On Nov. 19, 1911, Mary Jane Croft became the fourth of eight children of John and Anna Croft of Montana, W.Va.
When she was 17, she married James Wesley Vangilder on Jan. 29, 1929. By the time World War II broke out, Mary Jane gave birth to their fifth child after twins were stillborn in 1935.
However, two years after the birth of Mary Jane and James’ youngest child, Cheryle “Judy” Gay Vangilder, something happened in their marriage that would lead Mary Jane to move off the Vangilder family farm. She separated from James and her children and rented an apartment in downtown Fairmont above the old Fairmont Theatre.
“She went to work in Fairmont. I was a kid. I didn’t pay attention to what was going on,” said Anna Mae Vangilder Rager, 88, of Villa Rica, Ga., James and Mary Jane’s first child who was born in 1931 in the family home along Prickett’s Creek.
Rager said it’s unclear how long her mother was separated from her siblings and her father and she doesn’t know what kind of work her mother was doing in Fairmont. She knew her father, James Vangilder, worked for the Works Progress Administration, an agency created during the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration that put Americans to work during the Great Depression.
“I know she only worked there for a short time. Nobody asked why she moved out. I don’t know why. I know it was not my father who was causing the confusion, it was my aunt,” Rager said in a phone interview.
By this time, Rager was on her own and married and started to have kids.
In 1944 or thereabouts, Vangilder moved to Plymouth, Ohio, where she took a job at the Army Air Force Depot, seven miles from Plymouth in Shelby, Ohio. She worked as a high lift and fork operator.
During this period of estrangement from her family, Vangilder would purchase war bonds at different branches of The People’s Bank in the Shelby area and have them mailed to Rager.
“She sent me war bonds and then she wrote me and asked me to mail the war bonds back to her, which she then went on to cash at different banks in Ohio,” Rager said.
Rager said her mother would also send her clothes at times. Despite these mysterious communications from her mother, Rager still had questions about her parents’ separation and began wanting answers.
“In 1945, my mother sued my dad for divorce, then my dad got a divorce [in Marion County] and hers was dropped, which made me think she was wanting to get married again, but we found no answer to that either,” Rager said. “I didn’t hear from her anymore.”
It wasn’t until Vangilder’s brother, Lester Croft, returned stateside from WWII that Rager began earnestly searching for her mother.
“My uncle came home from the Navy and he went to the sheriff of Marion County and he wrote letters,” Rager said.
In a letter dated Dec. 27, 1949, Marion County Sheriff James D. Cain wrote the police chief in Plymouth, Ohio, describing Vangilder as being 37 years old, weighing 165 pounds and 5 feet, 5 inches tall. Cain asked the police chief to contact the Army Air Force Depot in hopes of giving Vangilder’s family peace of mind.
“They had tried to locate her but with no success,” Cain wrote. “Would you have the Aircraft Plants at Plymouth check their employee list and see when this person left their employee (sic) or any information concerning her. If this is too much to ask, would you send me names of all Companies that produced Aircraft during the war period, and I will write them.”
On May 5, 1952, Rager finally heard back from the Depot about her mother’s job status.
“Mrs. Vangilder left our employ on 8 March 1945, due to ‘added household duties.’ Her address at the time of her resignation was 2 Trux Street, Plymouth, Ohio. Prior to her residence at the above address, she resided at 311 Woodland Ave., Willard, Ohio,” states a letter from U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Edwin Selzer.
From there, Rager would cast a wider net for her mother. She began writing Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover. In a series of letters back and forth between her and Hoover, a persistent Rager did not give up hope of enlisting the feds in her search.
“We do not have the authority to conduct an active investigation such as you request and for it, I suggest that you get in touch with one of your local law enforcement agencies,” Hoover wrote in a letter dated June 24, 1952.
The decades would go by with Rager and Hoover trading letters on through the 1960s. She wrote the Social Security Administration to try to obtain her mother’s Social Security number in hopes that a piece of identifying information could help unearth new information. She also wrote the U.S. Treasury Department, the Ohio State Highway Patrol, all trying to find more of her mother’s story. She had almost given up hope until the new millennium arrived.
In 2004, Rager and her family found a new link to her mother’s past after a newspaper in Ohio wrote a story about their search for Vangilder.
William H. King of Willard, Ohio, read the Plymouth Journal’s article and emailed Rager’s niece, who had since also joined in the search.
King’s father and two brothers also worked at the Army Air Force Depot in 1943-45, during the same time frame of Vangilder’s tenure at the plant.
“I was just 13 at the time but I remember your grandmother very well. She had long dark hair to her shoulders and was a very cheerful person,” King wrote.
King also recalled a “very bad snowstorm” from the winter of 1943-44 when the roads were impassable.
“A whole line of cars push[ed] and shoveled their way until about 2 miles from Plymouth when they could get no further, so everyone started to walk. I remember my father talking different times about this. Mary Jane was so cold, she wanted to sit down and get warm but dad and the other people would not let her and helped her walk,” King wrote via email.
The family’s search would languish from 2004 until April 2018, when Vangilder’s granddaughter Mindy Wilson called Shelby, Ohio, Police Chief Lance Combs. Seven months later, Combs gave the Vangilder case to officer Adam Turner, who has officially made it a missing person’s case.
“That pain. That desperation and that need to know is still very fresh for Anna,” Turner said. “The not knowing is worse than the knowing. When somebody’s missing, you’re left in limbo.”
Turner admits he earned his ability to empathize in a hands-on manner. He grew up above his family’s funeral home, where he’d hear stories of grief and loss daily. That part of his environment informs how he does his police work.
“I work on this case every day. I could spend 40 hours a week on this case. I’ve written tons and tons of letters to coroner’s offices, police departments, newspapers and libraries asking for feedback and information,” Turner said.
And with the continuing improvement of DNA testing and multiple databases that track missing persons, Rager and her family have been given new hope in the past two years since Turner took over the case.
In August 2019, Turner worked with law enforcement in Preble County, Ohio, to exhume the body of a woman whose description closely matched Vangilder’s description. He said the City of Dayton covered all of the costs of the exhumation.
“That was such a tremendously huge thing for them to do,” Turner said.
He said the Ohio State Crime Lab took DNA samples from the body but has not been able to identify the person yet.
He remains diligent despite knowing that DNA degrades over time.
“The DNA strand is broken. The problem is the majority of DNA from John and Jane Doe is broken,” Turner said.
He said as long as possible, along with carrying out his daily duties as a law enforcement officer, he will search for Vangilder. He said he keeps the family updated weekly and conducts every action transparently.
“I have a passion for it. I understand death and the emotional complexities of death. I’m happy with what I’ve done so far.”
Anyone with any information about Mary Jane Croft Vangilder is urged to contact Officer Adam Turner at the Shelby, Ohio, Police Department via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.