The couple left their home on the morning of Saturday, June 28, 1997. They were headed to the Pioneer Days Festival, a festival honoring longtime residents, in nearby Temple, a fifteen mile trip. They stopped at the neighborhood Wal-Mart for coffee, something they often did during the week.
About twelve hours after they initially left home, they were stopped in northern Arkansas near the town of Subiaco by Logan County sheriff's deputy Harold Cole because they were driving with no headlights. Cole radioed Lela's information in, but, unaware that the couple was lost or missing and having no reason to detain them, let them go.
Looking back on the incident, officer Cole later stated that there were warning signs that something might have been wrong. It took several miles of flashing his lights before Lela pulled over, she was fumbling a little when Cole instructed her to turn on her headlights, and though she said she was going to Texas, she was headed the wrong way. However this was not enough to warrant holding them.
"I feel terrible about it. I just wished I'd known more that night to give me a little suspicion. There was just nothing there out of the ordinary... I was impressed by the lady... She was polite. She was kind. She was gentle… I had no probable cause to detain them any longer. And I certainly had no probable cause to think they were wanted," Cole said.
Forty-five minutes later they were stopped again near the town of Plainview by a Yell County sheriff's deputy for driving with their high-beams on. Although by this time the couple had been reported as missing, unfortunately no computer checks were run, and again they were let go. This was the last time they were seen alive.
Several relatives of the Howards spent the July fourth weekend searching for them. They distributed fliers, drove back roads, and questioned law enforcement officials and storekeepers. The Howards' grandson James Stewart offered a $1,000 reward for any information leading to the couple.
Police were flooded with tips about the couple nationwide after a segment was aired on CBS's This Morning, however none of them led anywhere according to officer Wayne Jordan of the Arkansas State Police.
Death and discovery
Exactly two weeks after they disappeared, two teenagers on a hike through the Ouachita Mountains found the Howards' maroon Oldsmobile Delta 88 and the bodies of Lela and Raymond at the bottom of a 25-foot cliff. The highway they were driving on before the crash was known for being a treacherous, curvy road.
Although it was initially reported that Raymond was driving the car, when the full investigation's details were released, they showed that Lela had in fact been behind the wheel. Police estimated that Lela was driving about 50 miles per hour when she ran a stop sign and drove off the road and over the cliff, most likely due to a combination of the dark, winding road and mental fatigue. There were no skid marks, indicating Lela was unaware she had run the sign. The report stated that after the crash, Lela put the car in parking gear and removed the keys. She walked around to the passenger side door which she apparently opened, then walked about 20 feet away from the car before collapsing. Raymond never left the passenger seat. She was 83 years old. He was 88.
Because the disappearance of Lela and Raymond made national headlines, their eventual discovery raised concerns on whether or not the elderly need to undergo driver testing. Texas State Representative Tony Goolsby introduced a bill that would order the Department of Transportation to come up with some way to ensure that drivers 75 years of age and older could "exercise ordinary and reasonable control in the operation of a motor vehicle."
This fueled a national debate on whether or not such a bill would infringe on the rights of senior citizens. The American Association of Retired Persons strongly disapproved of any such legislation stating, "It is discriminatory in all senses of the word."