Bethany Markowski, 11, was caught in the middle of a bitter divorce and custody war, and then one day she just disappeared.
In a Crime Watch Daily exclusive, Jonnie Carter is speaking in her first national TV interview in nearly two decades about the 11-year-old girl who just vanished without a trace in 2001.
Jonnie says the memories of life with her ex-husband Larry Markowski, Bethany's father, aren't so wonderful.
"At the time, he was funny and he was just a really nice guy," Jonnie tells Crime Watch Daily. "Very deceptive."
Jonnie says the deception began when Larry got her pregnant while they were dating. She claims he was already married with children.
"He told me he was married, but he was separated, his wife took the kids and ran and moved to Alabama and he didn't know where they were," said Jonnie. "And the truth was he was still living with her, and on the weekends that I came to spend the weekend with him, he was making her walk her and her two kids walk down the street and spend the weekend with her sister. We even drove past this little boy and girl one time and they were waving and I waved at them and I said 'Oh, those kids are so cute.' Those were his kids. He never said a word."
Despite that rocky start, they eventually married, and when Bethany was born they had an instant family.
How was Larry as a dad?
"Most of the time good, when she was small," said Jonnie. "I mean there were times that he would get mad at me for not doing what he told me to do or minding him and he would take Bethany away from me until I learned my lesson."
But Jonnie claims as Bethany added more candles to her birthday cake, he wasn't always a doting father.
"Very controlling, and very abusive," said Jonnie.
What about to you? Was he abusive?
"Yes he was," said Jonnie. "It started off as just kind of shoving and choking and slapping. He was very violent, physical."
Crime Watch Daily could not find any court records to back up Jonnie's allegations of abuse. But she sticks to her story and says she started to feel unsafe for both herself and Bethany.
"It was hard to leave, and not because I loved him, it was hard to leave because I was scared," said Jonnie. "I just couldn't let Bethany go through that. So I had to figure out a way to get out."
So one morning when Larry went to work, Jonnie saw her big break. She escaped from what she calls a horribly abusive situation.
"Walking out that door for the last time was probably the scariest thing I ever did. I ran and got in the car, went to Bethany's school, and as soon as she saw me she yelled across the parking lot 'Are we leaving daddy?' She had a big smile on her face," said Jonnie. "She was so happy. One of the things she said is 'Mama, do you think now that my fingernails will grow and I won't bite my fingernails now that we're not going to be with daddy anymore?'"
Jonnie and Bethany were now homeless, so they moved in with Jonnie's sister Lori in Nashville.
"She seemed to be distracted, except on the days when she had to talk to her dad," said Bethany's aunt Lori Jackson. "We'd kind of warn her, you know, 'In about 10 minutes your dad should be calling so stay around,' and she would be hard to find. So I would get on the other line. The things he was staying an 11-year-old shouldn't have to hear or deal with.
"He'd say 'I can't believe you're doing this to me, Bethany, do you want to kill me?'"
Jonnie enrolled Bethany in a new school and kept the location secret from Larry Markowski. But she claims he found out.
"Larry went into the back of the school, went into the room, grabbed Bethany and started dragging her out," said Jonnie. "He shoved the teacher out of the way, he was dragging Bethany down the hallway when some other teachers heard the screaming and hollering and jumped in and got Bethany away from him."
Jonnie's claim is backed up by showing us a letter she says was written by Bethany's homeroom teacher. It states, in part: "He then took her by the arm and started quickly taking her from the room pushing me aside."
What was your relationship like with Larry during this time period?
"Not good. Not good. We were hiding from him, basically," said Jonnie.
Jonnie immediately requested a temporary restraining order against Larry -- no contact. No contact means just that. So when Larry was awarded unsupervised visitation, Aunt Lori dropped off Bethany in Waverly, the halfway point between Nashville and Gleason, where Larry lived at the time.
"Bethany told me that according to Larry, when he picked her up Friday, he was going to take her to Gleason, to where our house was, and pick up a friend of hers," said Jonnie. "And he was going to take them skating in Jackson."
Jonnie says they were going to the mall in Jackson where there was a skating rink.
"I talked to Bethany at 9:38 Sunday morning," said Jonnie Carter.
Was there anything unusual about that phone call?
"Yeah, it sounded like it was on speaker phone," said Jonnie. "Bethany's voice was shaking and she was like 'Mama, daddy knows you have a boyfriend,' and I was like 'I don't know what you're talking about.' And I could hear Larry in the background 'Tell her,' and he's hollering and stuff. She said 'I will see you at 5 o clock.' Not an easy last conversation."
Jonnie remembers every horrifying detail. Because 5 o'clock would come and go -- forever.
Bethany's father Larry Markowski says he let her go inside the mall while he was in his vehicle taking a nap, but when he woke up, he says, she was nowhere to be found.
Do you think Bethany is still alive?
"Most days I do," said Bethany's mother Jonnie Carter. "I have to, until I am proved that she's not alive."
That's also the attitude of the dogged investigator who has been on the case since day one.
"Until we find evidence to suggest otherwise, I'm going to believe that she's alive somewhere," said Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Cathy Ferguson.
Ferguson began looking into the case when she was a detective for the Jackson, Tennessee Police Department.
Bethany's dad Larry Markowski claims he dropped Bethany off at a mall in Jackson and then took a nap in his van. When he woke up, he says, he couldn't find her.
Any security cameras in the mall?
"There were some and we looked at all the security footage that they had," said Ferguson. "We found no one that saw Bethany Markowski at the Old Hickory Mall."
Is there any evidence that she was ever at the mall?
"No, there's not," said Ferguson.
Right now the only evidence, if we can call it that, is the word of her dad Larry.
"We were never able to corroborate what Larry said about Bethany being at the mall," said Ferguson.
Police got a tip that led to a sketch of disheveled-looking woman possibly seen with Bethany not long after she vanished.
"It was a sketch of, I think, a 40-something-year-old woman that tried to enroll her in a school," said Ferguson. "[That tip] was resolved in as far as we took the lead as far as we could."
Bethany's mother Jonnie has her own theory about who the mystery woman might be.
This woman, does it resemble someone who is connected?
"At the time I didn't think it did, but yeah it does look like a family member, a distant sister-in-law that I wasn't real close with and I only had met a few times," said Jonnie. "Whether that is her or not I don't know. It just looks familiar."
The mystery woman is just one of the clues citizen journalist Brandon Barnett investigated for his popular podcast "Searching for Ghosts: Where Is Bethany Markowski?"
"It happened in my home town," said Barnett. "It was one of those that you heard about and then didn't hear anything else about it."
Did you interview Larry for the podcast?
"No, he reached out to me via Facebook and offered that I come to his house in east Tennessee, and I wasn't comfortable doing that. My instincts told me that was a bluff," said Barnett.
So Barnett claims he interviewed a number of key players in the case, including a guy named "Harold," claiming to be Larry's friend, who maintains Larry and Bethany were with him at his house some 275 miles away in Little Rock, Arkansas the night before she vanished.
"He drove Larry to Nashville to try to take Bethany from school about a month before Bethany disappeared," said Barnett. "And then about a month later he goes to Harold's house in Little Rock, Arkansas for his visitation weekend, the weekend that this happened, basically tried to get Harold to pick Larry's van up in Mexico. The inference was he was going to flee with Bethany to Mexico."
In an excerpt from the podcast, Harold tells Barnett his version of the day before Bethany disappeared:
"Larry wasn't letting her out of his sight. Looking back at it, it was kinda like he was afraid she was gonna tell about something that he didn't want us to know. He said to me, he said 'Well I'm gonna, take my van down to Port of Mexico and leave it down there and you can have it. You just come get it and it'll be yours. And I said 'Let the FBI go right into Mexico and pick your butt up.'"
So how did Larry Markowski explain everything to Special Agent Cathy Ferguson? She says he didn't.
"In the 17 years I have worked this case, I have not spoken to Larry," said Ferguson.
Has he been helpful at all to the investigation?
"Not that I'm aware of," said Ferguson.
Larry did talk to our affiliate WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee when Bethany first disappeared.
"We took a nap in the van and she got up, wanting to go in the mall, and she went in, supposedly, and I fell back asleep for a while, and woke up and went in and looked for her. I made a mistake by letting her go in the mall. I shouldn't have done that."
But Special Agent Ferguson claims he hasn't said much since.
"I've worked numerous missing children cases and I've never had a father react the way that Larry did," said Ferguson.
"He's the only one that has that answer," said Jonnie Carter. "He is the only one. And he's not talking."
Have you developed an official suspect?
"No one has been charged in Bethany's disappearance," said Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Cathy Ferguson. "Because we don't know where she is, anybody could be a person of interest."
Have you been able to clear Jonnie or Larry in Bethany's disappearance?
"We have no evidence to suggest that Jonnie was involved in Bethany's disappearance. With regard to Larry, there are investigative steps that we took early on and continue to take to this day," said Ferguson.
Special Agent Ferguson says there simply is no evidence to charge Larry with anything and they haven't ruled out a stranger abduction.
Crime Watch Daily wanted to get Larry's side of the story. So we drove to his remote farmhouse in Tennessee looking for answers.
Finally Larry Markowski comes to the door and speaks in his first on-camera interview about the disappearance of his daughter.
You're the last one to be seen with her. Tell us what happened.
"Well, I picked her up on Friday, went to Arkansas, and the whole time we was there, we was up all night, we visited and everything else, we came back to my house in Gleason," said Larry. "She wanted to go back to the mall in Jackson to go to Claire's and the game room, so we got to the mall, I think it was about 1:30, 2 o clock in the afternoon.
"So I stretched out on the back seat of the van. It wasn't about 30 minutes later I went in, I couldn't find her. I went out to the mall, I looked for her everywhere, I couldn't find her."
The police haven't named you as a person of interest or a suspect.
"Oh yeah they have too," said Larry.
What have they told you?
"Oh yes they have," said Larry.
He says detectives told him he's a suspect. With that, Bethany's dad takes a quick smoke break, but he comes right back to face the heat.
They said that you haven't shown any interest, that you were even indifferent about Bethany's disappearance.
"OK, well let me tell you something, sir," said Larry. "They've got a podcast going, saying that I'm a mean villain of a human being."
We heard from both Jonnie and from law enforcement that you were disinterested, indifferent, apathetic about the disappearance, and that you haven't show the same level of passion or put as much resources into trying to find Bethany over these 17 years.
"Well that's not true," said Larry.
In fact, Larry Markowski says he actually tried to go on national television in a desperate move to help find his little girl.
"I was gonna go on the Montel Williams Show, I was called right over here at my brother's house, and TBI told me not to do it right after Bethany disappeared because he said it would jeopardize the case," said Larry.
Remember that podcast where Larry's friend Harold claimed he was going to dump his van at the Mexico border?
"He said to me, he said 'Well, I'm gonna take my van down to Port of Mexico and leave it down there, and you can have it. You just come get it and it'll be yours."
"I'm a truck driver. I drove all 48 states and Canada. If I was gonna go to Mexico, wouldn't I have not left Little Rock and went to Mexico? And I dang sure wouldn't have took my van down there and called my so-called buddy Harold to come and get the van," said Larry. "Nothing was ever said like that. It's a witch hunt and it's a pack of lies what they're saying."
What about that mysterious woman in the police sketch who reportedly tried to enroll Bethany in school?
"Actually the woman looked like Jonnie's mother," said Larry.
What do you think happened?
"I have no idea. If they don't have her, then somebody took her," said Larry.
Do you think she's still alive?
"Yes, I do. I've never felt that anything else," said Larry. "I believe somebody has her and I believe she's gonna come home just like Jaycee Dugard. I follow stuff. I don't care how they smear me, all I care about is my daughter. I love my daughter with all my heart."
For the record: You, Larry Markowski, had no involvement in Bethany's disappearance?
"Absolutely not," said Larry.
So what happened to Bethany Markowski?
"We've had hundreds of sightings, reported sightings of Bethany, and they were all vetted, and none were her," said Special Agent Cathy Ferguson.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children created an age-progression photo of what Bethany might look like today. She would be 28 years old if she's still alive -- something her mother Jonnie still believes with all her heart.
If you know anything about Bethany Markowski's disappearance, contact the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation at (800) TBI-FIND.