Into the Night: The Toni Lee Sharpless Disappearance

Into the Night: The Toni Lee Sharpless Disappearance

Image for postToni Lee Sharpless

Toni Lee Sharpless was a daughter, a sister, a friend, and a mom. After years of personal struggle, things appeared to be improving for the 29-year-old Downingtown, Pennsylvania, woman. But after a tumultuous night of partying, Toni drove off into the darkness and was never seen again.

Did the young nurse leave her old life behind? Did she commit suicide? Was she involved in an accident? Was she abducted? More than 10 years after her disappearance, what happened that night is still a mystery, and no one knows if Toni Lee Sharpless is alive or dead.

Image for postToni Lee Sharpless

Toni the Warrior

Life hadn?t always been easy for Toni. Her father died when she was just six, but she had the love and support of her stepfather, Peter Knebel, who had been married to Toni?s mom, Donna, for 21 years.

Image for postDonna and Peter Knebel ? Source: Lancaster Online

Toni suffered from bipolar disorder, a condition that causes rapid mood swings. A person with bipolar disorder can be euphoric one day and suicidal the next. In severe cases, a person?s mood can change in just minutes. However, Toni had been diligent about taking her medication and successfully managed her illness for a lengthy period, including through nursing school.

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In the past, Toni struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. People with untreated or poorly treated bipolar disorder often turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. In 2008, Toni was arrested and convicted of driving while intoxicated, and in 2009 she spent a month in rehab. But those days appeared to be behind her, and Toni had found a combination of medications that successfully treated her illness.

The light of Toni Lee Sharpless?s life was her 12-year-old daughter. Life as a single mom was tough, but Toni wanted to make sure her little girl had all the love and support in the world. This was no doubt Toni?s primary motivation for getting clean and staying healthy. It was also her motivation for bettering herself professionally.

While living with her parents and daughter in West Brandywine Township, Toni got a job as a nursing assistant at a rehabilitation center, which allowed her to save money to pursue a degree in nursing. In 2007, she achieved her goal and soon took a job at Lancaster General Hospital in Lancaster, Pa., in the infectious disease ward.

Image for postToni Lee Sharpless

No matter what life threw at Toni Lee Sharpless, she never gave up. She always fought her way back, proving that mental illness and substance abuse can be overcome and don?t have to define a person.

Toni Lee Sharpless was a warrior.

A Night out Bumps Toni off the Wagon?

On August 22, 2009, Toni Lee Sharpless was looking forward to a night out and, boy, did she deserve it.

She had plans to meet up with an old friend named Crystal Johns, which concerned Toni?s family because the two women had had a falling out a decade earlier. The Knebels considered Crystal a poor influence on Toni. But on that night, the two planned to go out on the town in nearby Philadelphia.

Image for postCrystal Johns ? Source: IMDB.com

Toni wasn?t the type to frequent clubs or even visit the Philadelphia area, but according to her family, Crystal talked Toni into it.

Under normal circumstances, there would have been no reason for concern. But going out and partying surely meant drinking, and it?s dangerous to mix alcohol with bipolar disorder medication. It?s dangerous to mix alcohol with bipolar disorder, period. Toni sometimes stopped taking her medication but as far as Donna knew, she hadn?t done so in a long time. Just the morning before, Toni phoned Donna at work to ask her to check her pill bottles and call in any prescriptions she was running out of.

The planned night out was cause for concern for another reason, as well. At the time of her disappearance, Toni had been awake for about 36 hours. She was already running on fumes when she left with Crystal. She was also without her medication, though it?s not believed that she deliberately skipped them. Like missing medication, sleep deprivation is very dangerous for someone with bipolar disorder, as it can bring on a manic episode. Combined with alcohol, it can lead to serious psychiatric problems. However, Donna Knebel says that her daughter was not manic when she walked out the door that night.

Toni and Crystal were headed to Crystal?s house in West Fallowfield Township, Chester County, at 9:30 p.m. that night, to finish getting dressed for their big night out. The two friends hit two nightclubs ? first, Ice, in King of Prussia, then, the G Lounge, in Philadelphia.

Toni?s daughter had trouble sleeping in the middle of the night, so she texted her mom, who texted back around 3 a.m.:

?I hope you can get some sleep. See you soon. Love ya, babe.?

Image for postToni Lee Sharpless with her daughter ? Source: TAPinto.net

At that point, both women left G Lounge and headed to a house party at the home of Philadelphia 76ers player Willie Green in Gladwyne.

While at the party, Toni became enraged. She reportedly believed the other partygoers were making fun of her, and she began acting erratically. Around 5 a.m., Toni and Crystal, who were heavily intoxicated by this point, were both asked to leave the home, which upset Toni even further.

Image for postPhiladelphia 76ers player Willie Green ? Source: Inquirer

Crystal realized that she was the soberer of the two and tried to grab Toni?s car keys, but Toni grabbed them back. As the friends left the house, a man from the party followed them outside and joked that Toni should be careful about not hitting any of the other cars. But Toni, who was now in a very fragile and manic state, didn?t see the humor in it and thought he was taunting her.

Toni and Crystal got in Toni?s car, drove approximately 500 feet, and then Toni slammed on the brakes and ordered Crystal out of the car. Crystal did as Toni demanded and got out of the 2002 black Pontiac Grand Prix fully expecting her friend to come back for her, but she never did. She tried to call Toni, but it went straight to voicemail.

Image for postToni Lee Sharpless? black Pontiac Grand Prix ? Source: New York Daily News

Crystal was left standing along a dark road, frightened. She was too embarrassed to go back to Willie Green?s house, so she called her nephew to pick her up.

She was furious! Who just kicks someone out of their car in a strange area in the dark and doesn?t come back? But it wouldn?t be long until her anger turned to confusion and sadness, because you see, when she watched Toni?s tail lights pull away in the wee morning hours, she had no idea it would be the last time she ever saw her friend.

And while Crystal?s behavior, and the behavior of the partygoers at Willie Green?s house, may sound callous and uncaring, none of them knew that Toni had bipolar disorder or that she was taking heavy-duty medication for it. It wasn?t information she shared with her friends. So, when Toni began acting erratically, no one understood why and chalked it up to too much alcohol.

Questions & Doubts

If you?ve ever wondered if it?s possible for someone to just disappear off the face of the earth, look no further than the Toni Lee Sharpless case. When she drove off into the dark in the wee morning hours of August 23, 2009, it?s as if she drove off the planet.

That?s why Donna and Peter Knebel have more than a few questions and doubts about what happened in the hours leading up to Toni?s disappearance.

A private investigator hired by the Knebels, Eileen Law, believes Crystal Johns is telling the truth about what happened the night Toni Lee Sharpless disappeared, but the Knebels aren?t so sure. They had concerns the moment the two women left for the night.

Image for postPrivate Investigator Eileen Law ? Source: Lancaster Online

The Knebels have always believed that Crystal knows more than she is telling them. Even if she is telling the truth, she could have made more of an effort to keep Toni from driving, and she could have called the police to report that she was driving drunk.

On the morning of the 23rd, Crystal called Toni?s sister, Candy, to complain that Toni had left her behind. She said she would drop off the items that Toni had left at her house. Upon hearing that her friend never made it home, Crystal called the police, and Candy went to the West Brandywine Police Department to file a missing persons report.

Image for postCandy Sharpless (L) ? Source: Main Line Times

But some of Toni?s other friends don?t believe Toni would have left someone on a dark street in Philadelphia, even if she was inebriated and in a bad mental state. And they question whether Crystal would have agreed to get out of the car so quickly.

Crystal has a criminal record that made the Knebels nervous, too. In 2005, she pleaded guilty to two counts of harassment.

Peter Knebel said:

?I think?something went wrong at the house.?

Sightings & Theories

Lost in New Jersey

If something didn?t happen to Toni at Willie Green?s house or in the car with Crystal, then Donna Knebel thinks there?s a possibility her daughter simply got lost.

Toni would have had to take the Schuykill Expressway to get home, but the closest access to the expressway only has an eastbound ramp. Donna believes her daughter got on the Schuykill and wound up in Camden, NJ, where she either met foul play or had an accident.

Image for postA particularly run-down section of Camden, New Jersey

There is some evidence to back up the Camden theory. A month after Toni disappeared, a camera mounted on a police car in Camden recorded a passing vehicle with Toni?s license plate number, but authorities couldn?t determine what state the plate was from. A search of the area failed to recover Toni?s vehicle.

Eileen Law received an unsigned, one-page letter postmarked in Trenton, NJ, claiming that a friend had offered the letter writer $5,000 to move a black Pontiac Grand Prix from Brooklawn, NJ, to Boston, MA, in September 2009. The writer went on to say that the friend, a cop in Camden, stated that he ?got into a fight with a girl, she died and he needed to get the car out of Jersey.?

The letter writer said his cop friend also offered him the car?s license plates and a Social Security card, which someone could use to assume someone else?s identity. The letter writer provided the last five numbers of the vehicle?s VIN from Sharpless? car, her cellphone number, and her license plate number.

The writer, who included a few misspellings in the letter, added:

?What happened to Tony, I don?t really know all I know is that she had a run in with the police and I was paid much needed cash to get the car to a shop in Boston.?

Eileen says she found no link between Toni and a cop in Camden.

Investigators believe the letter was a cruel hoax, as they were able to debunk two telephone tips that they received from the same individual within the same week that Eileen received the letter.

Here is the full text of the letter sent to Eileen Law, verbatim:

?Dear Eileen law,

The police in Pa do not have a tip line. I tried calling the philly police where I live but they said it was not in their jurisdiction. One of the detectives pulled me aside and gave me your name and address. In the last few days of Sept. 2009 a friend in Camden called me and offered me money to move a car from Brooklawn NJ to Boston Mass. He told me he would pay me $5,000 dollars cash plus I could have the plates. He asked if I new anyone 27 or 29 that wanted to paper trip so he gave me a social security card. I drove the car a black 4 dr. Pontiac Grand Prix and drove to a auto body shop outside of Boston Mass. I took off the plates and with a black magic marker wrote down the last five digits of the VIN number and cleared out the glove box. I came back to Camden a day later and he told me that the car was not stolen but missing. He said a friend of his a cop in Camden got into a fight with a girl, she died and he needed to get the car out of Jersey. About a month ago my daughter was playing in the garage and found the box with the plates & S.S. card I had forgotten all about it. The plates are DND7772 the S.S. card.(Sharpless? cell phone number was written here) and the last 5 digits of the VIN are (the last five numbers of Sharpless? vehicle?s identification number was written here). Because of hurricane Sandy I had to visit Jersey to help friends clean up. I decided to drop you this letter. What happened to Tony I don?t really know all I know is that she had a run in with the police and I was paid much needed cash to get the car to a shop in Boston.?

It?s important to note that the VIN is included in law enforcement reports, so it wouldn?t have been difficult for someone to access it. However, it?s less clear how the letter writer knew the cellphone numbers.

The Phony Phone Calls

Image for postToni Lee Sharpless

The first phone call came from a man who said he was with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in Toronto. The service is the Canadian version of the CIA.

The man said that agents had found Toni?s car parked on their lot and that agents had found someone matching Toni?s description. But when investigators looked into the address and phone number provided by the caller, they discovered that they were false. Additionally, when investigators contacted the Toronto Police Department, they were told that there was no record of a woman matching Toni?s description being detained or found there.

West Brandywine Police Chief Walt Werner remarked:

?They said it looks like a false complaint. I was pretty excited. I thought we had something going on. The guy had all the right answers. He was talking the police lingo, and he knew what to say.?

Just days later, an officer in West Brandywine?s radio room received a call from someone claiming to be from a sheriff?s deputy in South Dakota. The caller stated that officers had recovered Toni?s car there.

The caller promised to fax information but never did. Officers from the sheriff?s department said they knew nothing of the caller or the car. The man turned out to be the same person who claimed that Toni was in Toronto.

Chief Werner said:

?We did get a copy of the recording. It was the exact same guy I talked to (in the call from Toronto). He had an interesting voice, just the way he sounded.?

Is this guy just a wacko, or does he actually know something about what happened to Toni and he?s just trying to send the police on a wild goose chase?

Around the same time, Eileen and Chief Werner both received a tip from a woman who allegedly saw Toni in a Reading, PA, discount grocery store. However, when investigators looked at the store?s surveillance tape, they didn?t spot Toni.

An Accident

It would not have been difficult for Toni to have been involved in a car crash in her vulnerable state, and some speculated she may have mistaken a nearby boat ramp for a road and drove her car into the Schuykill River.

Image for postSearchers hunt for Toni Lee Sharpless? car ? Source: Main Line Times

A thorough search of the river discovered 12 vehicles in the water, all of them stolen, but none of them belonging to Toni.

If Toni veered off the road and didn?t go in the water, her car would have been found quickly, as the boat ramp is in a very populated area.

Lt. Frank Higgins of the Township of Lower Merion Police Department explained:

? There are very few areas where you cannot find a guardrail or somebody?s front lawn. It?s a difficult case. We?re at the mercy of waiting for new news from another agency or someone else.?

There were a couple of ?hits? on Sharpless? car tags in Camden, which may have come from traffic cameras.

If you?ve never been to Camden, consider yourself lucky. It is Crime Central. Some theorize Toni went there to buy drugs, but those who know her well highly doubt she would have done that. Others theorize she ended up there accidentally and was murdered or sold into human trafficking.

Unfortunately, New Jersey is one of the top 10 states in the country for human trafficking.

Image for postSource: Coalition Against Human Trafficking

In 2012, Eileen Law said:

?I do not know factually that is what happened to Toni, but the more I talk to people ? everything plays into [that theory].?

She added that a then-recent sighting of Toni in the Midwest was ?very credible.?

However, there has been no evidence to point in that direction, only tips.

Image for postDonna Knebel ? Source: MainLine Today

It has been more than 10 years since Toni Lee Sharpless drove off into the warm summer night and vanished without a trace. Her daughter, now an adult, was forced to grow up without her mother to guide her through her teen years. She wasn?t there to help her pick out a prom gown or to see her graduate from high school.

Donna and Peter Knebel are getting older, too. They want to know what happened to their daughter before they pass on.

As is always the case, someone out there knows something. Will they do the human thing and end the suffering for Toni?s family?

Only time will tell.

Image for postSource: MainLine Today

Sources:

  • Lancaster Online
  • Daily Times
  • Lancaster Online
  • New York Daily News
  • Geoffrey G. Nathan Law Offices
  • Lancaster Online
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