When authorities in southwest Missouri found a body inside a burning car last month, they also discovered a charred piece of paper.
And the words on that paper would ultimately lead them to the Lake of the Ozarks and answers to a three decades old mystery in Kansas City: what ever happened to Stephen Winn? The investigation of his disappearance had long gone cold, leaving a family wondering since August 1991 what had become of their dad, son and brother.
Police and fire crews in Lebanon, Missouri, responded to the car fire just before 2:30 a.m. March 19. The 1979 Chrysler New Yorker had pulled into the parking lot behind the abandoned Mary’s Budget Inn around 1 a.m., authorities learned later.
Inside the Chrysler, officers found personal belongings, items of women’s clothing and wads of blackened and singed paper. The biggest clue: four still legible words, Property of Khristine Bechard.
“It was just another document that was burned,” said Lebanon Police Detective Sgt. Kacie Springer, referring to the piece of paper with those four words. “Couldn’t identify what that document was.”
On Tuesday, Lebanon police issued a news release saying the body, which had been found in the front passenger seat, had been identified and that the death appeared to have been self-inflicted. The department is still waiting on formal autopsy results.
“We did locate a handgun magazine and a spent casing in the vehicle,” Springer told The Star on Wednesday.
Police initially had little to go on.
“We didn’t know who the vehicle belonged to, because the VIN numbers had been removed,” Springer said. “So, we took that information (the words found on the piece of paper) … and located that a Khristine Bechard owned a 1979 Chrysler New Yorker and lived in Camdenton.”
That detail sent the investigation to a two-bedroom house roughly 25 miles to the north of Lebanon.
Inside that home, where mounds of belongings were left behind, authorities would find answers to so many of their questions, such as how the fire likely started, who Khristine Bechard really was and what was left behind in Kansas City so many years ago.
Khristine Bechard, authorities would eventually learn, used to go by Stephen Winn. For a time, after disappearing from Kansas City, she also went by Khristine Winn, using her former wife’s name.
“She lived as a female,” Springer said. “She lived a very private life. … All the neighbors knew her as her.”
A new identity
Springer asked Camden County deputies to go to the home where Khristine Bechard had lived. She and her late husband Robert — who according to his obituary died in 2012 — had lived there many years, Springer said.
The deputies “advised me that she had sold the residence on the Wednesday prior, so the 15th, and left in that vehicle,” Springer said. “She sold the residence to someone local in Camdenton. … She left a bunch of items behind, she was kind of a hoarder. Left a bunch of items behind and only took the essentials.”
While deputies went to the home, Springer said she continued her investigation and did some research with the Missouri Information Analysis Center.
“They were able to tell me that there was a past name of Winn, Khristine Winn,” Springer said. “They also provided the childrens’ information that they were able to find. And I contacted the first person on the list. That person advised me that Khristine Winn had passed away in 2018.
“That was kind of when we put two and two together.”
The detective sergeant then received a call from Khristine Winn’s granddaughter and during the conversation Springer said she asked her a question.
“I just asked if Grandma knew anybody who had cross dressed or was transgender,” Springer said, “and was told that she didn’t know but her grandfather who went missing 30 plus years ago used to cross dress.”
That’s what led police to put some of the final pieces together regarding who was found inside the Chrysler last month. After more investigation and reviewing test results, police issued a news release Tuesday, a little more than two weeks after authorities responded to the car fire.
“On April 2, 2023, it was confirmed through DNA analysis that the deceased person in this investigation is identified as 71-year-old Stephen E. Winn,” the release said.
“Through the course of this investigation it was revealed that in 1991, Stephen Winn resided with his wife, Khristine Winn, and their children in Kansas City, Missouri, when he went missing. Over the next 32 years his family did not have any contact with him, and he was later declared deceased.”
The release went on to say that while investigating the body in the burned car, it led police to a Khristine Bechard, who “had previously used the alias of Khristine Winn.”
“… After conducting additional interviews, it was determined that when Stephen Winn left his family in 1991, he assumed Khristine Winn’s identity and later married and lived under the alias of Khristine Bechard.”
A house full of memories, clues
What wasn’t in the release is the personal story.
While Springer was trying to unravel the mystery of who was found inside the Chrysler, she stumbled into the 1991 mystery of what happened to Stephen Winn. And that answer is something his family is still processing, she said.
The Winns had seven boys, the first when they were just teenagers, the detective sergeant discovered in her investigation.
“Several of them believed that (their father) was still alive,” Springer said. “It was their mother who actually filed for the death certificate. Many of his other family believed that he could have possibly still been around. They just hadn’t heard from him. It’s just kind of a sad situation.
“… He didn’t reach out to anybody.”
But investigators found evidence that Bechard may have thought about reaching out. At least in theory.
Inside the Camdenton home, tucked in a manila envelope, were two letters that Bechard had written. One was to her mother, and another to one of the seven boys she had with Khristine.
On the outside of the envelope, written in pen, it said: “Letters I wrote and will never send.”
Also inside the home were belongings from her life, including some from her days in Kansas City, including trophies her boys had won.
“According to witnesses that we’ve talked to in the neighborhood, she talked about her children,” Springer said. “How many there were, knew their names, just hadn’t had contact with them.”
The detective sergeant also spoke to Robert Bechard’s children.
“They advised me that their dad kind of kept her pretty protected,” Springer said. “And that they had not seen her since the funeral in 2012.”
Robert “was a lot older than she was,” Springer said. “In fact, some 20 plus years older than she was. … I’m assuming they lived a pretty normal life.”
The Bechards were in a relationship within six months of the time Stephen Winn left Kansas City.
“If not before, but I haven’t been able to confirm that,” Springer said.
Because Khristine Bechard had left so many items in her Camdenton home, the new owners allowed her family to go through “and select anything that they wanted to.”
Springer’s investigation continues, though she said at this point “nothing appears suspicious.”
Inside the home, authorities found a document with “several different thoughts that this person was having.” Almost like a specific plan that she was going to carry out.
“Like one of them said, ‘9 mm,” Springer said. Another said, “box matches.”
“Just little jargon thoughts all over the document.”
What Springer still doesn’t know is what happened in the days right after the sale of the house and why Bechard ended up in Lebanon.
To the people she sold her house to, Bechard said it was just time to move on, Springer said.
“She said that she was planning on moving back to Kansas City,” Springer said, “to see her boys.”
988 is the suicide and crisis lifeline. It provides 24/7, free and confidential support. Trans Lifeline is a crisis support hotline created by and for trans people. You can contact the hotline at 877-565-8860.