Every day, Cheshire County Sheriff’s Deputy Earl D. Nelson looks at the pictures of the mother and daughter on his office wall. He wonders what happened to the faces in the frames.

It’s been 12 years since Tina and Bethany Sinclair vanished without a trace in West Chesterfield. Nelson, who was Chesterfield’s police chief at the time, is one of many who investigated the case. They, like family members, still hope for a resolution one day.

Although most believe Tina, 34, and Bethany, 15, were murdered, no one has ever been charged in their disappearance.

For authorities, the investigation has become a matter not of what they know, but what they can prove.

“The thing that really comes to mind when I look at their picture is, ‘Where are you? What happened?’ “ Nelson said. “It just keeps coming back. It’s right over my phone, so whenever I make a phone call, it’s right there. Is there frustration? Yes, there is.”

Despite the dozen years that have passed, the case remains an active investigation, with the N.H. Attorney General’s Office and the N.H. State Police Cold Case Unit leading the effort. But officials there say new information in the case is scant.

“It’s a type of case where there are periods of activity and periods of dormancy, and that’s what typically happens in cases like this,” said Jeffery A. Strelzin, a senior assistant attorney general and chief of the homicide unit.

N.H. State Police Sgt. Joseph T. DiRusso also continues to investigate.

“There was some recent stuff over the summer, so people still think about it and still talk about it,” he said. DiRusso wouldn’t say whether any of those recent leads pushed the investigation forward, or what they were, but did say the case is listed as “one of our more serious investigations.”

Phone messages left for investigators at the Cold Case Unit were not returned.

Documents on the probe into the pair’s disappearance have been sealed by authorities since 2001, and more than a decade later, authorities remain mum on any details, citing an ongoing investigation.

The good times

Tina Sinclair grew up in the Brattleboro area with two sisters and a brother.

“Tina and I went everywhere together,” said Sharon Garry, one of Sinclair’s sisters, who now lives in North Carolina.

The pair made friends easily, Garry said. “We’d go out dancing and we’d laugh and meet people and just have a good time,” she said.

Sinclair graduated from the Keene Beauty Academy and was pursuing her hairdressing license, but also dreamed of becoming a nurse, Garry said.

“She really had a great heart,” Garry said. “She did hospice care, and she was a good mom. She’d do all the girls’ hair on Christmas and Easter. I didn’t cut my hair until two years ago, and I sat there crying because Tina had been the last person to cut my hair.”

Bethany was a shy, quiet teenager, Garry said.

“She loved to read,” she said. “She collected teddy bears an Beanie Babies. Her and my daughter were like best friends. She loved music. Her favorite song was ‘Just A Girl’ by No Doubt. She started collecting Grateful Dead bears, and I think she was sort of following in my daughter’s footsteps, because my daughter was a bit of a hippie.”

Mary E. Lewis of Brattleboro, Sinclair and Garry’s mother, said Bethany and her mother “were wonderful kids, both of them.

“We were close,” she said of Sinclair. “She was a good mother. There wasn’t much she couldn’t do.”

Sinclair would often stop by Mary’s house for coffee, and continued visiting her mother even when Mary moved to Massachusetts.

“As far as Bethany, I just loved her to pieces; she was a good kid,” she said. “There wasn’t a time I didn’t enjoy having them around.”

A volatile relationship

In the three years leading up to their disappearance, Tina and Bethany Sinclair were living at the Mountain Road home of Tina Sinclair’s boyfriend, Eugene V. Bowman Jr., now 54 and still living in Chesterfield.

Chesterfield Police Chief Lester C. Fairbanks, who was then a lieutenant and the department’s lead investigator in the case, said he responded to several calls at the home for domestic incidents before the pair’s disappearance.

“They had a volatile relationship, from both ends, quite frankly,” he said of Bowman and Sinclair. “I’d been there before when Tina had packed up and moved out.”

Neither Sinclair nor Bowman were ever arrested in connection with those incidents. Court records indicate that Bowman accused Sinclair of domestic abuse in July 2000, but the allegation was dismissed.

Garry believes Sinclair and Bethany’s lives went downhill when Bowman came into the picture.

“She had just moved back to Brattleboro from Florida, and she and Bethany were staying with me until they found a place of their own,” she said. “She met Bowman, and it had literally been maybe a month before she moved out of my place and in with him.”

In the beginning, Sinclair thought she’d finally found a nice guy who would treat her right, Garry said.

“He treated her good at first,” she said. “But then he got very controlling, and it just got uglier and uglier.”

Garry said things came to a head when Sinclair discovered Bowman was being prosecuted for sexual assaults against minors. Garry, who had since moved to Connecticut, wanted her sister and Bethany to come live with her, but Sinclair declined.

“She said, ‘I’ve got a plan; I’ve got everything worked out,’ ” Garry said. “I believe that when she found out about the charges, she said it was over. It obviously didn’t turn out in her favor.”

In May 2001, nearly four months after Sinclair and Bethany went missing, Bowman was convicted on three counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault. In those incidents, which occurred years earlier, Bowman engaged in sexual contact with the victims, whom he knew. He served two years in prison before he was released on parole in October 2003. He’s required to register as a sex offender with the Chesterfield Police Department four times a year.

On Saturday, Feb. 3, 2001, Sinclair and Bowman allegedly had an argument that caused Bowman to leave the house. Sinclair brought Bethany to the movies for the teen’s date with her boyfriend, and later picked Bethany up and brought her back home. Police know Bethany spoke to her boyfriend on the phone that night until just after midnight, but that was the last time anyone ever heard from Sinclair or Bethany.

Bowman told police he returned home after several hours at Sinclair’s stepfather’s house, but Sinclair and Bethany were gone. Sinclair’s white Dodge Neon was still in the driveway, and most of their personal belongings were still in the home.

That Monday, an unidentified woman called Bethany’s school and left a message saying Bethany was sick and would not be in school that day. When Bethany didn’t show up for school in the days that followed, school officials began to worry and called police. When police questioned Bowman, he told them he hadn’t reported them missing because it wasn’t unusual for them to take off for days at a time.

Police identified Bowman as a “person of interest,” but he said he knew nothing about what might have happened to them, and he’s never been named as a suspect in the investigation. Police have never identified anyone else as a person of interest or as a suspect.

The investigation begins

Chesterfield police began investigating by the end of that first week.

“Obviously, when you start something like that, you have the whole 360-degree range of possibilities of what happened to them,” Fairbanks said. “Did they take off for a couple days, or was it something more sinister? It quickly outstrips the resources of a small department like ours.”

Despite limited resources and few leads, Fairbanks committed himself to the investigation.

“The first several weeks was no days off, no vacations,” he said. “You’re just trying to piece together the unknown picture. As time goes on, your concern grows for the sinister side of it, and that the darker possibilities may in fact be true.”

Nelson, who knew Sinclair and Bethany only well enough to say “hello” whenever he bumped into them around town, said the investigation reached a point “when there wasn’t much more we could do.”

Police obtained multiple search warrants for Bowman’s property, but the details of those searches have remained sealed, along with the rest of the official investigation files.

Russell B. Lamson was the State Police’s lead investigator on the case.

“When we got involved, there was a high suspicion that foul play was involved,” said Lamson, now retired and working as a part-time police officer in the town of Goshen. “That opinion wasn’t just mine; it was the opinion of the State Police.”

Garry, with the help of investigators, organized several searches over the years, as police and volunteers worked side by side looking for any sign of Sinclair and Bethany. They searched the Bowman property, the Connecticut River, Pisgah State Park, and other locations using helicopters, divers and cadaver dogs. No solid evidence was ever uncovered. The Bowman property was since sold to another owner, who demolished the house.

Lamson would work on the case off and on for the next decade. The unanswered questions still haunt him today, and he said he thinks about the mother and daughter “all the time.”

“It’s something that will never leave my mind,” he said. “All members of law enforcement will tell you they have that case that just stays with them, and that’s one for me. You can’t help but to get emotionally involved in cases like this. We’re human beings.”

Garry eventually hired Gil Alba, a private investigator who’d previously worked on several prominent missing persons cases.

“Did they take off? Did they commit suicide? Those are the first things I look at,” Alba said in a recent interview. “After talking to everybody, I had the feeling that they didn’t run away, and that they would contact the family if they had. They didn’t take anything with them, so I’m of the belief that something did happen to them.”

Like police, Alba identified Bowman as the only person of interest, but never interviewed him.

“I didn’t see anyone else that would be a person of interest, so he was basically the only one,” he said. “But there’s no DNA evidence because there’s no bodies, so there’s no real evidence against him, except maybe circumstantial.”

The burden of proof

Garry remains convinced of Bowman’s guilt, but for authorities, it’s not that easy.

“If I was her family, over time I would have become increasingly frustrated as well,” Fairbanks said. “But they have the luxury to believe and know what they know, while I only have the luxury to believe what I can prove.”

Strelzin agreed.

“Just because in a case you believe someone may be involved, doesn’t mean you have proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said. “No one’s been arrested because the state has not been able to prove who or whom was involved.”

When reached at his Westmoreland auto business last week, Bowman declined comment.

Bowman has had some contact with police since his release from prison. He was issued a no trespass order by Hinsdale police in 2004 after a resident of a mobile home park reported he was trespassing on her property, said Police Chief Todd Faulkner.

Faulkner said Hinsdale police also had contact with Bowman in 2011, when he was placed in protective custody after police responded to a call of an intoxicated person. He was not charged and later released to a sober party.

In late 2005, Bowman was charged with violating parole, and was sent back to prison from Dec. 14, 2006, to Jan. 10, 2006. It’s unclear what the violation was.

Strelzin said there’s good reason for keeping the investigation files sealed.

“There’s often information law enforcement is able to obtain that is only known to us and the killer or killers, so by keeping that information (secret), that can be very important in determining someone’s credibility or deciding what avenues to pursue, so that’s very helpful in our investigations.”

Strelzin said he wouldn’t rule out making parts of the sealed documents available to the public in the future.

In 2001, The Sentinel sued to have the documents made public, and a district court judge sided with The Sentinel. But a Supreme Court judge later overturned the lower court’s ruling, concluding that if authorities say they’re conducting an investigation, that’s enough to keep the information secret in order to protect the investigation’s integrity.

A family torn apart

For Garry, the passing of 12 years has done little to ease her pain.

“It’s destroyed our family,” she said. “It made my dad angry, it made my brother violent, and it divided our family. We used to spend every holiday together. It’s really just destroyed everyone’s lives.”

For Garry, the pain is something she manages, and the only thing that can cure it is closure.

“I drained myself, physically, emotionally and financially,” she said. “The way I look at it, if I were missing, my sister would do everything she could to find me, too. I miss her every day.”

Lewis said she used to walk around her home, looking out the windows, waiting for Sinclair and Bethany to pull into the driveway.

“But it hasn’t happened,” she said. “I have my good days and my bad days. Some days, I can’t get them out of my mind. I often talk to them when I’m by myself. I just feel sad and upset, and I miss them horribly.”

All Garry has is a comforter, a birdhouse hand-painted by Sinclair, and one of Bethany’s Beanie Babies to remind her of happier times. Garry also had Sinclair’s 15-year-old cat, Climber, which Garry and Sinclair had rescued from a quarry together years earlier. Garry went to Bowman’s house several days after Sinclair and Bethany’s disappearance and got him, giving her at least one living, breathing thing to hold onto from her sister and niece.

But it wasn’t meant to be.

“I took him home to Connecticut with me, but two weeks later, he disappeared, too,” she said, fighting back tears. “I know he was looking for Tina.”

Never giving up

For those who miss Sinclair and Bethany, and for those who have worked hard to solve the puzzle of their disappearance, giving up is not an option.

“The family has to keep pushing, and keep going with this, because you never know what could happen,” Alba said. “There’s never a time when you’ve felt like you could do all you could do; you always have to keep pursuing it, and that’s who it’s up to right now. The family has to keep pushing ...”

That’s good advice, Lamson said.

“As any investigator would say, you never give up,” he said. “You always have to remain optimistic that that one phone call, that one lead, will ultimately lead you to a resolution.”

When Fairbanks retires this summer, none of the original lead investigators will be left at the posts they held when the case began.

“I think it’s very important to keep it on the front burner and keep tips coming in. Time isn’t always the enemy; it stings, but it can sometimes bring in things that didn’t come to light at the time,” he said.

“It doesn’t look like we’re going to get to a conclusion before the end of my career, but hopefully before the end of my life, we will.”

Kyle Jarvis can be reached at kjarvis@keenesentinel.com or 283-0755. Follow him on Twitter @KJarvisKS.