Gayle McCaffrey's family has been living in limbo since the 36-year-old went missing more than a year ago. Her two children, now 6 and 12, have been living with their aunt, McCaffrey's older sister Debbie Pearson.
The West Ashley home the McCaffrey family shared on Limestone Boulevard has not been lived in for a while, Pearson said. The family's items had been gathering dust while many still waited and hoped that someone or something would lead them to finding Gayle, who disappeared on March 18, 2012.
But that hasn't happened and it felt uneasy for Pearson, who'd been living in a standstill with the children as their temporary guardian. But two weeks ago, Pearson, who's been caring for her niece and nephew for the past 19 months, was granted permanent custody of the children and given conservatorship of the Limestone Boulevard house.
“At least having the children and the house, it's a step forward,” Pearson said.
It's a small sense of closure for her family, who have been living with the unknown, but Pearson said she doesn't kid herself about finding her sister alive. “We have always assumed we would find Gayle dead,” she said.
Searches for Gayle McCaffrey, who investigators believe was murdered, have turned up empty and while it's still an active investigation, the only person named a suspect in the case remains free. Charleston County's Sheriff Al Cannon publicly pointed the agency's suspicions at Gayle's husband, Bob McCaffrey, about two months after she went missing, but he's never been charged.
In March, a Family Court judge granted temporary custody of Bob and Gayle McCaffrey's children to Pearson after the Sheriff's Office had put the children, ages 10 and 4 at the time, into emergency protective custody.
Bob McCaffrey was allowed supervised visitations, which he continues today, according to Pearson. “I don't like him alone with the kids. But I trust our supervisor, who makes sure conversations are appropriate,” she said.
The children are aware that Robert is suspected in their mother's disappearance, according to Pearson. But the kids enjoy the time with their father, she said.
McCaffrey visits the children about twice a month, according to Pearson. He moved out of the Limestone Boulevard home shortly after his wife's disappearance, Pearson said. “He walked away from it. He didn't pay the bills. He walked away from that house,” she said.
Bob McCaffrey's attorney, Chris Lizzi, would not comment about the home or the custody status of the children.
Despite the anger Pearson feels at times toward her brother-in-law, she said he's been cooperative about the children. “It's made my life easier,” she said.
“You can't stay angry or it's just going to eat you up. My kids need a happy home,” she said. “We are Christians. We spent a lot of time in prayer. In the end, God knows what happened and God will bring justice.”
A few weeks ago Pearson, with the help of family and friends, emptied the West Ashley house the McCaffrey's once shared. She plans on renting the house out. “I want to set that money aside for the children's college funds,” she said.
McCaffrey's children still wonder what happened to their mother, according to Pearson. “They still ask where their mom is. They miss their old life. I'm sure them seeing us clean out the house was difficult.”
Gayle's 12-year-old daughter worries that the memory of their mother is fading for her brother, who was only 4 years old when he last saw his mother.
“Unfortunately he will forget my sister,” Pearson said. But Pearson talks to the children about Gayle and works to keep her memory alive.
The family would like closure and Pearson wants to put her sister's body to rest. She's confident that will happen one day.
Sheriff's Capt. Eric Watson, one of the detectives investigating the case, said the case is far from cold. “We're thinking outside the box. That's why it's taking so long,” he said.
While Watson wouldn't go into details about the case he called it an “active investigation.”
When Gayle McCaffrey's family realized she would never likely come home, it hit them like a ton of bricks. “We didn't see this coming,” Pearson said.
On March 18, Robert McCaffrey reported his wife, a Citadel employee, missing and told deputies he'd last seen her at home at 10 p.m. March 17, according to investigators.
He said he left on a trip to Easley, and when he returned at about 6:30 a.m. March 18, his wife was gone, authorities said.
He also reported finding a wedding band and a typed note saying that his wife had left, possibly to be with another man.
But detectives pieced together forensic evidence and biographical information about the couple, leading them to think that the farewell note supposedly left by Gayle McCaffrey was bogus, Cannon has said.
Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.