TAMA, Iowa (AP) — A 23-year-old central Iowa mother who vanished without a trace in 2000 is believed to be a homicide victim, law enforcement officials said Thursday.
A review by a multi-agency task force has concluded that Cora Okonski's "disappearance was not voluntary," the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation said in a statement.
The agency said that it has reclassified Okonski's disappearance as a homicide rather than a missing persons case and that it was under investigation by state and local police and prosecutors. Okonski was the mother to a toddler son and had worked as a waitress in Tama, a town of about 2,800 residents that's 60 miles northeast of Des Moines.
Police have never identified a suspect in her disappearance. But Okonski's ex-boyfriend, Tait Purk, has long faced scrutiny from police and the public since he was with her the night she disappeared.
The two were scheduled to be married one month after she vanished, and they had a volatile relationship that was marked by drug use and fighting. Purk is set to be released from a federal prison in Kansas on unrelated drug and gun charges in April, after roughly 14 years behind bars.
Purk has denied involvement in Okonski's disappearance, telling police that she left their home to walk to the store to buy cigarettes and never returned.
Purk has said he told Okonski he wanted to put off their wedding date earlier that day and that she became upset. He reported her missing to police two days after she was last seen.
Her relatives have long presumed Okonski was dead, because she stopped collecting her Social Security disability payments and cut off contact with them. But her body has never been found.
Investigators have made recent trips to the location where Okonski was last seen, have identified new witnesses and reinterviewed old ones.
"It was put on the shelf and collected dust and then it was opened back up by the DCI's interest in it," said Tama County Sheriff Dennis Kucera, who has assigned a detective to the case. "It's a case of interest and there's been new information that's been discovered."
Kucera and others involved in the investigation declined to elaborate on the new information.
DCI said agents with significant experience in cold cases were leading the investigation, even though it no longer has a dedicated unit to solving old cases. The agency disbanded a three-year-old cold case unit after a federal grant ran out in 2011. That unit relied on DNA testing to help solve two old cases, a 1974 slaying of a woman in a farmhouse and a 1984 triple homicide linked to a killer who was later executed in Missouri.
In March, DCI announced a first-degree murder charge against an Iowa City man in the 1985 slaying of his wife's lover. The suspect, Anthony Burtch, has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.