A mother went missing nearly 5 years ago and was never heard from again. Where is Danielle Sleeper?
THREE MILE CREEK flowed slowly as the golden afternoon sun sank behind the mighty oak trees and farmland off FM 1488 in Magnolia. It was lower than Tannah Cross remembered as she stood at the creek bank staring off into the murky brown water, the sound of cars whistling by from the bridge overhead. There was once a time, nearly five years ago, that Tannah believed the creek might hold answers to her younger sister’s disappearance.
She hoped that somewhere lost in the brush or the cloudy water was a key to finding her. It was March 2015 and it had been weeks since her sister, Danielle Sleeper, had gone missing without a goodbye to her family or her three sons. It wasn’t like the 32-year-old mother, who her family described had a heart of gold and adored her three children.
In those early days, Tannah clung to hope that her sister was alive and the hundreds of volunteers and search teams that filled the fields throughout Montgomery and Waller counties would find her.
Dive teams navigated the swollen Three Mile Creek searching for Danielle. Tannah and other volunteers searched the surrounding embankments, picking up anything that could be considered evidence: empty soda bottles, discarded napkins, even a purse. But as the days passed and every search came up empty, Tannah feared the worst: her sister was dead—and they might never find her body.
“I’m living a nightmare,” Tannah said on a recent hot July afternoon. She wore a white t-shirt with a picture of her sister that read “MISSING DANIELLE SLEEPER” in bright red letters. “I was four-and-a-half years older than her … big sister—wanted to make sure little sister is always taken care of and doing well.”
But all these years later standing at the creek, there’s something that doesn’t feel right about her sister’s disappearance.
A CLOUDY SKY gave way to a starry night the last time Meagan Smith saw her friend alive. It was March 22, 2015, a Saturday, and Danielle stepped into her husband’s truck around 1:30 a.m. They spent the evening barbecuing and enjoying a break from the recent heavy rains.
Meagan and Danielle met two weeks before Danielle went missing, and they quickly developed a friendship. Meagan liked that Danielle was so caring and took a liking to her two children. They often texted throughout the day, and sometimes Danielle would call to vent about her husband, Austin Sleeper.
The morning before she went missing, Meagan said Danielle was mad at Austin, so she spent the day with Meagan running errands throughout town. By mid-afternoon, Danielle asked Austin to join her at Meagan’s house for a barbecue with Meagan, her husband and other friends.
As the evening bled into the early morning, Meagan said Austin was upset and ready to leave. The two fought, and Danielle finally agreed and left with him. She told Meagan she would be back the next day to dye her hair and get her car. But that was the last time Meagan ever saw her.
DANIELLE HAD BEEN missing for more than a day when Tannah got word something was wrong. Tannah drove to her parent’s home, picked up her dad and went to Danielle and Austin’s home. She was shocked to see the house in such disarray: Danielle’s clothes were strewn across the floor, hangers scattered throughout the bedroom, shelves emptied. Tannah found it odd because her sister typically obsessed over having an immaculate house.
Tannah thought Austin was fidgeting and acting strangely. She noticed fresh scratches on top of his head. Their son wasn’t running around. But most puzzling, Tannah thought, Austin still hadn’t reported Danielle missing.
“He just kept saying that she run off, that she probably would be back in a few days. And I kept telling him that it was not clicking, that it was not right, something was wrong,” Tannah said.
DINA AND CHUCK Street didn’t sleep much in the months after their daughter disappeared. They spent their days in the fields and farmlands with search crews on all-terrain vehicles or scouring ponds on kayaks. They spent thousands of dollars mailing missing person’s flyers to homes throughout Magnolia and surrounding towns—pleading for anyone with information to call police.
Texas EquuSearch, a local search-and-rescue organization, came and went. Montgomery County Search and Rescue found nothing. Dina and Chuck listened to every tip they received. They turned to mediums and psychics, most of whom agreed that Danielle had been strangled. Some of them said she was in a field, others said in a body of water.
“It drives you crazy. You get home and you lay awake all freakin’ night until early in the morning and you finally get a couple hours of sleep and then you’re back up at it again,” Chuck said.
The days turned to weeks that turned to months. The family turned its frustrations to investigators. Why had so much time passed and Danielle was still missing?
“None of this fits her. None of this matches her personality. She wouldn’t just get up and walk away from her children. And she wouldn’t not reach out to us. That just wasn’t her,” Dina said from her living room this past July.
Dina and Chuck spent a summer evening at their kitchen table in July digging through a large plastic tub filled with missing flyers, bracelets, keychains and buttons that all raised awareness for Danielle. Dina pulled out family pictures of her as a newborn—“she was not a little baby,” Dina said, “she was 9 pounds and 12 ounces.” Other photos showed Danielle at Big Bend National Park, Danielle in Florida with an alligator wrapped around her neck, and Danielle at eight months pregnant with her first son.
“She loved that child. I’ll never forget after he was born, I came over to visit her one day and she was just sitting on the floor playing with him, and she just kind of looked up at me and said, ‘Mom, I can’t believe he’s mine. He’s mine.’ And she just thought that of each of her children. She was very much a mother,” Dina said.
Danielle’s ex-husband, Brandon Baack, whom she divorced in 2008, said he hopes the person responsible for her disappearance is caught.
“So the kids can at least have the closure and peace of mind to be able to move on with their lives,” Brandon said. “It hurts me that they are hurting.”
Dina and Chuck don’t believe their daughter is alive. It’s been too many years without any contact, and it’s never been like Danielle not to call. Dina has spent the past four years managing a Facebook page for her missing daughter called Bring Danielle Home, where she often shares stories and photos in hopes it sparks some new information. In a recent post she wrote: “Sometimes we can talk about her and not cry. Sometimes we can think of her and feel the warmth of her smile and her light. Other times…we cannot. The wounds can’t become scars and the pain can never completely heal. There is no closure. Would closure even help now? Would we ‘recover’ from this experience at ALL if we found her? The short answer is ‘no.’”
Dina and Chuck are both in their 60s now. Chuck’s health is declining. One of his biggest worries is he’ll die and never know what happened to his daughter.
ON THE BOTTOM shelf of a wooden bookcase in Paul Hahs’ office sits a white cardboard box that holds a brown folder that reads:
DANIELLE SLEEPER (V)
Inside the box are hundreds of original case files that hold detectives’ notes, police reports and witness interviews—all pieces of a big puzzle that Hahs hopes will solve Danielle’s case.
Hahs is a sergeant with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office who oversees the homicide division. He’s a tall man with a shaved bald head, a dimpled chin, who wears black-wired rimmed glasses that cover his hazel eyes. He’s been with the sheriff’s office for two decades, starting out as a patrol officer and working his way to detective before a promotion to sergeant of the homicide unit in August 2016.
Since Hahs inherited Danielle’s case from the original investigator nearly five years ago, he hasn’t been able to let it go. The whole situation, he feels, doesn’t make any sense.
“Danielle does not seem to me to be the kind of person that would abandon her children, abandon her life, leave everything behind and not have any contact with her mom or her dad,” he said from a conference room in the sheriff’s office this past September. "Which leads me to believe there’s probably foul play involved in her disappearance. And it doesn’t sit well with me for things like that to go unresolved. That’s not why I got into police work or detective work.”
He understands the frustrations from Danielle’s family, but he likens the investigation to a marathon, not a foot race.
A search warrant detectives secured shortly after Danielle went missing showed they were allowed to go into her and Austin’s home to look for any “implements and instruments used in the commission of a criminal offense of murder and/or aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and/or tampering with physical evidence.” Investigators seized Austin’s truck, a tablet and his cell phone.
The search warrant revealed that although Danielle’s cell phone was never found, investigators poured through her phone records that showed there were numerous text messages and activity until 3:12 a.m. the night she went missing. And the last time her phone was turned on was two days after her disappearance when it pinged a tower two-and-a-half miles from her home. It was the last signal that cell phone records showed ever came from the phone and it's been off ever since.
Investigators learned Danielle’s bank account and credit cards hadn’t been used for two days before she went missing. Her email account didn’t have any activity for five days prior to her disappearance.
Ultimately, though, nothing was found in Austin’s truck or on his phone or tablet that helped police uncover what happened to Danielle or narrow in on a suspect.
“Everybody that was in contact with her those last few hours is still a suspect,” Hahs said.
Hahs has also taken a team to Danielle and Austin’s home and drained a pond on their property. He’s still investigating tips that come in today—one he went as far as requesting a DPS helicopter to assist this year.
“It was a more thorough search than we would typically do on a missing person and that’s because of the nature of what’s going on—and we take every missing person very seriously,” Hahs said.
There’s up to a $21,000 reward offered by Montgomery County Crime Stoppers for information leading to a felony arrest in the case. Hahs hopes it’s enough to entice someone to come forward. Any tip helps, he said, and every tip is investigated—even if it’s been reported before.
His two decades of experience tell him every case can be solved. It’s just a matter of the right pieces falling into the right place at the right time. So, he’ll continue his investigation, the white cardboard box in his office serving as a reminder every day of what’s at stake.
SINCE DANIELLE’S DISAPPEARANCE, Danielle’s family said Austin has cut off all contact. Austin didn’t return any requests for comment for this story. Certified letters sent to his house went unanswered. Phone calls weren’t returned. An attorney who once represented him also didn’t return calls for comment.
A close friend of his did offer some insight into his life. Vicki King has known Austin since he was 17 and considers him like a son. She described him as a big man who had to learn to be gentle—Austin is a stout man with a frame built like a bull. Vicki said he’s the kind of guy most people don’t spend the time to really get to know. But mostly, she said, he was a man who loved his wife.
“They just always seemed like they belonged together,” Vicki said. “They were made for each other.
Austin and Danielle met in middle school but lost touch after Danielle and her family moved away. They reconnected when Austin took her in after Danielle’s divorce in June 2008.
Vicki said Austin didn’t report Danielle missing right away because his attorney told him not to. Shortly after her disappearance, Vicki said he hired a private investigator to find her.
Losing Danielle has been hard on him, Vicki said. She said he gets harassed at bars and people post photos of him on Facebook. He began writing love letters to her, Vicki said, as a way to cope.
“He’s surviving the best he can,” she said.
TANNAH HARDLY SLEEPS these days—and when she does, she relies on sleeping pills. She takes medication to combat her depression and anxiety. She has so many questions: What happened to her sister? Who’s responsible? Where is she? She’s come to accept that Danielle is most certainly dead.
Standing on the banks of Three Mile Creek, Tannah fought back tears as the golden afternoon sun settled on her face. As she spoke of her sister, a car sped by on the bridge above. “F--- off!” someone yelled, disrupting her thought. Minutes later, gunshots echoed through the trees nearby. Tannah jumped.
Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!
Then, a brief silence … followed by another.
It was an eerie moment in a case that Tannah said is filled with so many strange circumstances that—when all pieced together—makes her feel uneasy.
“Nothing matches, nothing clicks,” she said.
She’s not giving up hope of finding Danielle, and she won’t stop searching. She’s the big sister after all, and she wants to make sure her little sister is taken care of—if even in death.