Jan Bynum stands at the center of her daughter's room in Bynum's Farmers Branch house and looks around. On one wall is a University of North Texas calendar from the 1997-1998 academic year. Other parts of the room are filled with her daughter's furniture, makeup and knickknacks, much as the young college student left them on July 15, 1997, the day she vanished.
The room, beyond the hallway where family pictures hang, resembles a shrine, and Bynum wants to keep it that way. She is certain her daughter will return to it one day.
Cox disappeared after a field trip to the Denton police station. She called her boyfriend to tell him she was locked out of her car, and that was the last time anyone who knew her ever spoke to her. A massive police search and publicity campaign that put Cox's case before a national television audience turned up nothing. Cox, it seemed, had simply disappeared into the ether.
Early in the investigation into the disappearance, Bynum was critical of police and frustrated with what they didn't know and couldn't find out. As the days went by without answers, the family took the advice of a Denton police officer and turned to Florida psychic John Monti.
Though famed for his work in several high-profile disappearances--efforts that critics say did little more than distract police with pointless searches and win him headlines--Monti offered little real help in the hunt for Cox. Yet Bynum says that Monti was, in fact, valuable to her. While police ignored tips, dwelled on minutia and intimidated potential witnesses, Monti provided the family with information from students, teachers and others who might have seen something. Though an outsider may think Monti is about as tapped into the supernatural as the Wizard of Oz, he offered the desperate family something police didn't--hope. Four years after her daughter vanished, Bynum still clings to the hope that police, a psychic or anybody else can come up with some kind of answer that will finally bring Cox home.
"You have to be sane about it, but at the same time, if you lose a child, you are going to try anything," Bynum says, "especially when the police have absolutely nothing."
Typically, when somebody is missing for more than a year or two, some piece of the puzzle materializes, whether it's clues in the form of clothing, body parts, a corpse or a living person. The FBI gets close to 1 million reports of missing people every year. Of those, according to a study done by the U.S. Department of Justice in the early 1990s, most people--mostly juvenile runaways--are found within three months. Fewer than 1 percent of those who have been in the FBI's national computer file more than three years are ever found.
Cox, like a handful of other nationally publicized missing persons, falls into that small category. What's more, no one seems to have seen anything of her just before she vanished. The last time Bynum saw her then 19-year-old daughter was on the morning of the day she disappeared. Bynum was on her way out the door to work. Cox was getting ready for school and was running late.
"She had her hair up in a towel, and she was sitting on the bed putting on her makeup...I said, 'OK, I'm off to work.' I said, 'I love you' and I said, 'Have a good day. I'll talk to you this afternoon,'" she says. "Those were the last words she and I ever spoke."
After her mother left, Cox drove from Farmers Branch to the University of North Texas in Denton and attended morning classes, then she accompanied a criminal justice class to the Denton police station on a field trip. When the station tour was over, she walked back to her 1989 Nissan 240-SX, which was parked in a city parking lot nearby. Because she couldn't take a purse or keys into the jail for the tour, she had locked them inside her car and was going to use a spare key that was hidden under a fender. Then she found that her spare key didn't work.
She went back to the city offices, which are attached to the police station, and tried to call her boyfriend, Lawrence Harris III. Police aren't sure why she was unable to make a call from that phone, but they know she didn't get through to Harris. Police then directed her to a pay telephone at a Conoco gas station and convenience store about two blocks away. Around noon, Cox finally reached her boyfriend at his home in Farmers Branch, calling him collect from the pay phone outside the convenience store. She told him that she was locked out of her car. Harris showed up shirtless at the police station looking for Cox. He was seen at the police station between 12:30 p.m. and 12:45 p.m.
At first, police believed Cox would probably just show up somewhere, too. But as the hours went by it became obvious, at least to those who knew Cox, that something wasn't right. She didn't attend an afternoon class. She didn't return to her car or call her boyfriend again. Bynum says it was painfully and immediately clear that something had happened to Cox because it would have been far out of Cox's character to just bolt. Cox was working hard in school, she was responsible about her life, and she dearly loved her daughter, Alexis, a 19-month-old whom Cox was raising as a single mother after breaking up with the girl's father. Cox always wanted Alexis with her, and she never would have just abandoned the child like that, Bynum says.
"We're not talking about a young mom who wasn't trying to be pretty responsible," Bynum says. "She was going to school full time, doing great."
Cox didn't have her purse, pictures of her daughter or much of anything else. She had a couple hundred dollars in her bedroom at home, but she didn't take it with her. The $1,000 in her bank account was untouched. Bynum knew her daughter was in trouble.
The search began that afternoon. About 20 investigators were working on the Cox case, and the Denton Police Department devoted all available resources. The Texas Rangers and the FBI were called in to assist.
Classmates, witnesses and the boyfriend told authorities they had last seen Cox on the tour and then on the telephone. Police found Cox's car with the purse and keys locked inside. Investigators talked to dozens of witnesses and potential witnesses, but no one could offer any real clue of Cox's whereabouts.
Perhaps it's only because she was a mother who was desperate for information that police did not deliver, but Bynum is critical of the police work that she saw. Investigators, she says, unreasonably focused on the boyfriend because that's all they seemed to have. His long hair and earring and the fact that he showed up shirtless seemed to be something investigators latched onto, Bynum says. Despite the fact that he was seen in Farmers Branch at an hour that would have given him no time to abduct Cox, police grilled him intensely, Bynum says.
"They took poor Lawrence, and it was like, 'You know where she is. Her body's in the ground with maggots crawling in and out, and you're sitting here in an air-conditioned house.' Just unmerciful," Bynum says. (Harris couldn't be reached for comment.)
Harris, who had dated Cox for about nine months, underwent lengthy interrogations and took four lie detector tests before he was finally ruled out as a suspect. Mike Leverton, lead investigator on the case for the Denton police, agrees Harris couldn't have been responsible, partly because he was "cool as a cucumber" under intense police scrutiny.
Three weeks passed before police finally stopped concentrating on Harris, and, as far as Bynum is concerned, by then much had been lost in the way of possible leads. Police never fingerprinted Cox's car, which Bynum believes might have been where an abductor put his or her hands as if trying to help her get her keys.
"They said that they didn't think it was necessary...They said there were no indications of foul play or problems at her car...They kept hanging on that she was last seen at the convenience store."
Authorities didn't do other things that seemed just to be common sense to Bynum. They did not interview neighbors or verify family members' alibis. Their methods seemed erratic and spontaneous. They didn't even have Cox's own fingerprints until several months into the investigation.
The different agencies involved in the investigation seemed to be guarding their own turf and failing to share information with Bynum or even each other, Bynum says.
"It seems great that you've got the FBI and the Texas Rangers and the police all working on it, but I really think that does more harm than good because the FBI and the police are very territorial," Bynum says. Arguments about Cox's possible motives for disappearing set the tone for daily investigation meetings, she says.
"We had detectives tell us that during the first hour they spent arguing over did she run away or was she abducted? I said, 'Who cares?'" Bynum says. "I said, 'If she walked away, she's not in the right frame of mind, and she needs to be found every bit as much as if somebody took her. So what difference does it make?'"
But police were just not listening to the family, Bynum says, frequently sniffling and wiping tears from her eyes and cheeks as she recalls the story.
"This was not an irresponsible kid. That's why I was saying then if something happened and if she snapped and walked, she's sick. We need to find her. This is not a contest...You all quit arguing."
Leverton says there may have been some disagreement about the nature of Cox's disappearance, but that did not affect the police work.
"Different officers off the top of their heads may say things. I don't know about what was said back then exactly," he says. "Somebody might say, 'Oh, she probably ran away,' that type of thing, and it was probably thought of. They look at things like that...It didn't affect the investigation."
Despite Bynum's critical assessment of the work, police were not treating the Cox disappearance like it was just some adult who walked off, Leverton says. The alarm went out fast, leads were pouring in, and everyone was checked out.
"I thought there was a real effort on everybody's part. Once I was assigned, I was assigned to this totally for, gosh, a year or something, a long time," he says. "We pretty well all worked together. Especially when I got on it, I know I had cooperation from the FBI and the Texas Rangers."
But, even in the face of what was considered a massive and sustained police effort and publicity campaign, no solid clues surfaced. Leverton, who was designated to lead the investigation after about two months (and who subsequently won Bynum's confidence), says they never found anyone who actually saw Cox with someone or getting into a vehicle or into a tussle.
"There was no commotion when she left. I feel sure someone would have seen something if there was any type of commotion," Leverton says. "You know you could say she willingly left, but hypothetically, if somebody put a gun to your ribs or a knife to your ribs, you're going to willingly leave, too."
And that was the bottom line for the investigation. Police did what they considered their best and still had no clue what happened to Cox, and Bynum wasn't happy with the police work she'd seen even though it was not atypical for a case like Cox's. The Bynum family was getting dozens and dozens of telephone calls a day from old friends, concerned neighbors, people who'd seen news reports, psychics and others with tips.
By this time Bynum was understandably desperate and willing to try just about anything. A couple of months after Cox vanished, someone at the police station gave her Monti's name, she says. Bynum says she is religious and her faith is strong, but she doesn't usually "go in" for palm readings and that sort of thing. She called Monti's home in Florida. She was about to become a believer.
Though often called upon as a last resort to help families like the Bynums, psychic investigators such as Monti have yet to prove they've helped police with the Cox case or any case anywhere, says Gary Posner, a critic of those who claim to have special psychic or magical abilities. Posner, who has appeared on television news programs and written many articles debunking supposed miracles of the supernatural, wholly discounts the "powers" of those who claim to possess some psychic ability. Psychics cast a net of clues wide enough to capture any evidence that eventually surfaces through real police work or tips based on fact. Then, Posner says, even though their visions were of no real use to an investigation, the psychic finds a way to take credit.
"As is typical of all of the so-called psychic detectives, it appears Monti's 'clues' are generally not only of no value to helping find anyone, they result in the police and other officials going on wild goose chases and wasting a lot of time, money, manpower for no good purpose," Posner says.
Nevertheless, Monti is a familiar figure in high-profile missing persons cases. In 1993, he was featured as a family's "psychic advisor" in People magazine when the abducted 10-year-old Katie Beers was found sexually abused but alive, imprisoned in a secretly built dungeon in Long Island, New York. News accounts credit police investigators--not Monti--with finding the girl.
In 1996, he was in Bushnell, Florida, looking for 17-year-old Cheryl Barnes, who disappeared after visiting a shopping mall. Monti was blasted by a local reverend as being "satanic" for saying he had a "strong feeling" about storage sheds near the mall and their possible relationship to the girl's disappearance. Monti worked with television news reporters, going up in a news helicopter to search for the girl. Monti wasn't credited with anything in the widely publicized case because Barnes turned up unharmed in New York. She had run away from home.
Monti was also involved in the fruitless search for Tiffany Sessions, a 20-year-old University of Florida student who disappeared without a trace in 1989. A few months after the search for Sessions started, Monti was encouraged by a television station to go to the Gainesville campus to find clues to the disappearance. Tiffany's mother, Hilary Sessions, a resident of Valrico, Florida, (where Tiffany's room is just as she left it in 1989) says in no uncertain terms that Monti has no special powers and that he found nothing.
"He [demanded] $2,000 in cash from me, and it had to be green dollar bills, $20 bills or nothing at all. I had to pay him that, plus I had to pick up his expenses on top of that," she says. "We sat down and he gave me enough to get me interested, and then basically he said I've got you interested, I've got you hooked. Now, fork over the money."
With television and newspaper reporters in tow, Hilary Sessions and Monti traveled to Gainesville and checked into a motel. On a Saturday morning, Monti began his search for clues that would lead to "Tiffy," she says.
"We had satellite trucks, I mean the great big ones, following us down the road with cameramen with five and six batteries on their backs running down the road following us, and John's going off on this little jaunt," she says. "All along he is saying, 'Oh, this is a good sign. This is a good sign.' He found a body of a dog that was partially decomposed [and said], 'Oh, that's a good sign. I know we're going in the right direction,' and I'm saying, 'Why is the body of a decomposing dog a good sign?'"
That night, Monti took Sessions on what was called one of Monti's "wild rides."
"He's in my car and he goes racing through neighborhoods and saying, 'Look at that! Look at that! Oh, yeah, that's good.' And then he turns out the lights and then he turns on the lights and then he's running around and he's driving down these roads. I mean it's like 60 and 70 miles an hour, slams on the brakes, makes a sharp left-hand turn, a sharp right-hand turn. By midnight, you know, I'm sitting there going what the heck have I gotten myself into?"
They searched all day Saturday, and by Sunday, when Monti had still found nothing, he left without explanation, Sessions says. She firmly believes in psychic powers but doubts whether Monti possesses any.
When Monti heard what Sessions had to say about him, he said, "Oh my goodness. She got tons of information...I worked around the clock. There was nothing crazy about it."
Sessions paid Monti's expenses, and he gave Sessions valuable information about a jail inmate on a work-release program who he thought was connected to the disappearance and about a remote area of the college campus that needed to be searched.
"The sad part is what I did get and find out, nobody followed up on," he says. "I don't know why Mrs. Sessions is saying that...They were very happy at the time we left."
Just as in the other missing persons cases, Monti was attractive to Cox's family because he seemed to know something when nobody else did. Bynum says Monti only had Cox's photograph when they first talked, over the telephone. From his Florida home, Monti described the layout of Bynum's Farmers Branch house. There is no way, Bynum says, that Monti could have known about the house in such detail without some sort of unexplained ability.
"He talked about Kelli's bedroom and kind of walked it through, all the way through, I mean pretty much in detail. By detail, I mean not furniture and stuff but the layout of the house," she says.
Posner, the skeptic, says psychics such as Monti actually get their information from their source during the course of a "reading" or a conversation. In Bynum's case, he says, she probably unwittingly gave him enough information during their conversation so that he could eliminate everything but what was fact.
But Bynum says she knows she didn't tell Monti anything he could use, and when Monti told her about Cox's shoulder tattoo, she was spooked enough to take note. "He pointed out a tattoo of a scorpion on her left shoulder two inches in diameter, and you kind of go, wow, she does," Bynum says. "Unless she wore a real short-sleeved shirt you wouldn't have seen it."
The tattoo had not been made known to anyone but police, and Monti described it perfectly from hundreds of miles away. Monti's uncanny knowledge was convincing. The Bynums decided to payto get Monti to Denton and possibly help find their daughter. They would spend a total of about $2,000 for airfare and expenses on Monti's trips.
"He went with police. He went on his own quite a bit...Some of the things there again that John was able to describe to me without seeing...His style was not to ask questions. He'd tell me right up front," she says. "I mean for heaven sakes we had prophets...So, I mean it is not as if it's an unreal thing...Whether it's John or someone else, people can see."
In Denton, Monti was attracted to a feeling he was getting from the local garbage dump, and he took police there often. He also had a "strong feeling" about a Denton apartment complex. He felt so strongly about the apartments that he and Leverton returned to them three times to talk to tenants. On the third visit, Monti wanted to look inside. With Leverton acting as go-between and with the permission of 30 or so tenants, Monti went into each apartment. He didn't find any sign of Cox.
Leverton wasn't as sold on the technique as Bynum was. Though he took Monti everywhere he wanted to go, Leverton never became convinced Monti had special "powers." In describing Monti, Leverton talks in a halting and cautious way, seemingly in recognition of the emotions involved.
"Well, I guess he is somewhat...He's had articles in the paper for something he did years ago. I think he found a body and...ah...he was a likable person...you know," Leverton says. "What I mean is it just wasn't the normal police work, but I mean that it would be too lengthy to go into everything we did, but we did quite a bit of stuff."
Monti took Leverton all over Denton. Leverton, whose primary job is with family violence investigations, comes across as a man who smiles easily and could get along with just about anybody. He seems both patient and accommodating, skills that he needed to work with Monti, apparently.
Leverton says Monti would say, "'You know I want to check over here. I want to check over here.' He wouldn't tell you, 'I'm having this vision. I want to check over here.'
"We tried to do the regular police work, and we would follow through with whatever he was wanting to do," he says. "I'm not saying I agree with those things he wanted to do, but we did it. It didn't turn up anything. I wish it had. I really wish it had."
Monti was just being paid expenses, which included his flights from Florida and car and hotel rentals, Bynum says. And, even though he wasn't finding anything, she was happy with him. Monti was talking to everyone the police ignored, and he was giving the family hope, even if it was in the form of information about Kelli's life, she says.
"I almost felt like we had a private investigator, which was nice. Someone to at least go over things with us. I don't know, maybe the police don't have the time to visit with people," she says. "You could take the psychic piece completely out of it; he did more from an investigation standpoint than any of the detectives."
Most of the time the psychics who get involved in the high-profile missing persons cases aren't paid, but they often get publicity in local newspapers and on television. In the Cox case, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported in a news story three months after she disappeared that Monti believed Cox to be alive and in Denton somewhere. Media attention like that is a big draw for psychics like Monti, says Posner, the Tampa Bay skeptic.
"I think a lot of them just get off on just becoming celebrities, even modest celebrities, so they can have an archive of videotapes of their television appearances," he says. "That alone and the minimal amount of income that they can generate may be enough to sustain them."
Neither Monti nor any of his kind has ever proven to be useful to police, at least not in terms of "powers," and typically, Posner says, when the media goes away usually so do the psychics.
"I've never seen any convincing evidence nor have any of my hundreds or thousands of colleagues around the world. Having spent decades searching, none of us has found any convincing evidence that any psychic, whether a psychic detective or someone claiming psychokinesis or clairvoyance...or whatever kind of psychic powers alleged, none of us have ever found any convincing evidence that any sort of psychic power exists," Posner says. "So, it's not like we're singling out John Monti, whereas there are dozens of other successful psychic detectives and Monti just doesn't happen to be one of them. His record is probably as fine as any, which is absolute zero."
Monti says police were at a dead end in the Cox investigation, and they didn't want it to appear that they allowed something to happen to a young woman right next door to the police station. His arrival to the investigation gave police someone else to blame for failure.
"It ends up as I become their forensic ace detective, and if anything goes wrong, they can blame the psychic for it," he says. "If you don't go in the woods and come out with the bones on your back, you're not accurate anyway. That's how it works. I'm telling you."
The FBI and Texas Rangers don't talk about "pending investigations" or their techniques because, it is assumed, abductors would figure out how to avoid being caught, an FBI spokesman says. Bynum doesn't talk much to the police or the media anymore. There isn't really anything new to talk about.
Monti speaks to the family occasionally. He still believes Cox is all right, and he continues to volunteer the kind of words that would make Bynum take note but would make a police detective cringe.
"What I feel is that there will be a breakthrough in the case within the next six to eight months," he says. "And I feel that she will be able to go home."
Now that Cox's daughter, Alexis, is more aware of her surroundings, Bynum has tried to be more honest about Cox. Instead of saying she is lost, Bynum now tells Alexis that her mother got locked out of her car and was gone when help arrived. Until the day Cox is found, Bynum says, she will not give up hoping that "Kelli walks in that front door" and thanks her for doing a good job raising Alexis in her absence.
The Bynums will keep Cox's room as much the same as they can. But recently, something went wrong with an attic component of the Bynums' air conditioner. Water leaked through the ceiling and onto Cox's bed, and the double mattress was ruined. They will probably replace the bed with a day bed, Bynum says. Other than that, they will keep Cox's room ready for her return, just like they have been doing.
"I've never gotten that sense, clear-cut, that she's gone," Bynum says. "I believe in my heart I'll see Kelli again."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.