Nov. 27—Nearly five years ago, three women with drastically different backgrounds and circumstances sat and bonded over tea.
A horrible incident drew Cheryl Holsonbake, Diane Byrne and Jane Parrent together that day: their kids had gone missing or died around March to April 2018. Micah Holsonbake, 35, Byrne's son James Kulstad and Parrent's daughter Baylee Despot each had acquaintances and names that tied them together.
This year closed a chapter of the Bakersfield 3 — a name the women gave to their children to raise awareness about their deaths — with the murder conviction of Matthew Queen, who jurors found guilty of second-degree murder in May in the death of Micah Holsonbake.
Prosecutors said Queen and his girlfriend Despot — who was also charged with murder — killed Holsonbake in a friend's garage. Queen testified at trial that Despot dropped a 40-pound dumbbell on Holsonbake's head, which immediately killed him. The couple then chopped up Holsonbake and distributed his body around Kern County, he testified.
But with the anniversary of the murder of Kulstad, who died in an unrelated incident, and the five-year anniversary of Despot's disappearance approaching, the mothers have come a long way from simply talking around tea. They've brought increased attention to the Bakersfield Police Department's Secret Witness program, created a nonprofit named Bakersfield 3 and continue to advocate for other families traumatized through homicide. People worldwide pay attention to their case and offer condolences.
"Our stories aren't over yet," Parrent said in a recent interview with her two counterparts.
Despite Despot's missing status, Parrent said she knows her daughter's location.
"I know where she is," Parrent said. "I know she's been murdered and she's in heaven."
"Baylee would have been home," Parrent later added. "She would have found her way home."
And so she embarks on fruitless quests to find her daughter's body, especially after Holsonbake's skull and arm were found in Lake Ming and Hart Park's lake, respectively. During a phone interview, she rattles off facts about Lake Buena Vista she's learned by scouring it for her daughter.
She frequents the area, especially after a Santa Ana woman's leg emerged from its murky depths in 2018. That could mean other bodies are wasting away underwater and divers need to prioritize searching waters, she said.
"How many other people can be sitting out there from all the years" because they know the lake is not going to get drained?, Parrent wonders.
A search should be done before Lake Buena Vista hosts the music festival Lightning in a Bottle. County supervisors could earmark funds raised from the festival to be diverted toward diving through its waters, she said.
A leg was found, she said — the rest of the Santa Ana's woman body should be located, as well.
That feeling isn't unfamiliar to Parrent. She wonders: Did Queen have something to do with Despot's disappearance? Did he have help? She will tell people planning to ride quads in desert areas or camping to investigate suspicious sights because it could be a missing body.
"I have nowhere to look and everywhere to look for her," Parrent added of her search for Despot.
Grief compounded for the Holsonbake family as they sat through the weekslong trial and repeatedly heard about their son's murder.
But, they received some form of closure after Micah Holsonbake's remains were released to them, said Cheryl Holsonbake. They didn't have his complete body, but cremated him and "brought him home."
"It was our role to choose where and how his body was going to be honored," she added.
This role remained unfilled even after Matthew Queen was given the opportunity to drive around Kern County and take police to where he discarded Holsonbake's body. The trial paused for Queen to lead officers around the county, but no remains where found.
The Holsonbakes got a chance to choose what happened with Micah, and it was important for them to choose his final resting place.
"It is absolutely essential for a family that (law enforcement) go looking for" human remains if they are lost, Holsonbake added.
Diane Byrne has been working on their nonprofit Bakersfield 3, which hosts an annual golf tournament to raise money for Secret Witness — when she can.
This year, she was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. She was in pain as she spoke to a reporter over the phone and tells women to be their own advocate in health care. Byrne was misdiagnosed before finally getting correct answers.
"Yes and no," Byrne said of her diagnosis creating an urgency to resolve her son's case. Kulstad died in a drive-by shooting, unrelated to Holsonbake's death.
Byrne said she believes she will live to see an outcome for Kulstad's case, but understands investigating and piecing together a bulletproof case takes time.
It remains under investigation by the BPD.
Each woman's work has led to Secret Witness being infused with cash, which allows families to get closure in their loved ones' cases.
Secret Witness includes local law enforcement officers who decide when to disburse money for information leading to an arrest and conviction in a murder case. The assigned officer on a case will pitch to board members why they've exhausted every lead, and money could be assigned.
Holsonbake said the program's funding comes from contributions and donations. Family members can also earmark dollars toward a particular case.
"Don't be afraid to do the right thing and say something if you know something," Parrent said of coming forward to provide vital tips.
The Bakersfield 3 nonprofit raised $20,100 this year from its golf tournament for Secret Witness, according to its board members. The next tournament is scheduled for April 2023.
Donating money and raising awareness for other families is what continues each mother's work. Now, they are like family, Cheryl Holsonbake added.
"I personally could not have survived without having these two women in my life and in our family's lives," she noted.
She added: "We've just been together doing hard, hard stuff for a long time now."
The next chapter is finding Holsonbake's body, locating Despot and figuring out who killed Kulstad, Parrent said.
"We are not going to stop until it's all done," she added. "And then we (still) won't stop — we will keep raising money for Secret Witness."
You can reach Ishani Desai at 661-395-7417. You can also follow her at @_ishanidesai on Twitter.