Sister seeks closure in man's mysterious death

By VINCE TWEDDELL Published:

For more than two decades, Kathryn Soto wondered what had happened to her brother.

She hoped Billy Ray Weems was alive, but knew the odds of that being the case were slim.

Still, she pressed on with her quest to find him.

Finally, in May, she received the call for which she had been waiting, but not the one for which she had hoped. Her brother's remains " bones found in a ditch near a high school in Corpus Christi, Texas " had been identified.

"I accepted a long time ago he was dead," she said.

Now, Soto hopes that she can bring her brother's remains to Frankfort in order to give him what she terms a proper burial.

It all started when Weems, who was 30 at the time, turned up missing. Soto said in the summer of 1986 her brother, who was working in an antique shop, was supposed to head down to Mexico to hunt for antiques. It is unclear what happened to him. The only thing that is known is that his Volkswagen was found abandoned in the road in Alice, Texas.

She then traveled to the town where his car was found. There she showed a snapshot of him to locals, at restaurants and at the bus station. But there were no leads. After filing a report with officials in Austin, Soto came back to Frankfort empty-handed.

Soto said she last saw her brother a year before, in 1985, when Weems visited her and her two sons, one of them a newborn.

Years passed, and Soto got on with raising a family, while still hoping for a break. Sometimes, she would become obsessed with what had become of her brother. Then she'd drop it and try to move on, only to become obsessed again.

Distraught that no leads had turned up in 20 years since her brother had gone missing, Soto called Texas officials in May 2006 and pleaded that there must be something that could be done. She was told to submit a DNA sample.

She went to the Frankfort Police Department where detective Jeff Hulker took a DNA sample and then sent it to the University of North Texas Health Services Center in Fort Worth.

Her DNA sample was then matched up with samples of DNA from the Texas Missing Persons DNA Database, one of which included DNA derived from the unidentified bones found seven years earlier in a ditch near West Oso High School in Corpus Christi, Hulker said.

Nine months after Hulker had taken Soto's DNA sample, he called to tell her a match had been found.

"I nearly dropped the phone," Soto said. "I was in shock. Really total shock because I didn't expect to find him."

Soto had also reported Weems missing to Frankfort Police, and Hulker said detectives at the department had continually looked for matches of Soto's brother, either through unidentified persons reports on national computer systems or dental records. The detectives " beginning with Russell Givens, then Tom Gillion and finally Hulker " also made nationwide credit checks and driver's license checks "just to see if Weems came up," Hulker said.

"The big thing that really solved this was the DNA," he said.

The cause of Weems' death is not known and science may never be able to determine that. Soto, though, has found some peace that she finally knows where her brother is and she's thankful that the DNA was able to identify him.

"If it wasn't for that, I probably wouldn't have ever known," she said.

Soto grew up in Alabama but moved here shortly before Weems went missing. She's so adamant about bringing him back because other than her sons, Weems is the last of her family. "This is where me and my kids are going to be buried," she said. " I think of Frankfort as my home."

The task of transporting the remains is left for Soto. The first step, she said, is to get the birth certificate listed for her brother's remains to be changed from "John Doe' to Billy Ray Weems.

Next, she'll have to find a casket in which to transport the remains. She does not know the costs involved, but hopes she'll get some assistance from a Texas organization that assists the families of victims. It's another challenge, but Soto's determined.

"I'm going to get him here " you can bet on that " one way or another," she said.

Soto, 48, who works as a caregiver for former Circuit Judge and Supreme Court Justice Squire Williams, hopes her story offers hope for others in similar situations.

Although discovering that her brother was dead was not her desire, finding him offered closure.

"Unless you know for sure, there's always that question," she said.

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