By MICHELLE FRIEDRICH
The Thursday arrests of four individuals believed to have had a role in killing Carla Ann Austin led additional witnesses to come forward with possibly new information about what happened in August 1999.
Johnny Leon Austin, 44, Melissa Jo "Missy" Austin Baggett, 39, Henry "Marlin" Rice Jr., 41, all of Qulin, and Tracy Lynn Austin Rea, 43, of Neosho, Mo., all were arrested on warrants charging them with the Class A felony of second-degree murder.
The four were charged in connection with the August 1999 death of Carla Austin. Authorities believe the 33-year-old was killed in retaliation by members of her late husband's family, who held her responsible for his earlier death.
Baggett and Rea were Carla Austin's stepdaughters, while Johnny Austin is the sisters' first cousin. Authorities describe Rice as a longtime friend, who was considered part of the Austin family.
Authorities believe all four played some sort of role in either allegedly luring the victim to the location where she was killed or in allegedly causing her death.
"We were obviously pleased we were able to get all four suspects brought into custody, especially since there was such a wide geographical range we had to work with, with one suspect way out in Neosho," explained Butler County Sheriff Mark Dobbs.
Rea, according to Dobbs, was actually the "very first one" taken into custody Thursday when she was arrested at her Neosho home by Butler and Newton county deputies at about 9 a.m.
"We had a team in place the night before in anticipation of the warrants," Dobbs said. Rea was booked at the Newton County Jail and then transported back to Butler County, where she is being held on $500,000 cash or surety bond.
When members of the sheriff's department and Missouri State Highway Patrol set out to arrest the three Qulin residents Thursday morning, "we basically began looking for (Baggett) first, and firmly believe she was in full anticipation of the warrant and fled the Qulin area when she learned law enforcement was in the Qulin area," Dobbs said.
Officers, he said, actively were looking for Baggett for several hours. "Eventually, she came to the front lobby and turned herself in" at about 3 p.m., he said.
Baggett was booked at the Butler County jail and subsequently transported to another county jail in Southeast Missouri, where she is held on $500,000 cash or surety bond.
Officers arrested John Austin at about 10 a.m. at his place of business, Austin Tire, on Highway 53.
From there, the officers went to the public housing at the intersection of Fourth and Seventh Streets, where they contacted Rice in his apartment.
Both men were arrested without incident and taken to the Butler County Justice Center for processing.
John Austin and Rice subsequently appeared Thursday before Associate Circuit Judge John Bloodworth and were formally arraigned on the charge, according to entries in Casenet, Missouri's online court reporting system.
During his appearance, John Austin asked for more time to hire an attorney, and Bloodworth ordered he appear at 9 a.m. April 26 for a counsel status hearing.
John Austin reportedly was released from jail at 12:51 p.m. after Childress Bail Bonds posted his $500,000 surety bond.
Public Defender Steven Lynxwiler entered an appearance on Rice's behalf and made an oral request for a reduction of the $500,000 cash or surety bond. Butler County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Paul Oesterreicher reportedly objected to the request, which Bloodworth denied.
Bloodworth ordered Rice to appear at 1 p.m. May 10 for a preliminary hearing on the charge.
Lynxwiler also made an entry of appearance on Rea's behalf today during a hearing in which his client waived formal arraignment and pleaded not guilty to the charge.
Butler County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Barbour objected to Lynxwiler's oral motion for a bond reduction for Rea, which Bloodworth denied.
Bloodworth also ordered Rea appear at 1 p.m. May 10 for a preliminary hearing in her case.
Baggett, according to court personnel, was to appear at 11 a.m. today before Bloodworth for arraignment. Poplar Bluff attorney, Danny Moore, has filed an entry of appearance on her behalf.
As the alleged suspects continue through the court process, authorities now are "following up on several leads, which have developed since the arrests (after) individuals have came forward to volunteer information" about Carla Austin's disappearance and death, Dobbs said.
Carla Austin, who lived in the 200 block of Midland Street, was last seen at about 12:30 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 8, 1999, at a bar in Qulin. Family members reported her missing later that day.
Carla Austin left her children, then ages 7 and 8, with a baby sitter on Saturday, Aug. 7, 1999. She had not called to check on her children or family since her disappearance.
After talking with family and friends at the time of Carla Austin's disappearance, authorities suspected foul play was involved.
At about 4:30 p.m. Nov. 23, 1999, a deer hunter found skeletal remains scattered in a secluded and wooded area surrounded by fields, just north of County Road 680 and about one and one-half miles northeast of Qulin.
The remains were positively identified as those of Carla Austin through the use of her dental records. At that time, how or when she died was not determined.
Based on the evidence, there were no obvious signs of trauma to the body indicating a cause of death.
Officers, Dobbs earlier said, now believe on the night Carla Austin went missing she was "no doubt involved in an altercation at the Three Sisters bar and was lured away from the bar by one or more of the suspects and taken to a remote location off of County Road 633, north of Qulin, where she was severely beaten and suffered a fatal laceration."
According to Dobbs, there was a "long-running family dispute involving the death of the victim's husband, Mike Austin, who was a native of Qulin (and) died, as the result of a gunshot wound in 1997, at his residence." The investigation into Mike Austin's death led authorities to rule it a suicide.
After Mike Austin's death, Dobbs earlier said, there was "much dispute among his family as to whether his death was a suicide or if in fact, as they believed, Carla Austin, the victim, caused his death."
Authorities, Dobbs said, believe Mike Austin's family members "made good on threats" of retaliation.
"We are pleased that people are coming forward" with more information about what transpired in 1999, Dobbs said. "… Oftentimes, suspects have to get these types of situations off their chests and vent to people. This has happened numerous times over the last 13 years."
The individual suspects "venting their role in the incident contributed to their demise as much as anything in this case," Dobbs said. "We feel this is a case that will be stronger as time progresses, (and) just because we've made the four arrests, doesn't mean its stops there."
People coming forward that haven't come forward before is one of the "main factors that helped us solve this case," however, this case is the result of a "lot of hard work," Dobbs said. "There is no one thing that broke this case. It's a matter of numerous factors and numerous witnesses.
"There's no one thing or one witness that makes this case. It's a combination of a lot of stones that had to be turned over and a lot of things that had to come together."