Two years after Stephanie Warner's disappearance, Jackson County Sheriff's Department detectives now believe the Applegate woman is dead and that her boyfriend knows the location of her body.
Detectives have identified 62-year-old Lennie Ames, her boyfriend at the time of her disappearance on July 4, 2013, as a suspect but no charges yet have been filed. Investigators say their suspicions are based on physical evidence they have collected and alleged inconsistencies in Ames' statements about Warner's whereabouts.
"We believe he's responsible for her death, and that he took her somewhere, and that he knows where she's at," said sheriff's Detective Eric Henderson. "He holds the key."
Investigators believe Ames is in Georgia, but they haven't been able to get in touch with him for about a year. What led to Warner's death remains unclear.
"The only two people that would know that are Stephanie and Lennie, and Stephanie is no longer here," Henderson said.
Warner, 43 at the time of her disappearance, was last seen at the Ashland Independence Day parade in 2013. She wore black pants and a pink tank top at the event. Days later, police visited Warner's home for a welfare check after receiving concerned calls from family in Louisiana.
Investigators found the home and her animals — cats, a sheep and a goat — had been abandoned. They believe Ames was the last person to see Warner the evening of July 4, 2013.
Ames told investigators that Warner dropped him off at the Ruch Country Store that evening, and that he then got a ride out to his camp on land owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. He claimed that on July 5, he received a ride back to Warner's home, but she wasn't there. He then drove her green Nissan Xterra to a Williams market, then back to her driveway before friends took him to his camp, where he stayed for several days. Detectives say he never reported Warner missing.
Friends, family and even Ames have told police that disappearing without a trace was out of character for Warner. Detectives say she was an active volunteer, including with the Jackson County Fuel Committee.
Warner's older sister Sharon Lambert says the last two years have been hard for her family, not knowing where Warner has disappeared to.
"Just imagine not knowing where your loved one is for the last two years. It's heartbreaking," Lambert said in a phone interview. "When you have someone who passes away, and you know that they have passed away and you bury them, as time goes by, things get a little bit easier. But with this situation, it doesn't get any easier. It gets harder."
Lambert said Warner loved working outside in her yard and garden and cared for animals. She also had taken a shine to her volunteer work with the Fuel Committee, Lambert said.
"Whatever she was into, she was into it full blast," Lambert said. "She wasn't one of these people who just did something halfway."
Though police believe Warner is likely dead, Lambert said her family hasn't given up.
"We have never stopped praying for her to be found," Warner said. "Until we find her one way or the other, there is hope. You can't give up."
There reportedly has been no activity on Warner's bank account since her disappearance. Her Xterra has remained parked at the sheriff's department since July 9, 2013.
The sheriff's department said it will continue to search for Warner. It has conducted searches across the region, including the area around her house, Applegate Lake, mining claims in Jackson and Josephine counties and Ames' camp.
Ames admitted to sheriff's detectives investigating Warner's disappearance that he knew his campsite off Waters Gulch Road was illegal and had made efforts to conceal the camp from BLM law enforcement personnel, according to court documents. He allegedly told detectives he had planned to make a mining claim on the land. Ames has a warrant out for his arrest on charges of offensive littering and second-degree criminal trespass — both misdemeanors — stemming from that investigation in October 2013, court records show.
Ames and his son, Jared Fournier, previously had been convicted in the U.S. District Court in Medford of a federal misdemeanor charge of unlawfully occupying a residence on national forestland. In motions filed with the court, Ames unsuccessfully argued their campsite on U.S. Forest Service land was part of a legitimate mining operation being conducted on three mining claims he claimed to own. Both men were sentenced to probation and fined $750.
Jackson County Circuit Court records show Ames was later convicted in 2011 of tampering with physical evidence in connection with Fournier's arrest on a marijuana-manufacturing charge, which was later dismissed.
Anyone with information about the Stephanie Warner case is asked to call the Jackson County Sheriff's Office tip line at 541-774-8333.
"Even if you think it's some little thing, please come forward," Lambert said. "Stephanie is very much missed by her family, and we want her back."
Reporter Thomas Moriarty contributed to this story. Reach Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.