Dena Dean cold case: New technology gives Tulsa investigators hope of solving abduction and murder
04/17/2018 5:07 pm PDT
UPDATE June 6, 2020:
Dena Dean's parents have hosted a vigil and cookout every year since her death to keep her memory alive, KOTV reports. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Deans decided to keep the gathering small this year and turn the vigil virtual instead of doing a large, in-person event.
A special team of investigators with hundreds of thousands of hours on the job believes they are closer than ever to catching a killer, one who haunted Oklahoma for years.
Crime Watch Daily visits Tulsa, Oklahoma, where a family that has been waiting a very long time may finally get the justice they so desperately deserve.
It's been 20 agonizing years since Larry and Diana Dean have seen their sweet daughter Dena.
Dena was an honor student and a member of the marching band at Webster High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with dreams of becoming an attorney. But when Dena turned sweet 16, the fan of auto-racing stopped chasing cars and took a sharp turn toward boys.
Dena's parents thought she was just dating boys her own age. What Larry and Diana didn't know was their daughter had secretly been seeing a new guy.
"I don't think her parents would have approved of him," said Carey Goldman, best friends with Dena since first grade. "I think her parents would have just sensed that maybe he was a little too old for her or wasn't the type of boy they wanted their daughter with."
Did Dena tell you about her boyfriend?
"She told me that she was seeing this boy named Michael, and that she really liked him," said Goldman.
That boy's name is Michael Converse. The 18-year-old worked as a checker at Marvin's grocery store, drove a red pickup truck, and was the son of local minister Robert Converse, who preached out of his living room.
Carey says Michael had a reputation as a teenage Casanova, and the rumor around town was he frequented a wooded area near his home called "Lovers Lane."
Normally on Saturday nights in the summer, Dena would head to the auto racetrack after her shift at Arby's to meet her family. But on June 6, 1998, Dena has a last-minute change of plans.
"She told me that this boy wanted to talk to her when he got off work and she asked me if she could," said Diana Dean. "Michael Converse."
Because Larry and Diana didn't know Michael, they told Dena she could go, but she had to stay in the parking lot of the grocery store where he worked.
"She said 'I'll see y'all at home, you know, 10:30 or 11, when you get home,' and that's the last communication I had with her," said Larry Dean.
"There was no red flags at all," said Diana Dean.
But by 11 o'clock, the red flags were gusting. By midnight Larry and Diana were in a full panic. Finally, a phone call -- but it's not from Dena. It's one of her girlfriends.
"We got a call about midnight saying our car was in the parking lot but Dena was nowhere around," said Diana.
Larry heads to the strip mall looking for answers, and his daughter. He finds Dena's car parked right in front of Marvin's grocery store, where she was supposed to meet Michael.
Store receipts reveal Dena bought a few snacks in the market. She went through Michael's check-out, and then walked outside to make a call.
"Who she was talking to, I don't know," said Larry Dean.
But it's what Larry discovered inside Dena's car that had him terrified.
"Unlocked, windows were down," said Larry.
"Her wallet was in the car and an uneaten sandwich was in the car, so we knew something was wrong," said Diana.
Larry told Diana to call the Tulsa County Sheriff's Department and immediately begins searching for his little girl.
"Everybody thought she was a runaway but me," said Larry. "I knew better, Dena wasn't going to run away.
"We drove around behind the shopping center and checked all the Dumpsters to see if she was in one of them," said Larry. "Because Dena wouldn't have run away. She had to have been abducted and taken."
But by whom? A witness in the parking lot told cops she saw a girl fitting Dena's description fighting with someone in a red pickup truck.
"A truck pulled up there and she was walking beside this truck and was yelling and screaming at the people in the truck, they were arguing," said Larry.
Because the parking lot is next to a major freeway, investigators immediately suspect Dena's been kidnapped, possibly in a case of human-trafficking.
"I think she got into the truck, not willingly," said Larry.
But then a bizarre letter surfaces that takes Dena's mom's breath away.
"Dena had told Michael that she was pregnant on Thursday night," said Diana Dean.
Dena Dean was your typical teenager, on the honor roll at school, working part-time at a local fast-food place and dating several boys. But one night, when she went to meet one of those boys, she never came home.
Just two days before Dena disappeared, Carey Goldman says, Dena hit her new boyfriend Michael Converse with the shocking news.
"She told him that she was pregnant," Goldman tells Crime Watch Daily.
A few days later Dena tells some friends that Michael wants to meet up after work to discuss their future. Eyewitnesses say they saw someone who looked like Dena in the parking lot having a heated conversation with two men in a red pickup truck.
"I knew him to have a red truck," said Goldman.
And after the truck sped off, Dena was nowhere to be found.
"Dena had told the boy she was pregnant on Thursday night. He wanted to talk to her when he got off Saturday, and she never came home," said Dena's mother Diana Dean.
Tulsa County sheriff's investigators tracked down Michael Converse looking for Dena, and answers. But they're floored by what the 18-year-old and his father, the Reverend Robert Converse, both have to say.
"They kept saying that Michael didn't even know Dena, Michael had never been out with Dena," said Diana.
In fact Michael Converse told investigators he was bowling at the time Dena went missing, and deputies confirmed his alibi.
So if it wasn't Michael, who was in that red pickup in the parking lot, and where is Dena Dean? Investigators start to wonder if she was hauled off by a total stranger.
"Because of the location she was at, they could not say that she hadn't been abducted by somebody traveling," said Diana.
Days pass. Hopes of finding Dena alive fade.
"They came to us on Thursday night, I guess it was, and told us they wasn't looking for Dena anymore. They was looking for a body," said Larry Dean. "'If Dena was still here, she would have contacted somebody.'"
Still, deputies can't help but wonder if Dena's rumored pregnancy is somehow connected to her disappearance, so they go back to Michael and ask him to take a polygraph test.
"They give him two lie-detector tests, and he flunked both of them," said Larry.
At this point, investigators believe Michael Converse is lying. So cops draw up a triangular search grid pinpointing the last three places Michael was seen on the night Dena disappeared: the parking lot, the bowling alley and his house.
"They said 'We're gonna look in that area to find Dena. She's there somewhere,'" said Larry.
Tragically, detectives didn't have to search long. In a remote area known as "Lovers Lane," they find Dena's body. She had been in a field decomposing for six days. Dena's body was so badly mutilated and decomposed that the medical examiner couldn't determine how she died.
But there is one thing the autopsy confirms without a doubt: Dena Dean was not pregnant.
She was just making it up.
"Yes," said Dena's friend Carey Goldman.
Why do you think?
"I don't know. I wish I knew," Goldman said.
Some friends say it was a twisted joke. Dena was upset Michael had been ignoring her and wanted to teach him a lesson. Those friends also claim they wrote Dena a note indicating Michael was upset, and she needed to tell him it was all a joke. They say Dena went to the parking lot that night to let Michael know he'd been pranked.
"Dena had played a horrible joke and lost her life for it," said Goldman.
The Tulsa County District Attorney now believes it's established motive. The D.A. presents the case to a grand jury, but there's not enough evidence to indict anyone.
For nearly two decades Dena Dean's case remained ice cold -- but not anymore.
Inside a "war room" within the Tulsa County Sheriff's Department lies the country's only known civilian cold-case task force.
"I formed a task force of retired Tulsa policemen, FBI, DEA, ATF, I mean a group of just outstanding people," said Mike Huff, coordinator of the Tulsa Cold Case Task Force.
And they're not just any people volunteering. Even though they're retired, these are 22 of the best in the business, with more than 1,000 years of experience between them. And please don't ever question their motivation. They aren't paid for this.
"For the families," said investigator Doc Shannon.
And now the task force could be on the brink of giving Dena Dean's family the answers they've been patiently waiting for, for nearly two decades.
Sixty new witnesses paint a very vivid picture of what happened the night Dena Dean went missing.
How did she die?
"Well, obviously she got off from Arby's and then she went to the Marvin's food store and waited for this young man to get off work," said Mike Huff.
Michael Converse got off work about 10 o'clock that night. Investigators can now confirm someone else showed up at the grocery store before Dena: the Reverend Robert Converse.
"His father shows up about 9:40," said Mike Huff. "Twenty minutes before she went missing, he showed up at that store."
"That's a $64 question," said Huff.
It's what the task force has now uncovered about the reverend's actions the morning after Dena went missing that has sounded the loudest alarms.
"The father showed up at the store wanting his son's time card of that night, clocking out that night," said Huff. "He also wanted the soft drink bottle, if it was available, in a trashcan where his son ran a checkout lane. That time card showed the exact moment he clocked out of work. The bottle, that's readily available DNA."
Initially, the son and the father were persons of interest.
"Michael Converse said that he did not meet Dena Dean after he got off work, and Robert Converse said that he did not have any interaction with Dena Dean the evening that she disappeared," said Doc Shannon.
"They just lied about the whole circumstance. Lied about seeing her, lied about a relationship. It's just amazing," said Huff.
Is it possible one of them was the killer? The answer may be in the autopsy report. There was one injury to Dena's face investigators believe could solve the mystery.
"She had a broken mandible," said Huff. "It wasn't just a fracture. It was a broken jaw."
Oklahoma's volunteer cold case task force claims it's sitting on a hotbed of explosive new evidence and inching closer to solving the 20-year mystery of what happened to 16-year-old Dena Dean.
Twenty-two retired but highly skilled investigators have been chasing Dena Dean's killer. And now they're telling Crime Watch Daily that they have evidence and eyewitnesses to prove Dena's boyfriend Michael Converse, whom she went to meet the night she disappeared, may have been involved.
The task force claims he asked Dena to meet him in a parking lot once she told him she was carrying his baby. But investigators say when Dena arrived to tell Michael she wasn't really pregnant, he wasn't alone. The cold-case task force claims Michael's father, Minister Robert Converse, was also waiting.
Michael and his father have been named persons of interest, but both have repeatedly maintained they're innocent for the past 20 years. Their fingerprints were not found at the crime scene. But the task force claims there is a new way to look at the old evidence. And now they believe new technology could help find Dena's killer.
The retired investigators re-run the old evidence. One of the new tools is called familial DNA. And when they re-test the DNA at the scene, they get a hit. It's not Michael Converse, or his father, but it is a member of the Converse family.
Investigators now believe the minister's brother Steven Converse is somehow involved. He has never been charged with anything in connection to Dena's death. But deputies did serve a search warrant to get a sample of Steven's DNA. When they showed up to collect that sample, deputies claim Steven Converse made what they call a "spontaneous utterance."
"There's a term in the law called 'Res gestae,' which means a spontaneous utterance," said investigator Doc Shannon. "And the uncle said something that we're really happy to hear. I'm not going to tell you what it was, but it was really good. We've developed witnesses who have said that the uncle was complicit in the abduction and death of Dena Dean."
Crime Watch Daily tried to reach Steven Converse for comment but could not find him. Investigators say the old evidence could also reveal a whole new clue as to who dumped Dena in that field. They believe retesting Dena's clothes with brand new technology could reveal 20-year-old fingerprints.
All three Converse men continue to maintain they had nothing to do with Dena Dean's disappearance, or her death. But we wanted to give them an opportunity to tell their side of the story.
Michael Converse didn't answer the door at this home. So next we headed to Minister Robert Converse's house. But as we turned onto his street we were stopped dead in our tracks.
While we were in Robert Converse's neighborhood to go to his home down the street to talk to him about what he knows about Dena's murder, the sheriff's department interceded and asked us to retreat so they could serve a search warrant.
It turns out shortly after our interview with the cold-case task force, Tulsa County Sheriff's deputies headed to Robert Converse's house with a brand-new DNA search warrant.
"We've met with the D.A. We are positioning ourselves to ready this for prosecution," said Mike Huff. "So we are marching downfield and we're getting ourselves prepared for success. I feel really strong that this is going to see the inside of a courtroom."
For now, Diana and Larry Dean wait for the day they finally get justice for their little girl.
"I'm seeking justice and that's all," said Larry Dean. "I just want to hear that judge say 'Guilty,' and then it's all gone, the pressure, the sadness, everything is over with. Yes, I'm still going to remember Dena, I'm still going to put the flowers out at the cemetery, but that 20 years of fighting will be over with."