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Sixteen-year-old Maria Ybanez lived a hellish life in Davenport, Iowa, up until the day she went missing on Wednesday, June 13, 1973.
Her parents, Kathryn and Bernardo “Bernie” Ybanez, were embroiled in bitter divorce proceedings, and Maria was expected to testify against her abusive father in court. Some family members thought Maria might also end up testifying about the brutal beatings she and her older brother, Roger, regularly endured at the hands of their father.
At the time of Maria’s disappearance, her mother was in Tennessee, having gone to spend time with relatives after Kathryn’s 5-year-old niece was hit by a car. The girl passed away after a few days on life support, and Kathryn stayed on through the week in order to attend her niece’s funeral.
More than four years would pass before two men hunting for pheasants on Saturday, Nov. 5, 1977 stumbled upon skeletal remains in a farm field about one mile north of New Liberty, Iowa, in Scott County. The remains lay partly hidden in a shallow grave.
Cause of death was ruled as strangulation by a belt.
A breakthrough in the case developed when the local paper ran a piece about Maria’s unsolved disappearance and a former boyfriend recognized the rings shown as having belonged to Maria.
Using dental records, officials positively identified the body as Maria’s on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 1979, and released the teen’s remains to her family the following Tuesday, Jan. 30, 1979.
Memorial services were held Saturday, Feb. 3, 1979.
Davenport police considered Bernie Ybanez the primary suspect in his daughter’s murder, saying Ybanez allegedly had molested Maria for years.
The heinous scope of Mr. Ybanez’s familial abuse wouldn’t fully come to light until the sins of the father passed down through another generation and led to yet another murder.
Maria’s brother, Roger Keith Ybanez (DOB Feb. 24, 1955), went on to marry Julia “Julie” A. Toland, a strict evangelical, and the couple had a son, Nathan “Nate” Ybanez. By the time Nate was three, both his parents routinely battered him with fists and belts.
When Nate turned five, his parents began sexually molesting him in the shower. The abuse continued and worsened over the years, despite parents of Nate’s schoolmates contacting police and child welfare workers to alert them of the egregious activities taking place inside the Ybanez household. Their efforts failed again and again.
Roger and Julie Ybanez eventually separated, and around 9 p.m. Friday, June 5, 1998, the skeletal 16-year-old Nate — his entire back laden with scars — snapped and brutally killed his mother in Douglas County, Colorado, after she told him she was sending him away to military school.
Nate was arrested in the early morning hours the following day, and on Jan. 27, 2000, sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
His defense attorney never presented any of the evidence detailing the teen’s lifelong abuse by both his parents.
Nate later said of his incarceration, “I’m safer here than I was at home. In jail, at least, I can see them coming. With my father, I just never knew.”
Articles in The Denver Post and Rolling Stone Magazine profiled one family beset by a vicious cycle of violence. Rolling Stone writer Paul Solotaroff said in an article published Nov. 15, 2006:
Davenport, Iowa, is the kind of place that kids grow up to leave. Fifty-five years ago, Bernie Ybanez, Nate’s grandfather, arrived there as a shell-shocked veteran of World War II, having slogged through the carnage of the Pacific theater. A Filipino with a short-stack temper and a glare that “scared you down to your shoes,” as one acquaintance describes it, he eventually found work at the local Oscar Mayer plant and lasted there almost thirty years. But at night he went home and drank, then beat his wife and kids till he got tired. He was particularly brutal to his only son, Roger, and to Maria, the oldest of three daughters. In the copious rap sheet Bernie compiled, there is a record of his arrest for battering Roger, then two, till his eyes were swelled shut. When the boy got older, Bernie would back him into a corner and whip him with a metal buckle, or flog him with a stick “from an acre away all the way back home,” says his widow, Kathryn Benisch.
~ Paul Solotaroff, Rolling Stone magazine, Nov. 15, 2006
The former Kathryn Ybanez told Miles Moffeit of The Denver Post her former husband was a “jealous alcoholic” who didn’t like to let her leave the house.
“Bernie gave me black eyes, tried to kill me once or twice, and threatened to dump me in a ditch,” she said.
Solotaroff said the crimes Bernie Ybanez committed against his children were far more egregious. Bernie Ybanez allegedly molested his daughter Maria for years, and when she ran away from home, he tracked her down, beat and choked her to death, then dumped her in a shallow grave, police told Solotaroff.
“There’s not a doubt in my mind that Bernie killed her,” a law enforcement officer who worked on the case told Solotaroff. “She was buried a long time and we couldn’t make the charge stick, but I know in my bones he did the crime.”
Bernie died June 29, 1999 at age 72 of early onset dementia, accused but never tried for his daughter’s murder. The effect of his cruelty outlived him, the Rolling Stone article said.
“I knew him and the horrible way he treated his family, which had a negative effect on Roger,” said Frank Benisch, who married Kathryn after she split with Bernie, in an affidavit supplied to Nate’s appeals lawyer, Terrence Johnson. “It may have influenced his parenting of Nate, who had to endure incidents that I considered abusive. I believe the cycle repeated itself.”
More than four decades after her mysterious disappearance and murder, Maria’s family members haven’t given up on finding answers.
“She supposedly ‘ran away’ while most of my family, including Maria’s mother, were in Tennessee,” Maria’s cousin, Tamara Stroupe, told Iowa Cold Cases. When they got back after the funeral, “Maria was missing,” said Stroupe, who never bought into the “runaway” theory from the beginning.
“First of all, Maria would have never just run away without telling her mother where she was and that she was safe. And she would have been heartbroken about our little cousin, Angie, and she would have been grieving with us,” Stroupe said. “I was in sixth grade at the time and Maria was four years older than me. I idolized her because she was so beautiful and sweet, kind, and compassionate.”
Those who loved Maria and want answers should be able to reach out to see if this cold case can ever be solved, Stroupe told Iowa Cold Cases. The questions haunt her.
“It would help me have peace if I knew that everything that could possibly have been done to solve her crime has been done,” Stroupe said.
Maria Ybanez was born to Kathryn and Bernardo “Bernie” Evales Ybanez.
In addition to her parents, Maria was survived by one brother, Roger, and two sisters, Tina and Heather, along with many aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.