Chicago, Illinois: On a fall day 43 years ago, Sheila Henson came home from school to an empty house. Her mother was nowhere to be found.
“And she was never, ever gone for any reason at all,” says Henson, who was 13 at the time.
Henson’s mother didn’t get home in time to make dinner for the teenager and her two younger siblings. And she still wasn’t home when darkness came, and a storm lashed the family’s Romeoville bungalow.
The next day, Henson’s father showed up. Frank Griffin Sr.’s pants legs and shoes were caked in fresh mud.
Right then, says Henson, now 56, “I knew my mom was dead. I said: ‘Where have you been? What have you done?’ ”
Her father didn’t answer, she says. He just told her to let the dog out, then took off his clothes, went to the garage and burned them.
Henson has been searching for answers ever since. Now, she finally knows what her father wouldn’t tell her that day in 1975: Her mother was strangled, stabbed and beaten almost beyond recognition, and then her body was dumped in a lagoon near Lake Erie.
Griffin never was charged — he committed suicide six months after his wife disappeared, as the police were pressing him to take a polygraph exam to prove his innocence. But they say he was their prime suspect — and remains so.
The answers came thanks to persistent detectives, DNA testing and her own obsession. She had to find out the truth. In her attic, there are stacks of spiral notebooks that attest to that, each one filled with her handwritten notes about missing and dead women, women who turned out not to be her mother.
Henson eventually moved away. She now lives in Kentucky, where she was driving her 3-year-old granddaughter home from ballet practice in late January when she got a call from her brother Eddie Griffin. He’d just gotten the news from a Romeoville detective: The woman from the lagoon was, in fact, their long-missing mother.
Henson’s mother Delores Griffin was a petite, young woman with long, wavy red hair and hazel eyes. She liked Led Zeppelin, and she could play rock songs by ear on the guitar or piano or mandolin.
“She played pretty much every kind of instrument you could imagine,” Henson says.
To the world, Frank Griffin Sr. was a charming rogue with a muscular frame and dark, curly hair. Behind closed doors, though, he was a “monster,” according to Henson, who says he’d come home from his factory job in Chicago, guzzle vodka and become enraged, bellowing and throwing things around the small, wood-frame house — chairs, a recliner, the TV.
“Dad told a story once about his mother,” Henson says. “She said, ‘Come here, I want to show you something.’ She put his hand in a dresser drawer and closed it really fast and broke his hand.”
When his rages began, Henson says she’d shut herself and her two younger siblings in her bedroom closet and wait in the darkness, whispering prayers that when they came out, sometimes hours later, their mother still would be alive.
“Once, he took a huge butcher’s knife, and he actually drew blood on her neck,” Henson says.
When she summoned the courage to demand he leave her mother alone, she says he beat her, too.
Henson says she’d beg her mother to leave him, but she’d just silently shake her head.
She doesn’t have many happy memories of family life. “Sometimes, we would go to Brookfield Zoo,” she says. “That was the highlight of our lives.”
It was Oct. 24, 1975, when Henson, her brother and her sister came home but found no one there. They waited and waited.
“There was a terrible storm — lots of lightning, lots of thunder,” Henson says.
The kids spent the night at a neighbor’s.
The next morning, when their father finally got home, his oldest child remembers him telling her: Don’t ask any questions. The kids stayed with him for four more days until their maternal grandfather drove from Kentucky and took them back with him.
Until then, Henson says her father “wouldn’t look you in the eye, and he would sob like a baby when he would walk through the house.”
When they were leaving, “He didn’t hug us. He said, ‘I’ll see you later.’ ”
Griffin told the police that his wife had left him. He said he’d seen her with another man.
No one believed him. Six months later, under growing pressure to take a lie-detector test, Griffin got in his car inside a closed garage, turned the key and sat there until he was dead. The Will County coroner’s office reported the cause of death as carbon monoxide poisoning, a suicide.
“We were relieved that he was dead,” Henson says of getting the news in Kentucky. “We knew he couldn’t come back and hurt us any more.”
Henson graduated from high school, got married, had two kids. And she kept looking for answers.
“I went to the library, and I would search for missing persons, and I would map out all the different states,” she says. “I would call police departments. I would send in pictures of my mom.”
And she did the math. Her dad had been gone for 22 hours. She figured out how far and where he could drive in 11 hours.
Whatever she found, she kept track of in dozens and dozens of notebooks. From time to time, she called the police in Romeoville. Each time, there was no news.
Eddie Griffin had been just 5 when his mother vanished. He supported his sister’s efforts. But he didn’t want to help.
“What I could imagine was some hunter or fisherman coming across a femur or a skull, and that’s what would be left of our mother,” says Griffin, 48, who lives in Nebraska and is the father of two grown children.
Griffin thought it best to just forget. But he couldn’t.
“If I saw someone even remotely looking like my mom in the store, I would follow her,” he says.
In 2012, Henson reached Romeoville Detective Michael Ryan. There was nothing in the original case file that showed the police had ever spoken with her at the time about her mother’s disappearance, and she doesn’t remember speaking with them. So it was news to the detective when she told him about the mud on her father’s pants and about him burning his clothes.
“She said she had started having memories about what had happened when she was young and wanted to get them off her chest,” Ryan says.
Ryan put Delores Griffin’s name in a national police database of missing people and says, “I started getting calls from all kinds of agencies about bodies they had found over time — but nothing back from 1975.”
Then, in 2017, a sheriff’s detective called Ryan from Monroe County, Michigan, on Lake Erie. He said they’d retrieved the body of a woman with red hair from a lagoon the day after Henson’s mother went missing. The face, badly beaten, had characteristics that seemed similar to the missing woman. And, like Henson’s mother, the woman had been wearing a silver wedding band.
Another Monroe County detective, Mike Preadmore, dug up the case file. “It was brittle from being in our archives room,” Preadmore says.
Among the faded photographs and yellowing notepaper was a tiny, manila envelope that held fingernail clippings and hair samples.
Preadmore was surprised because, “back in 1975, they weren’t thinking about DNA.”
Ryan didn’t tell Henson right away about the call from Michigan. He didn’t want to get her hopes up until he could arrange for a DNA comparison. In November, Ryan told her they were going to compare her DNA, which she’d given to the Will County coroner in 2012, with DNA from the hair in the envelope.
“We’ll never be able to prove it,” says Preadmore, but “everything points towards the father. I’m fairly confident that it was the husband.”
Henson got the call Jan. 21 that the DNA was a match.
For a long time, her brother had clung to the hope that maybe his father had killed his mother but not intending to do, that his parents argued, and things spun out of control. But now he read the autopsy report and saw that couldn’t have been true: His mother was bruised from head to toe.
“It was evil,” Griffin says. “That’s what I struggle with because there was true intent.”
Henson couldn’t bring herself to tell her grandmother, Mamie Jones, now 98 years old and a widow.
“I had my aunts do it because I couldn’t,” Henson says. “She cries just like my mother, and I couldn’t stand to hear her cry.”
When Jones got the news in Kentucky, she cried in anguish, “My baby! My baby!”
There’s no gravestone to mark where a Jane Doe was buried four decades ago on the eastern edge of Roselawn Memorial Park in LaSalle, Michigan.
Now, Henson and her siblings are arranging a funeral and a place for their mother’s remains at Paradise Cemetery, not far from where Henson and her family live in Smithland, Kentucky.
“She actually wanted to build a house close to that cemetery,” Henson says. “I can actually spoil her and bring flowers to her as many times as I want to. I know this sounds crazy, but I can introduce my children to her, and I can introduce my grandchildren to her. I know she would be proud of them.”