Donna Knebel misses the phone calls—the ones mothers get from daughters, asking if they need anything at the grocery store or to share the latest. She also misses the sight of a closed bedroom door, which once signified her daughter, Toni Lee Sharpless, in a deep slumber after a nursing shift at Lancaster General Hospital. It’s been nearly eight years since Sharpless’ disappearance, putting Knebel in a place worse than a mother’s hell: limbo.
Sharpless, a 29-year-old West Brandywine Township resident, was last seen in the early morning hours of Aug. 23, 2009, after driving away from the Gladwyne home of former 76er Willie Green on Bobarn Drive. She and friend Crystal Johns went to a few clubs in the city and then a small gathering at Green’s house.
Donna Knebel holds a photo of her missing daughter,
Toni Lee Sharpless. Tessa Marie Images.
Both Johns and Green cooperated with police, and Johns passed a polygraph. According to Johns’ account to authorities, she and Sharpless were both inebriated that night, and neither should’ve driven home. Green went to Johns while she was in the swimming pool and said, “Your friend (Toni) is freaking out, and you both need to leave.”
Green told her that Toni had poured champagne on the kitchen floor and was kicking things. So Johns left the party with Sharpless, and shortly after, Sharpless kicked Johns out of the car.
Clues have been scarce in locating Sharpless and her black Pontiac Grand Prix. The license plate was last electronically recorded by an automatic license-plate reader two weeks later in nearby Camden. On Nov. 30, 2012, a letter postmarked from Trenton and sent to the private detective working on Sharpless’ case read: “She got into an argument with a police officer, she died as a result, and I was paid much-needed $5,000 to move her car from Brooklawn to a shop outside of Boston.”
“You can’t imagine it until you go through it,” says Knebel. “It’s like a void—a big hole you’re falling into and can never touch any sides or reach the bottom.”
Sharpless suffered from bipolar disorder and spent a month in rehab in April 2009 for it, along with treatment for alcohol use. According to Knebel, Sharpless did have drug issues, but they seemed to be under control before she entered nursing school.
Kennett Square-based private investigator Eileen Law has been working pro bono on the Sharpless case since a month and a half after her disappearance. Each morning begins with checking the many online alerts she has set up, and Law admits going from obsessed to consumed with the case.
She’s become close to the family—especially Sharpless’ daughter. Law describes the now 19-year-old as beautiful, intelligent, funny and an avid dancer. The pair meets for lunch on occasion, and Law even attended a recital. “I shouldn’t be sitting in that seat,” Law says, her voice cracking. “It should be her mom. It pains me to know that her mom isn’t there. I’ve come to love them like my own family, and I want closure for all of us.”
If a missing-person case isn’t resolved in a news cycle—or possibly two, if the circumstances are particularly intriguing—the media moves on to the next tragedy. Law and Knebel both say it’s frustrating because people tend to believe a case has been resolved if it fades from the spotlight. “This woman is still going through this,” says Mark G. Hopkins, chief of Greater Philadelphia Search and Rescue, of Knebel. “It isn’t just for her or her daughter or her granddaughter. This is part of the process for the next person, because there is always the next person. There’s nothing that can be done right now that directly helps with this case. We are doing things for the next time this happens to somebody.”
GPSAR has not been involved in a search effort for Sharpless. But, in early March, Knebel was a guest on Hopkins’ radio show, Unsung: Everyday People, on WFYL 1180 AM. In an even and measured tone, she spoke of her daughter, who put herself through nursing school while living at home with her mother, stepfather and daughter. Sharpless enjoyed her chosen profession and had close relationships with her daughter and older sister, Candy. Patients and their relatives still remember Sharpless’ outgoing personality. “She would talk to the devil in the gutter,” says Knebel.
With over 20 years of search-and-rescue experience, Hopkins rarely sees cases where both a person and their vehicle aren’t recovered. For such a thing to happen, he believes there are two possible reasons: The person drove into a waterway, and the car is concealed by water; or something sinister occurred, and the car as evidence was disposed of.
Knebel has a number of theories—some of which she feels more strongly about, since different factors pull her in different directions. Sharpless sent a text to her daughter around 4 a.m., but Knebel isn’t sure if her daughter authored the message. She also “absolutely” believes a search should’ve been conducted on Green’s home.
Law believes all signs point to Camden. “I always have [thought that],” she says. “All I care about is finding answers about Toni. I will never give up on the case as long as I have a breath in my body.”
In the days and weeks after her daughter’s disappearance, Knebel truly believed she would be found. “I was so positive we were going to find her—even if she was dead,” says Knebel, recalling the missing-person signs for her daughter around town. “As time goes on, the hope is still there, but you lose a little faith.”
You can see why Toni Lee Sharpless called her mother multiple times a day. Donna Knebel is easy to talk to and as warm as the colors of her silk scarves. Today, does she think her daughter is alive? “Honestly, no,” she says. “Toni would’ve called—she always did. My granddaughter is the same way. If she doesn’t call me, I know something is wrong. No one knows a child like a mother.”
Law has a different opinion, due to her line of work. “It’s easy and understandable for a parent to say, ‘She has to be dead because she would contact me,’” Law says. “That’s not how it works. When you’ve been pulled into a human-trafficking ring, the first thing they do is take your phones and credit cards and are smart enough not to use them.”
Both Law and Knebel have no plans to stop talking about Sharpless, posting her picture and doing what they can to keep the story alive. All of this is for the next mother of a missing person who never imagined herself in limbo, and for a granddaughter who now occupies the room of her mother and writes “Miss you, Mom” notes.
“I never will stop worrying about Toni,” says Knebel. “I may never find out what happened to her in my lifetime, but I sure hope my granddaughter does.”
If you have any information on Toni Lee Sharpless, call (610) 388-1776 or leave an anonymous tip at www.missingtonisharpless.com.