Episode 076: Gretchen Fleming

April 17, 2023

When a young woman vanishes after a night out on the town, investigators must rely on the community for help finding her. Where is Gretchen Fleming?

Episode Media
Gretchen Fleming (Facebook)
Gretchen Fleming (Facebook)
Vehicle of interest: black Nissan Rogue 1 Sport (Parkersburg PD)
Vehicle of interest: black Nissan Rogue 1 Sport (Parkersburg PD)
Parkersburg police serving a search warrant at a home on Division Street (WTAP)
Front Row Sports Bar in Parkersburg (Google Maps)
My Way Lounge in Parkersburg where Gretchen was last seen (Google Maps)
Parking lot behind the My Way Lounge (Google Maps)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a fairly recent case out of West Virginia, a missing persons investigation that has quite a few solid leads but still needs our help. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

Gretchen Fleming grew up in Wood County, West Virginia, along the Ohio River. She attended Parkersburg High School where she had a close-knit group of friends. Gretchen was known for her unique style, something that stood out in her small town. She was creative and imaginative, and she loved to express herself through fashion and music.

After high school, Gretchen enrolled at Marshall University, about two hours south of her home in Wood County. There, she began to lean more into political activism, which really ramped up after the 2016 presidential election. Gretchen spoke at local rallies and even attended the Women’s March in Washington, DC. In 2017, she moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, to study political science at Shaw University. Her Instagram over the next few years was filled with beautifully artistic photos of herself, her friends, and her travels.

In 2022, Gretchen’s mom passed away, and she moved back to West Virginia to live with her grandparents, Louise and Phil. She was 27 years old, and she needed some time to get her bearings now that she was back in her hometown after so many years away.

On the afternoon of Saturday, December 3rd, Louise dropped her granddaughter off at Grand Central Mall, where Gretchen had taken a job at H&M a few weeks prior. They said their goodbyes and went their separate ways. Louise assumed that she would see Gretchen after her shift, but Gretchen didn’t come home that night. At first, Louise didn’t think anything of it. Gretchen was a grown woman, free to come and go as she pleased. She would often spend two or three days at a friend’s house without notice, and she wasn’t one to constantly text or call. But as time passed and no one heard from her, Gretchen’s family grew increasingly concerned. Finally, on December 12th, they contacted the Parkersburg Police Department and reported Gretchen missing.

By this time, Gretchen hadn’t been seen in over a week, which put the investigation at a significant disadvantage. However, investigators began to move quickly. They immediately put out a bulletin requesting assistance from the public. Gretchen’s photograph was circulated on social media and in local news outlets, and tips began pouring in. Within a few days, investigators had a solid timeline of Gretchen’s last movements.

Late on December 3rd, after her shift at the mall, Gretchen was seen at The Front Row Sports Bar & Grill in North Parkersburg. Employees told detectives that Gretchen was a regular, and they confirmed that she was there until 11:00 that night in the company of another person. Investigators were able to determine that the person was not connected to Gretchen’s disappearance. In fact, employees said that Gretchen left the bar with a completely different person, and she left her purse, phone, and debit card behind.

But that wasn’t when Gretchen disappeared. After leaving The Front Row, Gretchen and her companion showed up at the My Way Lounge on Juliana Street, about 3 miles south. They were there for several hours before Gretchen left shortly after 3am, just before the bar closed. This time, she was with another person – someone police zeroed in on. Gretchen got into the person’s vehicle, and she hasn’t been seen since.

Now that investigators had a timeline and a potential lead, they were able to start moving forward more quickly. Parkersburg Police Chief Matthew Board told WCHS, “Detectives have worked around the clock… to cultivate information. The public has really stepped up in regard to tips – even if it wasn’t from that night – giving us information they thought was pertinent. A combination of that has really expedited the investigation to the point where we were able to obtain some search warrants.”

On December 15th, officers from the Parkersburg Police and the West Virginia State Police Crime Lab served a search warrant at a small rental house on Division Street, just 2 miles across the river from the My Way Lounge. News footage from the search shows at least 6 police vehicles parked outside as investigators move in and out of the house, which is roped off with crime scene tape.

Although investigators couldn’t reveal what was found during their searches, Chief Board confirmed that the searches were useful and thanked the community for their assistance. “The public has been tremendous. In true greater Parkersburg fashion, they’ve rallied around this. And it has been exponentially helpful in our endeavor to further this investigation as expeditiously and thoroughly as possible. So, the community has really stepped up, reached out and assisted us in a very large capacity.”

Unfortunately, weeks passed with no sign of Gretchen. Her father, David Fleming, spoke with Dateline in late December, saying, “We love her. Something happened to her. I don’t know what to say… Tomorrow would be her 28th birthday, which will be hard. She’s an amazing little girl. I just want her home.”

Gretchen’s birthday came and went, and as the new year approached, rumors flew throughout the small town. Some local news stations began reporting that Gretchen was last seen with an older man, and that she was drunk at the time of her disappearance. But police would not confirm those rumors, preferring to release information in a strategic manner to preserve the integrity of the investigation.

Then, on December 29th, Chief Board officially announced that they had a person of interest in the case – the man seen leaving the My Way Lounge with Gretchen in the early morning hours of December 4th. “We have a person of interest that we believe has information in regard to this case pertaining to Gretchen. This person, we know, was at the My Way Lounge the evening that Gretchen was there and we have cause to believe Gretchen left with this person.”

Parkersburg Police have not released the name of this person of interest, but several news outlets discovered his identity early on in the investigation. Since he has not been officially identified, I will just refer to him as Pierce.

According to Chief Board, Gretchen and Pierce left the Lounge at 3:10am on December 4th. Surveillance video from the bar showed them walking out the front door and toward the parking lot next to the building. But Pierce’s car was parked off-camera, so there is no visual evidence of Gretchen getting into the vehicle.

Investigators relied on witness statements from bar patrons and employees to figure out who Pierce was and what car he was driving that night. Then, they pieced together video footage from other cameras in the nearby area to track the car’s route back to Pierce’s home – the rental house on Division Street, just 2 miles from the bar.

Investigators believe that Gretchen and Pierce didn’t know each other before that night, but that Pierce picked Gretchen up at the bar and took her back to his house. When detectives questioned him, Pierce admitted that Gretchen had left with him in his vehicle, but he claimed that he was just giving her a ride and that he dropped her off somewhere. However, over multiple conversations with investigators, his story began to change, and he made several inconsistent statements before eventually refusing to speak to police altogether.

Based on Pierce’s own statements and the surveillance footage, police were able to obtain search warrants for his house, car, and electronic devices, including his phone records. Chief Board told WCHS, “Things have been collected. As standard, sent to the state laboratory for analysis and just awaiting results there. That’s commonplace in a lot of investigations, and when that comes back, hopefully, that proves fruitful, but in the meantime, this is not a waiting game. Our detectives are still following leads because, as I keep reiterating, the community really stepped up. The leads, the tips, the info, the phone calls, the Facebook messages, the emails. Every one of them is getting vetted.”

The Parkersburg Police Department also released images of Pierce’s vehicle, a black Nissan Rogue1 Sport with an OBX sticker on the back window and Darth Vader stickers on both sides of the car. Investigators asked local residents and business owners to check their surveillance cameras for any sign of the vehicle from late on December 3rd through the evening of December 5th. Any sightings would further help them develop the timeline of Pierce and Gretchen’s movements.

On January 4th, investigators served another search warrant on Pierce’s home, but again, they couldn’t reveal what was found. News outlets had begun to dig into Pierce’s background, uncovering some unsettling details, including the fact that he is a former police officer who used to go by a different name. Again, because Parkersburg Police have not formally identified him or named him as a suspect, I won’t go into further detail here, but the information is readily available if you choose to seek it out. It’s clear that investigators are building a case but don’t quite have enough to make an arrest just yet.

On January 6th, officers from both the Parkersburg and Ravenswood Police Departments were seen at a water tank in Jackson County, about 30 miles south of Parkersburg along the Ohio River, but Chief Board would only say that they were following up on one of many leads, and that he had no new developments to report. “The investigation is continuing, and it’s not uncommon that our detectives are out in the field, following up on leads.”

On February 4th, Parkersburg Police arranged a community search in Mountwood Park, a 2,600-acre nature park just 12 miles outside of Parkersburg. Authorities had been conducting small-scale searches ever since Gretchen disappeared, but according to detectives, they had received numerous tips about Mountwood Park in recent weeks, and because of the vast amount of land, they needed more help to cover it all.

Police told volunteers to prepare for “strenuous work in rugged, wooded terrain and possibly cold and wet weather,” and urged them to bring water and wear hiking gear. Hundreds of volunteers showed up for the search, many driving hours to come help.

Gretchen’s family was blown away by the turnout. Louise Fleming told WCHS, “We were hoping for a hundred people. I have three sisters and a good friend that came to my house yesterday. We made 200 sandwiches, made bags for them with cookies and sandwiches thinking 200 would be enough, and it’s not going to touch it.”

The search was led by the Mountaineer Area Rescue Group, whose members acted as team leaders and helped plan out the grid teams would search over approximately 25 acres. Volunteers were instructed to point out anything that looked out of place, like it didn’t belong. At the end of the day, police seemed satisfied with the search, but they wouldn’t confirm if anything of value was found.

In March, community members organized a separate search in Johnson T. Janes City Park, a wildlife sanctuary on the eastern edge of Parkersburg. Unfortunately, nothing was found, but investigators are still hard at work putting the pieces together. David Fleming told WTAP, “The police are doing everything in their power. They’re working around the clock. So, I know there’s some speculation out there that maybe they’re not doing enough. But believe me. These guys are not sleeping. They are working 24/7 to find details on that one little clue that connects this all together so they can make it happen.”

Gretchen’s family is still hopeful that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and they are grateful to the community for supporting them during this difficult time. David said, “To be honest, it’s just overwhelming, the love and support and the private messages and the messages that I’ve got and just everybody loves her. Everybody’s concerned… I just want to tell her I love her and if somehow, she is somewhere and she hears this, I just want her to come home. And I’m hoping for the best. And I love my little girl. I just want her home.”

As of this recording, Gretchen Fleming is still missing, and there have been no arrests made. There is currently a $65,000 reward for information in the case, and investigators are still looking for tips. As Chief Board said, “If you hear anything, if you see anything, if you have a recollection, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. Because what might seem minor to you all, might be what we need to help bring Gretchen home.”

Gretchen Fleming was last seen at the My Way Lounge in Parkersburg, West Virginia, on the morning of December 4, 2022. She is 5’2” tall with brown hair and brown eyes. She has a tattoo of a world map on her upper back. Pictures of Gretchen and the vehicle she is believed to have been traveling in can be found on the podcast website. If you have any information about the disappearance of Gretchen Fleming, please contact Detective Zimmerman of the Parkersburg Police Department at 304-424-1072. And please share Gretchen’s story – we want to bring her home.