Family and friends of Barbara Howe struggled Friday to make sense of how the 87-year-old Monroe woman ended up dead inside the trunk of her car after being missing since Sunday.
Monroe police and the Butler County Coroner ruled her death a homicide Friday morning — the seventh in the county this year and the first in Monroe. Howe’s body was found in her 2005 red Cadillac STS at a Middletown apartment complex Thursday.
“We have a very strong probability of what caused this woman’s death, but more investigation is needed,” said Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser.
Linda Fiora, a former neighbor of Howe’s, called her death and the circumstances surrounding it “unspeakable.” Fiora, who lives on Eaton Drive in Middletown, where Barbara and her late husband, Bill, lived for years, said since Howe was reported missing from Mount Pleasant Retirement Village in Monroe, she felt “absolute terror.”
“I hate to think of the terrific pain she was in,” Fiora said. “She was a beautiful lady inside and out.”
Attempts by the Journal to reach Howe’s family members Friday were unsuccessful.
Monroe Police Lt. Brian Curlis read from a prepared statement during a press conference Friday in city hall, saying Howe’s death had been ruled a homicide. He took no questions from the news media.
Dr. Lisa K. Mannix, Butler County Coroner, said the cause of death and place of death are under further investigation. The time of death was ruled at 3:46 p.m. Thursday when her body was turned over to the coroner.
Howe, who lived alone in a cottage on Paxton Circle in Mount Pleasant, had been missing since Sunday after she had dinner with a friend and sent a funny political email. Her car was found by Middletown police at 1:30 p.m. Thursday in the parking lot of Woodridge Park East Apartments on Woodridge Drive, near Roosevelt Avenue, just 5.2 miles from her home.
William Kinsey, one of Howe’s neighbors, called Howe “a very, very nice lady.”
When he learned of Howe’s death, Kinsey, 82, said he was “astounded” and he had “no idea why this could have happened.”
There were no signs of foul play in her residence, police said, and her purse was not in her home.
Stan Kappers, executive director of Mount Pleasant, said he met with residents in small group sessions Friday to reassure them and to give them “peace of mind.” Kappers said Monroe police told him there was “no cause for alarm.”
The last several days have been “an awful time” at Mount Pleasant, Kappers said.
“Our hearts are broken because we have lost a member of our family,” he said.
The residents of Mount Pleasant have gathered for prayer vigils over the last few days, Kappers said. There was another prayer vigil Friday night, the first since her body was located. About 50 residents packed the chapel. The Rev. Tim Doty, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Middletown, where Howe was a longtime member, told those in attendance it was time to “rally around” Howe’s family, her sister and three daughters.
Howe is the widow of Bill Howe, the longtime owner of Howe Motors Chevrolet in Middletown.
According to a police incident report, Middletown Lt. Scott Reeve began looking for Howe’s car after the department’s Police Chaplin Lamar Ferrell came to the office expressing concern for the woman.
Reeve learned that Monroe police had checked Howe’s former Middletown residence. He then thought of places where she may have shopped for her vehicle or other items when she lived in the city.
“While driving down Roosevelt Avenue, I noticed the Cadillac parked at Woodridge Apartments near the playground,” Reeve said in a police report.
A resident at the apartment complex, who did not want to be named, said he “vaguely remembered” seeing Howe’s car parked by the playground at about 7:30 a.m. Tuesday. The man, who lives across from where the car was found, said that was the first time he recalled seeing the car.
Authorities would not say how long Howe’s body was in the trunk, how she died, or why the car was parked in the apartment complex.
Representatives from the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation have been called in to assist with the investigation, Butler County Prosecutor Gmoser said.
Sharon Crist, a waitress at Red Onion Cafe in Monroe, called Howe “one of my regulars,” who dined there for lunch about once a month.
“She was a class act,” said Crist, who fought back tears.
“This doesn’t happen in Monroe. We’re a small town,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
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Staff Writer Lauren Pack contributed to this report.