So many people have been missing for decades, and their loved ones still don't know what happened to them. Today's story is about an Illinois woman who went missing without a trace in 1988, yet her story has an uncanny resemblance to the story of another missing woman, Stacy Peterson.
Joan Bernal disappeared on December 9, 1988. She was last seen at her home in Crest Hill, IL.
Joan Yarbrough was born on July 17, 1954 at West Suburban Hospital in Oak Park, IL. She and her three siblings grew up in Hickory Hills, IL. She attended Stagg High School and graduated in 1972.
Her first husband was Larry Stanfill. Joan had a son from a prior relationship, Alexander (called Lex for short), and Larry adopted Lex. He and Joan had a daughter together, Larissa. When they divorced, Larry was awarded custody for the two children.
Joan worked for the Joliet Mass Transit District as a bus driver. Her mother Florence Wilms said she adored her job because she was a “people person.” At the transit company, Joan met a man named Gilbert Bernal Sr., a mechanic who worked in the bus barn. Joan became completely infatuated with Bernal and divorced her husband Larry to marry Bernal.
Larry and Joan remained on good terms after the divorce, and Joan visited her children every two weeks like clockwork, never missing a visit. After Joan’s disappearance, Larry raised the two children.
Joan’s relationship with Bernal was often stormy. Both Larry and Lex Stanfill stated that Bernal abused Joan, and that she and the children sometimes spent the night at a shelter for battered women to get away from Bernal. When interviewed, Bernal himself admitted that he is a violent man and that Joan was often the subject of his violence.
In December 1988, Joan and Bernal were scheduled to travel to Edinburg, TX, and would be gone for two weeks. They intended to take Joan’s two children and the couple’s two year old daughter Sarita with them. Between them, the couple had five children from previous relationships and one child together. When Joan contacted him on December 9, 1988, Larry Stanfill told Joan that he would not allow the two older children to leave the state. He was the custodial parent and it was the middle of the school year, so he refused to allow them to leave Illinois. It was the last time he heard from Joan.
According to Bernal, the family went on the trip to Texas as planned but Joan missed her children and wanted to go back home to see them. He said when they reached McAlister, Oklahoma, he gave Joan $1500 and put her on a bus back to Joliet. He says it was the last time he saw her and that she must have gotten off the bus somewhere along the route. Investigators learned that Joan never got on the bus and never made the trip.
Stanfill became suspicious when Joan missed her next scheduled visit with the children about two weeks after he last spoke with her. He called the Bernals’ home and asked about Joan; Gilbert Bernal said he put her on the bus in Oklahoma, but she never came home.
Joan told a relative that Bernal threatened to kill her and hide her body in a 55 gallon drum and make sure no one would find her, which is eerily similar to what authorities suspect happened to Stacy Peterson in 2007. Witnesses said Bernal purchased two 55 gallon barrels shortly before Joan disappeared but only one was found in his garage.
Gilbert Bernal Sr. was charged with Joan’s murder in February 1993 even though no body had been found. His arrest was based on the purchase of the barrels plus Joan’s relatives’ testimony and testimony from Bernal’s son, Gilbert Bernal Jr. Gilbert Jr. stated that he, his father, Joan, and his toddler sister left their Crest Hill, Illinois, home for Texas on December 9, 1988, but soon turned around and returned home. Joan and Bernal went into the house and Gilbert Jr. remained in the car with his sister, where he could see Joan and Bernal through a window. They got into an argument and Bernal allegedly hit Joan, yanked her hair and then began to choke her; when she went limp, he dragged her out of the room. Bernal then returned to the car and the three drove away without Joan. Joan was never seen again.
The charges against Bernal were dropped eleven months later when witnesses came forward claiming to have seen Joan in Chicago Heights, Illinois, and in Tennessee. The last alleged sighting of Joan was in December 1992; four witnesses claimed to have seen Joan, and two of the witnesses knew Joan personally, so their evidence carried additional weight. The Will County state’s attorney’s office said the witnesses were not reliable and their stories were not convincing but without a body, they had no choice but to drop the charges against Gilbert Bernal. Otherwise, if Bernal was tried and acquitted, he would go free and they would not be able to try the case against him again. Authorities believe the witnesses were planted, just as was suspected about witnesses in the Stacy Peterson disappearance who claimed to have seen Stacy after she went missing.
Larry Stanfill raised questions about Joan’s disappearance after Lisa Stebic disappeared in 2007 and her case gained national prominence. Joan’s mother said that when they first reported Joan as missing, the family was told to keep quiet and not go to the media, so as not to jeopardize the investigation, so it was several years before a news story about Joan appeared. Now Joan’s family and friends feel that if they had been allowed to publicize the case like Lisa Stebic or Stacy Peterson, or offered a reward for information, the police may have received tips and information from the public.
Gilbert Bernal Sr. continues to insist that Joan is alive and living in Tennessee or Kentucky. No one has heard from Joan for 24 years.
Joan Yarbrough Bernal was 34 years old at time of her disappearance; she would be 58 in 2012. She is a Caucasian female, about 5’2” tall, weighing 135 lbs. when she vanished. She has long brown hair, blue eyes, and wears contact lenses. She has a scar on her upper lip and several scars on her knees from multiple knee surgeries as a child; there are several stainless steel screws implanted in her knees. When last seen, she was wearing a wedding band and wristwatch.
Her mother Florence Wilms fears that Joan is dead but is still hoping for answers about what happened to her child. Joan's father William passed away in 2009 without ever learning Joan’s fate. Joan has three children: Alexander (Lex) Stanfill; Larissa Stanfill; and Sarita Bernal Woerheide. Joan is also a grandmother now: she has two grandchildren who have never met their grandmother. Joan’s family has placed a memorial marker for her at Chapel Hill Gardens South in Oak Lawn, IL.
If you have any information about what happened to Joan Bernal, contact the Will County Sheriff’s Office, 815/727-8574.