SPECIAL REPORT: Piecing together Zuzu Verk's disappearance

Published: Nov. 24, 2016 at 1:29 PM CST
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**Video at the bottom**

It’s been over a month since Zuzu Verk went missing in Alpine.

How does an intelligent, successful, 21-year-old college student vanish from one day to the next?

It’s a puzzle police are still trying to piece together.

April 22, 1995, the day Zuzu made her first mark on the world.

“You know those t-shirts that say, I’m the first and I make the rules, and I’m the middle, I’m the reason the rules are made, and the third says, well the rules don’t apply to me – that’s Zuzu exactly,” chuckled Zuzu’s mom, Lori Verk.

“Zuzu is wacky, and fun, and kind of crazy and bit of a rebel,” says Zuzu’s father, Glenn Verk.

Born and raised in Keller, about 30 miles west of Dallas, Zuzu is the youngest of three.

Lori and Glenn knew early on she was gifted and destined to make a difference.

From photography to painting and singing - Zuzu did it all.

But it was the outdoors that stole her heart.

Zuzu was a junior in high school when two of her friends took her camping for the first time at the Davis Mountains State Park -- that’s when her love and passion for wildlife began.

“She wants to help save the earth, she realizes that we’re not putting a good foot print on the earth, and she wants to change that for future generations and that’s exactly what she’s doing,” Lori said.

That love pushed Zuzu to an internship at the state park.

She and her dog Ponyo then moved to Fort Davis the summer after graduating from high school.

It was that internship that led Zuzu to major in Conservation Biology at Sul Ross State University.

“She cares about the environment, she loves people, she wants to be a voice to defend those who can’t defend themselves,” expressed Zuzu’s fellow classmate and friend, Charlie Barrett.

Charlie, Mark Black, and Phillip Boyd got to know Zuzu over the past year - the four of them shared many classes together.

“I have to study for weeks to get through an exam, Zuzu is one of those people who can just show up you know, five minutes before an exam, and ace it and she’s just, it seems like a real natural process for her,” said Charlie.

“She was fearless, confident, and didn’t need her hand held or anything, she was a go getter,” said Mark.

Mark was with Zuzu nearly every day. The two of them had just finished an award winning three-month long research project on protecting pronghorns in the area.

“After they were captured and collared and released, she was in charge of tracking them on a daily basis,” explained Mark.

Zuzu’s smiling face gave Mark no indication of what was to come.

“I feel like she has a lot of, a lot of good work left to do in conservation,” said an emotional Mark.

On Wednesday October 12, Zuzu had a mid-term. When she didn’t show up her classmates knew something wasn’t right.

Little did they know hundreds of miles away Zuzu’s parents were concerned as well.

“I knew something was up by Wednesday, because I hadn’t heard from her, she wasn’t returning texts,” said Lori.

Lori says her mother’s instinct kicked in after she missed a call from Zuzu the night before.

“She had called Tuesday evening at five something and I had missed the call. I returned her phone call at 6 p.m. and it went straight to voicemail.”

At first Lori thought Zuzu may have been busy with midterms, but by Friday afternoon she couldn’t keep quiet anymore.

Five hundred miles away from Alpine, Lori reached out to the only person she had contact with in town - Zuzu’s on-again, off-again boyfriend Robert Fabian.

The first thing Lori texted Robert was if he had seen or spoken with Zuzu.

“He (Robert) thought she needed her space, so I don’t know what that meant, but I said I haven’t heard from her and I’m getting worried now, because by now she would answer and [I asked] could you run by and check on her for me?” Lori explained.

Robert told Lori he and his sister drove to Zuzu’s house and banged on her door, but got no answer.

“He said that the dog was in the backyard, which we all knew was suspicious in itself, because Zuzu doesn’t just leave her dog in the backyard,” said Lori. “You know, if she’s going to leave the house she’s going to put the dog in a crate inside, so it was all very curious.”

It was at that moment that Lori says she and Robert realized Zuzu was missing.

“He said this is not good, I think it’s time we call the police, so I said would you do that, because he’s in Alpine,” said Lori. “He called the police and that’s when we discovered that she was not at home, and she hadn’t shown up for work on Wednesday, and she had missed midterms, which is something she would never do.”

With Zuzu nowhere to be found, investigators turned to Robert for answers.

“He was the last person to see her, and that’s what he told me also, that she left his apartment at 3 a.m., so I can only assume that he was the last person with her,” said Glenn.

That Friday and Saturday Lori and Robert stayed in touch to try and figure out where Zuzu could be, but on Sunday Lori got an unexpected phone call - on the other line attorney Liz Rogers.

“Liz said, I am Robert Fabian’s lawyer, and Robert wants to get a message to you, but I will not allow him to speak, so I told him I would call you to give you a message,” recalled Lori. “Liz said, Robert is very distraught, she said just know he’s very distraught.”

That’s the last time Robert spoke to the Verks or the police.

But according to search warrants, investigators think Robert may know where Zuzu is and so does his downstairs neighbor John Franco.

He and his girlfriend were home the night Zuzu was last seen.

“You could hear him moving their stuff around, playing music, and then she (zuzu) shows up…they make dinner like at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m., you could smell their food, and you can hear their conversation and then laugh a little bit. Then, it got quiet like after 11 p.m.," said Franco.

But that silence didn't last long.

"We just heard one, like you know, shut the ‘f’ up and that was it," Franco recalled.

Franco says the couple argued often, but that night stood out.

He says Robert kept pacing back and forth across the apartment, and then, his girlfriend heard a loud thump just before three that morning.

But Franco did not call police.

"She wanted me to go check, so I went to go check, and it was just Robert,” said Franco.

Franco says he saw Robert get into his car and take off without Zuzu. Her car remained parked outside his apartment, but it was gone by Friday.

Take a look at this timeline; outlining what happened after Robert left his apartment that morning.

When questioned by police, he said the last time he saw Zuzu was around three or four Wednesday morning.

Court documents show at 3:15 a.m. he attempts to call his friend Chris Estrada twice, and also sent him Snapchats.

But two hours before Robert sent those messages, Chris shows up at a young woman’s house.

Court documents say she described Chris “as very distraught, pacing back and forth and acting nervous.”

She asked him if he was ok and Chris said, “I’m fine, I did not do anything, if they interview me I have nothing to say.”

He then asked the young woman if Robert could come over, so they could speak privately.

Another key part of the timeline, in the early morning hours Robert’s sister Jocelin Carrillo wakes up her husband and asks for the keys to his truck so Robert could borrow it.

And then at 6:30a.m. Zuzu’s phone shuts off.

The phone company was unable to track its exact location, but Zuzu’s parent’s say it was pinged near Robert’s apartment -- the opposite direction from Zuzu’s home.

"I think you can tell from the search warrants why we are headed in a certain direction, and why we are focused on our suspect,” said Alpine Police Chief Russell Scown. “He's probably the only one that can change which direction we start looking, everything right now points to him as a suspect."

Robert’s mom and sister disagree. They both have been named persons of interests along with Robert’s friend Chris Estrada.

This is what Robert’s mom had to say in her first and only on camera interview.

“Me, my daughter, my son, [we] love Zuzu,” Robert’s mom Leticia Fabian said. “This situation is hard.”

CBS 7: So your son didn’t have anything to do with Zuzu’s disappearance?

“No, my son is innocent, ok, he is innocent my son,” Leticia said with tears in her eyes.

CBS 7 attempted to ask Robert’s sister why he borrowed her husband’s car the same morning Zuzu disappeared, but her mom interrupted us and said:

“Go talk with the lawyer, ok, ok, please.”

Jocelin said Rogers maybe the better person to answer our questions.

But when we spoke with Rogers all she had to say was, “no comment, go ahead and quote on me that.”

We tried reaching out to Robert. For several weeks we knocked on his door, but he’s done a very good job of dodging the media.

“I can’t describe how he’s feeling, because his main concern is where is Zuzu? A lot of people may think he knows, but he doesn’t know, he’s asking the same question that everybody is asking themselves, where is Zuzu? And like my mother said, he loves her,” said Jocelin.

Unlike Robert, Chris Estrada has been cooperative with investigators.

Our partners at Crime Watch Daily spoke exclusively with Chris, who claims he has nothing to do with Zuzu’s disappearance.

“No one is, you know, vocally standing up for my side or Robert,” said Chris. “It's just been one sided. Even in the news it's been one sided and people believe the news even though it's incorrect. So we can set some of the record straight.”

When asked if he thinks Robert is capable of hurting Zuzu Chris said no.

“I've never even seen him get mad. Other people have said they have, [but] I never have. You know the sheriff's department was telling me there's mounds of evidence that suggests he did something, and I don’t really know if I believe them. In my opinion they will say anything.”

We asked Chris why Robert has refused to cooperate with the investigation? Here’s his response:

“If the sheriff's department was telling me the truth, they said they went in and questioned him and poked a couple holes in his story. Whatever those were, I don't know, and he just stopped cooperating and asked for a lawyer. Maybe if he felt attacked, maybe he did want someone to back him up. I understand that, so I think he's just looking for someone to stand up for him.”

Despite what Chris and Robert’s family say, those closest to Zuzu believe Robert is involved some how.

“About two weeks before she went missing, we spoke after class and she had mention to me she was interested in transferring to A&M University,” said Charlie. “She had mention she wanted to leave, she wanted to go to another school. She did also mention that she didn’t feel safe, that her tires had recently been slashed, and she had said I don’t think that Robert had slashed my tires, but he may have done it.”

Zuzu’s friends we spoke with say it was no secret that Robert had a reputation around town for being overly jealous and aggressive.

“She didn’t ever come to me directly and say, hey, I’m, I’m afraid of this guy or something, nothing like that, but I certainly heard that indirectly through other people,” Mark said.

Zuzu’s mom and dad don’t feel like they really got to know Robert, but confirm things got rocky six months in to their yearlong relationship.

“It was becoming like a three week interval kind of thing,” said Lori.

“So you can make your own judgment from that, I mean are relationships that are constantly coming back together and breaking up, are those good?” Glenn expressed.

At this point, Robert remains the sole suspect in Zuzu’s disappearance, but no arrests have been made.

In the meantime, family and friends remain hopeful that their spunky, energetic, and beautiful Zuzu will be found and brought back home.

Her friends ask that the next time you’re in Alpine, climb the mountain behind Sul Ross in her honor.

Not only is hiking Zuzu’s favorite thing to do, but you’ll find a special surprise at the very top.

“She (Zuzu) woke me up early, and was like, ‘hey, we’re going to go hike this mountain and we’re going to go paint on this desk, because somebody wrote some stupid stuff on it and we’re going to fix it,” Zuzu’s friend Andrea shared with us.

That’s what Zuzu did; she made the world a better place one small act at a time.

Police tell CBS 7 News, Zuzu’s cellphone and lanyard that had her ID and credit cards have still not been found.

If you have any tips that may help police lead them to Zuzu please contact Odessa Crime Stoppers. They guarantee your tips will remain anonymous.

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