Early on the morning of October 28, Monica Sykes told her nephews she was running out and would be back soon with some candy. And then she vanished.
When she didn't return later that day, her family knew immediately that something was wrong — Sykes lived with her sister, who was also her best friend. And she hadn't even taken her wallet.
In the three months that have passed since Sykes, 25, went missing, her family has frantically pleaded for clues
— and they've been joined in that request by Captain Art Jackson, the interim police chief in Berkeley, Missouri, where Sykes lived with her sister and her three nephews.
But as the Sykes family has retraced Monica's steps, they say, the trail has taken them to one of Berkeley's own. In fact, the last adult that they can confirm saw Monica before her disappearance was a Berkeley police officer.
The two apparently spent the night together — the officer dropped Monica off just fifteen minutes before she left her sister's home, never to be seen from again. At the time of the drop-off, it was 6:48 a.m., according to a time stamp on the home's security system. She left again at 7:01 a.m. after having only a brief chat with her nephews. (Monica's sister, who was in the basement, heard her enter the house but didn't see her or speak to her.)
Robert Howard, the Berkeley police officer, is married, although an application his wife made for an order of protection in September 2016 states that they separated that May.
In the request, filed with the St. Louis city circuit court, Howard's wife wrote that she is afraid of her husband. She alleges that he showed up to her parents' home at all hours, hacked into her phone and harassed her friends and family. "I fear for my life and my children's," she wrote.
Reached by phone, Howard denies that his wife got an order of protection against him. "That's not true," he says. While a temporary order appears to have been granted, records on the victims' notification site VINELink
show that Howard was never served with it. The order expired on October 13, records show, two weeks before Monica went missing.
The Sykes family is now questioning the nature of their daughter's relationship with Howard, 39. Monica's mother, Regina Sykes, says that Monica told her sister everything — which makes it odd she never mentioned the police officer she was hanging out with. Phone records show that Monica and Howard were in "constant contact," Regina Sykes says, in the month before Monica's disappearance.
Howard declines to state what he and Monica were doing that night until 6:48 a.m. or where they were. He says they were not romantically involved.
Howard says he met Monica because he frequented the restaurant where she was a waitress (the restaurant has previously been identified as Ol Henry, on Airport Road). "We were not even close," he says.
He adds, "I have absolutely nothing to do with it, and the police department already knows who does. ... She was dropped off at home, and what she did after that was her business."
Indeed, Howard and Captain Jackson say that police believe they know who picked Monica up at 7:01 a.m. Her six-year-old nephew has said he saw a white car. And the man Monica had been seeing — a different guy, one whom her sister had met — drove a white car.
That young man is "a person of interest" in the case, says Captain Jackson. The interim chief says that Berkeley Police picked him up on an outstanding warrant for a probation violation; he remains in custody.
But Regina Sykes says she's talked to the young man in jail, and he denies picking up Monica that morning. He says they'd discussed meeting up, and that he tried to call her that morning, but her phone went straight to voice mail.
The Sykes family isn't sure whether to believe him — but they believe strongly that all leads need to be investigated. And in light of Monica's connection to the Berkeley officer, they wonder if they should have been more assertive in the initial stages of the investigation. "If we knew what we know now, it would have made more sense to get our own private investigator," Regina Sykes says.
Interim Chief Jackson, however, defends his department.
"I don't feel that's a conflict of interest," he says. "We can investigate anybody. Even one of our own officers — they would be treated just like anyone else."
And while the Sykes family feels that Howard was the last adult to see Monica before her disappearance, Jackson says that's not true: "There's the person she got in the car with." He believes that is the man they have in custody.
Asked about Howard, Jackson says he's only been with the department "a few months." Last October, a video of Howard interacting in a friendly way with residents went viral
, praised as a model for a new kind of community policing. At the time, the media reported that Howard had been with the department for three months.
A recent episode of Crime Watch Daily
delved into Monica's disappearance. The true crime show notes that the white car driven by the man Monica was seeing was later found "engulfed in flames," in the words of Jackson. (You can watch the whole episode online here
.) Jackson says the burned car was discovered in unincorporated St. Louis County a few weeks after Monica went missing.
And Howard, for his part, says media stories should focus on the car's driver, not him. "I am not a person of interest, and not a suspect," he says. "If people are going to continue to call me that, I will have to do something about that."
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