The Florida town of New Port Richie, located along the central shores of Gulf has been described as idyllic for its sun, surf and palm trees, but to one middle-aged resident, Brian Reapp, 47, it could just as well be shrouded in gray fog. That's because his mind is always drifting north - 1,430 miles away to the small town of Jericho, Vt. That's where he spent the first 11 years of his boyhood until his mother and sister vanished from his and everyone else's life. That's where he believes the two are still buried - somewhere deep in the vast woods stretching off the backyard of the small house that was also home to his little brother Patrick, 8, and father Michael.
"I keep having visions and memories of leaves that shifted," Brian says. "I want to spend time with a metal detector and go around and see if I can't pick up mom's wedding ring or jewelry - or something. I have a good feeling about where they were in the woods. I need to find my mom and sister. I just do."
Grace Reapp, then 32, and her daughter Gracie, just 5, were murdered on June 6, 1978. Brian has lived with that harsh reality every day now for 36 years - through marriage, kids and career changes. All the while he's refused to forget even a single detail of the day when he first learned of their disappearance. All the while he's vowed to himself - and to his aunt - to bring them home for a proper burial.
Brian Reapp was just 11 years old when his mother Grace and his sister Gracie disappeared. Neither his father Michael nor anyone else in the small town of Jericho seemed concerned. Why should they be? After all, Michael told Brian and his brother that their mom and sister had gone away for a separate vacation while telling everyone else that the two had left for good.
But Brian was a bright boy and had suspected that something was amiss almost immediately. The school term had ended on the day they went missing, and his mom had never gone off without her boys. His fears were confirmed just five days later when Michael inexplicably changed his story for police while filing an official missing person's report. Brian recalls him telling them that she had left a handwritten note that explained she had gone away for good and had taken Gracie with her.
Then, Brian recalls, there was the second odd occurrence. Five days after Michael had filed that missing person's report - just 10 days in total since his wife and daughter had "simply vanished" - Michael Reapp filed for divorce, citing, of all things, desertion.
That's when Brian's Aunt, Juliana Woodworth, felt her suspicions of foul play had been confirmed.
"I knew immediately they didn't just vanish. I knew they were murdered," Woodworth says. "And I knew I had to make it my life's mission to find them."
After she pushed police to do their jobs and at least ask some questions, Michael admitted he'd been involved in several extramarital affairs. In fact, just a year after Grace and Gracie went missing, Michael married one of the women he had been carrying on with while married. That was Donna Roussin, 26, who had been the family babysitter. Earlier in their relationship, Michael had gotten Donna pregnant and he took her for an abortion.
Michael went on to have one child with his mistress, and then he moved his blended family to Florida but not before sticking firm to his story that Grace had taken Gracie and they were perhaps living with, or near, her family.
Police admitted at the time that everything seemed a bit suspicious. After all, if they were living so close to family, wouldn't her sister Juliana know where she was? Absolutely. But where was the crime? No bodies meant no proof that a crime had been committed. And it followed naturally from that logic that there was no real reason to force Michael to produce the goodbye letter he claimed he found. It all came down to a case of Michael's words against Juliana's regarding the whereabouts of Grace and Gracie.
For his part - and even at 11 - Brian knew his mother could never have gone off without her boys. He knew she loved them deeply. But what could he do? He was just a little boy - recently without a mother and in the care of a father he suspected he couldn't ever trust again.
"He moved us from Jericho to Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys," Brian says. "It happened so quickly. I missed my mom and my sister and then I had this new family."
After little to no movement at all in the case, Juliana Woodworth thought she might be granted the closure she desperately sought for herself and Brian in 1986. The remains of a woman and child were found not far from Jericho in a state park in Allentown, N.H. Juliana quickly forwarded Grace's dental records to police, but they didn't match.
The mystery continued.
Still, Juliana Woodworth continued to push - urging police to continue investigating. In the mid '90s a new detective with a fresh set of eyes was put on the case. Together he and Juliana developed a theory: Grace had wanted to divorce Michael Reapp because he was abusing her physically and was having extramarital affairs. But Michael wanted to keep his kids - the boys, in particular. Their thinking was that Michael killed Grace but was forced to do the same to Gracie because she had witnessed the crime. The boys were in school on their last day of the term before summer vacation - what would have been the last opportunity to commit the murder before they'd be home all day for almost three months.
It wasn't until 1996 - 18 years after their disappearance - that the case of Grace and Gracie Reapp was officially classified a homicide. Juliana had been tenacious in pushing the police but there was also this set of key facts: not a single bit of evidence existed to show that either Grace or Gracie had lived their lives beyond June 6, 1978. Across all those years Grace had never worked and never used her social security number to apply for anything: not to vote, not to acquire housing nor to acquire public assistance. And Gracie had never been registered at any school, public or private. Police now began to believe it impossible that the two had left Jericho alive.
When they paid Michael a visit in Florida for questioning he once again denied any involvement in the duo's disappearance, and he couldn't remember what had happened to the goodbye note he claimed she had left. The note no investigator ever asked him to produce.
But within days of finding out he was officially under investigation for murder, Michael left his new family and vanished.
"I filed a missing persons report," Brian says. "I couldn't let him get away."
But get away he did. Investigators traced him to New Orleans and found his car abandoned at the airport, but there was no sign of him there. He was gone.
At that point he was married for a third time and his wife had apparently been kept in the dark about his secrets. That she never filed a missing person's report told police a lot. And his second wife - the babysitter - said she was too afraid to talk or even get involved for fear that Michael might harm her or the child they had together. Neither wife would ever see him again.
Although their prime suspect was gone, police continued the search for Grace and Gracie, returning to the property in Jericho more than a dozen times since the disappearance. To date, they have used ground-penetrating radar and conducted multiple digs - but so far have only come up short. Complicating the matter is the fact that the Reapps' old backyard opened up to acres of dense woodlands, making finding a likely burial spot the equivalent of finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Despite not having the bodies in evidence, police moved forward in charging Michael Reapp with one count of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder in absentia. On June 22, 2006, the Reapps were notified that police were holding a warrant for his arrest. But Michael was nowhere to be found.
Four years later, on June 7, 2010, Vermont State Police called the family to say that they had finally located Michael Reapp but that he was dead. Later, the family would identify his remains and fingerprint tests would prove conclusive for a match.
"It was a little rough to identify him," Brian says. "He had shot himself in the head."
It turns out Michael died on January 10, 1997, shortly after he was involved in an armed carjacking in Arizona. As police closed in on him for that crime, he turned the gun on himself. The only thing that remains unclear is why it took so long to get his prints identified and then to call Brian to I.D. the body.
"There was a little bit of closure in knowing he wasn't going to keep running and get away with it," says Brian. "But I still don't have my mom and my sister."
Brian's aunt says she believes it was her ongoing pursuit for justice on behalf of her sister and her niece that pushed Michael to the brink.
"My children say I put that bullet in his head - and I think they're right," she says.
ONE FINAL SEARCH
Brian Reapp is now 47 years old and currently unemployed - but using the time to further unravel the mystery that engulfed his mother, sister and, ultimately, claimed his childhood. And he's never given up the hope that he will locate their bodies and "bring them home."
"I don't have money right now, but I need to get back to Jericho. I have a good feeling about where they might be in the woods," says Brian. "From what I was told some people who live there say the woods have now been cut down and it should be easier to find them."
Brian believes he knows his mother and sister were buried in the woods because his father was very familiar with the area and because the murder happened in the middle of the day. There wasn't much time to move them anywhere else by the time he and his brother got home from school. Besides, Grace was heavyset and Michael, a man of slight build, couldn't have carried her too long or too far.
Within the past two years, Brian says, "I have had brief memories of a spot behind the yard, a little ways into the woods, off of the main trail, where the ground was dug up and the leaves were put over it."
He thinks the police may not have looked there because it had always been overgrown with small birch trees.
In addition to his fleeting recollections of the landscape near his home, Brian recently made a startling discovery about his father's family. His grandfather, Benjamin had been arrested for allegedly molesting a child in Cocoa Beach Fla. And police believe he had killed his wife during the mid '80s. He died in jail.
"I guess the apple doesn't fall from the tree," Brian says.
For now, Brian is steadfast in his goal to unearth the remains of Grace and Gracie. He may not ever know the answer to all of the details of the murder - but there is something he knows he can give them while continuing to honor them in memory.
"I just want to give them a proper burial," he says. "They deserve that. We deserve that."
If you have any information on the murders of Grace and Gracie, please call Vermont State Police at 802-244-8781.
Jon Leiberman is an Emmy award-winning investigative correspondent, host, producer, victim advocate and author. He recently wrote the book "Whitey On Trial," about the mob. In addition to contributing to HNGN, he is a contributor to "Snapped" on Oxygen and various other television shows. Leiberman is a former correspondent for "America's Most Wanted." Follow him on Twitter @reporterjon.