Part 1 of 2
In 1995, the cost of a gallon of gas was $1.09, a loaf of bread was $2.02, a dozen eggs a mere 87 cents, and O.J. Simpson was found innocent of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole and her friend, Ronald Goldman. It’s also the last year Robin Wells Burton saw her mother.
Cloudia “Leslie” Wells, then 45 years old, walked out on her then 23-year-old daughter and her family on Christmas night. The 5-foot (give or take a few inches) brunette with brown eyes has never returned to her home outside of Illinois.
But the tale doesn’t end there, it picks up in San Diego four years later, and even more recently in Oceanside just a few weeks ago.
Mind you, leaving her family was nothing new for Wells Burton, her daughter, now 47, said. It was the norm.
“I always thought my mom was living the life of the rich and famous,” said Wells Burton, during a call from Illinois. “I learned the real truth when I was 34; she suffers from schizophrenia. I wasn’t angry, I started to understand better why she came and went.”
Years passed without word, but in 1998, Wells Burton learned her mother was last seen in San Diego on April 10. She reportedly left a YWCA shelter where she lived to go pick up medication at the VA San Diego Healthcare System. She was carrying bus tokens and $2 in cash at the time, the San Diego Police told her.
The San Diego Police also said her mother never arrived at the VA Hospital, and never returned to the YWCA shelter.
Who is Cloudia ‘Leslie’ Wells?
Wells Burton, who was an only child, described her mother as “intelligent and streetwise,” and said her mother has traveled all over the country. She had a history of dropping out of sight for months at a time and then reappearing, but after the 1998 disappearance, she never resurfaced.
Wells Burton was raised by her grandmother starting at the age of 2 due to her mother’s erratic behavior.
“She was never mean to me when I was growing up,” she said. “She just always traveled, and she traveled out West, she had a boyfriend in Scottsdale, who would keep us up to date. He died in 1992 and the reports of her whereabouts stopped.”
However, Wells Burton said she thinks her mother may have returned to Illinois about six weeks after she walked out on Christmas night. It was in 1995, around the same time her grandmother passed away.
“I received some phone calls with someone just breathing into the phone,” she recalled. “I said: ‘Mom if that’s you, you did a good job caring for grandma, but if you leave again and don’t come home, I will never talk to you again.’”
And she hasn’t.
Following her heart to Oceanside
Over the last 20 years, Wells Burton has continued searching for her mother, who is now 65 years old. She’s been to L.A.’s Skid Row numerous times, as well as Dallas, Las Vegas, San Diego and Arkansas. Each time she goes with high hopes and prays she will be reunited with her mother. Each time she is disappointed, but she carries on.
Around Easter, Wells Burton was in Oceanside to follow up on a mysterious lead, but she has since returned to Illinois — again, emptyhanded and disillusioned.
She said one day while at home in Illinois, she was contacted by a man called Tyler DePalma via her cell phone stating he was traveling with her mother and they could meet in Oceanside.
After many unusual exchanges between Wells Burton, DePalma, his sister Candy Thomas, and her wife Liz Thomas, Wells Burton decided she would forgo a preplanned vacation in May to California to meet DePalma.
“He said I could meet him in Oceanside with my mom as long as I promised I wouldn’t put my mom in a home or an institution. I would never do that,” Wells Burton said.
With her hopes high, Wells Burton hopped a plane like she usually does when she believes she gets a good lead about her mom.
After a week in Oceanside, unfortunately, that lead turned out to be a terrible waste of time and nothing more than a witch-hunt.
“I went to Oceanside and nobody was there but me,” she said. “I learned it was all a terrible hoax and I am still trying to figure out why me, why was I the target?”
While in Oceanside, Wells Burton was joined by LeAnne Nelson, who is the founder of a homeless street outreach in Oceanside called Compassionate Konnections.
“There is so much hope when a family gets a lead on their missing loved ones,” Nelson said. “Once Robin got here and the text messages continued to come in, and the sister of Tyler called while being with Robin, it all became weird. It was evident none of this made sense. My heart broke for Robin while she was in Oceanside.”
On further research, Wells Burton said she has been unable to find anyone by the name of Tyler DePalma through social media or online.
“At this point, I am not sure Tyler DePalma is a real person,” she said.
Calls and emails to Det. Shelly Luna of the San Diego Police Department, who is overseeing her mother’s missing person case and who talked with DePalma’s sister, were not returned.
However, Wells Burton said: “Candy told Det. Luna that she left her brother and my mom in Oceanside when she was asked. She added her wife was going to divorce her over it, so she was done with the situation.”
Wells Burton said Candy Thomas also told the detective if the police were to call her again “she would sue for harassment.”
The day before Wells Burton was to depart home for Illinois, she received a text message with a photo of a loaded gun.
“I tried to call Det. Luna and I sent her an email, but she never called, so I reported it in Illinois as soon as I got home,” Wells Burton said.
Scared and alone, Wells Burton filed a police report on April 9 with the Madison County Sheriff’s Department in Edwardsville, Illinois, who said: “Nothing could be done because it was just a photo, and they told me to watch my surroundings. If I see something suspicious to call them. I thought, ‘sure, I’ll be dead by then.’”
See Part 2 in the next edition of The Coast News.