Stephanie Warner spent the afternoon of Thursday, July 4, 2013, marching in a Fourth of July parade in Ashland, Oregon. The 43-year-old left the parade with her boyfriend, Lennie Ames, around 3:30 pm and headed north towards her home in the unincorporated community in Ruch, Oregon. It was the last time any of Stephanie’s friends would see her.
Stephanie’s mother, who lived in New Orleans, was the first person to realize that something was wrong. She usually spoke with her daughter once or twice a day, and when she didn’t hear from her for several days, she grew increasingly concerned. By Saturday, she was extremely worried and decided to call the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and request that they perform a welfare check on Stephanie.
Deputies were dispatched to Stephanie’s home and found her Nissan Xterra parked in the driveway but got no answer when they knocked on the door. The back door to the house was unlocked and Stephanie’s car keys were in the kitchen, but the house was empty. There were no overt signs of foul play; neither Stephanie’s home nor her vehicle showed signs of forced entry and there was nothing to indicate any kind of struggle had taken place. Stephanie had simply vanished.
One of Stephanie’s close friends went to the house that Sunday and immediately noticed that Stephanie’s vehicle was not parked in the spot where Stephanie normally parked it. It was a red flag that seemed to indicate that Stephanie had not been the last person to drive her vehicle. Additionally, the remote to open the gate, which Stephanie always kept attached to the visor of her Nissan, was missing.
At the time of Stephanie’s disappearance, her boyfriend had been illegally camping on Bureau of Land Management property for about three years. He told deputies that he hadn’t seen Stephanie since around 5:00 on July 4th when she dropped him off at the Ruch County Market. She was alone when she drove off, presumably to return to her home.
According to Lennie, he hitched a ride to his wooded campsite with a group of men in a green pickup truck who told him that they were going camping at Applegate Lake. There was no cell phone reception at his campsite; he said that he had no idea that Stephanie was missing until one of her friends came to the campsite and told him what was going on.
Deputies from the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office spoke with Lennie at his campsite on July 9th, and he gave them permission to search the site. They found no evidence that Stephanie had been there. Shortly after speaking with the deputies, Lennie, along with his son and his son’s girlfriend, left the campsite and moved into Stephanie’s home.
On July 10th, seven deputies and several search dogs combed through the area surrounding Stephanie’s home, hoping to find some clues as to her whereabouts. With nothing to suggest that Stephanie had been a victim of foul play, her disappearance was initially treated as a routine missing person case. In a statement to reporters, Jackson County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Shawn Richards noted, “Maybe she went for a walk in the woods and got lost…exactly what went wrong is what we’re trying to figure out.”
The search was expanded the next day, when 16 search and rescue personnel conducted a grid search of several areas in the Applegate Valley. A police helicopter scanned the area from the sky, hoping to find something that the ground search had missed. Unfortunately, all the searches came up empty.
Stephanie’s friends and family members all agreed that she wasn’t the type of person who would voluntarily disappear; she had several cats and some lambs that she referred to as her babies and she would never have willingly abandoned them. At the time of her disappearance, one of Stephanie’s cats was on prescription eye drops for a medical condition. Stephanie had administered the prescribed dose on the night of July 3rd, but the July 4th dose was never given. Those who knew Stephanie well were certain that she would have given the drops if she had been home to do so; they feared that this missed dose indicated that Stephanie had never made it to her house after the Fourth of July parade.
Craig Hamm, the owner of the Ruch County Market, knew Stephanie well as she was a frequent customer at the market. “It’s very unusual for her to do something like this so we’re all concerned and praying…everyone is just keeping their eyes and ears open and hoping for the best.”
A week after Stephanie was last seen, investigators moved away from the physical search and started conducting interviews with all of Stephanie’s family members, friends, and neighbors. Jackson County Sheriff’s Office Detective Eric Henderson told reporters that everyone who knew Stephanie was questioned but none were able to shed any light on what had happened to the missing woman. “There is no indication she left the area. There has been no activity with her bank account and we have had her vehicle at the sheriff’s office.” No one admitted to giving Stephanie a ride anywhere; if she had gone off voluntarily, she had done so on foot.
Craig Hamm told police that the last time he saw Stephanie at the Ruch Country Market had been on July 3rd; neither he nor any of the other employees had seen Stephanie on July 4th and were unable to confirm that she dropped Lennie off at the market that day.
Hoping to find someone who had seen Stephanie at the market, authorities asked for the public’s help in locating the young men who Lennie said had given him a ride to his campsite. The men had been in their late teens or early twenties; they had been in a green pickup truck and were believed to be heading to Applegate Lake. Despite several public appeals, no one came forward to identify the men.
As weeks went by without any word from Stephanie, her friends and family members tried to remain optimistic. Stephanie had been unemployed at the time of her disappearance but had been an active volunteer with the Jackson County Fuel Committee, an organization that helped low-income residents obtain firewood for their homes. Stephanie was very committed to the cause and did anything they needed her to do, including chopping firewood. The group was the reason she had participated in the Fourth of July parade on the day she went missing; she had helped them design a float and had proudly marched alongside it during the parade.
Jackson County Fuel Committee manager Bill Jennett had also been at the Fourth of July parade. Stephanie had hoped to help him staff the group’s information booth once the parade was over but had ended up leaving early after she and Lennie got into an argument. As she was leaving, she told Bill that she would call him the next day. He never received that call.
Bill told detectives that it was very unusual for Stephanie to be out of contact with those closest to her. “She called her mother once or twice a day and would be in touch with us three or four times a week. It’s very much out of character.”
Lennie and his son, Jared, spoke with reporters from a local news station. Lennie said he had no idea what might have happened to his girlfriend. “It’s been really tough on me to say the least. I miss her very much, the animals miss her, and as each day goes by it just continues to get more and more hopeless…it’s totally baffling right now.”
Some of Stephanie’s family members and friends were critical of Lennie and insinuated that he likely knew more about the disappearance than he was admitting. One friend, who wanted to remain anonymous, stated that Lennie threw parties at Stephanie’s home after she went missing and didn’t seem very concerned about the situation. She also noted that he didn’t participate in any of the searches for Stephanie. “I honestly think Lennie is responsible for it and I don’t think she’s with us anymore…if she were she would have found a way out by now.”
Although investigators had little evidence indicating what had happened to Stephanie, it was soon clear that they didn’t believe she was missing voluntarily. As they intensified their investigation, detectives asked for volunteers to help distribute missing person flyers. On August 24th, dozens of friends and local residents met up at the Jackson County Fuel Committee office to pick up flyers and start canvassing throughout the county.
Just five days later, officials announced that Lennie Ames was considered a person of interest in his girlfriend’s disappearance, though they refrained from calling him a suspect. Detective Henderson told reporters that he had been in regular contact with Lennie since the beginning of the investigation; although he had always been cooperative, they hadn’t been able to verify everything he had told them. “We named him a person of interest because we can’t definitively clear him of her disappearance.”
Investigators spent August 29th conducting another search of the wooded campsite Lennie had called home. They combed through his travel trailer and several vehicles located at the site, though they wouldn’t comment on any potential evidence that might have been found.
After searching through the campsite, detectives went to Stephanie’s home armed with a search warrant. When they arrived, they found that Lennie, his son, and at least one other person were still living there. Shortly after the search was completed, Lennie and the others packed up and left the home. Lennie also stopped cooperating with law enforcement. “We’ve heard different things about where he’s at…basically, we’re not in contact with him anymore at this point.”
Although Lennie had officially been named a person of interest, detectives admitted that they had no solid evidence that Stephanie was a victim of foul play. Detective Henderson noted, “We hold out hope, and the family holds out hope, that she will be found alive. We cannot completely discount the possibility that she is alive.” Even as he said this, the detective knew it was only a remote possibility. “She was making future plans to do things locally. There’s no evidence to suggest she planned to take off.”
Over time, investigators released more information about the case to the media. At the time of her disappearance, Stephanie had an ignition interlock device installed on her car as a result of a previous drunk driving conviction. In order to start the vehicle, a breath sample had to be provided. Each time the car was started, the device logged the time; as a result, detectives learned that Stephanie’s car had been started late on the evening of July 4th and driven for around three hours.
Stephanie’s car had also been driven on the morning of July 5th; when questioned about this, Lennie admitted that he had gotten a ride from his campsite to Stephanie’s house on July 5th; Stephanie had not been home at the time but he had decided to borrow her vehicle anyway. He claimed that he drove to a local market, then returned to Stephanie’s home and got a ride back to his campsite, completely unconcerned about the fact that his girlfriend was apparently missing.
Detective Henderson continued to appeal to the public for information and followed up on each lead that he received, but it was clear that the case was starting to stall. He admitted that Stephanie’s case was a difficult one. “She literally disappeared off the face of the earth. We have no sign of activity from her at all since she was last seen by Ames.”
As 2013 came to a close, officials confirmed that both Lennie and his son had warrants out for their arrests on charges unrelated to Stephanie’s disappearance. Lennie had two pending charges against him, one for offensive littering and one for criminal trespass in the second degree; both these charges stemmed from the fact he had been illegally living on Bureau of Land Management property. Neither was an extraditable offense, however, and Lennie fled the state before he could be arrested.
By March 2014, Stephanie had been missing for eight months and there had been little progress on her case. While investigators still believed that Lennie was somehow involved, they admitted that they had no new evidence to report and still didn’t know what had happened to Stephanie.
Sharon Lambert, Stephanie’s sister, tried to remain optimistic. “Every time it gets to be another month it just gets worse…all our prayers right now are focused on [getting] whoever would know what happened to her to come forward.”
During the first year of the investigation, detectives followed up on hundreds of tips and conducted dozens of searches, but nothing led them to Stephanie. As the Fourth of July holiday approached in 2014, her friends and family had little reason to celebrate. Sharon issued a short statement on behalf of Stephanie’s family, noting, “We love her and miss her and want her back.”
In August 2014, investigators conducted searches of several areas in Jackson County and at least one area in neighboring Josephine County; these were areas Lennie was known to visit as he checked on some of his mining claims. Detectives wouldn’t comment on any potential evidence that might have been found.
There was little movement on the case over the next year. Stephanie’s friends and family members continued to do what they could to remind the public that Stephanie was still missing, but with nothing new to report the news outlets soon lost interest in the case.
On the second anniversary of Stephanie’s disappearance, Detective Henderson announced that Lennie was officially considered a suspect in Stephanie’s disappearance. The news came as no surprise to Stephanie’s loved ones; many of them had been suspicious of Lennie since the very beginning of the case.
Although investigators wouldn’t comment on their reasons for the status change, Detective Henderson was certain Lennie had killed Stephanie. “The investigation has really led us to believe that she is deceased…we believe that he did take her somewhere and that he knows where her remains are, and I’m hopeful that he will come forward and tell us.”
Lennie was still living in Georgia when the announcement was made; investigators hadn’t spoken to him in well over a year. At a press conference, Detective Henderson made it a point to directly address his suspect, calmly stating, “I want Lennie Ames to know that this isn’t over. The investigation is going to keep going until we get to that point where we can make an arrest.”
Despite Detective Henderson’s optimism, no charges were filed in the case and it seemed that the investigation had stalled once more. Another year passed without any answers for Stephanie’s loved ones, who had grown to dread the Fourth of July holiday.
Detective Henderson assured the public that the case was still being actively worked on. “This is not in any way a cold case…there are still things to do.” Lennie remained his only suspect. “The evidence in this case clearly shows that he knows about Stephanie’s death, that he’s responsible for her death, and that he knows where she’s at right now, where her body can be located.”
Although he was convinced that Lennie mu*rdered Stephanie, Detective Henderson admitted that there simply wasn’t enough evidence to justify an arrest. He pleaded for anyone who had any information about the case to contact authorities, noting that even one small tip could be enough to break the case open. To date, that tip still hasn’t come in. More than nine years after Stephanie vanished, the case remains at a standstill.
Stephanie Warner was 43 years old when she vanished from Ruch, Oregon in July 2013. She was a warm and caring woman who loved animals and devoted her free time to helping those in need, and she had a tight circle of friends who continue to advocate for justice in her case. Stephanie has red hair and brown eyes, and at the time of her disappearance, she was 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighed 115 pounds. She was last seen wearing a pink tank top, black pants, and black lace up boots. She has several tattoos, including a bird, a mermaid, a woman’s head, and a tree branch with an owl. Her ears, navel, and nose are pierced. Detectives believe that Stephanie was killed by her boyfriend, Lennie Ames, but her body has never been found and they lack the evidence needed to take the case to trial. If you have any information about Stephanie’s disappearance, please contact the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office at 541–774–6800.