What happened to Wendy Hudakoc? Florida teen remains missing after 20 years
05/04/2018 1:58 pm PDT
Two persons of interest. Two hard-hitting interviews. What do they really know about the disappearance of a Florida teen?
In Florida on the night of Nov. 15, 1998, 14-year-old Wendy Hudakoc sneaks out of her bedroom window and never returns.
Two decades later, the mystery of what happened to Wendy haunts everyone who loved her. Could two men hold the key to learning Wendy's fate? And is one of them her killer?
When Wendy Hudakoc's mom Shelly moved her and sister Sharlene to Naples, Florida, it was all to build a new life centered around new stepdad Dan Campbell.
"Her mother and I shared a lot of common beliefs," Dan Campbell tells Crime Watch Daily. "So it was easy as a stepparent to come into the family and join with rules that maybe were already there, already in place. And it just worked, it really did."
Like any other father-daughter relationship, Dan and his beautiful young stepdaughter forged a special bond. Wendy's older sister had her own unique bond with her sweet little sis.
"Book-smart, not street-smart. She was a lot of fun, full of life, very curious. Very, still finding her way though. She was only 14," said Sharlene Boyatt.
An all-American girl, with typical interests, from sports to boys.
"Boy crazy, yes. Boyfriend, as far as 14-year-olds go, there were a couple people that she was interested in, maybe had a crush over," said Dan Campbell. "She was still emotionally fairly young."
And like any teenager, a bit defiant.
"She was more of a rule-breaker than I ever was," said Sharlene.
It's Saturday in November 1998, Dan and Wendy's mom Shelly have plans to travel across the state to an overnight conference.
"I wasn't going to have a 16-year-old watching a 14-year-old by themselves in the house, so one of my coworkers, she was there, and I believe her boyfriend was there as well, and Shar had a friend over, her friend was basically like a third child, Shauna, and she was always over and so it was a normal weekend," said Dan. "I had no reason to be concerned."
"We had sitters, we had curfews, we had where we were and weren't allowed to go and with who, and we knew the rules," said sister Sharlene.
But young Wendy has her own plans after the parents leave.
"She would test the boundaries far more than I ever did," said Sharlene. "She was very rebellious in that fashion. She was going to try, she was definitely going to push to test those limits."
That night, the telephone rings. Wendy takes the call.
"It was after 9 o'clock. We weren't allowed to have phone calls after 9 o'clock," said Sharlene.
Wendy sets up a ride to a friend's party with her mystery caller, then invites Sharlene and her friend Shauna to join her.
"She kept saying 'It's going to be fun, come on guys.' And we were kind of thinking 'We're 16, you guys are 14, why are we going to some 14-year-old party where there's a bunch of 14-year-olds hanging out?'" said Shauna Potts.
"She spent a fair amount of time trying to convince Shauna and or I to go to this party with her," said Sharlene. "She didn't want to go alone, and I was like 'No, if you get caught it's your [---], bye.' That was the last words I said to her."
After bedtime, away from the watchful eyes of her babysitters, Wendy Hudakoc climbs out her bedroom window to meet her ride. But the next morning, Wendy's big sister Sharlene makes an unnerving discovery.
"I walked into her room the next morning and I had expected to find her asleep, and I didn't, and the window was wide open, bed still made, and my heart and stomach kind of switched spots for a minute," said Sharlene.
Sharlene recalls that Wendy had taken their stepfather's pager.
"I am paging her repeatedly, over and over, because the night before she said 'I'm taking Dan's pager, so page me, I will either be home or call you within 10 minutes,'" said Sharlene.
But Wendy doesn't answer.
"She wasn't answering and she wasn't answering," said Sharlene. "I waited probably a good couple of hours at that point, just repeatedly paging her, blowing up that pager, you know, 'Get home, get home, get home, get home.'"
Pages soon turn to panic.
"It was probably about an hour and a half to two hours later that I started to try to get a hold of my parents because I freaked out," said Sharlene.
For Wendy Hudakoc's family, "home" will never be the same.
Wendy's mother Shelley and stepfather Dan Campbell raced home in a panic. Dan immediately alerts the sheriff's department.
"Apparently they thought she was a runaway because they classified her that way to begin with," said Dan.
And actually, it wouldn't have been the first time Wendy ran away.
"She ran away once before, and the whole time that she was gone, she was, you know, my parents were a step or two behind her," said Wendy's sister Sharlene.
But Sharlene knows in her gut: this time is different.
"She would have left with more than what she did if this was something that she was planning on running away from her entire life for," said Sharlene. "The sun went down and I can remember, I just dropped to my knees. I was like 'I am never going to see her again.'"
For Sharlene and her family, the days of agonizing that follow turn into weeks.
"There were a lot of people that we just never met that volunteered, just astronomical amounts of their own personal time to help," said Sharlene.
"We had a number of investigators involved in it. We had a lot of volunteers that were out passing out flyers around South Florida trying to find Wendy," said retired Collier County Sheriff's Lieutenant Ken Becker.
Investigators soon admit that Wendy is no runaway. She is prioritized to "endangered missing."
Lt. Ken Becker is assigned to the case.
"It had been looked into for the past month and there was information that she had gone to a party in the city of Naples with a 21-year-old male," said Lt. Becker.
"All we knew from the party was Wendy was with a tall, creepy-looking guy named 'Ron,' that's all we had to go on to begin with. And we didn't know who this Ron was," said Dan Campbell.
Investigators produced several mugshots of young locals named Ron.
"We took them to the place where the girl had the party, showed them to her randomly, and she picked out one individual. And that's where we came up with the name Ron DePeppo as the person Wendy was with," said Dan.
Cops learn Wendy's mystery caller from the night she disappeared was from Ron DePeppo.
"He didn't have any big crimes as far as felonies or anything, that I recall. It was just kind of smaller stuff that would have put him on probation," said Lt. Becker.
Detectives learn that DePeppo met Wendy at a local bowling alley a month before she disappeared.
Wendy's stepfather recalls receiving an odd call in the middle of a school day.
"They said, 'Hi, is Wendy there?' And I said 'No, she's in school, and why aren't you?'" said Dan. "And the person said 'Oh, I don't go to school anymore.' He said he was 18, and I said 'Do you know how old Wendy is?' He said 'I know she's younger than me.' I said 'Yeah, she's 14, what business do you have calling a 14-year-old? Don't ever call here again.'"
And the name of that man calling?
"Ron DePeppo," said Dan.
But Ron DePeppo wasn't 18 years old -- he was actually 20. And cops tell us he allegedly had a history with underage girls. He was also allegedly connected with a known sex-offender. It's all enough to haul Ron DePeppo in for questioning, where deputies grill him about what happened the night of the party after he drove Wendy home.
"He had said that once they left the party, she got a page," said Lt. Ken Becker. "So they stopped at the corner of Davis and Airport Road at a Hess gas station, where she used a payphone. He said 'She got back in the vehicle and told me that she was meeting someone named Jeff, and to drop her off in her front yard.'"
Could it be true? The name "Jeff" is news to Wendy's family and friends.
Did you believe his story?
"No," said Sharlene Boyatt. "I think he was involved, and being involved, you know more. He's lying through his teeth."
Indeed, authorities punch a gaping hole into DePeppo's story about the phone call.
"We looked into the payphone records later on during the investigation and we were not able to show that there was any phone calls made from that one at the time," said Lt. Becker.
DePeppo doesn't lie about seeing young Wendy that night. But then he tells cops he has an ironclad alibi in the hours she went missing: 17-year-old Johnny Walker.
"Johnny Walker did have a record," said Lt. Becker. "He has since been arrested a couple of times for unlawful sex with minors and is a sexual predator today."
According to DePeppo's statement that night, He had dropped Wendy off at about 2:45 a.m. at her home, and that he had spent the night at Johnny Walker's after dropping her off.
But Johnny Walker has a different version. He tells investigators "DePeppo was at his house until approximately 10:30 to 11 pm. He then left, saying he was going to pick up a girl. DePeppo returned the following morning at 9 a.m. and told Walker that he had gone out with the girl, 'Wendy.'"
But the inconsistencies don't end there. DePeppo allegedly had a girlfriend, Becky, who told police DePeppo asked her to lie "that he spent the night with Becky."
Why would DePeppo establish conflicting alibis?
Were Johnny and Ron perhaps involved in this together?
"Ron DePeppo is definitely very disorganized," said Lt. Becker. "To think that if Ron was involved in this case alone, that we wouldn't have found Wendy is highly unlikely. Whether Johnny Walker is involved and helped him or not, I don't know."
It's been two long decades since fun-loving teenager Wendy Hudakoc snuck out to a friend's party and vanished without a trace.
"There's no disputing the fact that she had left the house that night and showed up at the party with Ron DePeppo," said retired Collier County Lt. Ken Becker.
A month later, 20-year-old Ron DePeppo emerges only as a person of interest.
"She left the party with Ron DePeppo early in the morning. But that's the only true facts that I can prove at this point," said Lt. Becker.
Despite inconsistencies in the statements of Ron DePeppo and his alibi, Johnny Walker, officers have never been able to come up with physical evidence -- and there's a reason besides a missing body.
"We had interviewed him. During the course of the interview he had made mention how his vehicle had burned up two weeks earlier, which obviously raised a little suspicion," said Lt. Becker.
The very vehicle DePeppo drove Wendy in that night was destroyed in what DePeppo calls an accidental car fire. And guess who was DePeppo's witness?
"What he had said was that he was riding down the road with Johnny Walker, both of them were in the front seat of the vehicle," said Lt. Becker. "Ron had said that Johnny Walker flicked the cigarette out. Johnny Walker said that Ron flicked the cigarette out. But they both agreed that as the cigarette got flicked out of the vehicle, it flew back into some laundry in the back seat of the vehicle, set a pair of blue jeans on fire."
Walker took a polygraph and passed. Suspicious officers search the car's now-burnt-out husk, but they find only frustration.
"With a fire, and the vehicle was totally destroyed, there was a hammer that was found in the trunk of the vehicle that did have a small fiber or a piece of hair on it, but was damaged to the point of not being able to be tested for DNA," said Lt. Becker.
For Wendy's stepfather Dan Campbell, it's too much to take.
There came a point where you said "Enough's enough. I'm knocking on this guy's door." You were face to face with him.
"I was standing next to his burnt-out car, we were in the driveway, and I asked him, 'I understand you threw a cigarette out and it came back in.' And he said 'I don't smoke,'" said Dan. "There he is with a cigarette in his hand, he throws it down on the ground and steps on it. I said 'By the way, we are looking for Wendy. We knew that you were with her at the party,' and he kept saying 'the [----] probably didn't come home, the [----] probably went off with other kids, I don't know what's going on.'
"That's when I looked at him, I said 'I just want to let you know I'm the [----]'s father,'" said Dan. "And then shortly after that there was a ring of probably about eight to 10 less-than-savory individuals who came out of a trailer and began slowly just walking in circles around the both of us. I was with a friend of mine, a big burly guy. It was nice having him around. I would've been very uncomfortable if he wasn't there."
The face-off doesn't yield any new information. And with each passing day, the odds of Wendy Hudakoc being found alive diminished.
"We had news media involved," said retired Lt. Ken Becker. "From that, it generated a lot of leads of possible sightings of Wendy, which was frustrating at times. There were a number of kids in the Naples community who had stated that they had seen Wendy."
"Reported sightings in the Caribbean, in Miami, in Canada, in other states, there's been a number of leads for police to follow up on. Unfortunately they all never panned out," said Dan Campbell.
Now, two decades later, the mystery of what happened to Wendy Hudakoc remains tragically unsolved -- her body has never been found.
But investigators are not giving up. Today, the lead detective on Wendy's case is Anna Horowitz of the Collier County Sheriff's Office.
"I don't have a theory on the case. I look at evidence, and so right now I believe that the evidence does point to Johnny Walker and Ron DePeppo, and that they know where she is," said Det. Horowitz.
Ron DePeppo's old alibi Johnny Walker is no longer considered merely a possible alibi or witness.
Is Johnny Walker a person of interest?
"Yes he is," said Det. Horowitz. "We had a retired FBI agent come in and do a case review that took several weeks. There's more information that rose during this case review that has us more looking at Johnny Walker, and moved him from a witness now to a person of interest."
Det. Horowitz can't divulge what that further information is. For now, no one has faced arrest or charges in the case. But we decided to track down Johnny Walker ourselves to see what he has to say 20 years later. Finding him was easy. Walker is now a registered sex offender living in Ruskin, Florida.
We asked Walker about his relationship with Ron DePeppo.
"I knew him at the time, maybe, probably like three to five months," Johnny Walker tells Crime Watch Daily. "He was a good friend. I'm not saying he wasn't no bad friend, but he was just -- it was just him."
I know it's your own opinion -- Do you think he would be capable for her disappearance? I know it's a tough question and you are speculating.
"Like, if I seen that he was kind of capable of that, I would really tell it," said Walker. "Because I knew Wendy too. Everybody did know Wendy, but I just can't, I can't say if he did or didn't."
Walker said "I knew Wendy." Walker's answer contradicts his own interview with the Collier County Sheriff's Office way back in 1999. At the time he told investigators he did not know Wendy Hudakoc; he had never actually met her.
"Wendy was cool. She was a cool girl," said Walker. "She was popular, everybody knew her, and I wouldn't see no reason why he would want to do anything to her. You know, it didn't make any sense because they were dating for weeks. That wasn't the first date they ever went on."
Were Ron DePeppo and Wendy Hudakoc actually dating? Back in 1998, DePeppo stated that "he had never been out with her." So what's the truth? With so many inconsistent statements over the years, it's a tangled web to unravel, further complicated by DePeppo's alleged growing mental instability.
"Just prior to my retiring, we had a report that Ron DePeppo was making statements, and then he would tie them to rocks or bricks and throw them through businesses," said Ken Becker. "I got a copy of all the writings. And one of them that piqued my curiosity was, he had made a comment about Wendy and how she would be coming home soon."
Becker brings DePeppo in for questioning over the incident, but he can't get a straight answer.
"The entire time that I talked to him, basically all he kept saying was he's a disciple of God, and that God speaks through him, and when I asked him about Wendy, he wouldn't really answer that, other than the fact that God tells him that Wendy will be coming home soon," said Becker.
Wendy's sister Sharlene believes there's a reason for DePeppo's delusions.
"Ron DePeppo knows," said Sharlene Boyatt. "And I truly honestly believe his guilt has driven him to the point of borderline just being crazy."
Though he's grown more elusive over the years, Ron DePeppo remains the main person of interest. And while his exact location is unknown, recent Facebook activity places him around Las Vegas, Nevada.
"He is known to live area to area," said Det. Anna Horowitz. "Sometimes he doesn't even have a roof over his head."
Twenty years have passed with no answers and no Wendy Hudakoc.
Does your heart tell you she's alive?
"No," said Wendy's stepdad Dan Campbell. "No."
Ron DePeppo, the main person of interest, remains an elusive enigma.
"Ron DePeppo is quite the loner. Some people believe he's unstable," said Collier County Sheriff's Det. Anna Horowitz.
Recent social media activity has placed DePeppo in southern Nevada. Wanting to talk to him ourselves, Crime Watch Daily hired a private investigator to track him down. By analyzing photos from DePeppo's Facebook posts, our private investigator hits the jackpot, learning he's living homeless on the street in Sin City.
As he's leaving a shelter after eating a meal, we finally confront Ron DePeppo. The more we grill DePeppo, the more apparent his paranoia becomes. But clearly we weren't getting answers about Wendy with DePeppo, and we ended the interview.
Is the truth of what happened lost somewhere in the echo chamber of his addled mind? Or are his religious ramblings a smokescreen to mask a guilty conscience?
To this day, what Ron DePeppo knows about the fate of Wendy Hudakoc remains a painful mystery.