House of Cards: Where is Lena Chapin?

Wednesday, August 10, 2016
Barry County Sheriff Mick Epperly reviews a contacts chart, assembled by team members of the Crime Analysis Unit at the Missouri State Highway Patrol, who are now reviewing and cross-referencing data in the 1999 disappearance and death of Gary McCullough. The chart cross-references the suspects in the felony and their known relatives and acquaintances. Melonie Roberts/Cassville Democrat

Barry County sheriff continues investigation into deaths, missing woman

Lena Chapin did not have what most would call a normal childhood by any stretch of the imagination.

According to investigators with the Barry County Sheriff's Office, Lena and her siblings became accustomed to the ever-changing father figure in their lives, often having to what police would call "cover" for their mother's alleged extra-marital activities, at times even being called upon to allegedly lie on her behalf.

Barry County Sheriff Mick Epperly dives into an evidence box containing a massive amount of witness statements regarding the disappearance and death of former Barry County resident Gary McCullough. Investigators have long presumed McCullough's former wife, Sandy Petersen-Chapin-McCullough-McCullough-Klemp-Wink, and her then-paramour Kristopher Klemp, were responsible for his death and the disposal of his body. Melonie Roberts/Cassville Democrat

While this may have been the norm during the early portions of their lives, it became problematic when their mother's third husband, Gary McCullough, of Cassville, disappeared, allowing her then-paramour, Kristopher Klemp to move into the residence within the week.

The saga began when Sandy Petersen-Chapin-McCullough-McCullough-Klemp-Wink, was first involved with Robert Chapin, Lena's biological father, whom she left before meeting Albert McCullough, her neighbor across the road in Stone County. According to notes, from the Sheriff's Office, they married in 1992 and divorced in 1996, after Sandy's children told him she was having an affair with his brother, Gary.

When Albert was informed of Sandy's affair with his brother, they divorced. Sandy promptly married Gary, and moved with her children to his Barry County farm.

"The McCullough family came up hard," said Det. Brian Martin, investigator with the Barry County Sheriff's Office. "They were a poor family that raised chickens and cows, worked hard and did what they could to get by. Gary liked to hunt. The family had to, because there were times if they didn't kill something, they didn't eat. Gary was a good old boy who would give you the shirt off his back.

"When Sandy's kids moved to the farm, they weren't used to doing chores, and they didn't like Gary making them work around the farm."

According to Martin, Sandy's mode of operation after marrying someone is to isolate her spouse from his friends and family immediately.

"She did it to Albert, and she did it to Gary," Martin said. "She thought Albert had something to latch onto. She found out Gary had property and livestock, so she latched on to him. She didn't like Gary being close to his mom and dad. She didn't want him visiting his family. And when he went hunting, she accused him of running around on her."

At some point in the relationship, Sandy began an affair with Kristopher Klemp, who was nearly a decade younger than herself.

Tensions continued to escalate in the home, with Sandy's children resentful of being made to work the farm and Sandy allegedly plotting to kill Gary.

"Gary found out Sandy was not making the house payments and they were on the brink of losing the house," Martin said. "Gary had also caught her in a parked pickup truck with Klemp, and was planning to divorce her. He started moving things out of the house and told his supervisor at George's not to give her his paycheck, because even if she had a note, it would be forged.

"We found out by talking to her co-workers that she had been planning on killing Gary for about six months before he went missing. She talked about various ways to dispose of the body. When a co-worker told her to just divorce him, she said Sandy's response was 'she wasn't going to give him a dime.' She planned this for a long time."

That plan allegedly came to violent fruition May 11, 1999, when, according to investigator's notes, Sandy is believed to have shot Gary three times in the head as he sat on the couch eating scrambled eggs.

"She met the kids at the door when they got home from school and sent the younger ones out to do chores," Martin said. "She had Lena come in and help dispose of the body."

At the time, Lena was 13 years old.

"According to Kristopher Klemp's former wife, Jennifer Klemp-Brattin, she had dropped Kris off at the McCullough's property and returned about 3:30 a.m. to pick him up. She said he came running out of the ditch and jumped in the car, looking like a scared rabbit."

Pictured is an undated photo of Lena Chapin and her son, Coultor, believed to have been taken about a year before her 2006 disappearance. Contributed photo

"It takes a long time and a lot of heat to burn a body," said Mick Epperly, Barry County Sheriff.

Over the course of the next two days, Lena helped her mother clean up the crime scene, according to court records. Floors were bleached and rugs thrown away. The body was burned in a brush pile all night.

"According to Lena's statement, when her mother pulled her out of school early on May 13, 1999, there were no large bones in the burn pile," Martin said. "Someone had already removed and disposed of them. Lena helped her mother dig through ashes looking for bone fragments, which were put in buckets and scattered all over. The pair also dug out several inches of dirt at the burn pile in an effort to recover any missing fragments that could be used as evidence of a crime."

Within days, Martin said, Klemp had moved into the McCullough household.

"That was a red flag," Epperly said. "Klemp knew Gary wasn't coming back to kick his butt out of the house."

Investigators first received word that Gary was missing three days after his disappearance. Strangely, it was not his wife to report him missing, but his brother, after he was notified by Gary's supervisors at George's.

"We originally responded to the McCullough property on May 15, 1999, for a cattle call," Martin said. "After we got the calf back in, I asked Sandy if she had anything else to share with me. She said then she had better go ahead and report Gary missing."

Her story to investigators was that Gary had gone to Diamond to purchase a fighting chicken from some Mexicans.

"We knew that wasn't true," Epperly said. "She couldn't give us a name or anything else."

Gary's truck was later discovered abandoned May 16, 1999, on a dead-end road near Pulaskifield.

At first, Sandy refused to allow investigators in to the home to conduct a search. She also refused to take a polygraph test.

"If you find a body, I'll take the polygraph," she told Epperly.

"That's stuck with me for years," Epperly said. "She knows there isn't a body to find."

"She did a good job of cleaning up," Martin said. "She had a week, but we believe there was still [evidence] there. Gary was a big guy. He weighed probably 240 pounds, Sandy couldn't have disposed of the body by herself. She had Lena and Kris Klemp help with that."

The only charges Sandy faced in the disappearance of her husband was selling mortgaged cattle immediately after his disappearance. Those charges were eventually dropped.

Barry County Sheriff Mick Epperly is pictured at the site of the former McCullough property in Barry County. Contributed photo

Less than a year after his disappearance, Sandy was granted a dissolution of marriage from Gary McCullough after he failed to show up for the hearing, held April 11, 2000. He was officially declared dead in 2005 at the request of surviving family members.

According to a guilt-ridden, taped conversation in 2003 between then 17-year-old Lena Chapin and her former step-father, Albert McCullough, Lena said Sandy forced her to help clean up the crime scene, cutting Gary's body into pieces and wrapping it in a plastic tarp. The remains were placed in a brush pile on the farm and burned.

Albert McCullough turned that tape over to investigators at the Barry County Sheriff's Office as evidence.

The house where the horrific crime took place has since been razed by the new owner.

Following the high-profile publicity in Barry County case, Sandy and Kris Klemp opted to move across the state to get married and start fresh.

They chose Sligo, located in Dent County, where no one knew their backgrounds or the alleged grisly circumstances of their shared past.

Acoording to Epperly, Lena was traumatized and started having trouble eating and sleeping. She started acting out, getting into trouble with law enforcement in Salem, and running with a bad crowd of people. She dropped out of school, got pregnant and had a baby boy, whom she named Coulter. According to a statement provided to Martin, relatives believed Lena was allegedly having a sexual relationship with Kris Klemp, and that Sandy knew it.

"There were rumors," Martin said. "So, we don't know if the baby belonged to Klemp or the boyfriend. Either way, after Lena disappeared, Sandy and Kris adopted Coulter."

According to Martin, Lena and Sandy would often have arguments about Coulter, because Sandy would tell people that she was the child's mother, going so far as to have the child call her "mom."

"Sandy always wanted a boy," Martin said. "I think she was obsessed over Coulter."

Lena had met a young man, Jason Bryant, and the two began living together in an apartment outside of Steelville, before her disappearance on Feb. 14, 2006. That disappearance would go unreported for almost three years.

The last known residence of Lena Chapin was an apartment building in Steelville. It burned to the ground after Chapin's disappearance in 2006. Contributed photo

It was in June of 2006 that April Chandler and Joy McCullough, Gary McCullough's children from a previous marriage, filed a civil lawsuit against Sandy and Kris Klemp and Lena Chapin, alleging Sandy and Kris "knowingly took the life of their father," and named Lena as a co-conspirator.

When Dent County Sheriff's deputies served Sandy and Kris with court papers on July 7, 2006, they asked where Lena could be located. Sandy said Lena had moved to Florida with a boyfriend earlier that year.

Martin said family members and acquaintances of Lena didn't believe the sordid stories Sandy was reportedly spreading about her child, having had several discussions with the missing woman, in which she detailed her dream of leaving the area with her son and starting over.

"Sandy said [Lena] ran off to Florida and joined a carnival," Martin said.

Again, the disappearance had never been reported by Lena's mother, who had custody of Coulter by that time. It was Robert Chapin, Lena's biological father, who finally contacted Epperly to report Lena's disappearance.

"We tried to get Dent County to file a missing and endangered report on Lena, but they wouldn't do it," Epperly said. "I put Lena into the [National Crime Information Center] after her dad talked to me."

That was November 2008, nearly three years after Lena seemingly fell off the face of the earth.

"We checked," Martin said. "There has been no activity on her social security number, no contact with law enforcement, nothing."

In 2012, Dent County investigators questioned Lena's then-boyfriend, Bryant, with whom she was living and planned to marry. Bryant told investigators the last time he saw Lena was on the morning of Feb. 14, 2006, when he kissed her and left for work. When he returned to their apartment that evening, Sandy and two other people were clearing all of Lena's belongings from the residence. Sandy told Bryant the story that Lena had run off to Florida with another man. He never saw Lena again.

Bryant moved from the apartment shortly thereafter, and the owner went in to clean the unit.

"She found a stain in the carpet that wouldn't come out," Martin said. "She said it looked like someone had killed a hog in there."

Martin said the apartment owner replaced the carpet, never putting two and two together.

Investigators in Barry County were clueless as to the events unfolding in Dent County.

"If we had known any of this was happening, we would have been able to do more," Martin said. "As it is, no one connected the dots or had any reason to believe that Lena hadn't run off, except for the people who knew she would never willingly leave her son behind."

The apartment unit later burned to the ground. A renter who was smoking in bed ignited the blaze. The possibility of obtaining and DNA evidence is long gone, along with the carpet and the apartment building.

On July 25, 2013, a Stone County jury took less than an hour to determine that Sandy and Kris Klemp knowingly took the life of Gary McCullough. The plaintiffs were awarded $7 million in damages due to the outrageous nature of the crime.

"Sandy and Kris have since divorced," Epperly said. "Sandy used Lena as an ally and an accomplice. But when that all ended, Lena was ready to come forward and screw it all up. We think [Sandy and Kris] are insurance for each other. All she has is Klemp. Sandy can't testify against Kris because we believe he killed Lena, who was a loose end. Kris can't testify against Sandy because he helped dispose of Gary McCullough's body."

Copies of the case files have been turned over to members of the Crime Analysis Unit at the Missouri State Highway Patrol, who is going over the statements and evidence, building a timeline of events and cross-referencing all available data.

"It's good to have fresh eyes on it," Epperly said. "This case is too overwhelming for a county prosecutor who has to handle more than 6,000 cases a year. We're still investigating it. We've searched for Gary for a long time. I would like to see justice for Gary's family before I retire."

As for Lena Chapin, who 10 years ago was a young mother on the brink of adulthood hoping to start a new life with her son, justice will be a long time coming.

"The new sheriff in Dent County has opened a case and he is investigating as much as he can after the fact," Epperly said. "It doesn't help that Sandy and Kris and consistently refused to speak to the investigator about Lena's disappearance."

Now divorced from Klemp and living in Mt. Vernon, local law enforcement officials now believe Sandy has married yet again, to Joe Wink, and continues to raise Lena's child as her own.

"We're thinking she's back in the area flaunting it," Martin said. "She thinks she got away with it.

"She's all about acquiring things. I can tell you, I have looked evil eye-to-eye many times. I've dealt with serial killers and rapists, but she is as cool as a cucumber. She has a lot of faces, and you don't see her true face until you make her angry."

Law enforcement officials in both counties continue to seek information on these crimes. The McCullough family is offering a reward for information leading to the arrest for the murder of Gary McCullough. Information may be given to the Barry County Sheriff's Office at 417-847-6556. Information on the disappearance and presumed death of Lena Chapin may be given to the Dent County Sheriff's Office at 573-729-3241.

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