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August 21, 2019

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Frustration, desperation in cold case of missing mother

Detectives still hoping for a breakthrough almost 3 years after woman disappeared

Cold Case Mystery: Abby Roberts 2

Steve Marcus

Jeremiah Roberts points to a photo of his mother Abby Roberts (a composite image created for his second birthday) at his home Wednesday, June 10, 2015, in Henderson. With Jeremiah are his uncle, Johnny Roberts, and his mother’s aunt, Renee Roberts. Abby Roberts and her boyfriend Phillip Johnson disappeared from their Las Vegas rental home on Sept. 29, 2012.

Cold Case Mystery: Abby Roberts

Metro Police Detectives Barry Jensen, left, and Marty Wildemann stand in front of a rental home in a neighborhood near Pecos Road and Harmon Avenue Tuesday, June 9, 2015. Abby Roberts and her boyfriend Phillip Johnson disappeared from the home on Sept. 29, 2012. On Oct. 3, 2012, Johnson dropped off his son and Robert's two-month-old son with relatives in California. His car was later found abandoned. Launch slideshow »
Phillip Johnson

Phillip Johnson

Abby Roberts

Abby Roberts

About Abby Roberts

Female

Born April 3, 1987

5 feet, 3 inches tall

125 pounds

Pacific Islander of Samoan descent

Brown hair, brown eyes

Tattoos: “Semba” and “Michael” on her wrists, a tribal tattoo on her left arm, “Respect” and “Loyalty” on her torso

The veteran police investigators never met Abby Roberts, but they talk about her like she’s an old friend. They reflect on her big heart, her independence and her passion for family.

“Abby was so loving and caring,” Marty Wildemann said as his partner, Barry Jensen, nods. “She was truly a victim.”

Roberts, a young mother who vanished from her eastside home nearly three years ago, is special to the detectives. Among hundreds of Las Vegas disappearances they’ve investigated over careers spanning more than a dozen years, Roberts’ haunts Wildemann and Jensen more than any other as they approach retirement in a year. They know they are close to cracking the case; they just need the right witness or evidence to surface.

Jensen and Wildemann don’t have proof, but they believe Roberts is dead. They’ve spent years looking for her body, poring over evidence and asking dozens of people for clues. Yet for all their experience, they’re stumped.

“Barry and I are at the twilight of our careers,” said Wildemann, a 27-year veteran of the department. “We really want to see this case closed.”

Abby's disappearance

Standing inside the garage of Roberts’ house at 3119 Aldon Ave., Jensen and Wildemann squint as they search for faded clues they hope will generate answers about her disappearance. Soot stains mar the ceiling, and a ring of scorched debris marks the pavement floor — faint but lingering reminders of the day she went missing.

“Three years ago, these were much more prominent,” Jensen said. “Some of it has been cleaned, some of it has been painted.”

Those stains seem insignificant, but they could yield precious leads on where Roberts is.

Roberts’ family reported her missing Oct. 9, 2012, about two weeks after she and her live-in boyfriend stopped showing up for work at the U.S. Post Office on Sunset Road near McCarran International Airport. Neither has been heard from since.

Police didn’t find any signs of foul play at the couple’s home or any evidence directly connecting a suspect, but Roberts’ relatives suspect Phillip Johnson, her boyfriend of one year and the father of her then-2-month-old baby, played a part in her disappearance.

Family members told police Johnson had plenty of motive. Roberts was planning to leave Johnson because she believed he was unfaithful, her family members said. Roberts and Johnson were moving out of their new house after living there only a month.

“There’s no way she would have left her child,” said Roberts’ aunt, Renee Roberts.

Johnson’s family told police they haven’t heard from Johnson since Oct. 3, 2012, when he drove the car he shared with Abby Roberts to Torrance, Calif., to visit his mother and drop off the couple’s child and Johnson’s son from a previous relationship.

Attempts to reach Johnson’s relatives were unsuccessful.

Detectives don’t know where to find Johnson, and without more substantial evidence or a witness, they can’t move the case forward. So they’ve kept working, trying to get local and national TV programs to feature it in hopes it might yield clues that could lead to an arrest.

“I’m sure frustrated,” Jensen said. “It would be really hard for us to go into retirement without at least having questioned him or found out if he’s alive.”

Jeremiah

When Renee Roberts’ doorbell rings, Jeremiah Johnson comes bounding down the hall to answer.

He’s almost 3 years old now, and the boy’s full lips and wide-set eyes look more like his mother’s with each passing day. Other traits — his tight brown ringlets, for example — resemble his father’s.

“Every day when I look at him, I hurt for her to not be in his life,” said Renee Roberts, who cared for Abby Roberts when she was young and now is caring for Jeremiah in her absence. “This kid was everything to her.”

Portraits of Abby Roberts are all around her aunt’s Henderson home. The family hopes one day to show her just how much her little boy takes after her. They yearn for Abby’s honesty and outspokenness.

“I miss our fights,” said her younger sister, Leirene Roberts, 15. “She had this bossy attitude and always wanted to be in control. I wish she was here so we could fight again. I would take that any day over this.”

The family laughs as Jeremiah angrily tries to claim his cousin’s spot on a living room couch. He doesn’t just look like his mother; he has her character, too.

“Scoot!” Jeremiah shouts at his cousin. “Scoot it off!”

A family's resentment

When her niece first disappeared, Renee Roberts focused her frustrations on the Johnson family. They haven’t offered answers about Johnson’s whereabouts, checked on Jeremiah or answered the Roberts’ phone calls.

That resentment since has spread toward Wildemann and Jensen. Why won’t they try harder to bring Johnson in for questioning? Why don’t they have enough evidence to charge him with a crime? Have they thrown Abby’s case to the back burner?

“In the beginning, I really had a lot of faith in them,” Roberts said. “But now, it has been three years, and I don’t understand why they can’t find him.”

The detectives understand. They don’t blame the Roberts family for being upset because the investigation has stalled.

But they haven’t given up. With every call they make to media, they maintain hope that sharing the story publicly will nudge tipsters into coming forward.

“These guys, they catch a case, and they never let it go,” said David Stanton, a prosecutor with the Clark County District Attorney’s Office who has been working with Wildemann and Jensen on Abby Roberts’ disappearance. “These are the types of guys you want on your case.”

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