He’s gone by the names Alex Debel and Simon Storm, but his real name is Robert Kuehn, and he’s probably the last person who saw Laura Howard alive. Howard’s decomposed body was discovered inside her Moreno Avenue home May 5, 2013.
In the months leading up to her death, she had been letting Kuehn live in a spare bedroom in her house. She told a neighbor that he was going to help her do repairs around her home and needed a place to live.
“He had a whole story concocted, but investigators found out none of it was true,” said Trish Routte with Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers.
Kuehn’s story went like this: He was from Canada and was actually in the United States illegally. He was here to track down his ex-wife, who had run away with their children.
“I said Laura, ‘Do you think this is a good idea? What do you know about this man?'” recalled Carol Brotherton, Howard’s friend and neighbor.
It turns out, Howard didn’t know much. Kuehn, who Howard knew as Simon, had a history of violence. A Broward County Sheriff’s Office arrest record from 1986 shows that, at the age of 17, Kuehn was arrested for attempted murder, grand theft and military desertion from a United States Naval base in Illinois.
A newspaper article from 1986 detailed how Kuehn was discovered on a boat he’d stolen from Fort Lauderdale. When a marine officer inquired with him about what he was doing, Kuehn apparently got a fishing knife and stabbed the man. A bystander saw the encounter and was able to help police bring Kuehn into custody.
Court records show he served time in jail in Broward County for the offense. A background search lists addresses all over Florida for Kuehn during the 1990s and early 2000s. After 2007, there are not official records listed for Kuehn.
“It’s classic, they, you know, have this whole fake story. They avoid photos. They avoid large gatherings, and they, you know, kind of lurk in the background,” said Cassandra Mador, Howard’s daughter.
Mador said her parents had gone through a messy divorce, and her mother decided to move to Florida to start fresh.
Brotherton described Howard as a kind person who would do anything for anyone. She shared a story about how Howard invited the entire neighborhood to her house for a party shortly after she moved in.
“She cooked up all this food, and it was all homemade. That was just the kind of person she was,” recalled Brotherton, who said she had a strange encounter with “Simon” before Howard’s body was discovered.
Brotherton said “Simon” came across the street and asked her if she wanted to purchase Howard’s television.
“I should qualify this with Laura, and I had previously discussed her getting a new TV and me buying hers. But he didn’t asked me if I was still interested in her TV. He just asked if I wanted it,” Brotherton said.
After paying him $400 for the television, Brotherton said Kuehn told her not to call Howard to thank her because she was not feeling well.
“I thought that was odd because Laura and I had an agreement that, if anything happened, we would look out for each other,” Brotherton said.
After a few days of unreturned phone calls, Brotherton was getting worried.
Howard’s family was worried as well. Mador said her brother was set to visit when, all of a sudden, she stopped answering the phone.
“She was only communicating to my brother, Greg, in text,” Mador explained. “There were some like verbiage being used and some language, and just, it just wasn’t her.”
After Howard failed to show up to pick up her son from the airport, family and friends knew something was seriously wrong.
Brotherton said she and a few friends went over to Howard’s house and noticed that very cold air was coming out of the doggy door, which was odd because Howard apparently didn’t keep her air conditioning set that low.
According to Routte, whoever had last been inside the home, methodically kept the smell of a decomposed body from leaving the home.
“The air conditioning was turned down to a very, very cold level,” Routte said. “The windows were sealed up with wet towels to prevent any kind of odor from decomp being noticed by neighbors. Everything was done in order to give Simon some time to get out of town.”
A timeline provided by the Fort Myers Police Department shows Howard’s abandoned vehicle was located in Tequesta, Florida the same day her body was discovered in Fort Myers.
Then, a month later, police in Margate located Howard’s marriage license, driver’s license and passport. A woman who had disabilities told police she was letting a man named “Alex Debel” stay in one of her spare rooms. The woman’s friends became suspicious of “Debel” and asked for him to provide some identification.
“When one of the friends called him on the table and said, ‘Let me see your ID,’ he said, ‘OK, I’ll go up and get it.’ Instead of coming back to downstairs with the ID to prove that he was who he said was, he took off out of the window, never to be seen again,” Routte explained.
Police in Margate found Howard’s marriage license in the bedroom where “Alex” was staying. They later found a duffel bag containing Howard’s passport, driver’s license and other personal items near the home.
“In this case, when he jumped out that window, that was the last we heard of him,” Routte said. “There weren’t tips on him. There were no sightings of him and because he has the training, the skillset to go off the radar, to move around unbeknownst.”
Routte described Kuehn as a chameleon with the ability to easily change his name and appearance.
Howard’s daughter worries that he could be doing the same thing to someone else as he did to her mother.
“The only reason we put ourselves through retelling and rehashing and reliving these experiences is for the opportunity to spread awareness of this man of the story and to flush him out,” Mador said.