In the small town of Trenton, Missouri, everyone knows everyone. And everyone also has a theory on what really happened to a young father named Tanner Ward.
Tanner Ward was a young man on the verge of a new direction in life after some rocky teenage years. He was finding happiness with his fiancée Megan and their daughter Sophia.
"That's a true love story right there," Tanner's sister Kelsey Ward tells Crime Watch Daily. "He would do anything for her. Never leave her side, no matter what."
The town of Trenton, Missouri is very small and very close-knit.
"We wave, we say hi. It's kind of a throwback, really. People really wave and they're friendly with each other," said Trenton Police Chief Thomas Wright.
Trenton is a town too small to get lost in -- until the evening of June 7, 2017, when Sophia's daddy never came home. It was just before dinner when Tanner kissed Sophia goodbye and popped out to visit a friend.
"I said 'I'm going to grill some chicken and fix salad, do you want some?' He said, 'I'm only gonna be gone 30 minutes, go ahead and fix a piece for me,'" said Tanner's mother Lisa Ward. "He said he had to go meet a friend, and I said 'Who are you going to meet?' And he said 'Jeremiah.'"
"Jeremiah" is a new friend of Tanner's, and someone Tanner's family hardly knows.
Who is Jeremiah?
"Good question," said Tanner's sister Kelsey. "I've never heard of this kid in my life. I know everyone in Trenton, and Jeremiah, I've never seen him."
But hours later on that June evening, dinner is cold. Tanner didn't return.
"That was unusual behavior for Tanner. I said 'Has anybody talked to or seen Tanner?' No, no one had heard," said Lisa.
"I was sitting there and I was thinking I was like 'Yeah, you know, this isn't like Tanner,' like not to hear from him, not to see from him, nothing, or him just drop in and say 'Hey,'" said Kelsey.
The next day Kelsey followed up on her suspicions, finding out where Jeremiah lives and tracking him down.
"I knocked on the door but no would answer, and I opened the door, it was unlocked," said Kelsey. "I was like 'OK, maybe they're just sleeping.'"
But inside, Kelsey's met with a shock.
"The whole apartment's like trashed. There's a big hole on the wall. The back door that leads out to the side of the apartment was wide open," said Kelsey.
And there, within the overturned furniture and wreckage, Kelsey sees something that stops her cold: Tanner's baseball cap.
"I was like 'OK, that's weird,' because he never goes anywhere without it," said Kelsey.
Kelsey takes the hat to the police, and they promise to look into it. But for the moment, cops tell Kelsey not to panic.
"'He's just a runaway. Tanner is just hanging out with some girl getting his mind right.' Well no, that wasn't like Tanner," said Kelsey.
Two more weeks pass, and no Tanner. His mom Lisa is convinced something's very wrong.
"I cannot imagine that he walked out my door on June 7th and said 'I'm giving up, I'm not doing this anymore,' and walked out of everybody's life, especially Sophia's," said Lisa Ward.
Tanner's sister Kelsey prints up flyers, hanging them everywhere in Trenton and surrounding towns. That's when Kelsey runs into Jeremiah face to face.
"Jeremiah gets out of the truck and I'm like, as soon as he walked around the truck, I was like 'That's my brother's, that's the shirt Tanner went missing in,'" said Kelsey.
And there's something else that stands Kelsey's hair on end.
"I said 'What the hell is on your shirt?' Because it looked like four little cigarette-burn holes," said Kelsey. "He's like 'Oh, nothing, those are stains.' I was like, 'Those don't look like stains.' I was like, 'OK, well I'm calling the police.' Well, Jeremiah's like 'I'll just meet you up at the police station.' I was like 'OK.'"
The family has never even heard of this guy until Tanner goes missing. And yet according to Kelsey, Jeremiah is wearing Tanner's shirt after Tanner's disappearance.
"Jeremiah was someone that we looked at hard. We talked to him a lot," said Trenton Police Chief Thomas Wright.
The talks start that very day at the police station. Chief Thomas Wright wants to do a forensic test on the T-shirt. But according to Kelsey, Jeremiah's strangely reluctant.
"I said 'Why? Why wouldn't he willingly give you that T-shirt and nothing's wrong with it?' He's like 'I don't know, but I had to take it off of him,'" said Kelsey.
Was Jeremiah indeed wearing Tanner's shirt after Tanner had disappeared?
"That's yet to be seen," said Chief Wright.
Was there any blood spatter on the shirt?
"There was a couple anomalies in the shirt. I can't say that they're blood, but we've certainly asked for them to be tested," said Chief Wright.
There's another test for Jeremiah, a voice-stress test.
"It indicated some level of deception," said Chief Wright.
Has he been helpful with the investigation?
"I would say the young man tried," said Wright.
It's enough to lead cops right to Jeremiah's doorstep.
"They went out to Jeremiah's dad's property in Edinburg, did a search out there," said Wright.
And right outside the back door, cadaver dogs get a "hit": a burn pit.
"We went down, did a forensic dig. The site was probably six-foot wide by 10-foot long," said Chief Wright. "We went all the way down to compacted earth and then another foot after that using equipment."
Deep within the pile, bones were found. But it's a dead end.
"We found lots of little bones, looked at by an anthropologist, who said they were animal bones," said Chief Wright.
Cops are back at square one. Tanner Ward's family wrings their hands in worry for six more excruciating months.
"You don't ever think that it's gonna be the last time you see someone," said Kelsey Ward.
A young Missouri father tells his parents he's going to visit his friend and will be right back. Six months later, Tanner Ward still hasn't returned.
Police have questioned that friend hard to see if he is hiding something about Ward's disappearance.
Tanner Ward, 19, father to a precious baby girl, was engaged to be married when he vanished into thin air. While Ward's family desperately searches for him, police follow up on every lead, but they're all dead ends.
"We still at this point believe that foul play could very well possibly be involved," said Trenton Police Chief Thomas Wright.
Then, on a cold December morning six months after Ward disappeared, a truly heartbreaking discovery.
"Two kids on their way to school reported seeing a body in a tree," said Chief Wright.
A corpse is spotted hanging from the neck up in a tree above a tangle of branches. The body is badly decomposed, making identification difficult. The fingers are mummified, and the feet are missing.
Chief Wright calls Tanner's father Curtis Ward to the scene. If it is Tanner, the chief doesn't want the boy's dad to hear it from anyone else first.
"There was several articles of clothing, shoes, pants, a sock that was underneath there. That stuff had all been underneath there for a while based on the way it looked and based on the stiffness of it," said Chief Wright.
Curtis Ward calls Tanner's mom with the news. And the two of them hold their breath.
Authorities conduct an autopsy. They check dental records to confirm the body's identity. Tragically, it is Tanner Ward. And then they reveal the cause of death.
"The preliminary findings is a suicide. The information that we've obtained from the forensic pathologist, there is no injuries to that body other than what was sustained during the fall from the tree around the neck," said Chief Wright.
It devastates Tanner's parents, and it clears some previous persons of interest.
So Jeremiah currently is not a person of interest?
"That's correct," said Wright.
Any other persons of interest or suspects?
"No," said Wright.
But Lisa Ward is adamant that her son didn't commit suicide, saying it just doesn't make sense.
"If I truly believe my son put himself in that tree, I could maybe accept it," said Lisa. "But there's not a fiber in my body that believes my son killed himself."
Lisa says there was absolutely no sign Tanner would take his own life.
"There is no note. He was not suicidal, didn't have suicidal tendencies, was very involved with his family," said Lisa.
In fact, Lisa says Tanner had everything to live for.
"He was making plans for Father's Day weekend, he was making plans for when his dad got back from deployment," said Lisa.
But even as Tanner's family members try to come to grips with their grief, the rumor mill in the small town of Trenton goes into overdrive.
"We've gotten a bunch of text messages or messages or tips on all of what happened to Tanner," said Kelsey Ward.
Lisa's inbox fills up with hints and clues from Tanner's friends and even total strangers, all painting a picture -- not of suicide, but something far more sinister.
One tip says: "He was tortured for about four months and they killed him and kept him in the freezer."
That one keeps Tanner's family up at night.
"That they had beat my son with a baseball bat, that they tortured him, they hung him in either a well or a fruit cellar, kept him alive, but unfortunately he had died," said Lisa.
The texts are very clear: Tanner didn't commit suicide. Somebody murdered him.
"I think he was tortured, honestly. I think he was alive for some months and then they just killed him because they didn't know what to do," said Kelsey.
And only later was Tanner's body hung up in that tree in a staged suicide.
"I think there's just a lot of people feeding the fire," said Chief Wright.
Chief Wright says those various theories are just a bad game of "telephone."
"There's been a lot of folks that have come forward with information that really don't have anything," said Wright. "They get secondhand information, it gets distributed, it gets added to. And by the time it gets to us, it's very convoluted, it's difficult to follow. A lot of people have really good theories, but the evidence is not there."
But Tanner's family says the evidence is there -- and you need to look no farther than Tanner himself.
"When my husband told me that he was on site when they took the body down, he described to me what his body looked like, and the fact that it was mummified," said Lisa. "In north-central Missouri, it's very humid and very moist, there is a lot of moisture, rain, thunderstorms that come through our area June through September. In order for a body to mummify, it has to be away from humidity and away from moisture."
"It was not decomposed enough. There was no signs that insects had been on him, birds had touched him, anything," said Kelsey.
Tanner's family says there is no way Tanner's body was hung in that tree for six months, exposed to the heat of the summer. They claim he was kept elsewhere and strung up the day he was discovered.
"We've gotten a lot of messages on, like, that he was buried and dug up, moved, put in a freezer, thawed out, all that sorts of stuff," said Kelsey.
Rumor and speculation? Maybe. But it matches up with something the family says isn't in question. And it comes from an eyewitness at a construction site just yards from where Tanner was found hanging.
"He said 'Ma'am, I've been 10 feet of that tree multiple times throughout this entire year. I can assure you he was not in that tree at that time.' And their work storage building is 25 feet from that tree," said Lisa. "Twenty-five feet in July and August and September. Pretty stenchy, wouldn't you think? You'd smell something."
In a Crime Watch Daily exclusive, we go back to scene where Tanner's body was discovered with one of the witnesses who found it. And what that person says raises some very serious questions.
"I believe my son did not put himself in that tree, did not hang there for six months," said Lisa Ward.
If the body was there for six months, did anyone else see this something hanging from the tree?
"No," said Kelsey Ward.
And Tanner's family says eyewitnesses prove his body wasn't there all this time.
Tanner's childhood friend was the first to discover Tanner hanging in the tree on that brisk day in December. Tanner's friend has asked us not to show his face or use his name, but he does want to tell his story because he can't shake the image of what he and his girlfriend saw that morning on the way to high school.
"It was windy that day so we heard the wind push it and the tree creak, so we looked up," he tells Crime Watch Daily. "It was like right above that stack of wood and that's when I realized it was real."
Tanner's friend tells us there's no possible way he could have missed seeing it before.
How often had you walked this path prior to finding Tanner?
"I know two or three days at least we walked here, me and her, and neither of us had seen anything," he said.
Is it possible that you were walking by here and you just thought it was part of the tree? It was just another branch?
"No. I don't think I could have mistaken it for a branch because he had on a gray T-shirt and dark blue bottoms. And we were close to it, we were close by there each day we walked by," the friend said.
And Tanner's childhood buddy isn't the only one. Veronica is a friend of Tanner's sister Kelsey. She got even closer less than a week before Tanner's body was discovered.
"We went right through here, me and my son. He went to go play on the pallets and he was just right underneath it," said Veronica. "I didn't notice anything at all. I feel like I definitely would have noticed."
But police say evidence shows Tanner had been hanging there for a while.
"Our forensic pathologist has said that that body has been there the duration of the time that it's been dead," said Chief Wright. "The path on both sides is lined with bush honeysuckle. That stuff was probably about 10 feet tall that we cut out of there."
The two teenagers who found them say "We didn't see the body," and I'm thinking if I'm walking and I'm a teenager, I may notice a body 20 feet above me dangling for at least one day out of this week on walking this path.
"It is unusual and it does give reason for pause," said Wright. "But I think that we have to look at a couple of things. One, we don't look up. You know, you've been here probably an hour. And you can't tell me what's on the shelf right behind you, because you didn't look. People don't look up."
Not noticing something like a bookshelf, that's a normal part of every day. But a dead body swinging from the trees, I would suspect most people would notice it.
"I don't have an explanation why nobody's seen it before. But that really doesn't matter. I think that body has been there the entire time," said Chief Wright.
But Tanner Ward disappeared six months before he was found. His family says in all that time somebody would have had to notice something. Now they're convinced he was killed somewhere else, then hung in the tree months later. It's a mystery that haunts his mother and sister. Every day they wonder if he paid the price for past sins.
"Tanner was no angel, but he wasn't the worst person in the world either," said Lisa Ward.
Tanner was in trouble with the law shortly before he disappeared.
"Tanner was starting to use drugs heavily," said Chief Wright. "He was taking whatever kind of drugs he could get his hands on. And these are words from friends and family."
Kelsey confirms Tanner was a regular pot-smoker.
But it's not just casual drug use. Tanner's history involved a violent confrontation one year before he vanished.
"Tanner was on felony probation for a home invasion in 2016 in which he and his brother had went into a house with weapons," said Chief Wright.
It all started with an angry teenage dispute over a drug deal, leading to Tanner and his older brother Tyler showing up with a gun and not allowing people to leave. Text messages sent to Lisa Ward say this is the incident that set off a violent war of retribution, involving Tanner's friend Jeremiah and his upstairs neighbor Stephanie Miller.
One of the people that were allegedly held hostage is the daughter of Stephanie Miller.
"Yes," said Kelsey.
And the theory is that Stephanie Miller didn't appreciate the fact that her daughter was held hostage, and decided to retaliate even further?
"Yes, but we were told that it was never supposed to get this bad. They didn't intentionally kill him, they were just supposed to beat him and let him go, but Tanner decided to fight back, is what we've been told, and that's when things went south," said Kelsey.
Stephanie Miller's daughter is never listed in any police report surrounding the home invasion. But Tanner's sister says pictures of a baseball bat in the back of an abandoned car help prove her theory that her brother was kidnapped, beaten and tortured.
Stephanie Miller has never been charged, named a suspect, or even a person of interest in Tanner Ward's death.
"I just feel like there's more to it than what we know," said Lisa Ward.
Chief Wright says he's heard all the stories, there just no evidence to support any of the family's theories.
"Throughout the investigation there was about nine different people who were reportedly involved in Tanner's death, four different methodologies, and none of those present at the post-mortem," said Chief Wright. "So, again, how do you make a homicide bullet hole in the head? You can't stab somebody repeatedly in the back and not have puncture wounds in the back. How do you make a homicide case off information that there's no credible physical evidence?"
Crime Watch Daily tried to interview Stephanie Miller about the Ward family's wild and unfounded allegations. She didn't want to appear on camera, but she did send us this statement:
"I don't know anything about what happened to Tanner. I'm not really sure exactly why or what their opinions are based on. It is important to me for the family to know I had nothing to do with this."
Cops have not listed an official cause of death, but they believe they know who killed Tanner Ward.
In your opinion then, your conclusion is Tanner Ward committed suicide?
"Preliminary, yes. Until we get our final results back and close the case, that's what it is," said Chief Wright.
It's a conclusion Tanner's mom is not willing to accept.
"At that point in time we made them aware we were having a second autopsy, a private autopsy done," said Lisa Ward.
"I don't understand why people would knock on our door and come give information if they didn't feel like there was some truth to it," said Lisa Ward.
At this point, the police preliminary autopsy points to suicide. But Tanner's family isn't buying it. They've hired an independent pathologist who's now studying Tanner Ward's remains.
Do you think when the autopsy reports come back, not the preliminary ones but the final conclusive reports, do you think you'll find the answers you're looking for?
"I do," said Lisa.
The answer Lisa is looking for is that her son was murdered. And now she's got other people who believe her.
The desperate mom reaches out to Susan Alexander, vice president of Missing and Endangered of Northwest Missouri, to keep the case alive.
"I do not buy it was a suicide," Alexander tells Crime Watch Daily.
You think it was a homicide?
"I think it was a homicide," said Alexander. "Tanner was a wonderful dad and had so many reasons to live that it's just very unlikely that he committed suicide."
Susan Alexander is more than emotional support.
"Nobody told us that that was all going to come out when we started this," said Alexander.
Alexander is helping guide Tanner's mom through the maze of truth versus innuendo, and an investigation police at this point are still refusing to share.
Is it that she's not getting answers, or is it she's not getting the answers she wants?
"I think as a mother, you would have to see it. The only thing we're asking Chief Wright to do for us is to show us these 10,000 pages of stuff that you've got. Bring those books out in front of us and let us see it so that we can compare, 'OK, this person said this, yes.' But they haven't done that with the family," said Susan Alexander.
With so much controversy and the official autopsy in limbo, we went to our own Crime Watch Daily expert: Dr. Bill Smock, police surgeon with the Louisville Metro Police Department for more than two decades. He's examined the bodies of countless victims of both suicides and murders.
Dr. Smock says Tanner Ward's case is a compelling one. Just looking at the photos of Tanner's body, Dr. Smock can tell one thing for sure:
"He had been hanging in that tree for an extended period of time. The way gravity pulls the body apart, the pressure is applied to the neck, so we have the body was basically pulling down, and over time it stretches. And as it stretches, you saw, it elongated," said Smock. "His body was mummified. It obviously had been hanging there for a while."
And the conditions outside in Missouri from June to December allow for a mummification process?
"Missouri is very hot in the summer, so yes, if he is out. It's humid, and in a temperate environment you can have mummification in three months. In a hot, dry -- two months or less," said Smock.
What about the indentation on the tree branch itself, where the rope was?
"That says that that he's been there for a long time," said Smock.
So it takes us back to the families fundamental question: if Tanner's body was hanging from that branch for a "significant amount of time," how in the world did no one see it?
"If you've got wind, you may not smell anything. The time of year, it was summer going into fall, so we have foliage. Was there foliage around that might have obscured the view from the path?" said Smock.
I walked that path, I know what a tree branch looks like. I'd probably out of curiosity, on the periphery, see it.
"Perhaps but it's so elongated -- 'Is that another tree branch, a limb?' But no, it's not unusual for bodies to be out in the woods for months and then foliage comes off, you're walking, and then you happen to look up at that time. Because when you walk are you always looking up, or are you looking straight ahead, or are you looking down?" said Dr. Smock.
But there are some things the state of the body cannot reveal for sure.
The family contends that Tanner was kidnapped and he was tortured for months. That's what the family's been hearing, and then somebody staged that scene to look like a suicide.
"Could have happened. When someone has been mummified, you lose a lot of forensic evidence. The internal organs will be gone, decayed. The only thing it really left are bones, maybe some marks on the external tissue, but even the bruising, any injury would be gone," said Dr. Smock.
Even if Tanner's body was in that tree throughout that Missouri summer, one question still remains.
What's your gut tell you? Did Tanner Ward commit suicide or was he murdered?
"This was, I don't know, could it be suicide? Sure. Could it have been a homicide set up to look like a suicide? Sure," said Dr. Smock. "Someone else took a look at the autopsy, maybe something was missed, but at this point we'll probably never know."
That may be the most heartbreaking conclusion of all: an unknown cause of death, leaving a family tortured in their grief and a little girl who may always wonder what really happened to her daddy.
Police tell us it should be only a few months until the DNA tests done on evidence like Jeremiah's shirt come back from lab. Until then they continue to have no suspects or persons of interest in the case.