"Nothing makes a room feel emptier than wanting someone in it."
It was the 14th of November 1998. A Saturday. Fourteen year old Wendy Hudakoc was at home with her sister Sharlene at their home in Golden Gate, Naples, Florida, United States. Their mother Shelley and stepfather Dan Campbell were away for the night. They were at a conference in Tampa. Sharlene was sixteen years old but Shelley and Dan felt they were still too young to be left alone so Dan's coworker and her boyfriend agreed to look after them and Sharlene's friend Shauna was sleeping there that night too.
Later that night, Wendy received a call. She told Sharlene that she was going to sneak out and go to a party and she begged Sharlene and Shauna to go with her. They didn't want to go because they were older than Wendy and thought the party would be full of children. At around 11pm, Wendy crept out of her bedroom window alone, making sure not to make any noise. She was wearing a red, blue and white tank top and jeans. She told Sharlene that she would take Dan's pager with her in case she needed to get in touch. She said:
"If I get busted, call me right away and I'll come right home.''
And with that Wendy climbed out the window and ran down the street and into a waiting car. That was typical of Wendy. She was fun loving, rebellious and a bit of a rule breaker. She loved to have fun.
The next morning Sharlene ran into Wendy's bedroom. She wanted to hear all the news and gossip about the night before. But Wendy wasn't in bed. Her window was wide open and her bed was made. She had not slept in the bed at all. Sharlene paged her and asked her to come home or get in contact. She repeatedly tried to contact her for over two hours but she heard nothing at all so she had to reach out to the hotel Shelley and Dan were in in Tampa. When Sharlene called, Shelley and Dan were checking out. When they heard that Wendy was missing, they headed straight home. As soon as they got home, they reported Wendy missing to the police.
The police initially were not concerned. They marked Wendy's case as a runaway case. Wendy ran away before but just very briefly. She was having a bit of a tough time adjusting to a new school in Florida and was trying to find her way in high school. Shelley moved to Naples in Florida with Wendy and Sharlene from their home in Ontario, Canada when she met Dan. The girls adored Dan but that didn't stop Wendy missing home. But her family were certain that Wendy did not run away. They were convinced that something happened to her on her way home from the party that night.
Police spoke to the host of the party and discovered that Wendy arrived at the party with a "creepy looking" twenty year old man called Ron. Nobody at the party knew who he was except that his name was Ron. They showed her a few mugshots and she recognised one of the images. It was Ron. Police identified the man as Ronald DePeppo. He had been in trouble with police before but for a few misdemeanours, no felony charges.
Investigators had to establish what happened in the time from when Wendy left her bedroom that night until the next morning when Sharlene discovered she was missing. They were able to establish that Ron called Wendy to ask her to go to the party in Old Naples that night. They had known each other just a short while. Wendy met him at a bowling alley. People saw them at the party so police knew that Wendy made it to the party that night. It was what happened afterwards that they needed to figure out.
Ron did not deny that he saw Wendy that night. He picked her up in his car down the street from her home and brought her to the party. They spent a few hours at the party together and left around 2.30am. According to Ron, Wendy received a page and asked him to stop at a pay phone at the corner of Airport Road and Davis Boulevard so she could make a call. After she made the call, she got back into the car and told Ron that she wanted to go home because she had to meet Jeff. Ron told Investigators that he dropped her home. It was in or around 2.45 am.
Authorities were not able to determine if there was a page or if Wendy met a man called Jeff. They looked into the payphone records later on during the investigation and were not able to verify that there was any phone calls made from that one at the time. Ron told police that after he dropped Wendy home, he stayed with a friend. His friend, Johnny Walker, was seventeen years old at the time. But Johnny's account was somewhat different. He told police that Ron only arrived home at 9am on the morning of the 15th of November.
Two weeks after Wendy went missing, Ron's 1991 blue Mazda, the car he used to collect Wendy in, was destroyed in a fire. Investigators concluded the fire was an accident. He allowed for the car to be searched but it was badly damaged so nothing of any forensic value was found. A hammer was retrieved from the trunk of the car that had a small amount of fiber or hair on it but it was damaged and DNA testing could not be carried out. In fact, the car was so badly damaged that no trace of Wendy was found at all in the car even though police knew Ron collected her to bring her to the party in the car.
With the help of various news outlets, Police appealed for information from the public and received a number of tips in the case. Wendy had been seen, according to different people, in various different places. There were reported sightings of her in the Caribbean, in Miami, in Canada and in other states. Despite following up on the leads, none of them led to anything.
Wendy's family carried out searches of their own. They hired a private detective and used psychics but Shelley lost hope of finding Wendy alive when she received what she described as a sign from her late mother who died within a year of Wendy's disappearance:
"I don't believe in a lot.But after my mom died, I went outside to have a cigarette.I went (to my mother), at least you're up there with Wendy. And this hand went on my shoulder, and I turned around and thought it was Dan or Sharlene. And there was nobody there."
Shelley believed that was a sign from her mother letting her know that she was with Wendy.
Wendy is still a missing person. Mistakes were made at the outset of the case. By presuming Wendy was a runaway at the outset, evidence may have been missed or destroyed. The car that Wendy was in that night was destroyed by a fire two weeks after she disappeared. It should have been searched for DNA prior to that. There is still hope that Wendy's family will get some answers one day if someone decides to speak up. If someone was involved in Wendy's disappearance they may have shared their involvement with someone else.
Charges were never filed in this case. Sadly, Shelley died of aggressive brain cancer when she was just fifty three years old. Her husband Dan and daughter Sharlene continue to try to find out what happened to Wendy.
Anyone with information on the disappearance of Wendy Hudakoc is asked to call the Collier County Sheriff's Office at 239-252-9300 or Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers at 1-800-780-TIPS (8477).
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"When someone just disappears for no reason, it's shocking, it's devastating. I just feel like my life stopped that day and I've just been in a tailspin ever since."
- Adam Vaughan, Janine's brother
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