November 13, 2013 - Tauna Shapovalov was first separated from her older sister, Jean, when they were toddlers in the 1970s.
They would reconnect when they were teens, but only for about a year. About 10 years later, in their mid-20s, the relationship was rekindled, but Tauna would be robbed of her sister forever when Jean was murdered about seven years later.
Jean Lizette Farrias Leppan, 33, disappeared in January 2004. Four months later, her skeletal remains were found in a shallow grave in a desert area 22 miles from the Twentynine Palms Marine base where her ex-husband had been stationed. He was questioned, but never charged in her death— until last month, nearly a decade later. On Oct. 13, two San Bernardino, Calif. detectives and a district attorney, accompanied by a deputy and detective from the Oakland County Sheriff's Office, arrested Charles Patrick Leppan at his residence in the 3800 block of Cherry in the Clarkston Lakes Mobile Home Park in Brandon Township. It is believed he had been living here the past two years.
He was extradited to California and on Oct. 29, Charles Patrick Leppan was charged with one count of murder in the death of Jean Lizette Farrias Leppan, said San Bernardino District Attorney John Thomas. Leppan, who has pleaded not guilty, is being held at West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. on $1 million bail. A pre-preliminary hearing has been set for Jan. 10.
"This is just the beginning of the process," said Thomas. "We still have a long ways to go."
Several family members of Jean contacted The Citizen after reading online the initial story "Brandon man arrested for 2004 California murder" (Oct. 16), including JT, 16, Jean's son from a previous marriage, who wrote, "Thank you for letting the world know what happened, it finally gives us closure to know my (Mom) is finally in a good place. Thank you, I am very grateful."
JT was 6-years-old when his mother was killed.
Tauna, as well as Angelyna, a younger sister, shared their memories of Jean, helping to paint a picture of a troubled woman who moved often in a search of elusive happiness.
Jean, born Jan. 2, 1971 in Texas to John and Mary Farrias, was the oldest of six children. Tauna, now 41, was born next, followed by Erik, now 39; Marionette, 38; Angelyna, 35; and Justina, 33. But Tauna's story would diverge from the rest of the family, when she was adopted by another couple when she was 2-years-old. When Tauna was 15, she sought out her biological family and upon finding them, began regular correspondence.
"We wrote constantly," recalls Tauna, who has held on to the letters all these years. However, after about a year, the letters from Jean stopped, when the eldest child left home at 18, never to return.
"From the time I was 16 until I was 25, I didn't talk to her, I didn't know where she was," said Tauna.
By the time she discovered her sister was in Florida, Tauna had a 3-month-old daughter, Sara, and Jean was married to her first husband, Kevin, and pregnant with James Thomas. After a tearful phone call, Tauna got on a plane to Florida.
"She met me at the airport and I ran up and gave her a big hug," said Tauna. "She had a beautiful home and was pregnant and loving it."
After a weeklong visit, the sisters were corresponding through letters again, as well as phone calls. Kevin and Jean moved to Pungo Va., and the next year, Tauna left a failing marriage and moved to Virginia, too. But soon, Kevin and Jean were having problems.
"She loved her son, but life just wasn't making her happy," Tauna said.
Jean and Kevin divorced in 2000, and the same year, Jean met Patrick Leppan, who was stationed in Virginia with the Marine Corps.
"She never told me about any fights, it was good," said Tauna of her sister's relationship with the man who would later be accused of murdering her. "It was a happy thing. He seemed nice, stable... They lived in Virginia Beach and Kevin was raising JT, she had visitation. Everything seemed OK."
In 2001, when Tauna went back to Virginia for a visit, Jean and Patrick Leppan were married and had a 5-month-old daughter, and the cracks in their marriage were showing. Jean complained to her sister about the fighting, but didn't specify whether it was verbal only or physical. Detectives say domestic violence complaints were filed in Virginia pertaining to the couple.
Tauna maintained correspondence as her sister moved to California with Patrick Leppan when he was stationed at Twentynine Palms with the Marines as a sergeant. On the way from the East Coast to the West Coast, Jean stopped in Texas and arranged to meet with her mother and sisters, including Angelyna, who had been 12 when Jean left home and mostly remembered a big sister who cooked and cared for the younger kids, getting them ready for school as their mother worked the graveyard shift, and teaching Angelyna the Christmas carol, "Walking in a Winter Wonderland."
"She called our Mom and said they were coming through," recalled Angelyna. "She left home around 1990 and I didn't see her from 12 to 23. She brought her daughter and husband, Patrick. We visited awhile and hung out and talked and they seemed fine... In '03, she was calling a little more, she called to wish a Merry Christmas, and then she called in January 2004, after my second daughter was born, and she was like, 'Oh my God, another one,' and she said she couldn't wait for me to meet her kids."
But Angelyna wouldn't get to meet Jean's kids, nor would she ever see her sister alive again. Police say Jean disappeared around Jan. 26, 2004. No one reported her missing, including Charles Patrick Leppan, whom she was living with at the time in Yucca Valley, and who was the last person to see her alive. The couple had divorced in June 2003, but were attempting to reconcile. Two weeks after Jean disappeared, Charles Patrick Leppan remarried.
In May 2004— Tauna said it was perhaps a week or two before homicide detectives called her— Pat called and asked if she had heard from Jean. She hadn't been concerned about not hearing from her sister who she had just figured "was doing her own thing," but suddenly she was worried, and soon she would learn, with good cause.
On May 12, 2004, a man was walking his dog along Ironage Road in a desert area when he discovered a human skull in a shallow grave, just 22 miles east of Twentynine Palms. On May 24, a newspaper article reported the found body and its location in the desert. At this time, four months after his ex-wife disappeared, Charles Leppan told police Jean Leppan was missing. A few days later, on May 27, 2004, dental records confirmed the skeletal remains of the adult female with traumatic injuries were those of Jean Leppan.
In interviews at the time, Leppan proclaimed his innocence and prosecutors at the time declined to file charges. In 2007, Jean's remains were released to her mother from the coroner and a memorial service, with Jean's mother, sisters, and their immediate families, was held in Texas.
The case was reopened this year, using funds from a U.S. Department of Justice grant called "Solving Cold Cases with DNA." Thomas notes these grant funds can only be used on cases "with a strong likelihood of being solved using DNA." Eight months after reopening the case, Thomas was the one who made the determination enough evidence, both old and new, had been gathered to determine Charles Patrick Leppan had committed the murder of Jean Leppan beyond a reasonable doubt.
"I knew one day they'd find the killer, but I never thought it would be him," said Tauna. "This is so unreal to me. I found my sister, and then I lost her again...I think I have accepted it now. She is protecting me and I will believe that til God calls me home."
Tauna used to fear aging, but now, at 41, she embraces getting old, something Jean will never do— a life cut short at 33.
Her family waits to move on, hoping for a murder conviction. Angelyna notes her mother keeps Jean's ashes in an urn, with plans to spread the ashes in a Houston park where Jean played as a little girl, in a time when she was, perhaps, happy.
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville