Skip to main content

The Fort Worth Missing Trio: Vanished While Christmas Shopping

vanished-while-christmas-shopping-the-fort-worth-trio

The Fort Worth Trio

Mary Rachel Trlica, who was known by her middle name, was a 17-year-old high school student at Southwest High School in Fort Worth,Texas. Rachel had been married for about six months to her husband Tommy Trlica. She owned a 1972 Oldsmobile 98, which was the vehicle she would be driving on the day the girls disappeared.

Lisa Renee Wilson, who also went by her middle name, was 14 years old. She and Rachel had been friends for many years and their respective families were close as well. At the time of her disappearance, Renee had a serious boyfriend named Terry, who had just given her a promise ring as an early Christmas gift.

Julie Ann Moseley, 9, lived across the street from Renee’s grandmother and was the younger sister of Renee’s boyfriend.

Christmas Shopping

On December 23, 1974, Rachel and Renee decided that they wanted to do some last-minute Christmas shopping. Julie asked to tag along with the pair, because she was bored and didn’t want to spend the day alone.

The older girls told Julie that she had to get permission first. Julie called her mother Rayanne, who was hesitant to let her go, as Julie didn’t have any money and while Rayanne knew Rachel, she wasn’t well acquainted with Renee. But she finally relented, knowing that her daughter would be lonely if she were left behind.

The three girls set out. They wanted to be back by 4 PM, because Renee in particular was excited to attend a Christmas party later that day with her boyfriend and wanted time to get ready beforehand.

Their first stop was at a surplus store in Fort Worth, so that Renee could pick up her layaway items. After that, they headed to the Seminary South Shopping Center, also in Fort Worth, unaware that this simple act would change their lives forever.

Seminary South Shopping Center in Fort Worth, Texas

Seminary South Shopping Center in Fort Worth, Texas

Missing

When the girls didn’t return home, their respective families became concerned and decided to investigate. They drove out to the Seminary South Shopping Center and quickly found Rachel’s car parked in the upper level of the Sears parking lot.

However, the girls were nowhere to be found.

It has sometimes been erroneously reported that the vehicle was full of shopping bags, but there were actually no bags from the mall inside the car. There were only the layaway items that Renee had picked up earlier, as well as a wrapped gift that Renee had brought with her to give to Rachel’s stepson.

The families waited at the mall all night, but the three girls never showed up.

Investigation

As with many missing persons cases involving young people, the police initially assumed the girls to be runaways. Their families did not believe this, however, pointing out that Renee had been eager to attend the Christmas party that night and that Julie, only 9 years old old, would never want to leave town just before Christmas.

Several witnesses placed Rachel, Renee and Julie at the mall on the day they went missing. According to a few accounts, they were seen in the company of a security guard or were seen getting into a vehicle that had “Security” on the side of it. Most of the accounts suggest that the girls appeared happy and at ease.

One woman notified store clerks that she saw the three girls in a pickup truck with a man. The witness did not give her name, unfortunately, and has never come forward to help the police.

Only one witness came forward to say that they had seen the girls being “forced” into a pickup truck by two men.

vanished-while-christmas-shopping-the-fort-worth-trio

A Mysterious Letter

Two days after the girls disappeared, Tommy Trlica, Rachel’s husband, received a letter that was ostensibly from his wife. This letter read:

“I know I’m going to catch it, but we had to get away. We’re going to Houston. See you in about a week. The car is in the Sears’ upper lot. Love, Rachel.”

Several things are odd about this letter. To start with, the letter was written in pen and the envelope which contained it was written in pencil. Furthermore, it was addressed to “Thomas” Trlica, despite the fact that he went by the name “Tommy,” which was what Rachel always called him.

Also, Rachel’s parents were adamant that it wasn’t her handwriting. Another strange detail: it appears that the author misspelled “Rachel” the first time, spelling it with a second “e” initially and then having to go back over it with an “l” instead. It seems unlikely that Rachel herself, who had probably written her own name countless times by that point, would have made such a mistake.

The letter has been examined by many handwriting experts over the years, but with inconclusive results.

Rachel, Renee, and Julie have neither been seen nor heard from since.

Further Investigative Efforts and Theories

The families continued to search for the girls in the years and decades following their disappearance, distributing missing persons flyers and hiring private investigators.

One such private investigator, Dan James, claimed that through the course of conducting interviews with friends of the missing girls, as well as two people who had been living in an RV in Tommy and Rachel’s backyard, he had learned that Rachel, Tommy and Debra—their roommate and Rachel's older sister—had been having arguments in the weeks leading up to Rachel’s disappearance.

Some context for why this might be important: Debra was Tommy's ex-fiancée. Not long after his breakup with Debra, Tommy began dating and eventually married Rachel.

The three were living together in December 1974 and though this sounds like an uncomfortable and emotional situation from an outside perspective, Debra claimed that there was no ill will whatsoever between either herself and her sister or between her and Tommy.

James also allegedly learned that a physical altercation had occurred between Rachel, Debra, and Tommy at a bowling alley just the day before the girls went missing. If true, it’s unclear what precipitated the fight or who got physical with whom.

Debra, for her part, claimed that they had played Canasta together the night before and made no mention of a fight.

Dan James also believed that Tommy and Debra were having an affair and stated that friends of Rachel’s had said that she was having multiple affairs of her own as well.

Another potential person of interest identified by James is Rachel’s father, Raymond “Cotton” Arnold. He was alleged to have been physically abusive towards both of his daughters, which was said to be the main reason that both had moved out of the family home.

James went on to state that his investigation had turned up evidence that Arnold was inappropriately involved with a number of underaged girls and that he was possibly even sexually abusive towards his own daughters.

Which brings us to a particularly disturbing theory posited by Dan James: that Rachel had been 6-8 weeks pregnant and that Arnold himself may have been the father. James cited medical records supposedly proving her pregnancy, but these, if they in fact exist, have never been released to the public.

There doesn’t appear to be any other evidence supporting this theory and it seems to be merely the conjecture of this private investigator.

Cotton Arnold, who was terminally ill with stage 4 cancer when his daughter went missing, died just four months later.

Rusty Arnold, Rachel’s younger brother, once suspected Debra of being involved in her disappearance on the basis of what he was told by Dan James. He has since changed his mind on that point, however, and determinedly continues to search for clues as to what happened to his sister.

Tommy briefly offered a $2,000 reward for information leading to the whereabouts of his wife, but withdrew the reward within a year and moved away.

Both Tommy and Debra have professed their innocence of any wrongdoing in this case.

A new suspect was discovered in 1975: a 28-year-old man with a tenuous connection to Rachel. Shortly before she went missing, Rachel had applied for a job at a store in Fort Worth. The man who owned the store—the suspect in question—had allegedly been making odd and harassing phone calls to the other six women who had applied for the same position.

Whether Rachel had received similar calls is unknown and this lead ultimately went nowhere.

In a bizarre twist, another private investigator—Jon Swaim—ordered that all of his files relating to the Fort Worth Trio case be destroyed upon his death. Shortly thereafter, in 1979, he died of a drug overdose, which was ruled a suicide.

Swaim had been investigating the disappearances from early on and was said to have done good work on the case. Sadly, whatever he may have discovered in his final months died with him.

vanished-while-christmas-shopping-the-fort-worth-trio

Case Reopened in 2001

In January 2001, the case was reopened. The police interviewed at least 20 new witnesses who’d seen the girls at the mall that day and reportedly narrowed their suspect list down to just five individuals.

That same year, a former Fort Worth policeman and security guard at the Seminary South Sears outlet came forward to report that he’d spotted three girls with a young male security guard inside a pickup truck on December 23, 1974. He said that they had appeared perfectly at ease and were even laughing.

Authorities believe that the girls left the mall with someone they knew that day and that things went wrong from there.

Current State of the Investigation

In 2018, Rusty, still determined to find answers as to what happened to his sister, learned that three cars were found at the bottom of Benbrook Lake, located just eight miles away from the shopping center.

Enlisting the help of a team of divers and dozens of volunteers, Rusty had all three vehicles pulled out of the lake, hoping to find any evidence relating to the disappearance of the Fort Worth Trio. Unfortunately, nothing of note was discovered, nor anything that would suggest a connection to this case.

No further developments have been announced.

The case remains open and active. The remaining family members are still hopeful that one day they’ll have definitive answers about what happened to Rachel Trlica, Renee Wilson and Julie Ann Moseley, and why they vanished 48 years ago.

Sources

"The Fort Worth Missing Trio," Wikipedia

"Portrait of a True Crime Character," Jonny Auping, Fort Worth Weekly, December 16, 2020

"Fort Worth Missing Trio," Dean Marie Pyle Peters & Cold Cases, November 20, 2009

"'Missing Trio' Case Remains Unsolved," Bianca Hillier, NBC News, December 20, 2018