May 2, 2010
Mystery of son’s death haunts Urbandale couple
By DANIEL P. FINNEY
A for-sale sign pokes out of the freshly cut grass in front of Chad and Tammy Parks’ Urbandale home.
The gray split-level holds too much anguish for the couple and their daughter Adra, 11, to stay any longer.
Nearly a year has passed since their son, Jared Parks, was found dead along a stretch of Interstate Highway 35/80 near the Merle Hay Road exit.
Despite hundreds of interviews conducted by Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agents and sleuthing on the side by Jared’s parents, no one is certain how the body of the 18-year-old ended up getting pummeled by fast-moving traffic in the early-morning hours of May 11, 2009.
Chad and Tammy Parks clasped tissues and a framed photograph of Jared in his Urbandale J-Hawk basketball uniform as they spoke about their son and the mystery that has haunted them every moment for a year.
“We just want answers,” Tammy Parks said. “We went to bed one night with every expectation we would see our son the next day. Now, we’ll never see him again. I want to know what happened.
“Who did this? Who killed my son?”
Courtesy photo Mary Chind / The Register
Tammy and Chad Parks have little to go on one year after their son’s body was found battered on Interstate Highway 35/80. Tammy appreciates knowing that people are still thinking of him and missing him.
The worst year of Chad and Tammy Parks’ life began about 9:30 p.m. on May 10, 2009.
Tammy sent a text message to Jared, who was visiting a girlfriend at her apartment off of Merle Hay Road. Tammy wanted Jared home by 11 p.m. He wrote back instantly, as he always did. OK, he said. I love you. She replied she loved him, too. They went to sleep expecting to find Jared asleep in his downstairs bedroom the next morning.
Tammy rose about 7 a.m. on May 11 for work. She fussed with her hair. She walked downstairs to check on her son.
He wasn’t home.
Tammy was annoyed but figured he probably fell asleep at somebody’s house or went on a breakfast run with buddies.
She called him. No answer. She sent texts. No reply.
“Jared was always on his phone,” Tammy said. “He always called right back.”
A sick feeling built in her stomach, but Tammy was more ticked off than worried. After all, Jared had always been such a good kid.
When Jared was growing up, other parents would call the Parkses and ask to have him come over to play with their kids. The boy was unfailingly polite and friendly, Tammy remembered.
“He was always so funny,” she said. “He would come up with some one-liner and you would think, ‘Is this coming out of a child’s mouth?'”
Jared played youth basketball and soccer. As a child, he was an emotional competitor.
“Once, in soccer practice, he kicked the ball into his own team’s goal,” Chad Parks said. “Somebody said something to him and he started crying. The next game, he scored a goal for his team. Everybody was cheering and he started crying again. He was sensitive that way.”
Des Moines Register photo
Jared liked basketball best, but a knee injury when he was a sophomore at Urbandale High School ended his career.
One of Jared’s shortcomings, his parents said, was his attitude toward academics. He wasn’t a bad student; he just didn’t like school. He completed high school a semester early because he just couldn’t stand school anymore.
After Jared finished school, he worked two jobs, one at a theater and another at a West Des Moines video game store. He sneaked his friends into their favorite flicks and even tried to pass a freebie off on his mom a few times.
At the video game store, Jared took full advantage of his employee discount.
“He’d have a Nintendo Wii for a month and then go trade it in on a PlayStation 3,” Chad Parks said.
Wheeling and dealing was Jared’s style. His first car was a dumpy, used economy sedan, and a pal who worked at an electronics store offered to hook him up with the latest audio/ video system for the vehicle if he promised to give the shop some word-of-mouth advertising.
“He sold all that stuff in about six months,” Chad Parks said. “He was always upgrading.”
On the last day of his life, Jared completed another upgrade. He met his mom at a wireless store to buy a snazzy new cell phone. It was late in the afternoon on May 10. He hugged her and thanked her for the new gadget. Then he hustled off to hang out with friends.
It was the last time Tammy Parks saw her son.
In the months after Jared Parks left high school, he found it hard to hook up with his pals. They had school in the day. He worked nights.
Jared told his parents he was excited to get measured for his cap and gown for commencement. The event would give him a chance to see his friends again.
Jared had befriended a teenage girl from Texas who was slightly younger than he was. The young woman lived with her sister in an apartment behind the Dahl’s grocery store on Merle Hay Road.
Jared and the young woman both worked at the movie theater. “I don’t know if Jared would call her a girlfriend, but they spent a lot of time together,” Tammy Parks said.
Jared was hanging out at the young woman’s apartment on the evening of May 10. About 9:30 p.m., he stepped outside. He told the young woman he would be right back. She never saw him again.
Police would later find Jared’s Jeep in front of the apartment, unmoved. Where they found him only deepened the mystery.
Shortly after midnight, while Tammy and Chad Parks slept, Johnston police and the Iowa State Patrol received a call about something being run over by cars on I-35/80 near Merle Hay Road.
When they arrived, they found a body in rough shape, most likely hit by vehicles multiple times. There was no vehicle nearby. State investigators were called in to consult.
Sometime on the afternoon of May 11, Tammy Parks heard a news report about the body. Surely it wasn’t Jared.
Yet the nagging feeling in her gut kept at her. Finally, she called police to set her mind at ease. A detective got on the line.
“Just tell me it’s an old white guy and I’ll leave you alone,” Tammy said.
The officer asked her what her son was wearing. The detective made arrangements to pick up a photo of Jared at the Parkses’ house.
A pair of officers arrived at her door. Tammy handed them the picture. The police didn’t say anything.
“I could tell from their faces,” she said. “It was Jared. I just knew.”
Chad came home from work. Finally, the police came back. They had matched dental records.
Chad and Tammy’s son was the victim.
Investigators told the Parkses they were unable to get much forensic evidence from Jared’s body. This baffled the couple.
“I figured with all the advancements they’ve made, they would have had to be able to get something,” Tammy Parks said.
The parents requested a copy of the autopsy report, which lists the cause of death as “multiple blunt-force traumas consistent with being hit by a motor vehicle.”
The document recorded every cut, bruise, scrape, tear and broken bone. The couple read a few lines, stopped to cry, then kept going until they finished. When they were done, they understood.
The condition of Jared’s body proved more than just an impediment to the investigation. The medical examiner advised Chad and Tammy not to look at Jared in that condition.
Even the most skilled mortician would not be able to restore their son’s handsome face for a funeral. There would be no last hug, kiss on the cheek or final squeeze of their boy’s hand.
“I couldn’t even look at his hair, which was my favorite part of him,” Tammy Parks said. “They cut a lock of it off for me. It was there in a paper towel, but it didn’t seem real. It wasn’t a part of him anymore.”
The brutal condition of their son’s remains burned in their minds.
“Whoever did this,” Chad Parks said, “robbed us of both our son and our chance to say goodbye.”
Chad and Tammy Parks decided to cremate their son’s remains. They didn’t inter the ashes.
“I couldn’t just leave him all in one place,” she said.
Instead, they are letting go of Jared a little bit at a time. When they vacation, they bury some ashes in places they think he’d like. They scattered some outside the Rose Garden Arena, where the National Basketball Association’s Portland Trail Blazers play, and in Daytona Beach, Fla.
At Jared’s memorial service, his grandparents from Oregon recalled a visit he made there one summer, during which he picked up seashells and rocks along the beach. His grandma brought a jar to the service that she had filled with slate rocks in remembrance of Jared.
On one side are his initials, “J.P.,” penned in silver marker. On the other side is a silver heart.
Tammy and Chad Parks take those rocks everywhere, too. They’ve buried them in spots around the Des Moines area – favorite hangouts or places where happy family memories were made.
“We’ll keep doing it, with the rocks and with the ashes, until they’re all gone,” Tammy said. “I may never let go of all of him.”
Jared’s family and friends plan to get together May 11 at Gray’s Lake Park, where Tammy and Chad Parks bought a memorial brick to honor their son.
About 9:30 p.m., the time Jared was last heard from a year ago, they will release special lighted balloons into the night sky.
That won’t be an ending for the Parkses. There will be no peace until they know what happened to their son.
The family plans to move. They’re not sure where. They have family on the West Coast and in northern Iowa. The Des Moines area just hurts too much.
They won’t drive the section of freeway where Jared’s body was found.
When they go to the movies, they see the woman working the concession stand who knew Jared. At the store, they run into his former teachers. The couple can barely stand to eat at home.
“We’ve eaten maybe a dozen meals in this house since it happened,” Chad Parks said.
Even dining out hurts.
“You’re standing there in line and the hostess says, ‘Just the three of you?’ ” Chad said. “You think, ‘No, there’s four.’ But then you realize it’s just three.”
The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation classifies Jared Parks’ case as a death investigation.
His parents, however, believe it was homicide – perhaps even murder. Too much doesn’t add up for Chad and Tammy Parks.
Between 9:30 p.m. on May 10 and the time when his body was found, there was no activity on Jared’s cell phone. That seems practically impossible to his parents.
“He couldn’t get through a meal without being on that thing,” Chad Parks said. “He’d have a sandwich in one hand and be texting with his other.”
Also, Jared’s knee still ached from his basketball injury and related surgery. He seldom walked.
“If he came upstairs to get a soda, he’d get two because he didn’t want to make the second trip upstairs,” Chad said. “I just don’t see him going walking in the middle of the night when his Jeep is right there.”
Tammy got a printout of Jared’s cell phone contacts. She called them all. She asked if they knew anything about what happened to him.
Clues have been scarce. DCI agents have no new leads in the investigation, though the case remains active, a spokeswoman said last week.
Every day, Tammy Parks works on theories of the case. She hopes to get that big break that will finally give her resolution.
Each day, she’s met with the same deafening silence. Still, the Parkses persevere.
“We will know,” Tammy Parks said. “We just will.”
Reward for information
The body of Jared Parks, 18, was found on Interstate Highway 35/80 near the Merle Hay Road exit on May 11, 2009. A spokeswoman for the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation said the death investigation remains open and unsolved. The Parks’ family has offered a $10,000 reward for information that leads to closure in the case. Tips may be given anonymously to Polk County Crime Stoppers at (515) 223-1400.
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