Twenty years later, the secret remains locked away in a killer's mind.

The motive for his silence is as mysterious as the final fate of three young Johnson County women unfortunate enough to cross paths with Richard Grissom Jr. that June two decades ago.

The shockingly random crimes targeted young women with no known connections to their killer. New victims vanished even as police scrambled to hunt down Grissom. A pall of fear blanketed the city for nearly three weeks — until authorities cornered Grissom at a Dallas airport after he attempted to coax another young woman to meet him there.

In his wake he left a trail of evidence that linked him to the missing women. But his criminal carelessness did not extend to their bodies.

No trace of Joan Butler, Christine Rusch and Theresa Brown has been found. Grissom never has revealed how he chose them, how he killed them or what he did with them.

For the women's families, the silence is a final and ongoing act of evil.

"He's arrogant," said Jim Brown, Theresa's brother. "In his little pea brain he still thinks someday he's going to use this bargaining chip to benefit himself."

For the law-enforcement authorities who put Grissom in prison for the rest of his life, that success is tempered by one lingering, haunting question: Where are the women?

"His only claim to fame is that people are still interested in what happened to them," said former FBI special agent Mike Napier. "He's hiding behind them. He's a real coward."

———

Joan Butler was 24 and ambitious. Following her father's career path, she graduated from the University of Kansas with a red more than an apartment. They were born on the same day.

Brown, a cheerleader and prom queen at Camdenton, Mo., High School, worked as a dental assistant and planned to become a dental hygienist.

Rusch, a Shawnee Mission South High School graduate, worked in retail marketing at the North Kansas City optics company owned by her father.

On the morning of June 26, she called in sick for both herself and Brown.

No friend, relative or co-worker ever spoke to either woman again.

With two more families reporting missing women, law enforcement officials geared up what was to be one of the most extensive criminal investigations in Johnson County's history.

Grissom, 28, was handsome and athletically built and dated numerous women. He owned a small painting and maintenance company that contracted with large apartment complexes around the area. The job gave him key access to hundreds of apartments.

He was also a career criminal on parole for burglary and theft. At age 16, he had killed a Lansing, Kan., woman. He had connections to a Wichita woman found dead in her apartment about two weeks before Butler disappeared. Someone had viciously mutilated the body of 25-year-old Terri Maness.

Dozens of officers on both sides of the state joined the investigation.

A day after the roommates vanished, authorities found Grissom's car abandoned at a Grandview apartment complex. Identification cards belonging to Rusch and Brown were inside, along with keys to the women's apartments.

Acting on tips from the public, police searched areas of southern Johnson County, around and in Longview Lakee Grissom may have been familiar.

As the search continued, prosecutors began preparing for Johnson County's first murder trial without a victim's body.

The fall 1990 trial proved to be one of the biggest and most complex in Kansas history. Officials summoned a jury pool of 600 because of the massive pretrial publicity. They also sequestered the jury, the first time that had been done in Johnson County.

Prosecutors called about 100 witnesses. The plethora of circumstantial evidence coupled with the things Grissom said during his interrogation convinced jurors he was guilty of three counts of first-degree murder and associated crimes.

Under the maximum, consecutive sentences imposed by the judge, Grissom will not be eligible for parole until 2093.

He did not respond to written requests for comment for this story.

———

Ralph Butler doubts his daughter's remains will be found, even if Grissom talks. Too much time has passed, he figures.

And even if she is found, he doesn't want to know how she died.

"I don't want any gruesome details," he said.

To this day, Bobby Brown pays close attention whenever she hears news about a body or other human remains being found. Like Ralph Butler, she doesn't think her daughter will be located, though she hopes it will happen.

"I'd like to have someplace to lay flowers on Memorial Day," she said.

David Rusch doesn't think Grissom will reveal his secrets unless he can benefit from it. And even if Grissom talks, Rusch doubts he could be believed.

"Just another piped-up jail story," Rusch said.

After the trial, Joan Butler's co-workers and families held a memorial service. Ralph Butler remembers that the sermon's theme was forgiveness. He didn't have it in him then and he doesn't now.

Bobby Brown said she simply had no feelings toward Grissom.

"I can't hate anybody," she said. "But forgive? That's hard to do."

The friendships forged in the shared tragedies have endured. They remain in touch, and the Brown and Rusch families gather annually to commemorate their daughters' shared birthday.

But with time, their circle has gotten smaller. Theresa's father, Harold Brown, died three years ago. Judy Rusch, Christine's mother, died earlier this year.

The families have honored their daughters' memories in different ways. The Butlers fund a scholarship at Joan's alma mater, the University of Kansas. The Browns do the same through Theresa's high school. And the Ruschs have contributed money to Safehome and the Ronald McDonald house in Christine's name.

As much as they would like to have the case's final question answered, none of the family members or police officers involved thinks Grissom should receive consideration for providing it.

Napier said Grissom just doesn't have it in him to empathize with others.

"If he had a typewriter, the letter 'I' would be worn off," Napier said.