Television audiences love cold cases. But in real life, these long-standing unsolved crimes bedevil detectives and haunt families. Often there are no clues, no evidence, no indication of foul play, and no note suggesting suicide. A person has simply gone missing, and no one knows why.
Families and friends suffer great anguish. They wonder if their loved one was murdered or wanted to escape an old life. They wonder if detectives are searching as aggressively as they could be. They wonder if they could have done more to prevent the disappearance. They wonder if sightings were mirages.
Here’s one of the most confounding Orange County cold cases, involving 81-year-old Bob Harrod from Placentia.
After almost two years of despondency following his wife’s death, Harrod was happy again. The 81-year-old from Placentia had reconnected with a girlfriend from his youth, nearly 60 years later. Harrod and Fontelle Heeter married at the Fullerton courthouse in 2009. His new wife then returned to her Missouri home to collect her belongings and prepare for the move to California.
On July 27, about a month after their wedding, Harrod spent the day with his son-in-law getting the house fixed up in preparation for Fontelle’s arrival. In the afternoon, the son-in-law drove off to Home Depot to buy a new toilet tank for the upstairs bathroom. When he returned, he found the maid, whom Harrod had called earlier in the day to clean up the house, waiting outside. The front door was locked. Harrod’s keys and wallet were gone, but he didn’t take his glasses or his car.
Bob Harrod was never seen again.
The Placentia police eventually approached the case as a homicide but could not find a body or evidence of a crime scene in the house. Detectives conducted an intensive investigation, including examining video surveillance and polygraphing family members and those close to Harrod, who was worth about $5 million though he lived modestly and drove an old Toyota.
The investigation stalled and Harrod’s daughters hired a private investigator, posted fliers, and offered a $50,000 reward. In 2013, Placentia police eventually turned to renowned investigator Larry Montgomery, dubbed “The Evidence Whisperer” by “Dateline NBC,” which featured one of his cases. Montgomery, who retired from the Orange County District Attorney’s office and is now working part time for the department, has put more than 20 killers in prison and cleared some of the county’s most notorious cold cases. The Harrod investigation, he says, is ongoing. He has uncovered a few new leads but declines to elaborate.
“Placentia police did everything they could,” says Montgomery, who has a methodical manner and an impressive recall when discussing the details of decades-old cold cases. “They turned to me because I’d handled a few cases for them in the past, they trusted me, and I look at things a little differently.”
Harrod’s finances piqued the interest of investigators. Shortly after his first wife’s death and before he reconnected with Fontelle, he began spending time with a 44-year-old woman who was his barber. He loaned her $86,000 over a period of nine months, but after he married Fontelle, he demanded to be paid back.
Detectives found notes at Harrod’s house indicating he intended to put his new wife’s name on some assets, including properties. A week-and-a-half after he disappeared, two of Harrod’s daughters filed a petition for conservatorship in order to obtain control over their father’s assets. They intended to use some of the money to put up the reward, pay bills, and maintain the house. Fontelle contested the action, moved into Harrod’s house, and changed the locks. She was forced to move when Harrod’s family inherited the property in 2014; in California a person can be declared dead if they have been missing for five years.
“While it’s nice to have a body in a case like this, it’s not a necessity,” Montgomery says. “You can always bring witnesses into court to show that the person was responsible and that there’s no way he’d simply disappear—unless he was dead.
“Yes, this is a missing person’s case, but I’d call it a very suspicious one.”