Article: Joan Bernal
Joan Yarbrough was born on July 17 1954 and grew up with her three siblings in Hickory Hills, Illinois. She attended Stagg High School and graduated in 1972.
Her first husband was Larry Stanfill. Joan had a son from an earlier relationship named Alexander, who Larry adopted after they were married. Joan and Larry have a daughter together who they named, Larissa. When they separate, Larry is awarded custody of the two children.
Joan gets a job with the Joliet Mass Transit District as a bus driver, which she loved. It is at this job, Joan meets a man named Gilbert Bernal Snr, who was a mechanic with the same company. Joan quickly falls in love with Gilbert and divorces Larry to marry Gilbert. Despite this, Joan and Larry remain on good terms. Joan faithfully keeps to her custody arrangement of having her children every other weekend.
Soon there are concerns about Joan’s relationship with Gilbert. Both Larry and Alexander later state that Gilbert was abusive, and that she had spent some time in a shelter for battered women, sometimes with her children when they visited. Gilbert doesn’t deny their volatile relationship and later admits to police that he is a violent man and that Joan was often at the receiving end of that violence.
In December 1988, Joan and Gilbert plan a two-week holiday to Texas. They intended to take Joan’s two children and their two-year-old daughter, Sarita with them. On December 9 1988, Joan contacts Larry to see if he would allow her to take Alexander and Larissa with them to which Larry declines. He tells Joan it’s the middle of the school year and he didn’t want them missing two weeks of school. This would be the last time he would speak to Joan.
Two weeks later, Larry becomes worried when Joan doesn’t show for her next scheduled visitation with their children. He calls the Bernals’ home and Gilbert answers the phone. According to Gilbert, the family left for Texas as planned but Joan missed her two older children and wanted to come back to see them. He said when they reached McAlister, Oklahoma, he gave Joan $1500 and put her on a bus back home. He claims this was the last time he saw her and that she must have gotten off the bus somewhere along the way. However, investigators learn that Joan never actually got on the bus at Oklahoma.
Prior to her disappearance, Joan tells a relative that Gilbert had threatened to kill her and hide her body in a 55 gallon drum and he would make sure no one would find her. Witnesses report that Gilbert purchases two 55 gallon drums shortly before Joan disappeared but police were only able to account for one of these drums in his garage.
Gilbert Bernal Snr was charged with Joan’s murder in February 1993 despite no body ever being found. The prosecution’s case was based on the purchase of the steel drums, Joan’s alleged conversation with a relative about the drum and the testimony from Gilbert’s son from a previous relationship, Gilbert Bernal Jr.
Gilbert Jr testifies that on the morning of December 9 1988, Joan, Gilbert, Gilbert Jr and his little sister leave for their trip to Texas. Not long after leaving, Gilbert turns the car around and they go back home. Joan and Gilbert go into the house while the children remain in the car, although they can still see the adults through a window. Joan and Gilbert allegedly get into an argument and Gilbert hits Joan, pulls her hair and begins to choke her. When her body goes limp, Gilbert allegedly drags Joan out of the room and out of sight of the children. Gilbert then returns to the car and the three resume their trip to Texas without Joan. Gilbert Jr testifies that he doesn’t see Joan again.
The charges against Gilbert are eventually dropped eleven months later when witnesses claim to have seen Joan, firstly in Chicago Heights, Illinois and then in Tennessee. The last alleged sighting of Joan was in December 1992. Four witnesses in total claim to have seen Joan. The state attorney’s office said that while the eye-witness statements were not reliable and their stories were not convincing, they had no choice but to drop the charges against Gilbert. I would assume this is because if they did proceed with the charges and then Gilbert was acquitted, he would then go free regardless of what future evidence is found.
Joan’s mother believes her daughter is deceased but still hopes for answers. Joan’s father passed away in 2009 without ever learning what happened to her. Joan’s family has placed a memorial marker for her near her hometown in Illinois. Gilbert continues to insist that Joan is alive and living in Tennessee or Kentucky. No one has heard from Joan in almost 28 years.
Joan Bernal was 34-years-old at the time of her disappearance, she would now be 62-years-old. She has been described as Caucasian, 5’2” and weighed about 135lbs. She had long brown hair and blue eyes. She has a scar on her upper lip and several scars on her knees from childhood knee surgeries. If you have any information about the whereabouts of Joan Bernal, please contact the Will County Sheriff’s Office on 815-727-8574.