Almost a year after her mother was found dead in the trunk of a vehicle, Michelle Messina clings to the little hope she has that Baton Rouge police will discover how her mother died.
“I try to hope that they will find out rather than me hoping to just live with the way it is,” Messina, 24, said. “If they can’t solve it, who else can you turn to besides the Police Department to feel safe?”
The body of Messina’s mother, Kathleen Downey, 55, was found in the trunk of a 1998 Honda Accord on Aug. 27, Baton Rouge police have said.
The Honda, which was registered to Downey, was parked at Jefferson Heights Apartments at 8939 Jefferson Highway, police have said.
Police were called to the apartment complex - where Messina said she used to live - after people reported a foul odor coming from the parking lot.
The discovery of Downey’s decomposed body came 24 days after her family reported the Ascension Parish resident missing, police have said.
According to East Baton Rouge Parish court records, state District Judge Chip Moore issued a bench warrant for Downey’s arrest the day before she went missing.
The bench warrant was in relation to a theft of more than $500 charge Downey was facing in Moore’s court, the records show.
According to an affidavit of probable cause, Downey stole about $200,000 from Duplessis Cadillac between October 2008 and July 2009. Downey was working as a bookkeeper for the car dealership at the time of the theft, the affidavit says.
Downey’s employer discovered the theft after an internal audit of the dealership’s books, the affidavit says.
Downey admitted to her employer and to investigators with the Baton Rouge Police Department that she stole the money because she had financial difficulties and had to pay bills, the affidavit says.
Downey, 13409 Bayou Grande, Gonzales, was booked into Parish Prison on July 23, 2009, on a count of felony theft.
Messina said she saw fear in her mother’s eyes the night she posted bail and came home from jail.
Messina said that when she found out her mother had been reported missing, she thought Downey might have fled because of her upcoming court date and her fear of going back to prison.
Messina said she and her husband drove around Baton Rouge looking for her mother and scanning parking lots for her car. The couple also routinely checked Downey’s bank account for activity.
After a week went by without any word from her mother, Messina said, she knew something was seriously wrong and that Downey could possibly be dead.
“I knew she would eventually be found somewhere,” Messina said. “I just didn’t know what condition she would be in when that time came.”
Messina said her father and her younger brother called her at 2 a.m. the day Downey’s body was found. Since that call, Messina said, she has been looking for answers about her mother’s death.
So far, little information has surfaced about why and how Downey died.
Downey’s body, which was identified with the use of dental evidence, showed no signs of trauma, Don Moreau, chief of operations for the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office, has said.
Investigators with the office were unable to do a toxicology test on Downey because of her body’s advanced stage of decomposition, Moreau said. As a result, Downey’s cause of death is undetermined.
Sgt. Don Stone, a Police Department spokesman, said investigators are still looking into Downey’s death. Her case is still open, he said.
Messina said she believes her mother could have been killed and that her death might have been tied to the money she was accused of stealing from Duplessis Cadillac.
“I don’t think she could have done this (stolen the money) on her own,” Messina said. “I think there is someone else out there and that person could have killed my mom.”
Ron Duplessis, owner of Duplessis Cadillac, said he, too, believes Downey did not act alone in the theft of money from his business.
Duplessis said he fired Downey, who had worked for him for five years, after discovering the theft. He also filed a civil lawsuit against her and her youngest son, Matthew Downey.
In April 2010, state District Court Judge Trudy White ruled in favor of Duplessis Cadillac in the lawsuit, White’s judgment says.
White ordered, among other things, the sale of a black 2009 Cadillac to Matthew Downey be dissolved and that Kathleen Downey return the money she allegedly embezzled from the company, the judgment says.
Duplessis said he never received any of the money.
Messina said she has met with the Police Department, State Police and East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office investigators about her mother’s death.
All of the meetings have been initiated and set up by her and her family, she said.
“I don’t think they can make evidence out of nothing,” Messina said. “But I want to feel like they are trying to solve my mother’s case.”
Instead, she said she feels as though investigators are waiting for a break, for someone to call them with information.
In the meantime, Messina said, she is dealing with life without a mother.
“It’s hard,” she said. “I was close to my mom.”
Messina said that before Downey disappeared, she talked to her at least once a week and that her mother was helping her plan her wedding.
“Everything she did was focused around her kids,” Messina said. “It’s not the same without her.”
In addition to grief, Messina said she also feels fear. She said she is scared that the person who possibly killed her mother might also want to harm her.
“I feel like someone is always watching me,” she said while wiping a tear from her eye.
Some days are better than others, Messina said, but when the topic of her mother’s death comes up, “your mind wanders and the level of anxiety and fear, it all goes up.”
Anyone with information about Downey’s death is asked to contact police at (225) 389-4869 or Crime Stoppers at (225) 344-STOP or (225) 344-7867.