GROVE, Okla. — Authorities believe the disintegrating and rusted-out remains of a 55-gallon drum at the bottom of a cove at Grand Lake may hold clues to the disappearance of a woman missing since 1998.
Peggy A. Sweeten, 52, was last seen on Jan. 13, 1998.
She and her husband, James Lee Sweeten, a former Arma, Kan., school superintendent, lived in a lakefront home with a boat dock at Four Seasons Resort on Grand Lake, northeast of Grove.
None of Peggy’s personal belongings including her car, clothing, photos or mementos were missing, according to a search warrant filed in 2011.
“We were reviewing the old police reports and investigative reports again and a statement by Patrick Sweeten, Peggy’s son, caught my eye,” said Mark Wall, Delaware and Ottawa County Cold Case detective.
Patrick Sweeten told investigators he learned his mother was missing in March 1998 and had to force his father to file a missing person’s report in June 1998.
James Sweeten told authorities in 1998 his wife left with a man she had met online, the warrant states. The problem was Peggy Sweeten did not use email and never had an email address.
Patrick Sweeten told investigators in 1998 he noticed a 55-gallon drum on his parent’s property was suddenly missing. When he questioned his father, James Sweeten, about the barrel, the elder Sweeten shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t know anything about it, Wall said.
We reached out to James Sweeten for comment, but he did not return our phone calls.
On Wednesday members of the Tulsa Fire Department, Cherokee Nation investigators and Delaware County Sheriff’s deputies used an underwater drone and magnetic locating equipment to search the 15-foot waters that surround the boat dock area of Sweeten’s former residence.
On Friday, divers with the Grand River Dam Authority located a 55-gallon drum upright submerged in sludge. Divers used mesh buckets to extract some of the contents from the drum.
“At this point, we could go as far as we could,” Wall said.
While no visible bones, clothing or remains were recovered, Tulsa Medical Examiner Anthropologist Angela Burg was painstakingly sifting through muck and debris as divers pulled the buckets out of the water.
Wall said they plan to bring underwater equipment to the site to safely remove the drum without losing any of the contents.
Extramarital affair and “Person of Interest”
James Sweeten was listed as “a person of interest” when investigators dug up an old tool shed on the property in 2011.
The 2011 search warrant states James Sweeten was involved in an extramarital affair at the time of Peggy’s disappearance.
Officials said that at the time, James Sweeten refused to submit to a polygraph test and refused a noninvasive search of his property.
The warrant states that James Sweeten “appeared to be deceptive and evasive” during the interview.
James Sweeten filed for divorce on Feb. 9, 1998, three weeks after Peggy’s disappearance. Peggy Sweeten did not appear in court for the proceedings and a divorce was granted on April 6, 1998, court records show.
According to the warrant, the elder Sweeten told his son he filed for divorce because he had gotten a call from his wife saying she wasn’t coming back.
Debra Hammond, the woman James Sweeten was reportedly having an affair with, was granted a divorce on April 1, 1998, according to Coffey County, Kan., court records. Officials said Sweeten and Hammond moved in together in June 1998 and were married in December 1998.
Sweeten moved from the Grove residence shortly after the 2011 search of his property. James and Debra Sweeten are currently living in Weslaco, Texas.
A message left for Debra Sweeten was also not returned.
Agencies involved in the search will meet again next Wednesday. They will formulate a plan to retrieve the 55-gallon drum from the bottom of the cove.
This is a developing story and we will bring you the latest information as soon as it’s available. If you have information about the disappearance of Peggy Sweeten or any of the cold cases in Delaware and Ottawa County, please contact Mark Wall at (918) 253-4531.