Stoddard was a civilian employee in Fort Riley. After her retirement in 1973, she purchased two acres just outside of Delavan, living in a ramshackle little house on the property. She was divorced, childless, and, as far as anyone knew, had little communication with her relatives.
She kept very much to herself. She was an intelligent woman who read voraciously--her favorites were Western novels. That was about all anyone in town could say about her.
Oh, and that she loved dogs. Perhaps a bit too well. Along the nearby highway, unwanted dogs were often abandoned to fend for themselves. Stoddard would collect the strays and bring them back to her property. Before very long, she had accumulated up to 500 of them. Unlike most people who hoard large numbers of pets, the dogs were well cared-for--arguably, Stoddard saw to it that they had a higher standard of living than she herself enjoyed. She spent so much money on dog food that she often had little left over to feed herself. She gave the dogs names, and when they occasionally ran off, she would go to the sheriff anxiously asking him to look out for them. Inevitably, she became known around town as “The Dog Lady.”
While the dogs were kept clean and tidy, her little home became filled with refuse, dust, dirt, mud, and dog manure. Stacks of books were piled everywhere. She had no heat, electricity, running water, telephone service, stove, or refrigerator.
Stoddard was indifferent to the squalor, and as she was a quiet, law-abiding sort who caused no trouble, Delavan was content to leave her be. Although she refused to let anyone on her property--she was known to have run off social workers and the county health official with a shotgun--Delavan residents who interacted with her found Stoddard to be a nice, friendly person who was entirely in her right mind. When asked about her eccentric ways, a neighbor named Edward Jones shrugged, “It’s like Howard Hughes. He had his right to his lifestyle. She has a right to her friendship with those dogs.”
Life went on uneventfully. In late December 1984, it was snowing heavily in Delavan. On December 28, a neighbor passing by Stoddard’s property saw the 69-year-old attempting to shovel out her old pickup truck.
It was the last time anyone ever saw Julia Stoddard, alive or dead.
On December 31, her neighbor Jesse Bettles realized that he had not seen or heard anything from her for several days, which concerned him enough to alert the sheriff, Richard Malek. When Malek went to Stoddard’s home, he found an appalling sight: Stoddard’s beloved dogs--she had about 100 at the time--were freezing and slowly starving to death. A number of them were already dead. Some of the surviving dogs could be saved for adoption, but, sadly, most had to be euthanized. There was no trace of Stoddard. Her purse was missing, but the cane she carried with her everywhere was found beside her pickup.
|"Manhattan Mercury," January 8, 1984, via Newspapers.com|
It was initially assumed that while walking to get food or water, she fell and was buried in a snowdrift somewhere. However, days of searching produced no clue as to her whereabouts. Also, it seems unlikely that she would hike anywhere without her cane.
Foul play? The idea that anyone had a motive to murder or kidnap her seemed absurd. Stoddard had no known enemies, and she certainly was no tempting target for robbers. The ongoing lack of clues in her disappearance led to a particularly ghastly theory: what if she died of natural causes, only to be eaten by her famished dogs?
This Grand Guignol notion spawned some colorful newspaper headlines, but it too was soon dismissed. It seemed impossible that the animals could have consumed her so completely that no trace of clothing, bones, or blood remained.
|"Council Grove Republican," January 9, 1984|
The hunt for Stoddard went on. Military helicopters scanned the area. Four-wheel drives and horses were used to hunt for any sign of the missing woman. There was nothing. After days of fruitless searching, the sheriff finally called off the efforts. It was presumed her body was in a snowdrift somewhere, to be found once winter ended.
Spring came. The snows melted. And still no trace of Julia Stoddard.
Such has been the case ever since. In 1992, she was declared legally dead. The following year, her house was demolished so the property could be sold. The sheriff continued to keep the file on her case open, in the hope that new clues in her disappearance might emerge. To date, this wait has been futile.