Part one of a two-part series
Next Monday marks the 10th anniversary of the disappearance of David Reimens, a gifted stone mason, artist and Bohemian soul who made his home in a tree house between Watertown and Shop Springs.
For 1,992 days, his vanishing proved to be the longest missing person case in Wilson County.
On Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018, a human skull was found on a wooded hillside off Taylor Road near Sparta Pike about two and a half miles from Watertown. Three days later, lawmen uncovered a skeleton nearby. Forensics tests on the bones confirmed the remains were Riemens.’
For nearly 10 years, Detective Maj. Robert Stafford with the Wilson County Sheriff’s Department Criminal Investigation’s Division has carried a brick in the back seat of his truck; a brick that one day may unlock the mystery of how Riemens died. Or maybe not.
Riemens, 60 years old when he went missing, stood about 5-feet-8-inches tall and weighed 180 pounds. He had blue eyes, brown hair, a moustache, sideburns and goatee and normally wore a ponytail. He was last seen around 1:30 p.m. Aug. 8, 2012, in the Watertown Dollar General parking lot where he left his white 1997 Ford Ranger pick-up truck.
He abandoned all his personnel possessions including a beloved dog, a packed traveling bag, an array of dazzling and colorful yet enigmatic oil paintings that often featured trains, hobos, dragons, sprites and mythical Indian coyote dancers, and, most precious, he left four siblings (a sister had died in a car wreck in 1995) and a community of caring friends.
The brick in Stafford’s vehicle is one of two that he removed from the back of Riemens’ truck. The second brick, untouched, is preserved in an evidence room. The bricks are believed to have come from a property where the rock layer hoped to begin a new job for a person he was to meet the afternoon he dropped out of sight.
“If I follow up on a lead and bricks are there, I can compare,” said Stafford, who has been involved in every murder investigation in Wilson County over the past 10 years except for two or three. “We’ve solved every one but one because the suspect has passed.”
Case now a death investigation
He noted that in Riemens’ case what had been a missing person investigation case changed to a death investigation once his remains had been found. It is not a homicide investigation because forensics tests on the skull and bones did not show signs of violence.
Stafford keeps the case file, No. 12-15982, which holds more than a thousand pages, close at hand. “I keep it active and on my desk at all times,” said the detective, who estimated he has interviewed 85-100 people while working the investigation.
Asked when he last got a lead, he shared, “Well, as you know, the case is featured on the television show, ‘Disappeared.’ Each time that show airs, we get a flood of calls. As far as good information, the last local and good lead came approximately one year ago.”
(Note: After The Wilson Post ran a six-part series titled “Missing David” in the summer of 2015, the Investigation Discovery Channel contacted the newspaper, and on May 16, 2016, the channel’s missing-person series, “Disappeared,” featured Riemens’ mystery in an episode titled “No Stone Unturned.”)
Of the ongoing investigation, Stafford said, “The most haunting thing about the case would be not being able to this point to provide closure to the family and friends. Equally, to determine what happened leading up to his death.”
Who was David?
Riemens was born Jan. 17, 1952, in Kalamazoo, Mich., and grew up with his five siblings near the community of Plainwell, 12 miles north of Kalamazoo. He and Julie McManus, his high school sweetheart, wed in 1971 and moved to Middle Tennessee in the mid-1970s, settling in DeKalb County where they took up a laidback lifestyle near Dowelltown. After divorcing in 1978, they remained close.
Riemens never remarried. The rock mason lived the life of a bachelor and worked when he wanted. (His crowning achievement in stone, still standing, is known as the “hobbit house.”) He did not carry a cell phone and tried to live off the grid. He bought his clothes at Goodwill and enjoyed kayaking the Caney Fork River and taking friends on expeditions into Indian Grave Point Cave. His favorite foods included grilled tuna sandwiches, pancakes, chocolate malt shakes, cookies and pies.
A generous soul, the artist gave and sold some of his oil paintings to friends and acquaintances in Watertown. In the past several local businesses displayed his work, like Depot Junction Restaurant, Jim’s Antiques and most notably Lulu’s Coffee House, which has closed. He signed some paintings with his initials, DMR (David Martin Riemens), with an oval around the letters. On others he signed off with “Capricorn Travel Company.” He also enjoyed crafting homemade postcards, which he mailed by the thousands over the years to family members and friends.
Just before he vanished, Riemens withdrew $300 from Wilson Bank & Trust on the Watertown square, packed a bag and let friends know that he planned to drive north to visit family. The stone mason had an appointment the afternoon he disappeared to meet an older man, who was going to take him to a rural site to get an estimate for foundation work on a house he planned to build somewhere within a 30-minute drive of Watertown.
Coffee mate recalls final words
Watertown’s Mary Craig was one of the last to see Riemens as she reported that, at around 10:30 a.m. the day he vanished, she was riding to Lebanon and spotted him walking around a pile of rocks at a landfill on Highway 70 about halfway between Watertown and Lebanon.
“David was a good friend who came to my house for coffee several mornings a week or when he could,” recalled Craig. “He had been here that morning for coffee and told us that he was heading out to go to Michigan. My friend, Toni Tatu, and I were driving into town later that morning to go shopping and he was on Highway 70 looking over a dump pile picking through the cement and the brick.”
Tatu, who died two years ago, was the last person on record to have seen Riemens. In 2015, she told the Wilson Post, “I had come out of the Dollar General and was getting into my car. He had parked his truck up in front and was walking toward the store, and he came over and leaned in the window, and we just chatted. He seemed fine. He did not seem upset or to be waiting for someone or anything. I asked, ‘What you doing?’ He said, ‘I gotta go in and spend some money.’ I did see him go into the store.”
Craig strongly believes that Riemens’ demise was not by accident but that “it was deliberate” and says, “I miss him coming in the door and smiling and saying, ‘Hey.’ He was just a good person.”
Local artists enjoyed friendship
Two other pals of Riemens, the husband-and-wife team of Pat Jackson and Donna Delmas, operate Sun Graphics Signs in Watertown. Artists themselves, they own two of their late friend’s paintings. Riemens regularly purchased art supplies in their shop.
Describing their relationship, Jackson said, “We knew him pretty well. We did a number of things together, kayaked, threw darts and drank beer. He very easy to get along with and had a good sense of humor and was comfortable around people.
“The day before he disappeared, he was right here, talking about this guy he was going to do a rock job for. He was trying to tell me who this guy was but couldn’t remember his name. He kept saying, ‘Yeah, you know. He hangs around. You’ve seen him.’ And I said, ‘I just don’t know who that is.’
“That whole thing is kinda strange, that where he was working there was a pile of bricks somewhere on that property, and he kept talking about where it was. It was kind of unclear.”
As for what happened to Riemens, Jackson said, “I am deeply confused simply because he told us he was gonna go to Michigan the next day, yet his truck was found at the Dollar General parking lot. I don’t believe that he would just park his truck there and wander off. The only thing I can come up with is that he went off with somebody else and somehow it was connected to that job he was talking about, but who knows?
“It’s a mystery that probably won’t ever be solved, and he was a great guy, a genuinely wonderful person. He was a master stone mason and a creative guy, a painter. I’m sorry he’s gone.”
Delmas, too, is puzzled and added, “The big question is why he would leave his truck at Dollar General? He had four or five friends within walking distance that could have given him a ride. I think somebody accidentally caused his death or it was malicious.”
Soul mate: ‘I miss David’
While Riemens planned to drive north to visit his family on that fateful day, there was one very special friend he intended to see first. That was Katheylynn Gold, who lives near Lawrence, Mich., in a cabin that Riemens helped her build. She has no doubt that he met a violent death.
“I absolutely think it was foul play because David was on his way to see me. We were going to do some repair work on the outside rock work. The last time I talked to him he said, ‘I’ll see you Wednesday evening,’ and he never showed up, and he was a man of his word. We had a very soul-connected love relationship. I know he would never have just gone away. Why would he have went to the top of the hill? I think somebody took him there. I think somebody out there knows,” she said.
Asked what she missed most about their relationship, Gold said, “His presence in my life for 40 years. If there was ever anything I needed that I couldn’t handle on my own, David was there no matter what the miles in distance. I miss his arms and his strength and his presence of being and just the man that he was. He was such a creative free spirit. I’ve seen him go through all phases of artwork and he just got better and better. He’s the kind of human being this world needs more of, especially at this point in time. Yes, I miss David.”