EXCLUSIVE: Sister-in-law of Howard Hawk Willis opens up about missing sister

(WJHL) – It’s a mystery few people know about, the disappearance of Nancy Debra Willis, a woman born and raised in Scott County, Virginia.

You might not recognize her name, or remember her story, but you most likely remember the case of her former husband, Howard Hawk Willis. He was convicted and sentenced to death for the gruesome, double murder of two teenagers.

But while his fate is sealed, questions still linger about his wife, who hasn’t been heard from or seen in nearly 30 years.

All these years later, News Channel 11 found out Nancy Debra Willis’ family is still demanding answers. But those answers are hard to come by. The family has spent decades trying to get those.

Investigators in Bradley County, Tennessee, said while there has been no sign of the missing woman for decades, this case still open and active.

By her early 20’s, Debbie Winegar was already a divorcee and mother of two. Just a year after her divorce, she found a new love interest.

Nancy Debra Willis' family reported her missing in March of 1987 to investigators at the Bradley Co. Sheriff's Office.
Nancy Debra Willis’ family reported her missing in March of 1987. (Photo courtesy: Gertrude Lark)


“They must of, at some point, got attracted to each other, not knowing everything truly about this man,” said Debbie’s nephew, Allen Lark.

His name? Howard Hawk Willis.

“He don’t look like he’s too much,” said Debbie’s sister, Gertrude Lark. “He looks like he’s a pretty rough character. I never did really like him,” she said.

Howard Hawk Willis and Debbie married each other in 1985, in Greene County, Tenn.
Howard Hawk Willis and Debbie married each other in 1985, in Greene County, Tenn. (Photo courtesy: Gertrude Lark)

By August of 1985, Debbie and Howard were married.

“You had to do your talking to Howard,” Gertrude said.

December of 1986, Gertrude said Debbie, Howard and her two kids visited Gate City. But before anyone could open the presents, Gertrude said the family headed home to Ringgold, Georgia.

Lauren Haviland asked Gertrude, “did you hear from her again?  She said, “no. Still ain’t hear nothing from her.”

The family filed a missing person’s report in two states.

“Nobody did anything, so the search effort didn’t amount to much,” said Allen.

Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into years. Allen said, “it’s gone so cold, it’s frozen.”

The ’90’s go by with no word from Debbie or Howard.

But in 2002, the name Howard Hawk Willis became well known across the Tri-Cities.

“It was a relief.  He needed to be off the streets,” Allen told News Channel 11.

Howard was accused of murdering two teenagers and putting their bodies in a storage unit in Johnson City.

Howard Hawk Willis was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 2012.

After several attempts at a trial, Howard got his day in court, a decade later.

District Attorney Tony Clark said prosecutors couldn’t mention that Debbie was missing during the trial. Despite that, Howard was convicted and sentenced to death.

Gertrude said, “and I ran outside, and I threw my hands in the air, thanking the good Lord.”

But while Howard sits in prison, the question still remains, where is Debbie?

“I just believe that there’s some more people out there, and they know more than we have heard. All I am asking is to please contact somebody,” Gertrude pleaded.

Nancy Debra Willis’ family needs answers. If you have any information on her disappearance of you’re asked to call the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigations Division at 423-728-7336.

Copyright 2015 WJHL. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s