Where Is Toni Lee Sharpless?
Eileen Law has very long white-blond hair and dazzling teeth. Lately, she has spent a lot of time in Camden, especially at Broadway and Atlantic, where, even at high noon on a Tuesday, prostitutes saunter about as pimps watch them — and Eileen — with the stillness of gargoyles. You can get one sex act for five bucks and another for ten — it’s high volume work, mostly truckers who cut through on the way to and from the port.
Eileen looks a little like Linda Evans of Dynasty fame — though a smaller version, without the shoulder pads and dressed in denim. She is a private investigator, looking for someone. This is where she thinks she might find her. [SIGNUP]
Toni Lee Sharpless, a 30-year-old nurse and mother of an 12-year-old girl, was last seen pulling away from Philadelphia 76er Willie Green’s house in Gladwyne on August 23rd at 5 in the morning, supposedly on her way home to Downingtown.
On Atlantic, two Hispanic working girls lounging on a red rowhouse porch, in jeans and t-shirts, with small pot bellies — the days of Julia Roberts-level dress-up are passé — examine a picture of Toni; Eileen says only that she is friends with Toni’s mother. Upstairs, deep red-velvet curtains cover the windows; the smell of cat piss is strong. One girl says, “My brother was missing too. We finally found him in a dumpster, and sent him to rehab, then back to Puerto Rico.” She thinks she saw Toni that morning, in an alley off Broadway, hunched near the ground with a couple men, either doing drugs or counting money.
Back in August, Toni and her friend Crystal partied at Willie Green’s house after clubbing at Ice in King of Prussia and G Lounge in Philly; Crystal knows Willie’s brother. They drank champagne, and Toni, who is bipolar and had recently returned from drug rehab, started pouring champagne on the floor, and said things that offended Willie — he kicked her out. Outside, Crystal and Toni had a fight. Toni, with only a sliver of gas and no bank card, drove off alone.
The Puerto Rican girl won’t come with Eileen to the alley where she thinks she saw Toni, because her pimp is watching from the corner. Eileen moves a couple doors down, rings the doorbell, pounds on the door, peers in a window; a trucker informed her that a man keeps girls here — she can hear girls’ voices inside. No one answers.
Back out on the sidewalk, a man appears:
“What you want? Why you pounding my door?”
He says there is no one inside. A third woman has come out onto the red porch; the pimp isn’t on the corner, watching, though Eileen saw him move into the shadow of a Chinese takeout place, where he can still see the girls — the girls can’t see him. The third woman says to check the port at night. White girls. Blondes. She thinks she’s seen Toni, who on the flier that Eileen tapes to a pole at Broadway and Atlantic has brown hair.
A lot of people say they’ve seen her. Yet it’s closing in on seven months, and Toni is still missing.
Eileen has been looking for her almost as long. Back in September, she caught a Nancy Grace segment about Toni; police were looking for her in the Schuylkill. “No!” Eileen shouted at her TV. “She’s not in the river.” Eileen has learned to trust her gut. She found the mother of a girl out in Pomona, California, a mother that had abandoned this girl some 40 years earlier, because she woke one morning with this in her brain: Welcome to Pomona.
Eileen knows how that sort of thing sounds — crazy. But a couple things are true: Eileen Law has built a highly successful PI business, with offices in Kennett Square and Wilmington and Northeast Maryland, by finding people. She’s been at it for 25 years.
The other true thing is that she called Toni’s mother Donna, and is charging her one dollar, a contractual formality, to find her daughter. The reason that she’s searching for Toni — that she’s here in Camden on a blustery day in March, that she takes her laptop to bed at night, that she and her husband veer off on a Sunday to the Pine Barrens, where somebody said Toni is being held in a back room bound with duct tape — is because Eileen brings people back. Normally, it’s business. This one’s an obsession.
A tip takes her to 10th and Ferry. Eileen knocks, loud. A tiny woman, shaking, answers: “I’m cold. I’m very cold.” Maybe 40, she looks 60. She’s written screeds all over the walls of her kitchen in magic marker: “I am sick and fucking black asses so-called cops” and “this is discrimination.” Her heat’s been turned off.
She hasn’t seen Toni.
A few nights later, raw and rainy, some girls are out at Broadway and Atlantic. The tape is still on the pole, where Eileen put Toni’s flier up. Eileen said a pimp would tear it down. A tiny piece remains.
ROBERT HUBER is Philly Mag’s features editor. Anyone with information about the case can contact Eileen Law at 610-388-1776.