FORT MYERS, Fla. Shavon Johnson still remembers the day her grandmother disappeared.
“My grandmother… she was a precious lady,” she said.
Verna Marie Richardson, 48, vanished on July 7, 1990 when Johnson was 12 years old.
Johnson, who was living with Richardson at the time of her disappearance, said her grandmother briefly separated from her husband and was dating a man named Alexander Smith.
Smith came to Richardson’s home on South Meadow Court the day she disappeared.
Richardson called her son that day asking him to come over. He said he would, but ended up falling asleep.
Richardson got into a fight with Smith and told her granddaughter she was going to take him home, Johnson said.
But she never returned.
“What could I have done better? How could I’ve talked my grandma into that night not to leave this house and she still would’ve been here to this day,” Johnson said.
Richardson’s best friend called her family the next day, Johnson said, saying her grandmother called her from a payphone at the Eastend Service mart in Okeechobee off State Road 70.
“She said our grandma had been beaten and tied up and put in the back of the trunk by Alexander,” Johnson said.
The gas station clerk remembered her walking into the store wearing her nightgown, according to the Doe Network.
It was the last time anyone saw her alive.
Richardson’s family went to Okeechobee to search for her, but to no avail.
A week after her disappearance, Richardson’s son spotted Smith driving her car in Fort Myers. He told her son that she was staying at a hotel and offered to lead him to her.
But Smith drove onto Interstate 75 and flipped the car, Johnson said. He was arrested for drunk driving, but was released hours later.
Richardson’s purse was found on the front seat.
“They let him out because they said they didn’t have enough evidence because they didn’t have a body,” Johnson said.
Smith, who appeared to have changed his name to Marion Williams, was arrested multiple times over the years in DeSoto County, where he now lives.
Johnson recently visited him in prison and asked him where her grandmother is.
Smith didn’t respond, and authorities still haven’t found her body.
But even after nearly 27 years, Johnson refuses to give up the search.
“The precious memories live on,” she said. “I say that she lived through me. People always ask me why I’m smiling and I say, ‘Sometimes you gotta smile to ease the pain.'”
Anyone with information is asked to call the Lee County Sheriff’s Office at 239-477-1000 or Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers at 1-800-780-TIPS (8477).