EXCLUSIVE: Donna Casasanta, 80, tells Sheila Flynn about learning that her granddaughter – who vanished as an infant more than four decades ago after the murder of her parents – is alive, well and ready to meet in person
Just months after 80-year-old Donna Casasanta found out that her son, Harold Dean Clouse – who she calls Junior and who was last heard from in 1980 – had been identified as a cold case murder victim, her daughter came over and asked her to sit down on what would have been his 63rd birthday.
“I go, ‘No, Debbie, don’t do this to me,” Ms Casasanta tells The Independent. “Because when they came to tell me about Junior being found, I just sort of fell to pieces … “So I says, “Please, Debbie, I can’t. No bad news, honey. I just can’t. No more. No more.’”
Her daughter Debbie, who lives eight blocks away, had the opposite of “bad news” to share. Instead, she revealed that Mr Clouse’s baby, Holly Marie – who had vanished at the same time that he and his wife, Tina Linn, disappeared more than four decades earlier – had been found.
And she was alive and well, married with children and grandchildren in Oklahoma.
“I was overwhelmed,” Ms Casasanta says. “I was crying for joy, because we’ve all been praying that we would find her and she would be okay – and she’d had a family that took care of her and raised her proper … we were very glad for that.”
It wasn’t long before she’d get a chance to see and hear her long-lost granddaughter; who investigators tracked to her workplace this week and notified about her biological family. Along with the genealogists who identified the slain married couple and investigating authorities, Ms Casasanta and her family joined a virtual meeting that same day, finally laying eyes on Holly.
“When I first seen her, I wanted just to grab her up and hug her,” the grandmother tells The Independent. “Because I remember holding her when she was a little baby.”
She adds: “She looks a lot like her mother. She also has a lot of Clouse in her; she looks a lot like some of my sons and … her great-aunt.”
Ms Casasanta, who sporadically breaks into happy and sad tears as she shares her story, says that Holly – who still goes by that name – “got her mother’s soft voice … she’s got her mother’s voice to the tee.
“I started crying, because I loved saying that … my son got a sweet woman. He did. I’m thinking the whole time, looking at her, thinking of Tina.”
Getting the miraculous news on her late son’s birthday, Ms Casasanta says, was particularly meaningful and poignant.
“I took it as a gift from heaven,” she tells The Independent. “And I do believe that, when you stay with the Lord and you go through the storms of life – and we all have our storms of life – there’s a blessing at the end of that tunnel.”
After learning her son had been IDd and finding out that Holly – who still goes by that name – was alive, well and would soon meet her in person, Casasanta says she felt a peace she hadn’t had in more than four decades.
“For the first time in 42 years, I was able to come home and go to bed that night and actually slept all night,” she says. “I hadn’t slept the whole night in 42 years, and that’s the truth.”
There are still plenty of questions, however. The Clouses had moved with their young daughter from Florida to Texas not long before they vanished; when relatives last heard from them in October 1980, they were living near Dallas – but their bodies were found a four-hour drive away in January 1981, in a wooded area near Houston.
They weren’t identified until last year after two genealogists happened to pick the 40-year-old John and Jane Doe cold case to investigate as a “pet” project. They ended up finding out that the slain couple were the Clouses; they had no idea when they notified family that there’d been a baby involved in the case, genealogist Allison Peacock tells The Independent.
As Ms Casasanta tried to wrap her head around the fact that her son had been murdered, she was also asking: “Where is the baby? Where was the baby? I was so hoping that she wasn’t with them when it all” happened, she says, referring to the slayings of her son and his wife.
Ms Peacock and her fellow genealogist, Misty Gillis, were flabbergasted about the Baby Holly revelation – and threw themselves into answering the very questions posed by Ms Casasanta.
In a lucky turn of events, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had recently created a Cold Case and Missing Persons Unit; it began taking cases in December 2021, weeks after the Clouses were identified.
And the hunt for missing Baby Holly took off in earnest.
Ms Peacock helped with records and DNA screenings, she says; about two months ago, the investigators suddenly became very tight-lipped, and she suspected they’d made a major breakthrough.
That news was revealed this week when Texas authorities announced that Baby Holly had been found and virtually introduced to her ecstatic relatives.
But the rest of the details about how Holly ended up escaping her parents’ fate and living in Oklahoma are scant. Officials shared some of the information on Thursday with the hope that members of the public might be able to shed some light on the rest of the story.
Baby Holly was turned in at an Arizona church and “taken into their care,” First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster said at a news conference in Austin.
“The family that raised Holly are not suspects in this case. Two women who identified themselves as members of a nomadic religious group brought Holly to the church. They were wearing white robes and they were barefoot.”
They said they were members of a religious group that believed in “separation for male and female members, practiced vegetarian habits and not using or wearing leather goods.”
The women “indicated they had given up a baby before, at a laundromat”.
“It is believed that this particular group travelled around Southwest United States, including Arizona, California and possibly Texas. There were sightings of this religious group around Yuma, Arizona in the early 1980s. The women members would be seen around town at various points, asking for food.”
“In late December 1980 or early January 1981, relatives of the Clouses received a phone call from someone identifying herself as ‘Sister Susan’ – who explained she was calling from Los Angeles, California and wanted to return Tina and Dean’s car to their family,” Mr Webster said. “She further stated that Tina and Dean had joined their religious group and no longer wanted to have contact with their families. They were also giving up all of their possessions.”
Mr Webster said the woman asked for money in exchange for returning the car; the family agreed but contacted local authorities. The missing couple’s relatives set up a meeting with “Sister Susan” at the Daytona Racetrack in Florida.
They encountered two or three women and “possibly one male,” Mr Webster said; the individuals also appeared to be members of the religious group.
Authorities “reportedly took the women into custody, but there is no record of a police report on file that has been found as of yet,” Mr Webster said – a situation not uncommon for such an old case.
The returned car belonged to the missing man’s mother; it was described as a 1978 two-door, red burgundy AMC Concord, Mr Webster said.
He added that authorities believed the couple “were likely murdered in December 1980 or early January 1981.”
“If you have any information regarding these murders, we ask that you come forward,” Mr Webster said. “Even if it’s a piece of information that may not be concrete evidence, we need to find pieces of the puzzle to solve this crime.”
Following the news conference, Baby Holly’s grandmother made a similar appeal for information from the public.
“Maybe they’ll remember something about him that might help a detective, or maybe they can give some kind of piece of information that might really help,” she says.
She declines to speak about the white-robed individuals who returned the car her son and his wife had been using.
“There’s some information I can’t give you until this investigation” is concluded, she says, while urging people to rack their brains for any details they might remember about her son, his wife and their child.
The reality is still sinking in that Holly is alive and she’ll soon be able to hug her, though Ms Casasanta says she never stopped wishing and praying that she’d be found safe.
“I kept hope, because you never give up hope,” the Florida grandmother tells The Independent. “God tells us never to give up hope, and I kept waiting for that miracle in the hope that we would find her … I pray three or four times a day. I said, ‘Father, there’s always a blessing at the end of the storm; something good comes out of a bad thing, always.’ God will do that for us …
“The blessing is Holly.”