placed in the back of a pickup and the three drove away.

The afternoon sun would have been high in the sky when the trio allegedly arrived at a pond near a highway where they sunk the body of Bell in a shallow area. Freeman says she stood on the bank acting like she was fishing, concerned because the spot was so public. After Cook and Curl allegedly waited to ensure the body was beneath the water, the three drove off and returned to Bell’s house.

Freeman said she then helped clean up the blood in the garage, while Curl left on the Ducati and Cook stood by watching. Detectives would later conduct a search at the garage that would show the presence of the missing man’s blood.

The elder Bell said that to this day he believes that is what happened, although the pond Freeman would later direct authorities to near the intersection of state routes EE and J did not yield his son’s body. Later, he would speak with Freeman himself and ask her why she misdirected investigators.

“She was so stoned out of her mind and high that she couldn't remember,” Bell said. “I said ‘well why did you lead the county to this pond?’ And she said, ‘well they were looking for a pond to drain.’ They turned off the road and said ‘does this look like it’. And she said ‘maybe,’ and they drained the pond for no reason. No physical evidence at all.”

Two days later, on July 30, 2014, Freeman and Curl were both arrested on suspicion of hindering prosecution and evidence tampering. Both were sentenced to prison, Freeman to two years and Curl to six. Both are now free and still living in Missouri. Freeman clammed up following her arrest, but it would not be the last time she would speak with investigators about the case.

'I don't want to die'

In the meantime, the Bell family continued to press for answers and found few. Following the convictions, the media spotlight on the case faded, and Bell’s story remained only on websites for cold cases and missing persons. Charlie Senior is now offering $75,000 for information that leads to the recovery of his son.

That is in addition to the $10,000 reward offered in June by Crimestoppers for information that would lead to an arrest in any of 15 unsolved Boone County murders dating to 1978.

“You hear all this bullshit about ‘I wish the family could get closure,’” the elder Bell said. “Well there is never closure. I lost a son. You don't get over that, but for the rest of the family, there is a grave to go visit by recovering the body. From day one I thought, with all these low life son of a bitches, one of these days they are going to slap their old lady and she is going to need the reward money and come and tell me what happened. And that is my intent with the reward, which has never happened.”

Bell’s mother, Doris Boyce, says she too still hopes to find her son’s body. She says she is still not sure what happened to him and does not believe Kenny Cook killed him. He was there and involved, she said, but she believes he did not pull the trigger.

“I don’t think the sheriff’s department believes that either,” Boyce said. “I think everybody is scared. If it was Kenny Cook that shot Charlie, why is everybody scared shitless and afraid to talk. It’s been eight years. I know one man with information, his wife and kids were threatened. We just need some answers. It doesn't seem real some days. It’s almost like you get up in the morning and bury him again.”

In May 2015, at the Chillicothe Correctional Center in Livingston County, detectives placed a microphone and recording devices on a table in one of the prison’s interview rooms to talk to Freeman. The narrative during this visit marks the last of hundreds of pages of investigative files obtained by the Tribune.

Freeman had been behind the walls for about six months. For the first time in many years, she was sober as a judge. Her tale begins strikingly similar to her story from the beginning. But as she reached the moments surrounding Bell’s death, detectives gave her the name of another man and asked if he was there.

Freeman remained silent. She turned to her attorney and conferred, then admitted the man was in the room. It was the unidentified suspect who pulled the trigger, and not the now-deceased Cook, she told them.

Why did she lie, the detectives asked.

“Because I don’t want to die,” and because that was what a dying man wanted her to do, she replied.

ppratt@columbiatribune.com

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