Willie Stanberry prepares for the Celebration of Life planned for the seventh anniversary of his father's disappearance.
The clank of traffic shuffles along West 25th Street. It is a Sunday morning, which means everybody’s out for the day. Just off the main drag, Willie and Carla Stanberry are walking up the icy stairs in front of Franklin Circle Church. They’re dressed impeccably because today is, after all, a celebration.
Inside, yawning wooden beams cross over a quiet sanctuary. The Virgin Mary embraces an infant Jesus Christ and looks down across towering organ pipes. The pulpit, from which the Rev. Allen Harris leads formal services, is empty. Dangling ceremoniously from the ceiling are dimly lit chandeliers. The Stanberrys are here a bit early to get everything ready. They’re in from Erie, Pa., for the weekend, and the whole family’s going to be here soon.
Willie says that today is a Celebration of Life, and the slight rasp of his voice curls richly around those capitalized letters. “I don’t want my family to be sad. He wouldn’t want us to be sad,” he says. “He knows I’m gonna keep going, keep pushing, keep doing everything I can - fighting - whether I find him dead or alive.”
He’s talking about his father, Chuck Standberry Sr., who disappeared on Dec. 7, 2006, in Cleveland. Since then, Willie, whose own last name drops the “d,” hasn’t chanced upon a single clue as to what happened that night. The police sure haven’t helped. And the streets aren’t coughing up answers. Willie, the kind of son who takes up the mantle of family when times get difficult, says he hasn’t exhaled in seven years.
“Not knowing is the worst,” he says, choking back tears and shifting his gaze toward the stained-glass windows above him. “I see some people who lost their parents; they know, though. And I just want to know. How am I supposed to do that?”
Chuck Standberry played at the Apollo.
The bassist performed with members of The Temptations all over the country. But his shows at the Apollo were pinnacle flashes in the man’s otherwise ordinary life. He liked to kid his son, Willie, about that. Willie had played all over the country, too; he took after his dad and picked up the bass as a teenager. But Willie hadn’t played at the Apollo, and Chuck liked to rib him now and then about that.
“Everything he did, I tried to emulate. He was my idol,” Willie says. It’s been seven years now since Willie’s idol disappeared into the thin air of Cleveland’s near east side. In the early days, when answers seemed closer and within reach, he spent time trying to recreate his father’s last known actions.
Chuck was 73 years old and in bad health when he left a friend’s house in the twilit hours of Dec. 7, 2006. He had phoned his girlfriend, Betty, to let her know he’d be over soon.
The best guesses as to what happened begin near East 89th Street and Grand Avenue. Chuck was wearing a beige jogging suit and a suede jacket and driving a 2001 Ford Focus (license plate: EAU 8688). Some stories put him at the Sunoco gas station near East 123rd and St. Clair.
Chuck never made it to Betty’s place. He and his car disappeared completely.
“He had a good heart. Like anybody, he had faults,” Willie says, now shielding cloudy eyes with a tissue. He doesn’t want to be crying when the family arrives here at the church, so he’s not resisting his emotions too much right now. Apart from Willie’s low, gravelly voice, it is completely quiet in the sanctuary. But he rolls onward, describing his father in vivid detail before the man’s sudden disappearance turned the family’s world upside-down.
When Willie was 5 years old, he attended a concert his father’s band was playing. He did this often throughout his childhood. When the musicians were called up to the stage, Willie worried that his father might make him stay seated. But Chuck pulled his son up with him and let the boy hang out onstage as the gospel music started up. The young boy looked out at a crowd completely engaged with his father’s music. The sensation stole his breath.
“I said, ‘Hm. Yeah, I like this,’” Willie remembers. “I’ll never forget that.” A few years later, the Jackson 5 showed up on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, cementing the dream to be an entertainer like his dad.
Willie traveled the country, sure, playing music for thousands of people. But he never played the Apollo.
Willie still laughs about that one.
The East Cleveland Police Department’s records on Chuck Standberry are scant.
“If the East Cleveland Police Department had a Twitter account, they could put the entire investigative report that they’ve provided on one tweet,” private investigator Pete Demopolous says. And that’s not a far cry from the truth. The one-page record obtained by Scene lists little more than the date and time of the Dec. 8, 2006, report of a missing person.
“I don’t know how to be politically correct in saying this, but what a mess,” Demopolous says. He’s been working the Standberry case since 2009, when the narrative Willie was explaining to the local media caught his eye. This whole story is completely strange, Demopolous was thinking back then. He called Willie out of the blue and introduced himself as someone willing to help.
“He was my angel,” Willie says. “I don’t know where he came from. I don’t know how he found out.” He’s saying this because very few people have lent a hand over the past seven years. The East Cleveland police surely haven’t done anything. The Cleveland police won’t take the case because, well, it’s being handled by East Cleveland. Willie and his family don’t know what to believe.
One avenue he’s been working to pursue is the act of getting Chuck Standberry declared legally dead. That might kickstart a homicide investigation, which might lead to an answer that might put the tireless search to an end. But that’s a lot of “might” for a family that’s been through hell.
“We’ve been stuck. If it wasn’t for my wife, I would have lost my mind,” Willie says.
The past seven years have been brutal. Willie underwent reconstructive spine surgery. (“I couldn’t move. I couldn’t do nothing,” he recalls. Some days, even now, he still can’t walk.) Later, Willie’s own son was murdered. Chuck’s brother and sister have died in the years since his disappearance. He knows his dad would have been with him during those trying times.
But Chuck never showed up.
“When this happened, the next day I knew,” Willie says. “I got up to go to work the next morning and I walked into the living room and I told her, ‘I need my black suit.’ She said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because my dad isn’t here and we’re not going to find him.’ Now, that was the man in me. The kid in me was like, ‘I gotta find my daddy.’”
There’s still plenty of work to be done on that front. Willie, of course, wants authorities in Cleveland and East Cleveland - the police, the FBI, anyone who might know anything - to launch a formal investigation into his father’s disappearance. He contends that the best thing would be for East Cleveland to relinquish the case and let other agencies get to work.
For now, the walls of Franklin Circle Church shield him and Carla and Pete Demopolous and the Rev. Allen Harris from the light flurries and icy wind outside. The rest of the family will be here soon, stepping in from the bustle of Sunday morning in Cleveland. Today is a celebration of life.
“Today is the day I’m gonna get to exhale,” Willie says. “Today marks the seventh year. We can celebrate his life and show all the good that did for us. I’m in a good place.” He puts one arm around his wife and holds her purse under the other. They walk into the chapel and wait for everyone to arrive. Now and then, Willie tilts his head upward and casts a gentle smile toward his father.