It’s been nearly two months since Glenn and Lori Verk’s daughter disappeared before sunrise on a chilly morning in mid-October.
But when the heartbroken parents walk through the busy streets of downtown Alpine, Tex., they sometimes feel as if their daughter Zuzu is all around them.
She’s in the hugs from mournful strangers who approach the couple on the street and in the playful anecdotes shared by shopkeepers who were accustomed to seeing the pixie-like 21-year-old drop by their stores with a few girlfriends in tow. She’s in the meals that are paid for anonymously at local cafes and in the missing posters showing the college student’s smiling face and blond hair that are plastered across the rustic ranching town.
At times, it can seem like everyone in the tightknit community of 6,000 — located in the sprawling heart of the West Texas frontier — knew their daughter. As much comfort as that thought brings, her parents say, it’s equally unsettling considering their little girl is nowhere to be found.
In her absence, they are left with an endless supply of speculative scenarios — some far-fetched but hopeful, others troubling and painful — that seem to grow more or less depending on how they’re coping that day. Whether Zuzu is dead or alive, they say, they just want the truth.
“It seems obvious to us that Zuzu did not leave on her own volition and whoever is responsible has hidden her from view,” Glenn Verk said when asked how police, specialized search teams and drones could’ve scoured thousands of square miles looking for his daughter and come back empty-handed. “If you look at this region, you can hide somebody pretty easily if you put a little bit of effort into it.”
“We can only hope she’s been abducted,” Lori said. “We don’t think there’s any way that she would’ve run away.”
“She would have to be hidden in a building that there’s no access to legally,” Glenn continued.
“No matter what happened, she would’ve fought,” Lori added. “She’s fearless.”
“We try to come up with scenarios where she can come home safe and sound, but each one drags you emotionally along with it,” Glenn concluded.
Police have reviewed hundreds of hours of surveillance video that have been acquired from business and local residents, according to the Dallas Observer. They’ve also interviewed more than 100 people, asked anyone with a security camera on their property to come forward, and told local ranchers to watch out for unusual items found on their land, the Observer reported.
Police have pointed out that the expansive, thinly-populated search area is about the size of Connecticut.
Zuzu Verk was last seen in public Oct. 11, when she went to her boyfriend’s house to hang out and have dinner, according to her parents. A junior at Sul Ross State studying conservation biology, she spent that afternoon at school completing a midterm. Verk’s parents said her professor told them that, inside the classroom that day, Verk seemed calm and focused, her typically friendly self.
“She aced the exam,” her mother noted.
Verk’s boyfriend, Robert Fabian, 25, would later tell police that his girlfriend left his home around 3 a.m. the next morning. Neighbors told police that the couple could be heard arguing that same night, but Fabian denied that any arguments took place when he spoke to his girlfriend’s mother days later, the family said.
Lori Verk assumed that her daughter was busy when she didn’t hear back from her Wednesday evening, but by the time Friday rolled around, she knew something was terribly wrong. At that point, she said, she called police and reported her daughter missing. That night, her husband made the seven-hour drive from the family’s home in Keller, Tex., in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, to reach Alpine, which lies about 100 miles north of the U.S. border with Mexico.
“I spoke with Robert and he assured me that Zuzu left his apartment at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday morning to come home,” Lori Verk said. “But her car was spotted at his house as late as 10:30 a.m. the next morning.”
Police performing a welfare check discovered Verk’s car parked in front of her house, her parents said. They said many of her belongings were still in the vehicle, but her phone and a lanyard attached to her car keys, identification and a credit card were missing. Verk’s bicycle was inside her home and her dog was in the back yard, but the college student had vanished, her parents said.
“She was not the type of person to leave without telling people or to leave her dog behind,” Lori Verk said. “We believe her car was moved in front of her home.”
Two weeks after Verk’s disappearance, Alpine police officially upgraded Verk’s boyfriend from a person of interest to a suspect in her disappearance, according a news release posted on Facebook. The release indicated that Fabian’s family and his close friend, Chris Estrada, were also considered people of interest in Verk’s disappearance.
Police said Fabian called Estrada two times during the early-morning hours of his girlfriend’s disappearance, according to search warrants obtained by ABC affiliate WFAA. The documents state that the two men communicated around the same time using the social media app Snapchat, the station reported.
The documents also state that Fabian borrowed a 2005 Ford F-150 pickup truck registered to his brother-in-law early Wednesday. Police later searched the vehicle for DNA evidence.
John Franco, a neighbor who lives below Fabian’s apartment, told CBS affiliate KOSA that he heard arguing the night Verk disappeared.
“You could hear him moving their stuff around, playing music, and then she [Zuzu] shows up … they make dinner like at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m., you could smell their food, and you can hear their conversation and then laugh a little bit,” said Franco, whose girlfriend was with him at the time. “Then, it got quiet like after 11 p.m.”
But Franco noted that that silence didn’t last.
“We just heard one, like you know, shut the ‘f’ up, and that was it,” Franco said.
Afterward, Franco told WFAA, he could hear Fabian “pacing back and forth, in the kitchen, living room, all around, all around.”
Finally, even later in the night, Franco said that he and his girlfriend heard one more strange sound.
“Going down the stairs, we heard a loud thump,” he added. “This is around 4 in the morning.”
Franco told the station he saw Robert get into his car and drive away without Verk, whose car was still parked outside her boyfriend’s apartment.
The documents also state that Estrada’s behavior aroused suspicion in the days after Verk’s disappearance. Estrada attempted to get his Ford Mustang cleaned and detailed at a local auto shop on three separate occasions Oct. 14, the day Zuzu was reported missing, according to documents obtained by WFAA.
Josh Cobos, whose family runs the Cobos Gas and Lube Center in Alpine, told police that Estrada appeared nervous and borrowed his cellphone to contact Fabian.
“Cobos advised that he thought [Estrada’s] behavior was odd at the time, given that Zuzu had just been reported missing,” the court documents state.
Estrada told police he gave Fabian a ride early Wednesday morning, prompting investigators to search his 2016 Ford Mustang.
“It is [the] belief of affiant that Christopher Estrada and Robert Fabian have used said vehicle to conceal … physical evidence tending to show that Robert Fabian has personal knowledge and involvement in the disappearance of Zuzu,” a search warrant states.
Police say Estrada has been cooperative, but Fabian has not, according to WFAA.
“So, when you talk about all the hundreds of people from all over the state that are working actively to help solve this and bring Zuzu back to her family, and one individual that won’t, that ought to tell you something,” Alpine Police Chief Russell Scown said during a news conference in October, according to the Observer.
Alpine police didn’t respond to phone calls seeking comment, and no one has been charged in the case.
Fabian’s mom and sister, both of whom have been named people of interest, told KOSA that their relative is not a killer.
“Me, my daughter, my son, we love Zuzu,” Robert’s mother, Leticia Fabian, said. “This situation is hard.”
“No, my son is innocent, okay, he is innocent, my son,” Fabian added.
Reached by phone, Fabian’s attorney, Liz Rogers, declined to comment on the case directly, but contradicted Scown and said that her client has cooperated with police and has an upstanding reputation among residents in his home town of Alpine.
Verk’s parents said they have only spoken to Rogers on one occasion at the Alpine Police Department and the conversation wasn’t productive. They said Rogers told them she’d advised her client to stop speaking to police, but she refused to tell them why.
“She came only after weeks of being hounded,” Lori Verk said. “She came and met with us. We had many questions and when we asked her for answers, she said, ‘I’m not here to answer your questions.’ We were very angry.”
“She did repeat that Robert [Fabian] was distraught,” her husband added.
In an interview with KOSA, Estrada said that he played no part in Verk’s disappearance and said Fabian was incapable of hurting her. He said investigators were willing to say anything and that he didn’t trust them.
“I’ve never even seen him get mad,” Estrada said. “Other people have said they have, [but] I never have.”
Asked why Fabian refused to cooperate with investigators, Estrada speculated that his friend may have “felt attacked” by authorities.
“If the sheriff’s department was telling me the truth, they said they went in and questioned him and poked a couple holes in his story,” he said. “Whatever those were, I don’t know, and he just stopped cooperating and asked for a lawyer.”
“Maybe if he felt attacked, maybe he did want someone to back him up,” he added. “I understand that, so I think he’s just looking for someone to stand up for him.”
— Susan Magers (@SuziMagers) October 25, 2016
A Go Fund Me campaign was started by friends of the Verk family to assist the family with cost that will… https://t.co/72tQ0dRruy
— Alpine Police Dept. (@AlpineTxPolice) October 19, 2016
A reward for information leading to the whereabouts or safe return of Verk has reached $200,000. The reward was doubled after Glenn Verk’s employer — the H-E-B/Central Market grocery chain — decided to pitch in. Verk said that his bosses have implored him to take time off to focus on the search for his daughter, allowing the Verks to relocate to Alpine full time.
Lori Verk said the couple “reverberate with the community,” using the town as a source of strength. Many locals met Verk through her conservation work, but others got to know her from her time working at the local Dollar General store.
“She reflects who this community is,” she said. “She’s kinda quirky and artsy and a lover of the outdoors. She’s become an unofficial daughter to this community and this university.”
After relocating to Alpine to continue searching, the couple moved into their daughter’s home. Verk’s father said the home offers them a feeling of closeness to their daughter, but the constant reminder of her presence can be overwhelming at times.
They said that they have no plans to move back home.
“I find it comforting some of the time, but it can also be hard,” Glenn Verk said. “You think the special things — a piece of jewelry or a photograph — will set you off, but it’s even things like her shampoo; things that you know she touched that remind you of how quickly your world can change.”