June Howard could not wait to celebrate her youngest son’s 2nd birthday.

The 26-year-old Kennewick mother had been telling family and friends for weeks that she was getting ready for the special occasion on June 21, 1978. But she never made it to the little boy’s party. June went missing five days before her toddler got to blow out his candles.

June’s husband said she walked to a nearby store for cigarettes one evening and never returned. He filed a missing person report 11 days later.

Police always suspected Steve Howard played a role in her disappearance, but they didn’t have the evidence.

Her body has never been found. Four decades later, prosecutors now say her husband murdered her.

There will be no justice for her three sons and other loved ones — Steve Howard died in 2000.

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But while it’s too late to file murder charges, the finding “would bring closure to the family and an answer for the Kennewick Police Department,” Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller said.

Even though investigators consider the oldest Kennewick missing-person case solved, her name will remain in the National Crime Information Center’s missing-persons database in case her body is ever found.

However, there’s little chance of that. Some connected to the case believe her body was submerged in a large, heated acid tank in Steve’s auto repair shop, ensuring there was no trace of June Howard left to find.

Trouble from the start

June and Steve Howard moved to the Tri-Cities in 1976 with their infant son, Tod. The couple had met in Sulphur, Louisiana, and dated for a short time before marrying in July 1975. June was 24 and on her second marriage, and Steve, 29, was on his third.

Her first two sons were being raised by her first husband in Texas. Steve was a Yakima native with family in Benton County. The young family first lived in a Pasco apartment, then moved into a mobile home in Kennewick.

She was a stay-at-home mom and Steve rented shop space in Kennewick to operate Auto Specialists.

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It didn’t take long for relatives and neighbors to sense that trouble was brewing in the relationship, according to interviews and the investigation by Al Wehner, a special investigator under contract with Kennewick police to take another look at unsolved mysteries.

Steve had been an amateur boxer for eight to 10 years and was known to have a bad temper and penchant for violence. Friends told police they occasionally saw June with red marks and bruises, and knew that she was frightened of him. He once threw a coffee table at a sliding-glass door in anger over something June had done on their son’s 1st birthday.

Threats to ex-husband

Gayle Broussard, June’s first husband, recalls getting a phone call from June’s father in the summer of 1975 to come pick up his two sons because Steve was mistreating them.

That was six days after June and Steve’s wedding and the boys, who were visiting with their mom, already were scared of their new stepdad. Broussard, a cop who had an amicable divorce from June, banned Steve from seeing the boys ever again.

That’s when Steve threatened to “kick his ass” one day if he caught Broussard without his shiny badge and gun.

A few months before June disappeared, Broussard told her he would find her a safe hiding spot in Houston if she needed to get away from her husband. June said she would think about it, and even mentioned the conversation to her mother, but she never asked her ex for help.

June tried once to leave Steve. On Valentine’s Day 1978, she took their son back to Louisiana. One day later, she met with an attorney about separating from her husband.

A petition was filed Feb. 16, 1978, in Calcasieu Parish. However, Kennewick investigators didn’t know the document existed until Wehner, the cold-case investigator, discovered it in 2016 while digging into the couple’s background.

The petition said that Steve, on various occasions, cursed and physically abused her “by pushing her around and hitting her with his fist and threatening to kill her.” She also asked for a temporary restraining order, saying she was afraid for her and their son’s safety.

A hearing was set, but it’s not clear if June showed up. At some point she returned to the Tri-Cities and to Steve.

Walk to the store

Steve told police June left between 8 and 9 p.m. on June 16, 1978, to go to the nearby 7-Eleven for a pack of cigarettes. He said she walked instead of driving her red Malibu.

The next day, Steve called June’s mother in Louisiana and asked if his wife was there. He said she never returned from the store. He then called his brother’s wife, accused her of taking June somewhere and later suggested June may have been hitchhiking.

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Two days later, Steve called his mother-in-law to say that his own mother was going to come to the Tri-Cities to help him and his son move back with her to Louisiana. Co-workers said Steve acted as if it was business as usual and that he didn’t seem too affected by June’s disappearance.

Steve reported June missing to Kennewick police on June 27, 1978. He described his wife as 5-foot-4 with brown eyes, though she was 5-foot-1 and had green eyes.

Reports show he gave different, even conflicting, versions and theories to family, friends and police about what happened and where she might be.

He told some that June packed up all her belongings at left. He told others that she left everything behind, including a favorite dress. He told one neighbor that June thought an employee at 7-Eleven was cute and they were having an affair.

Steve told his own relatives that he hired a private investigator who found June strung out on drugs and prostituting herself in east Pasco. He also claimed his attempts to find her failed.

Cold-case investigation

When Wehner was handed the cold case in 2016, he confirmed that no one had heard from June since 1978.

Broussard described his ex-wife as a momma and daddy’s girl who always ran home to her parents when she had a problem. June left Broussard about four times during their six years of marriage for what he described as child-like tantrums, but he said he always knew where she was.

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“There’s no way she would have disappeared from [Kennewick] without contacting them that she was alive,” he told the Herald. “I told the detectives that from the beginning. I’m absolutely 100 percent convinced of that, she would have reached out to her parents.”

Wehner concluded it was virtually impossible for June to voluntarily remain missing for so long without support from someone. And he wondered why June didn’t reappear after Steve died in 2000 in Kansas.

Broussard knows it is a “one in a million shot,” but still holds out hope that June’s remains will be found or someone alive knows exactly what happened to her.

“She didn’t deserve this. I don’t care who you are, you don’t deserve to die at somebody else’s hands out of madness or getting even,” he added.

Prosecutor cites inconsistencies

Prosecutor Andy Miller outlined his legal decision in a two-page document in June Howard’s investigative file.

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He was most convinced by the evidence of domestic violence in the Howards’ relationship and because there was no evidence she contacted anyone after disappearing. He concluded there was no reason why she wouldn’t have eventually reached out to her parents or her children.

“Finally, his statements to various police officers and his family members after he reported her missing in 1978 lacked credibility, and were inconsistent and often contradicted by other evidence in the case,” Miller wrote.

“Some of that could be attributed to human nature and not always remembering exact details, but, in this case, there were too many and too serious contradictions by Mr. Howard himself,” he said.