Illuminated by red and blue flashing lights in addition to a large spotlight, the area around South Weinbach Avenue and I-69 in Evansville was a hub of police activity Wednesday night. Initially said to be related to the disappearance of Aleah Beckerle, police later determined that the remains found in large bag that had been buried were that of a deceased dog, and not that of the missing special needs teenager. However, Eyewitness News has uncovered information contained in a search warrant executed that night that explains why detectives were searching the area in the first place.
For close to four hours Wednesday night, more than a half-dozen detectives, in addition to other law enforcement personnel were canvassing a wooded area near Weinbach Avenue, south of where it cuts under I-69. According to police, detectives were called to the scene after officials from the Ohio Valley Search and Rescue group had uncovered something suspicious. After waiting hours for a signed search warrant, detectives unearthed a buried bag and found the animal remains.
Similar to many of the leads associated with Aleah’s disappearance, this one would be unfounded.
“We’ve received almost 200 tips to date and last night we were following up on one of those tips,” said Sgt. Jason Cullum. “It is an area that has been searched previous but we have maintained our commitment to follow up on tips as they come in. Last night was another example of our commitment to following up on that information.”
According to search warrant documents obtained by Eyewitness News, detectives were searching for evidence of the crime of kidnapping and/or murder. In the sworn affidavit needed to obtain the warrant, the detective said on Monday, September 19th, he interviewed an inmate at the Vanderburgh County Jail in reference to the case.
The inmate stated that about the time that Aleah went missing he received a telephone call from Debra Wollner, who stated that she was hung up in an area on South Weinbach Avenue south of the Salvage Candy salvage yard, according to court records. The inmate told the detective that he refused to help Wollner and continued telling the detective that that body was supposed to be south of the ditch, according to court records.
Wollner is the domestic partner of Donna Robertson. Robertson is a relative of Aleah’s mother, Cara Beckerle.
Both Wollner and Robertson were arrested last month and charged with beating a man into falsely confessing his involvement in Aleah’s disappearance. The victim of the beating has been cleared of any wrongdoing, police said.
On Wednesday, members of the Ohio Valley Search and Rescue team began searching the area where the inmate had told detectives the body was located. During the search, two cadaver dogs independently indicated on an area in the woods near a farm access road, according to the search warrant. The dogs clawed at the ground and partially pulled what appeared to be a bag from the ground, the detective wrote.
Investigators also noted that the area and the ground itself appeared to have been dug in. Detectives began to smell an odor coming from the bag and recognized it has the smell of human decomposition, according to the search warrant. However, the remains that were discovered were not that of a human, but rather, a deceased animal.
Even though the lead ultimately came back unfounded, detectives remain committed to the case, police said.
“We’re still encouraging people to share information. If they have heard somebody talking about something or they saw something that was out of place, share that with us and we will follow up on it,” Sgt. Cullum said.
A different search warrant for data contained on a family cellphone also sheds light on the early days of the investigation.
On July 17th, officers responded to the Beckerle home in reference to Aleah’s disappearance. Aleah is disabled, requires full-time care and has limited use of her arms, in addition to not being able to walk. Additionally, Aleah takes seizure medication twice a day.
Aleah was last seen in her bed around 9pm on July 16th, investigators noted in the search warrant. The following day, July 17th around 9:15am, Beckerle was found to be missing from her bed. Aleah’s primary caregiver is her mother, Cara. Her two sisters also help care for Aleah, according to the search warrant.
According to the affidavit for the search warrant, detectives determined that Cara Beckerle and Aleah’s two sisters were the only people inside the home during the period of time in which Aleah was abducted. One of the sisters said she was asleep with Cara on the couch across from Aleah’s bed, according to court records. There was also a large dog present on the couch alongside Cara Beckerle and Alea’s sister. The older sister told detectives that she was asleep in her upstairs bedroom, police said.
As for the early conversations between detectives and Cara Beckerle, detectives noted that Beckerle’s statements changed during the course of the investigation, according to the search warrant.
Cara Beckerle has adamantly denied having any involvement in her daughter’s disappearance. Police have also not publicly identified a potential suspect.
Cara has previously told Eyewitness News that someone had entered the home while she was asleep and abducted Aleah. Additionally, she also said that she was recovering from an extensive surgery to remove an infected bone in her chest.
The Beckerle family maintains hope that Aleah will be found alive.
“I still have hope that she’s in someone’s house and she’s going to come home,” Cara Beckerle said. “She’s alive. She’s going to come home.”
Large groups of people waited outside the police barricade on Weinbach Avenue Wednesday night, hoping for information. When detectives notified Cara Beckerle and other relatives of Aleah, the group began to cheer. They said it provides hope that Aleah will still be found alive.
“We want closure for the community. We want to bring this case to a resolution so people will know what happened,” Sgt. Cullum said. “There are so many unanswered questions right now. Not only do community members have those questions but so too do the investigators.”
Sgt. Cullum said police are still looking for the proverbial missing piece of the investigation. Investigators implore anyone with information to come forward.
“There have been many cases, whether it’s a missing person or a criminal investigation where a small piece of information was actually the biggest piece of the puzzle,” Sgt. Cullum said. “That’s why we have reiterated that fact numerous times publicly that if you have any information, please share it with us. Cases like this are those that stick with [a detective]. We want justice for Aleah. We know that she didn’t leave that home on her own. Something happened to her as part of her leaving that house. We want justice for whatever happened to her.”