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Mystery deepens heartache

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There is a "For Sale" sign in front of the house now, and Janis Marie Stavros' furniture, clothes and personal mementos have all been packed away.

With each day that is crossed off the calendar, Meghan Laudie knows it isn't likely her mother is coming back. Since Janis vanished six months ago, there have been no clues about her whereabouts, no phone calls, no evidence to arrest anyone suspected of foul play.

"There hasn't been anything to give us hope," says Meghan, 21, who has spent many sleepless nights wondering about her mother's disappearance. "At this point, she's probably been killed and left somewhere. It sure doesn't look good."

Hoping that somebody out there might have a few answers, Meghan and Janis' ex-husband, Mike Stavros, wanted to meet over a Free Lunch of grilled tuna and blueberry cobbler at the Fiddler's Elbow in Sugar House.

Although Mike, who is Meghan's stepfather, was divorced from Janis a year ago, he and his ex-wife remained good friends. In fact, Janis and her boyfriend, Robert Butcher, had dinner with Meghan and Mike at his house the night before she disappeared.

"Our marriage didn't work out, but we still cared about each other," says Mike, 50, who was married to Janis for 10 years. "There's a part of me that wants to believe Jan's OK and this is a horrible prank. But the rational side of me knows it isn't so."

It was just after 10 p.m. on Jan. 2, when Janis and Robert said good night to Mike and Meghan and drove off into the chilly fog to Janis' red-brick cottage in Canyon Rim.

Robert later told police that when he left for his construction job the next morning at 6, Janis was still asleep. Now in the Davis County Jail on a parole violation, he hasn't been charged with any further wrongdoing.

On Jan. 3, Meghan phoned her mother in the afternoon as she always did, but Robert answered and told her that Janis wasn't home. "He said, 'Her phone's here, her truck's here and the dog's here,' " recalls Meghan. "I knew something was wrong. My mom doesn't go anywhere without her cell phone."

The next day, when she and Mike discovered that nothing was missing from the house except Janis, they called the police.

"Her suitcases, her clothes — everything was in place," says Mike. "There was no sign of a scuffle or break-in. No money was taken from her account, and no credit cards had been used. It was like she went next door to borrow a cup of sugar and didn't come back."

Mike and Meghan, who have both passed polygraph tests, organized search parties and even put a few psychics on the case when it became clear there was no evidence linking anyone to Janis' disappearance.

"When she didn't call on my 21st birthday a few days later, I felt sick inside," says Meghan. "She'd been planning a big party for me and wouldn't have missed it for anything."

After Valentine's Day came and went, then Mother's Day, she and Mike decided to pack Janis' belongings away. "The toughest thing was cleaning out her desk," says Mike. "All those cards and letters she'd saved brought back happier times."

When Janis' house is sold, the money will be put into an account in case the petite hazel-eyed brunette turns up alive. Meghan would like nothing better than for her mother to have to look for a new place to live.

"Right now, all I have is an open wound that won't heal," she says quietly. "I haven't just lost my mother. I've lost my best friend. If anyone knows anything, we'd sure like to hear about it."

Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what's on your mind to freelunch@desnews.com or send a fax to 466-2851. You can also write me at the Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.