Nearly two weeks have passed since Ebony Duncan vanished after leaving work in Independence. Her family has come to fear the worst, while authorities suspect the 44-year-old’s ex-boyfriend of being involved in her mysterious disappearance.
Duncan, a certified nursing assistant and mother of three adult children, has been sought by Independence police as a missing person since Sept. 7. She was last seen the day before getting into a silver sedan while walking home from work that evening outside Sunterra Springs, a senior care facility near Centerpoint hospital.
On Friday, Independence police arrested a former boyfriend, 41-year-old Charles Smith-Howell, whom the authorities suspected of having information regarding her whereabouts. He is being held in federal custody on a separate charge of illegally possessing ammunition.
An affidavit filed in support of the federal charge for Smith-Howell also details the investigation of Duncan’s disappearance thus far. It shows Independence police began to suspect as early as Sept. 8 that he may have kidnapped Duncan.
Meanwhile, in the wake of her disappearance, the family has been left to wonder what happened to her, said Ebony Williams, 19, the youngest of her three daughters.
“We’re trying to figure out what’s going on, how this is happening. And we’re all just confused,” Williams told The Star by phone, adding that she wants to see more progress from police to solve the case.
An investigation opens
Detectives opened the missing person investigation after receiving word from family that Duncan was absent from work the morning of Sept. 7. Officers checked Duncan’s residence in Independence and did not find her.
Police heard from a coworker that Duncan had received threats against her life from a former boyfriend, according to the affidavit filed Friday. Detectives concluded the person referenced was Smith-Howell through “computer software and Facebook photos,” the affidavit says.
Surveillance footage from Duncan’s work showed her getting into what is believed to be a silver Chrysler 200. After searching through records, detectives determined a person Smith-Howell resides with owns a car of the same make and model.
Phone records obtained by police allegedly show Duncan’s phone registering in areas where the Chrysler 200 was spotted by license-plate-reading cameras in the Kansas City area after she disappeared.
The cellphone was also tracked to the area of Smith-Howell’s suspected residence in Kansas City’s Palestine East neighborhood, according to court documents.
The cellphone stopped transmitting location data as of Thursday. Police later found the device in possession of a homeless person, described as “unrelated” to the investigation, who told police she picked up the phone on a bridge somewhere.
Person of interest arrested
On Thursday, detectives tracked Smith-Howell to a Northland residence. Police followed him as he drove away in a Buick SUV.
As Smith-Howell was being tailed, police witnessed him “driving erratically” at high speeds and in the wrong direction of traffic, a method they believed was meant to throw off the officers following him, according to court documents.
He continued to be tracked by aerial surveillance to a parking lot in Kansas City at Drury and Thompson avenues. Smith-Howell was arrested by members of the Independence Police Department’s SWAT unit after exiting the Buick.
Investigators searched a “very large trash bag” found in the rear cargo area to see whether Duncan was inside it. She was not.
A search warrant later turned up a wallet with Smith-Howell’s IDs, paperwork for the silver sedan police had been searching for, and a license plate registered to that vehicle. Police also reported finding a gun magazine loaded with 12 rounds of ammunition, which was the basis for the federal weapons charge.
Federal prosecutors are seeking to have Smith-Howell held in detention until trial based on his previous felony convictions, which date back nearly 20 years, and the allegation that he is a “serious flight risk.” A detention hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.
As of Tuesday, Independence police continued to view Smith-Howell as a person of interest in their investigation. Officer Jack Taylor, a department spokesman, said Smith-Howell had not been willing to speak with detectives about the investigation.
Police have yet to locate Duncan. Taylor said police also continue to search for the vehicle Duncan was last seen entering on Sept. 6.
‘We need that closure’
For Duncan’s family, the case has been a painful, frustrating and maddening experience. Williams, her youngest daughter, said they’ve received conflicting information from detectives, raising questions about what police are doing to find her mother.
Williams has known all along that something was wrong. Duncan was unreachable at the time of the birth of her newest grandchild. And she hasn’t sent one of her routine “Good morning” texts to her children since she disappeared.
Williams said she wants Kansas Citians to know that the car her mother was seen getting inside is still missing — and to be on the lookout for it. She hopes the vehicle will be found and the case will be solved soon. And if her mother is dead — something the family strongly fears — she wants to know.
“If my mother is deceased somewhere, or passed away, we need that closure,” Williams told The Star. “No kid wants that type of trauma in their life at all. Like, every day you wake up and you wonder, ‘Hey, is my mom OK?”