Festus teen's disappearance still a mystery 25 years later
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Festus teen's disappearance still a mystery 25 years later

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CRYSTAL CITY • Twenty-five years ago today, Diana Braungardt clocked out after her shift as a cashier in the Twin City Mall. She hasn't been seen since.

She was 18 years old, a senior at Festus High School. She told co-workers that she needed to get home to study for a test the next day.

She stood 5-feet-6-inches tall, weighed 108 pounds, and had large, wide-set, almond-shaped hazel eyes. She was excited about attending a modeling class that weekend.

Since that night, investigators have amassed 11 binders and three boxes of paperwork related to her disappearance. They've searched for links to serial killers. They field calls a few times a year from police in other states seeking to identify nameless bodies.

Still, the mystery of what happened to Diana Braungardt on March 11, 1987, remains unsolved. But there seems little doubt that she met with foul play.

"We don't expect Diana to show up at our door," her mother, Jane Braungardt, said last week. "We know something bad happened."

Authorities don't think she made it to her yellow Ford Escort, which was found in the parking lot of the former Venture store where she worked part time.

She'd be 43 now, just a couple years older than the Crystal City police investigators now working on her case.

Her parents were at home the night she disappeared. Their daughter's shift ended at 10 p.m. It wasn't like her to not come home.

"She never let us wonder where she was," her father said.

The Rev. Marvin Braungardt was senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Festus, where the family lived.

They went to the store and saw their daughter's car on the lot. They called her friends in the middle of the night.

In the morning, they filed a missing person report with Crystal City police.

Crystal City Police Detective Mike Pruneau was a high school sophomore at the time. His stepmother was a store supervisor at Venture (the building is now a Kmart) and had worked with Diana the night she disappeared. Police called before Pruneau left for school the next morning. They had questions about Diana.

Now, Pruneau and Capt. Chad Helms are investigating the case, a task they began in 2003. Helms was a freshman at Herculaneum High when Diana disappeared.

In 2007, they interviewed a local man whose appearance matched the description of someone seen talking with Diana in the parking lot before she disappeared. A woman spotted them when she pulled onto the store's parking lot to change her baby's diaper, Pruneau said.

"He hasn't given us a reason to clear him," Pruneau said. The man was never arrested or charged. He's in prison on an unrelated conviction.

The Braungardts moved to St. Charles in 1995 when Marvin Braungardt took leadership of a church there. A painting of their daughter, whom they adopted, hangs in a hallway. Another framed picture of her hangs next to photos of their four granddaughters, one of whom Diana held as a baby. An older brother is her only sibling. She never met her brother's other children.

"I feel sure that she's dead," Jane Braungardt, 74, said last week. Her husband, 82, nodded.

Still, when they visited Yellowstone National Park in 2002, they took along fliers with her picture. Just in case.

"You don't want to ever give up," Marvin Braungardt said.

But when they visited the Grand Canyon a few years later, they didn't take any fliers.

They no longer get their hopes up that the case could be solved.

Each year, they get through Christmas. Next, they make it through her birthday, Jan. 31. Then there's today, the anniversary of her disappearance. Once those dates pass, Jane Braungardt said, "Then we feel like we can do the rest of the year."

Today, they'll place a flower arrangement on the piano at their church, Faith United Methodist in St. Charles.

They don't do that every year. But it felt right to do it today.

After the Sunday service, they'll stick around for a meeting on how to celebrate the church's 50th anniversary. They agree, it's good to keep busy on the hard days.

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