A Space Without Answers

It has been by any standard a tough year. My cheery suggestion to folks — that any day above ground is a good day — still applies. So does the axiom that that tomorrow is the future, and yesterday is the past, but today is a gift, which is why we call it the present. Some may disagree, but everything benefits from perspective. Things can always be worse, as what I am about to write about demonstrates.

The situation that I am about to describe is still developing even as I sit at the keyboard. I may update up at some point in the future, depending upon what occurs. It has all of the elements of a classic mystery. What cannot be forgotten or denied is that it is steeped in tragedy, regardless of what, if anything, is ultimately found to have occurred. 

A Westerville, Ohio resident named Emily Noble was reported missing by her husband Matt Moore on the evening of May 25, 2020. Matt stated he and Emily had been out celebrating Emily’s birthday the previous night before returning home. Emily, Matt reported, was not at home when he awoke the next morning. Her possessions, including her keys, car, cell phone, and credit cards, were all that remained of her.

The matter might have ended there. It occasionally comes as a surprise to people that, all other things being equal,  there is no law prohibiting an adult from upping sticks and leaving their home either temporarily or permanently without notice. An absence of this type does not automatically lead to subsequent law enforcement investigation. Friends of Emily, however, vociferously argued that such a course of action — leaving without notice — was unlike her. Emily was gainfully employed and maintained regular contact with relatives and many of her aforementioned friends. The items which she left behind would have been things that she would have taken with her if she were undertaking a planned and/or voluntary absence. 

News of Emily’s disappearance quickly spread and led to conjecture on social media. It was argued that Emily if she were alive and able to do so, would have noted the hue and cry her disappearance generated and would have contacted someone if only to assure them that she was fine and had simply chosen to go away.  

Those circumstances initiated as thorough an investigation as has ever been conducted in this area. Westerville police searched Emily’s home but found no indication of foul play. Video footage from the area around her home was reviewed. Police searched a wooded area near Emily’s home that she was known to frequent as well as an area of several blocks where she walked.  The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, volunteers, drones, and cadaver dogs assisted. An out-of-state group with experience in disappearance matters was brought in as well. Surveillance camera footage in the area was reviewed. Emily’s friends also posted signs throughout the area offering a five-figure reward for information about her disappearance.  

All was for naught. It was as if Emily had vanished into the ether without sign or warning. Vigils were held. Friends and volunteers continued to search. Accusations on social media regarding who might be responsible for her absence were made by friends, acquaintances, and at least one of Emily’s family members. 

 Early in the evening of September 16, 2020, a body was found in the wooded area near Emily’s home. The body was in a state of decomposition such that the age, sex, and facial characteristics of the deceased individual could not be identified. Given that the wooded area is not a large one — less than half of a city block — the discovery of a body there was puzzling, particularly since the location where the corpse was found had been searched at least three times, with the first time being within a day of the report of her disappearance. 

The body was tentatively identified as Emily’s through dental records on September 22, 2020. That identification was confirmed by DNA  results on October 27, 2020. It was also noted that there had been decomposition of Emily’s body at the site. 

The investigation continues. There has been some signal chaff generated by conjecture. The majority opinion — still not confirmed at this point in time — is that Emily was murdered. Some individuals have not been shy about hazarding a guess as to the doer. There is also the possibility that Emily was the victim of a hit-and-run driver, given that the wooded area is adjacent to a moderately busy street. The problem with that theory is it presupposes that Emily’s body lay where it was, undiscovered, for almost four months despite multiple searches of the area. That is possible, but not probable. Emily also might have suffered a fatal heart attack and died suddenly as a result. There is the same problem with that theory as there is with the hit-and-run scenario.  Everyone has their guesses and opinions (as do I) but broadcasting them does not help and, at least with one scenario, has the potential to hinder any justice which might otherwise be done. 

There unfortunately remains the very real possibility that what happened may never be known. Decomposition might be such that the cause of death cannot be conclusively established. If Emily’s body lay where it was found from late May to late September she was exposed to warm, humid weather in an area teeming with insects, carnivorous wildlife, and the like. It would seem to be quite a challenge for forensic investigators to establish whether there is sufficient evidence to determine if a crime was committed. That issue is well outside of my skillset and closer to the wheelhouse of fellow TKZers Garry Rodgers and Steve Hooley. 

What is known for certain at this point is that with Emily’s absence there is going to be an empty seat — a space without answers — in one or more dining room tables going forward. What I have described makes for an interesting story, particularly for those whose reading interests include mysteries and true crime of the solved and unsolved varieties.  The emotional component occasioned by that void is far deeper and more important. 

Yes, it has in many ways been an uncertain year, but if you don’t have an empty chair at the table as you gather to celebrate the season, in whatever form that takes, you’re ahead of the game. I think so, at least. 

Happy Thanksgiving. See you next Saturday.

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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

26 thoughts on “A Space Without Answers

  1. Such a sad story, Joe. And I’m thinking about Elaine’s post about justice being served. If this were a book, it couldn’t end this way. I’ve had similar scenarios in my books, but the cops always have to find the answers.

    There will be a lot of empty seats at Thanksgiving tables this year, but one hopes not very many of them with back stories like this one.

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    • Thank you, Terry. I agree. Involuntary absence is sad enough under any circumstance without the added element of uncertainty.

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  2. Sad story, Joe. I feel for the family. I won’t comment on the possibility of whether evidence of a crime could exist. That’s not my area of medicine.

    My thought: If the family table if full, and no one is missing, hold your loved ones close and (if it is part of your faith) pray for their safety. We never know what the future brings. Cherish the time we have together.

    I am thankful for the virtual friendships we have here at TKZ. I hope all of you have full tables and joyous gatherings for Thanksgiving.

    Thanks for the post, Joe. Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

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    • Thank you, Steve. Agreed on all counts. The future is so uncertain that it may not even exist. We need to be thankful for each minute, and for those around us in each of those minutes.

      Hope that you, Cindy, and your extended family have a Happy Thanksgiving as well.

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  3. A tragic story. And very perplexing, finding the body in an area that had been searched numerous times before. I hope the answers will be found so that those who care about her can have closure.

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    • Agreed, BK. Thanks. The passage of time must seem excruciating to those who loved her but is inevitable given the methodical investigation necessary in these circumstances.

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  4. Stories without resolutions, deaths without answers. Life is always unfinished. Nothing and no one is permanent. But 2020 has forced those sobering themes on us more than ever.

    Waking up to your posts, Joe, always makes the day a good one, even when it’s also a sad one.

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  5. GONE GIRL with a body at the end. Very sad. The husband is so screwed in public opinion if nothing else.

    Considering the sheer awesomeness of cadaver dogs’ noses and the smallness of the patch of woods, whatever the terrain, I doubt the body was there when they searched. Even human noses would pick that up.

    The loss of someone you love is brutal, but the uncertainty and the sadistic taunting of hope that maybe they aren’t dead is beyond brutal. At least, Emily’s loved ones got some closure.

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    • I agree, Marilynn. Thanks. Re: the husband…I can’t help but think back several years ago to that congressional intern who was found murdered in a park. It was learned that she was having an affair with a Congressman who was then immediately accused of killing her. It was an understandable conclusion but it was terribly wrong. Again, I have my own idea about what happened here but it’s based more on instinct than proof and is accordingly not helpful. I will do an update when events create one.

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  6. Hi Joe,

    A very haunting story which you described so very well, laying out all the elements of this real-life mystery. I have my own theories, which probably are similar to others, but, like you, I’ll refrain from speculation. Mostly, I’m sad at her death, and the passing of so many this very hard year. My family is fortunate, we have no empty chairs at our respective tables, even as, for the first time in decades, we’ll be spending Thanksgiving (and probably Christmas and New Years) apart and checking in via Zoom, FaceTime etc.

    The present is indeed a gift; life, after all, is a (hopefully) long succession of nows. Now is all we have, at any moment, which makes this moment and all the other “this moments” so very precious. Your post today reinforced that even as you artfully spun out the details of this real-life mystery.

    Savor this day and all the days that follow it.

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    • Hi Dale,

      Thank you for your kind comments. We have a couple of empty chairs at our table this year but it is due (in most cases) to the occupants working in essential services. They’ll be missed but fed eventually. We are fortunate at this point in time that we have the ability to virtually visit. While I don’t like the medium myself, it’s been a godsend for many, particularly teenagers who are more sociable and miss the contact with their friends. It’s a wonderful if not perfect alternative.

      Enjoy.

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  7. Heartbreaking for Emily’s poor family. Marilynn’s right about the husband. He’s in for a world of hurt.

    With cases on the rise in NH, we just had “the talk” with our family about the holidays, but at least they’re alive. Wishing you and yours a joyous Thanksgiving, Joe.

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    • Thank you, Sue. You’re right about Matthew, on several levels. He is also no stranger to tragedy. We’ll see what develops.

      So…when you had “the talk” about holidays with your family, what does that mean, exactly? Did you explain how holidays were conceived? -)

      It is said in a different context in Louisiana that you can’t have a holiday without food and knifefight. Very true.

      I hope that you, your husband, et al the wee Colettas have a great Thanksgiving, Sue!

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  8. This is a tragic story. I’m betting some crime writer will take and run with it while of course disguising the true people involved. It sounds like someone may have moved the body by what you described. It’s good they at least found her body so there was some closure. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. —- Suzanne

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    • Suzette, I do anticipate that someone will take at least some elements of this story and run with it. Re: moving the body…Garry talks about that a bit.

      Thanks for stopping by. Happy Thanksgiving, Suzette!

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  9. Interesting and well told story, Joe. I guess I can throw my 2 cents in because I’ve been in that wheelhouse. A couple things come to mind, One is that there’s a misconception about odor coming from a dead body. The only time a cadaver stinks is when it’s gassing off. That’s a short period from the time rigor mortis passes which is about 8-36 hours after death depending on a lot of conditions like temperature, body mass, scene location and on and on… Then, bloating and putrefaction take place in a relationship to tissue composition like a fat-sinew ratio and internal contents like undigested food and unexpended waste. In the warm months, the gassing and significant smell period might be only a few days during which insect activity would vent the body and dissipate the gas.

    I don’t want to write a thesis here, but it’s entirely conceivable that if Emily’s body was significantly concealed from sight and was visually missed in the first search pass before decomp began, then it’s also conceivable that a second pass of 5 days or more would miss it again – if the searchers relied on smell. I can’t really speak much to the dog matter, but a dog is only as good as it’s training to react to decomp smell and the handler’s ability to read the dog. So, I have no problem with the scenario that Emily was in that position all along. It would be entirely evident to any experienced coroner or pathologist if the body had been disturbed or relocated after decomp stated.

    As for determining cause of death, it’s difficult to say much after the tissue is gone. The only main evidence would be skeletal injury or foreign object presence. So, if she was manually strangled or smothered and dragged over to the park, there would be little evidence of foul play other than possibly an unusual hyoid or vertebrae condition.

    Lastly, if I can throw in a 3rd cent, I think the investigative team took a long, hard look at the husband. There are a couple axioms in murder investigations. One is that the stranger the circumstances, the closer the answer is to home. The other is the old Occam’s razor which every murder cop follows – that when faced with two hypotheses, the simpler one is usually the right answer. Thanks for giving us this sad situation to ponder.

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    • Wow. Thanks, Garry. I was hoping that you would chime in. That is extremely interesting information concerning the dead body’s odor. And yes, law enforcement has indicated that Emily’s husband is a subject of investigation.

      Your comments on the body being missed answer one question for me indirectly, that being the mechanics of hiding the body for an extended period and then moving it. The police were on this pretty much from the beginning and searched a number of likely places when Emily was initially reported to be missing. It’s easy enough to guess that she might have been placed in a storage facility but it’s also possible to check to see if a suspect is renting one, as well. Your explanation covers a number of scenarios.

      I’ll definitely circle back on this if there is ever a resolution. Thanks again, Garry.

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    • I’ve had squirrels die in a wall a few times, and the stench keeps on giving for at least a week then clings to the area and objects for easily a month afterwards. I assume that’s from the lack of air circulation.

      Cadaver dogs are now being used successfully at centuries-old archeological sites to find possible burials, and in a history show, three dogs at different times each hit on a tree where a body was supposed to be buried over a hundred years before.

      Heck, I had a golden retriever puppy with absolutely no training smell a Frisbee buried in over a foot of beach sand at least a quarter of a mile away. She ran down the beach with me right behind her, dug it out, and presented it to me to toss.

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  10. Thanks for the reminder, Joe, that today is really all we have. I love the Mark Twain quote: One today is worth two tomorrows.

    My family has no empty chairs this year, so far, please God; but the chairs around the table are missing, thanks to this pesky virus.

    I hope and pray that this woman’s story will have a The End written soon, for her family’s sake.

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  11. What a sad and terrible story. To lose a loved one is awful, but to have the uncertainty of the circumstances must be almost unbearable.

    Thanks for the reminder, Joe, that every day is a gift. Many blessings to you and your family this Thanksgiving.

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  12. Thank you, Kay. Uncertainty is the worst of it.

    Blessings to you and your family as well, this Thanksgiving and for the rest of the year going forward.

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