By ANNE EASKER
PUNTA GORDA — Ellen Tallabas-Johnson was on the phone with her husband during the evening of Aug. 29, 2010, but he wouldn’t speak to her.
“I kept saying, ‘Where are you? What are you doing? Talk to me,’” she said.
But she only heard the sounds of traffic. Eventually, her husband’s phone died. It was the last contact with him she ever had.
Anthony Johnson was 52 when he went missing from an apartment in Fort Myers Beach. Tallabas-Johnson, who now lives in Punta Gorda, was in Arizona at the time. She had grandchildren visiting, and Johnson had gone to Florida to be somewhere quieter. His brain and body were still recovering from a motorcycle crash months before.
Although he’s been gone for nearly nine years, Tallabas-Johnson recently received her husband’s new medical card from the Veterans Administration. In their eyes, he’s still alive.
According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, there are 1,342 missing person cases in the state of Florida. Charlotte County has six, with dates of last contact ranging from 2018 to 1983. Two of those have been or are being investigated as homicides, though a body has never been found. Sarasota County has nine missing person cases, while Lee has 40 and DeSoto has 6, according to the database.
Without a death certificate, it’s difficult to claim benefits or settle estates for a missing person, but the process is rare and it can be hard to find a lawyer who has ever dealt with a similar situation.
“It’s so exhausting,” Tallabas-Johnson said. “Everyone says, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’”
Will Sunter, an attorney at Farr Law Firm in Punta Gorda, said he’s petitioned for a presumptive death certificate once in his 15-year career. He would imagine many attorneys go their entire careers without ever taking on that sort of case.
The process itself is fairly simple, depending on the case, according to Sunter.
“You do a petition, sort of like a little trial or a story you have to tell the judge,” he said. “You bring in witnesses.”
In the one case he handled, the person had been missing for less than five years, which requires a bit more evidence. After five years, he said, the process is more streamlined.
Florida state statute says: “A person who is absent from the place of his or her last known domicile for a continuous period of 5 years and whose absence is not satisfactorily explained after diligent search and inquiry is presumed to be dead. The person’s death is presumed to have occurred at the end of the period unless there is evidence establishing that death occurred earlier. Evidence showing that the absent person was exposed to a specific peril of death may be a sufficient basis for the court determining at any time after such exposure that he or she died less than 5 years after the date on which his or her absence commenced.”
Petitions must be done in the county the person resided in, unless they were not a resident in the state of Florida at the time they went missing. In that case, the petition can be done in any county in the state.
Tallabas-Johnson said not having her husband officially declared dead is inconvenient in some ways. She stopped receiving his checks from Social Security and the Veterans Administration in 2012, though she still has health insurance through the VA. As a spouse of a deceased disabled veteran, she would likely receive more benefits.
“At the same time, I feel kind of icky about doing that,” she said.
When she fills out forms, she usually checks married — with a question mark. Then she has to explain the story. No one has ever heard anything like it.
Johnson was her third husband. She had one divorce, and her second husband died when a drunk driver crashed into him in 1998. She met Johnson through Yahoo personal ads in October 2000.
“I pulled into Starbucks and there’s this 6’4’’ tattooed biker,” she said. “And I go oh hell no. Why me?”
But she went ahead with the date, despite her misgivings, and there was an instant connection. He was intelligent and cultured, she said. They talked and talked and drove into the mountaintops in Albuquerque, then went to watch a friend of his play music at a coffee shop. They were married on Fort Myers Beach on June 22, 2002.
Johnson suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the four years he spent in the Navy in the 1970s, and there were complications getting his benefits from the government for the time he served. When he finally was awarded $91,000 in 2009, one of the first things he did was buy a motorcycle. He got it customized, and on the way home, a driver turned left in front of him, totaling the bike and his body, his wife said.
After that, he was never quite the same.
“His neuropsychologist told me it was going to be a long, long time before he was normal,” she said. “You could carry on a conversation with him, but you could tell he was a little off.”
He could be mean while she cared for him, though she later learned he often didn’t know who she was. When he went to Florida without her, she thought it would be a time for him to rest and recover. Her brother and other friends lived nearby and would check on him.
The day he went missing, she said they had a good conversation in the morning, but later on, her brother told her something seemed wrong. When she called, she could get nothing out of him.
Johnson left behind his vehicle, medication, cigarettes, and lighter — the things that were most important to him, Tallabas-Johnson said. The only things he took were himself and his cane.
Initially, investigators wouldn’t talk to her because she was calling from out of state, she said. They took a missing person’s report from her brother, with details she later had to correct about Johnson’s height and his tattoos.
“Over time I said this isn’t even going to matter, because if he’s dead somewhere, it’s Florida,” she said. “You’re not even going to see tattoos.”
Law enforcement eventually called off the search and said they had done everything they could. Briefly after Hurricane Irma, she thought the case might finally be put to rest when some bones — including a titanium right leg — washed up onshore.
“But it wasn’t him.”
Every morning, she said, she praises God for the day and the beauty he’s surrounded her with. Then she says how much she misses her husband. She looks down the street and wants him to be walking down it, toward home.
“In my brain, I know he’s never coming home,” she said. “In my heart, I know he’s never coming home. But in my soul, I want him to come home.”