Someone had drawn a pair of lips and an exclamation mark on the car’s rear windshield, using bright pink lipstick. And the headlights were on, but nobody was inside except for a live puppy, later adopted by an investigating officer. The abandoned vehicle of a missing Walmart employee – discovered in a parking lot in Asheville, North Carolina – posed some seriously bizarre riddles. But this was just the start of the mystery…
The employee’s name was Zebb Quinn. He was just 18 years old, and at the time of his disappearance in January 2000, he worked in the electronics department of the Hendersonville Road Walmart in Asheville. He was also signed up to a college-based Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program.
As far as investigators are aware, the last person known to have had contact with Quinn was a co-worker called Robert Jason Owens. Quinn and Owens were apparently friends, in that they sometimes played pool together. And on the night Quinn disappeared, Owens had suggested they visit the rural community of Leicester, around ten miles northwest of Asheville.
Knowing that Quinn was looking for a new set of wheels, Owens had tipped him off about a car that was up for sale in the community. Quinn finished his shift at Walmart at about 9:00 p.m. on January 2, 2000. He then met Owens in the parking lot and they headed off towards Leicester, each in their own vehicles.
At approximately 9:15 p.m., meanwhile, Quinn and Owens were captured on surveillance cameras at a gas station, where they bought sodas. But according to Owens, Quinn then received a message on his pager as they were driving away. He flashed his headlights and they both pulled over. Quinn went to return the call at a payphone – and when he came back, he appeared to be “frantic.”
According to Owens, Quinn hastily backed out of their planned trip and sped off, hitting the back of Owens’ vehicle in the process. Perhaps mysteriously, Owens later went to the hospital with a head wound and some fractured ribs. He claimed to have been injured in a separate and unrelated traffic incident.
And during the following afternoon, Quinn’s mother, Denise Vlahakis, contacted the police to file a missing persons report on her son. Nobody had seen Quinn. Nobody knew where he was. But then, two days after his disappearance, the Walmart on Hendersonville Road received a phone call: it was Quinn, apparently, calling in sick.
However, something about the voice of the caller was off: to the ears of Quinn’s co-worker, it did not sound like Quinn at all. And, interestingly, the call had been made from a Volvo factory where Owens had a second job. Owens eventually confessed to making the call, claiming that Quinn had asked him to phone into work on his behalf.
Meanwhile, police investigators tracked down a woman with whom Quinn was apparently romantically involved: Misty Taylor. The relationship between the two had begun a few weeks before Quinn’s disappearance. However, Taylor also had a boyfriend called Wesley Smith. And according to Quinn’s friends and family, Smith had a propensity for violence and had already threatened Quinn.
Intriguingly, Taylor also matched the description of a woman seen driving Quinn’s car in downtown Asheville. In fact, a composite image of the driver – which was compiled thanks to the help of a couple who saw her – bore an uncanny resemblance to Quinn’s love interest. Could there perhaps be a connection between Owens, Taylor and Quinn?
As it so happens, no connection between the three has ever been found. But Taylor and her boyfriend Smith did have a link to Quinn’s aunt, Ina Ustich, who was not very close to her nephew. On the night of Quinn’s disappearance, the three of them had been dining together at the house of Misty’s mother.
When police traced Quinn’s pager, meanwhile, they discovered that someone had called him from Ustich’s house on the night he disappeared. Was this the page that had made him “frantic”? Ustich, however, has claimed that she did not make the call. Furthermore, she later stated that her house had been broken into that night – although nothing had been stolen.
Then, on January 6, 2000, Quinn’s Mazda Protegé was found abandoned in a restaurant parking lot adjacent to the hospital where Quinn’s mother worked. She does not believe its location was a coincidence. Inside the vehicle, police investigators discovered a mysterious hotel key card that has never been identified, several empty bottles and a jacket, its owner unknown.
“We all feel very certain that he was killed that night,” Vlahakis told Fox Carolina in 2012. “There are people, more than one person, who know what happened… it is hard because we can’t say goodbye and kind of put everything at rest.” Well, Quinn’s family may be about to get some long-overdue closure…
And in the 17 years since Quinn vanished, speculation about his disappearance has never really stopped. Theories attempting to explain the bizarre connections and ill-fitting evidence surrounding the case have been posited in numerous social media threads, for instance. These theories, however, range from the plausible to the ridiculous.
But what was the significance of the lips drawn on the windshield? Was this a reference to Misty Taylor, a warning to keep quiet or simply a red herring? Was the puppy dog Quinn’s property? Or had it been left there by an unconnected transient? And who, exactly, had paged Quinn from his aunt’s house? These are just some of the unanswered questions relating to Quinn’s mysterious disappearance.
However, a breakthrough finally came in March 2015, following the unconnected murder of Cristie Schoen, a contestant on the TV show Food Network Star, her husband and the baby with whom she was pregnant. Police tracked down Owens and arrested him as a suspect for the crimes. They subsequently discovered a slew of potentially incriminating evidence buried on his property.
Indeed, as part of a plea deal, Owens later admitted to two counts of murder and dismembering human remains. On April 27, 2017, moreover, he was sentenced to spend a minimum of 59 and a half years in jail without the possibility of parole. Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams had intended to push for the death penalty in Owens’ case. Luckily for Owens, though, he managed to dodge that fate.
However, on July 10, 2017, Owens would also be indicted for the first-degree murder of Zebb Quinn. “This indictment is the result of years of investigative work and persistence by detectives of the Asheville Police Department,” the department said in a statement, “as well as ongoing partnerships with members of the Quinn family and the Buncombe County District Attorney’s Office.”
And the timing of the indictment, it’s theorized, may be because Owens has offered up new evidence in the case as part of his plea deal. Whatever the reasons for his indictment after all these years, though, it is now up to the courts to determine his innocence or guilt. Then, with any luck, the entire mystery of Zebb Quinn’s disappearance might at last be solved.