CRAWFORD COUNTY, Mo (KMOV.com) -- A body buried in a backyard, an entire town rattled and a murder suspect who's the son of a sheriff’s deputy.For a year and a half, Crawford County kept a secret.
HE JUST DISAPPEARED
Kayla Tolliver's older brother, Edward Hillhouse, was a bit of a drifter. He’d worked odd jobs, and was trying to find his own way, moving to the town of Bourbon, 75 miles outside of St. Louis.
But in April of 2016, he just disappeared.
“He was supposed to come and see me and get his stuff for his new place and that was the morning, I never heard from him,” said Kayla. “I knew, I knew something wasn't right because no matter what, he would always get a hold of me,” she said, the tears welling up in her eyes.
“Good or bad, he wouldn't let me worry.”
She turned, as anyone would, to the authorities.
“I feel like, from that moment on, I've been ignored,” she said.
Tolliver put up posters and pleaded for help while the police, she said, did almost nothing. She stayed in near constant contact with the two departments investigating the case, asking officers for updates, wanting to know whether anything had was progressed.
The case spanned two jurisdictions: Bourbon and the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office.
Kayla believes officers disregarded vital clues; for example, she told them early on of a person in town who seemed to have information Edward was dead.
Kayla told police. They still didn't talk with the witness, didn’t follow up on the lead.
“A lot of 'there's nothing we can do, it's all hearsay, that you can't make people talk to you,'” Tolliver said.
At her dinner table, she poured over clues. Authorities had given her Edward’s phone records, something she was later told is out of the ordinary in a criminal investigation.
After sifting through the numbers, she found something hugely critical to the case. The last person to talk to Edward on the phone was Deacon Zelch, a man with whom Edward had been hanging out.
Ask people in town and they know the name. Zelch. It’s hard to forget. And it’s linked to a prominent member of the community.
“I told them, Deacon Zelch, Deacon Zelch, they never did anything," Tolliver said.
A RAMBLING RESPONSE
Kayla asked Deacon herself. In a rambling response, Deacon wrote on Facebook “all I can say is...some people live life fuller as...ghost. His spirit just...as many of us...needs a break,” he wrote.
Kayla turned it over to police and she said they did nothing.
The seasons passed, Deacon wasn't arrested, he was never even questioned; not even after investigators found 33 marijuana plants on his property in August last year. At that time, cadaver dogs from a volunteer unit searched for any signs of a corpse but didn’t hit on anything.
All the while, Kayla kept a candle burning for Edward.
“I think that because he wasn't the perfect citizen, they didn't care. Because it went nowhere,” she said.
FRESH EYES ON THE CASE
In that year and a half, the Bourbon Police chief and the Crawford County sheriff both retired.
A new police chief came on board and he was already familiar with the case: Paul Satterfield, previously a detective in the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office.Satterfield felt that from early on, Deacon Zelch was a suspect. He also wasn’t satisfied with low little the case had progressed.
“I felt like I needed to get some fresh eyes on this case, so that's why I hired the Task Force,” Satterfield said.
Using Bourbon’s public funds, he broke from the rest of Crawford County and hired a VICE unit from Franklin County, with no ties to the area. They started the investigation over from scratch.
Within a matter of just a few days, Deacon was arrested. The case had been broken wide open. In September of this year, Deacon was charged: for the marijuana and for murder.
THE CONFIDENTIAL INFORMANT AND A BODY BURIED IN THE BACKYARD
Charging documents state investigators spoke with a reliable confidential informant, the very same person Tolliver had told police about.
The informant stated they witnessed the body of Edward Hillhouse lying on the couch in Deacon's home, the informant said Deacon admitted to killing Edward with a single shot to the head with a .22 caliber rifle.
On September 20, investigators dug in Deacon's yard and found a body buried along with the remains of a couch.
Kayla finally got some answers, though not the ones for which she'd hoped.
“It was just a relief, it was terrible, but it was such a relief," she said.
But, questions lingered: Why did it take a separate agency to deliver justice? Tolliver believes her brother’s case was covered up, an act of public corruption.
Deacon Zelch is the son of Vernon Zelch, a Crawford County Sheriff's deputy.
“WE ARE ALL LUNATICS, THE WHOLE FAMILY.”
Vernon is well known around town, often going onto local radio shows to share opinions. He’s been in law enforcement in the area for decades and is friends with other officers.
Vernon's sons, though, never could seem to stay out of trouble.
“We are all lunatics, every last one of us, the whole god d*** family,” said Wyatt Zelch. He’s Deacon’s brother and was recently released from prison for drugs and theft. “The person you don't see is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde persona. My father, my brother, me, my sisters, my mother, whole family, we are not nice people, we weren't raised to be nice. We were raised to be mean and hateful people."Wyatt said he has no doubt Deacon killed Edward.
“I don’t know if he’s even got good left in him; I think he lost that a long time ago,” Wyatt said.
Would Vernon be involved in a cover-up? Wyatt is not certain about that.
DID VERNON ZELCH INTERFERE WITH THE INVESTIGATION?
Amanda Zelch, Deacon's ex-wife, wonders though.
“It's just a little baffling that for 17 months, nothing,” she said.
She said Deacon sometimes threatened her. She feels he’s capable of murder. He once wrote in a letter to her and a friend, "If not for our daughter, I would have filled that hole with yours and that piece of [expletive] bodies."
But it’s what Vernon Zelch did after Deacon’s arrest that Amanda also found strange.
He came over to her house, and asked her if Deacon had given her any guns. She replied that he had. Vernon asked her for the specific caliber. She told him it was a 20 gauge. He seemed to be relieved it wasn’t a 22, the same caliber with which Edward had been killed.
“Maybe he was looking for a murder weapon, I don't know,” Amanda said.
Chief Satterfield said that what Vernon had done in the past also didn’t sit well with him. He was so concerned about it, he ran it up the chain.
“We received information early on that Vernon Zelch was inquiring about our investigation. That information was forwarded to the sheriff,” Satterfield said.
But what did the sheriff do with that information? News 4 wanted to ask.
Darin Layman is the current Crawford County Sheriff. He was number two in charge when Edward first disappeared. And he knows Vernon well. The two worked together in Sullivan for years.
Sheriff Layman, though, wouldn’t talk to us. He told News4 the prosecutor didn’t want him to comment, with the case pending.
News 4’s Lauren Trager also tried making public records requests for email exchanges between Layman and Vernon Zelch, but those requests were denied.
VERNON ZELCH RESPONDS
We did, though, catch up with Vernon Zelch on a back road in Crawford County. He was feeding a calf from a large bottle. It was only half empty and he never pulled away from it.
He couldn’t comment on the case, he said, because he was a deputy, but he denied interfering in the investigation in any way.
He had this to say the family: “I pray for them every day. They’ve lost a son; I am probably going to lose one too. I pray for them both.”
Prayers aren’t enough for Kayla.
“The fact is, a deputy’s son killed my brother and I feel like it was covered up so long,” she said.
She told us she wants anyone who may have withheld justice, held accountable.
“I don’t want these people to do this again to anyone else,” she said.
She’s grateful to Franklin County for getting involved when they did, especially Detective Kody Lucas. Franklin County declined to talk with News 4, citing the open case.
Some officers, including the former Bourbon Police Chief, argued they did make some attempts to find Edward, giving the example of the cadaver dogs that searched the property. Kayla contends they did very little.
THE CASE MOVING FORWARD
News 4 also put in requests to speak with Deacon Zelch from jail. He first indicated he would like to talk, then changed his mind.
He’s scheduled to appear in Crawford County court on Friday.
It’s unclear what may have motivated the murder.
The Crawford County Sheriff does not think Zelch is connected to any other missing person and there are currently no other open homicides in Crawford County.
In the letter he sent to Amanda in September last year, he wrote cryptically of “what lies below the fields of my favorite back roads” and of people “feeding his gardens.”