Details of Disappearance
Okonski was last seen at her residence in Tama, Iowa at 9:00 p.m. on April 16, 2000. She was living with her fiance, Tait Otis Purk, at the time and working as a waitress at the King Tower Cafe on Highway 30, having moved to Tama from Chicago, Illinois about a year before her disappearance. Purk stated he gave Okonski a few dollars to buy cigarettes and she left their home in the 500 block of east 5th Street, walking westbound, and never returned. He reported her missing on April 18.
The couple had planned to marry in May 2000, the month after Okonski disappeared. She left her two-year-old son behind in Purk's care; her family says it would be uncharacteristic of her to abandon the child. He is now in the care of relatives.
A photo of Purk is posted with this case summary. His and Okonski's relationship had been troubled and both parties had reported threats from the other in the past. In 1999, Purk was charged with domestic assault against Okonski and she got a no-contact order against him, but they reconciled and together had the order canceled. The assault case against Purk was dismissed a month before Okonski disappeared.
In September 2003, in response to a tip, investigators conducted an extensive search of a rural farm on Iowa Highway 21 near Irving, Iowa in Tama County and a salvage yard in Irving. The farm is owned by Purk's cousin and she may have been at the property the night before she vanished. Authorities were looking for Okonski's clothing and jewelry and other items which might point to her whereabouts. They collected some articles of clothing and bone fragments, but the evidence did not resolve Okonski's case and they stopped searching in October.
Okonski has had a history of legal trouble. She was a suspect in narcotics, domestic violence, and burglary cases at the time she disappeared, and at the time of her disappearance she had a warrant out for her arrest for failure to appear as a witness in court. She was receiving Social Security disability payments in 2000, but stopped collecting them after April 2000. Although she did have a high-risk lifestyle, she always kept in touch with her family, and because of the lack of contact from her they believe she's deceased.
In 2016, authorities announced they were investigating Okonski's case as a homicide. In December of that year, Purk was charged with her murder. He was incarcerated on unrelated federal drug and weapons charges at the time. At his trial in May 2017, his defense argued there was no evidence to prove Okonski was even dead.
However, two witnesses testified that Purk had told them he had killed Okonski and buried her body in a remote wooded area, possibly a state park or a nature preserve. He allegedly told one witness he had killed her to stop her from telling the police he had stolen a truck and burglarized a convenience store, and the second witness stated Purk told him he had grabbed Okonski by the throat during an argument and "choke slammed" her, accidentally breaking her neck. Purk had a history of physically abusing Okonski and strangling her unconconscious during arguments, and just before her disappearance he had allegedly threatened to murder her.
Purk was convicted of murder, but in August 2017, his conviction was overturned for lack of evidence. The appeals court noted, "There exists no direct physical evidence of Ms. Okonski's death, or the means by which it was allegedly accomplished," and that her body had never been found in spite of multiple law enforcement searches in several locations.
In December 2017, Purk was tried a second time, this time before a judge rather than a jury. He was convicted again and faces a sentence of fifty years in prison. He will have to serve 70% of his sentence before becoming eligible for parole.
Foul play is suspected in Okonski's case due to the circumstances involved.