Aug. 17-- Aug. 17--KENNEWICK, Wa. -- Related story: This retired detective spent 35 years in Richland. He's digging into Kennewick's cold cases
June Howard could not wait to celebrate her youngest son's 2nd birthday.
The 26-year-old Kennewick mother had been telling family and friends for weeks that she was getting ready for the special occasion on June 21, 1978.
But she never made it to the little boy's party. June went missing five days before her toddler got to blow out his candles.
June's husband said she walked to a nearby store for cigarettes one evening and never returned. He filed a missing person report 11 days later.
Police always suspected Steve Howard played a role in her disappearance, but they didn't have the evidence.
Her body has never been found.
Almost 40 years later, prosecutors now say her husband murdered her.
The conclusion came because a retired Kennewick police detective and a cold-case investigator didn't give up trying to find her.
But there will be no justice for her three sons and other loved ones -- Steve Howard died in 2000.
Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller said while it was too late to file murder charges, the finding "would bring closure to the family and an answer for the Kennewick Police Department."
Even though investigators consider the oldest Kennewick missing-person case solved, her name will remain in the National Crime Information Center's missing persons database in case her body is ever found.
However, there's little chance of that.
Some connected to the case believe her body was submerged in a large, heated acid tank in Steve's auto repair shop.
The tank, once used to clean engine blocks and cylinder heads, would have ensured there was no trace of June Howard left to find.
Trouble from the start
June and Steve Howard moved to the Tri-Cities in 1976 with their infant son, Tod.
The couple had met in Sulphur, La., and dated for a short time before marrying in July 1975.
June was 24 and on her second marriage, and Steve, 29, was on his third.
Her first two sons were being raised by her first husband in Texas. Steve was a Yakima native with family in Benton County.
The young family first lived in a Pasco apartment, then moved into a Whispering Winds mobile home in Kennewick.
She was a stay-at-home mom and Steve rented shop space in Kennewick to operate "Auto Specialists."
It didn't take long for relatives and neighbors to sense that trouble was brewing in the relationship, according to interviews and the investigation by Al Wehner, a special investigator under contract with Kennewick police to take another look at unsolved mysteries.
Steve had been an amateur boxer for eight to 10 years and was known to have a bad temper and penchant for violence.
Friends told police they occasionally saw June with red marks and bruises, and knew that she was frightened of him. He once threw a coffee table at a sliding glass door in anger over something June had done on their son's 1st birthday.
Threats to ex-husband
Gayle Broussard, June's first husband, recalls getting a phone call from June's father in the summer of 1975 to come pick up his two sons because Steve was mistreating them.
That was six days after June and Steve's wedding and the boys, who were visiting with their mom, already were scared of their new stepdad.
Steve followed up with his own call to Broussard, saying the boys needed some discipline and that he had done nothing wrong.
Broussard, a cop who had an amicable divorce from June, then banned Steve from seeing the boys ever again.
That's when Steve threatened to "kick his ass" one day if he caught Broussard without his shiny badge and gun.
Broussard now lives in Magnolia, Texas, and is retired after 42 years in law enforcement, including with the Houston Police Department.
"He was a tough guy. And he ended up being a tough guy with women," Broussard told the Herald.
He'd heard from June's family at the time about her abuse and broken bones.
A few months before June disappeared, Broussard told her he would find her a safe hiding spot in Houston if she needed to get away from her husband.
June said she would think about it, and even mentioned the conversation to her mother, but she never asked her ex for help.
June tried once to leave Steve.
On Valentine's Day 1978, she took their son back to Louisiana. One day later, she met with an attorney about separating from her husband.
A petition was filed Feb. 16, 1978, in Calcasieu Parish. However, Kennewick investigators didn't know the document existed until Wehner, the cold-case investigator, discovered it in 2016 while digging into the couple's background.
June requested immediate custody of the couple's son and half of their community property.
And she asked to be "awarded a separation from bed and board" because Steve was guilty of cruel treatment toward her, making "their living together insupportable."
It went on to say that Steve, on various occasions, cursed and physically abused her "by pushing her around and hitting her with his fist and threatening to kill her, which caused (her) great physical and mental pain and suffering."
She also asked for a temporary restraining order, saying she was afraid for her and their son's safety.
A hearing was set in three weeks, but it's not clear if June showed up. At some point she returned to the Tri-Cities and to Steve.
No leaving town again
Friends and relatives of both June and Steve later told detectives that Steve made it clear June was not to leave town again with their son.
If she did, Steve would have gone to the ends of the earth to find his boy, and then would kill June, according to interviews done by the investigators.
Tod Howard later told investigators that when he was a teen, his dad admitted telling June that if she took him away again there would be problems.
June reportedly shared similar concerns with her ex-husband that Steve would hurt family members who tried to interfere.
Broussard's last contact with June was six days before she went missing, when she called to wish her oldest son a happy 10th birthday.
Walk to the store
On June 16, 1978, June ran errands with a neighbor friend, including buying a quilt at a garage sale for her toddler's bed. They were back home about 5 p.m.
Steve told police June left again between 8 and 9 p.m. to go to the nearby 7-Eleven for a pack of cigarettes. He said she walked instead of driving her red Malibu.
The next day, Steve called June's mother in Louisiana and asked if his wife was there. He said she never returned from the store.
He then called his brother's wife, accused her of taking June somewhere and later suggested June may have been hitchhiking.
Two days later, Steve called his mother-in-law to say that his own mother was going to come to the Tri-Cities to help him and his son move back with her to Louisiana.
Co-workers said Steve acted as if it was business as usual and that he didn't seem too affected by June's disappearance.
Reports show he gave different, even conflicting, versions and theories to family, friends and police about what happened and where she might be.
He told some that June packed up all her belongings at left. He told others that she left everything behind, including a favorite dress.
He told one neighbor that June thought an employee at 7-Eleven was cute and they were having an affair.
Other friends said Steve told them that June moved back with family, and that she'd abandoned her first husband and kids the exact same way.
Steve told his own relatives that he hired a private investigator who found June strung out on drugs and prostituting herself in east Pasco. He also claimed his attempts to find her failed.
He never told police detectives that he'd hired a private investigator. His family only revealed those discussions in 2016.
Steve reported June missing to Kennewick police on June 27, 1978. He described his wife as 5-foot-4 with brown eyes, though she was 5-foot-1 and had green eyes.
Police asked local news media, including the Tri-City Herald, for help in publicizing June's disappearance, but received no tips. Two months later, the investigation was put on inactive status.
At the time, Kennewick police Detective Doug Fearing asked Steve to take a polygraph test and he agreed. But he never came in and Fearing soon learned Steve had moved to Louisiana between August and October of that year.
Fearing didn't give up.
He re-opened the investigation in September 1980 and asked Sulphur police to help find Steve and conduct the polygraph examination. But the test still didn't happen.
Two years later, Fearing asked the Louisiana State Police for help and they assigned a detective. Steve twice told that investigator he would do the polygraph, but changed his mind.
A week later, Steve was about to take an unrelated polygraph for a job application to be a law enforcement officer in Louisiana. He had been working as an auxiliary sheriff's deputy and was trying to get hired full-time.
He suddenly refused the test after he was told he'd be asked about his missing wife.
A few days later, he sent a four-page letter to Fearing, complaining that the Kennewick detective's pursuit of him qualified as police harassment and was causing him mental anguish.
He professed his love for June and that she had walked away.
Over the years, Steve continued to tell different stories about her. Investigators say he even had a woman pose as his sister to tell a Louisiana detective that she'd overheard a call from June long after she disappeared.
Their son didn't know his mother was still listed as a missing person until he was contacted by investigators in November 2011. But by then his dad had been dead 11 years.
Tod Howard told Wehner three years ago that he only had one discussion with his dad about June when he was teen, and at the time he felt Steve's denial was genuine.
Steve had told his son that his mom had been doing drugs at that time and she walked out on them.
Cold case investigation
When Wehner was handed the cold case in 2016, he confirmed that no one had heard from June since 1978. And there was no sign of anyone trying to get a job or benefits with her social security number.
Broussard described his ex-wife as a momma and daddy's girl who always ran home to her parents when she had a problem.
June left Broussard about four times during their six years of marriage for what he described as child-like tantrums, but he said he always knew where she was.
"There's no way she would have disappeared from (Kennewick) without contacting them that she was alive," he told the Herald. "I told the detectives that from the beginning. I'm absolutely 100 percent convinced of that, she would have reached out to her parents."
And Wehner concluded it was virtually impossible for June to voluntarily remain missing for so long without support from someone. And he wondered why June didn't reappear after Steve died in 2000 in Kansas.
Broussard stayed in contact with Fearing through the initial investigation, with other Kennewick detectives over the years and more recently with Wehner as he wrapped up the case.
He even tried to contact the TV show "Unsolved Mysteries" about featuring June's disappearance.
"It took me probably six months to a year to put it out of my mind, but I kept hoping she'd show up some day. But gradually as more and more time, as days and months went by, I was convinced (Steve) had done something to her," said Broussard. "My primary concern was for my sons. She is the mother of my children. That is a sacred thing, no matter how I got along with her or my feelings."
"She didn't deserve this. I don't care who you are, you don't deserve to die at somebody else's hands out of madness or getting even," he added.
Broussard knows it is a "one in a million shot," but still holds out hope that June's remains will be found or someone alive knows exactly what happened to her.
Missing mom haunted detective
Fearing is grateful the police department doggedly pursued the old case.
Fearing credits Wehner, a retired Richland police captain, who started working with Kennewick in April 2015 and spent five months in 2016 focused on June Howard's case.
Fearing was forced to medically retire in 1983, but maintained contact with June's family and even held onto a personal file with his own notes on the case.
He said it was one of two cases that has haunted him all these years.
"Even though we didn't get to bring Steve Howard to justice, (Wehner) was able to provide her mother Elizabeth (Baker) with the knowledge that, yes, we know what happened now," Fearing said. "We can verify it and, if we had to, we could prove what happened."
"It made me feel better. I wasn't wrong after all," he added.
Prosecutor Andy Miller outlined his legal decision in a two-page document in June Howard's investigative file.
He was most convinced by the evidence of domestic violence in the Howard's relationship and because there was no evidence she contacted anyone after disappearing. He concluded there was no reason why she wouldn't have eventually reached out to her parents or her children.
"Finally, his statements to various police officers and his family members after he reported her missing in 1978 lacked credibility, and were inconsistent and often contradicted by other evidence in the case," Miller wrote.
"Some of that could be attributed to human nature and not always remembering exact details, but, in this case, there were too many and too serious contradictions by Mr. Howard himself," he said.
For Fearing there's no doubt.
"To me the unfortunate thing is that (Steve) died. He got away with it. He got away with murder, and no one deserves that," he said.
"She didn't deserve that. Her family didn't deserve it. Her son didn't deserve it. And we will never know why, if something triggered it."