Vanished into Thin Air: Shannon LaBau
In 1999, Shannon LaBau was just getting his life together. Why and how did it unravel so quickly?
Packaged in a hulking 6’3”, 240-pound frame, Shannon Clair LaBau’s surface impression sometimes intimidated others. Clearly, he was a large, even imposing figure, and now and again he was given to acting the part his size suggested.
To those who knew him, on the other hand, the 23-year-old came across more as an oversized adolescent than a brawny bull of a man. At his core, Shannon LaBau was a mischievous jokester, his size and strength much belying the insecurities of an amiable, fun-loving kid with a perennial “goofy grin,” as one family member described him.
Family connections meant a good deal to Shannon. Indeed, before he would venture out to the store to pick up a gallon of milk or run some other simple errand, he’d usually phone a relative, soliciting their company.
Shannon loved being around his mother, Sally LaBau. When he opened his first bank account in his late teens, he insisted that she oversee the transaction. In like fashion, Shannon’s best woodworking project was a flower bed holder that he gave Sally one time as a present.
Indeed, Shannon loved and trusted those nearest and dearest to him.
According to law enforcement and available police records, such confidence in others might just have led to his ruin.
Born a Rambling Young Man
Shannon LaBau was born on October 31, 1975, in Miller, South Dakota. His mother, Sally LaBau, was a California native who had married a man named Jerold Frederick Andersen, with whom she already had five children. On June 7, 1966, Jerold was killed in a construction accident, struck by a piece of heavy equipment when he was just 30.
Sally, widowed at 28 and responsible for five children who ranged in age from six months to 8 years, packed up and resettled on a friend’s farm in South Dakota. This new place would provide a new start, a chance to heal, and a time to replace old memories with new ones.
In South Dakota, Sally met Val Clair LaBau, a postal carrier, and with him, she had two more children, Shannon in 1975 and Josh in 1977. Val Labau, nicknamed “Blondie,” possessed a Jekyll and Hyde personality; alcohol was the principal cause of his marked duality.
Affable when sober but a very mean drunk, Val, a gangly Vietnam veteran, suffered hallucinations and flashbacks, heightened in their intensity when he imbibed, which was all too frequently.
Eventually, Sally, a sorter and dock worker at the United States Postal Service, transferred from South Dakota to another post office in Thousand Oaks, California. Her father was there, dying of cancer, and she wanted to be nearby to take care of him. Now divorced from her second husband, the trip provided Sally with much-needed personal space away from Blondie LaBau.
It would be Sally, Shannon, and Shannon’s younger brother Josh who would experience California. The rest of Sally’s older brood remained with friends in South Dakota. Sally worked the night shift and on special occasions she would take her two young boys on day trips to the beach or the zoo, or perhaps whale watching under blood-orange sunsets. This period cemented an attachment that would be central to Shannon’s life.
Sally again soon filed transfer requests, this time with several post offices in the Pacific Northwest. The first job response came from Helena, Montana; Sally took the job and embraced life in the Rockies. Before long she’d bought a small house at the Ten Mile Creek Estates, providing the foundation of a good quality of life for her two sons.
“Shannon was extremely close with our mother,” says Shannon’s half-sister Kari Weber. “He had a protective side with people, and he was always at her house, helping her out or talking with her. He’d bring his car over there to work on it. They were very close.”
Shannon, however, longed for a bond with his father, and he even once convinced Sally to allow him and younger brother Josh to live with their father in South Dakota. Invariably during those few months, Blondie’s sharp tongue was employed against the boys, and Shannon, then a sophomore in high school, resented his father’s treatment.
“It was a bad time for Shannon,” recalls Pat Andersen, another half-sister. “Shannon was stubborn and he stayed with his dad longer than he wanted. Blondie drank hard. When he was drinking, he was hard on the boys.”
“Good, Sweet Dude”
Who Lacked Confidence
Unbowed, Shannon returned to Helena with his brother Josh and, despite feelings of displacement, he did his best to re-adjust to Helena High School. Friendly but not extroverted, Shannon didn’t crave a whole bunch of friends, preferring to lean on his family for support.
“Unlike a lot of young people, Shannon always came to the family gatherings,” says Kari Weber. “He was at every single event.”
“Shannon didn’t like to go places alone,” explains his nephew Jon Andersen. “He was always asking me to go to the store to get milk, because he didn’t want to go by himself. He was a mama’s boy, always standing up for her, and always wanting to protect her. He was a good, sweet dude, yet people were afraid of him.
“Shannon was only two years older than I was. Shannon, Josh, and I were almost like brothers, because we were all so close in age. But Shannon wanted to be that big brother and that father figure to me.”
Shannon loved to rib people, especially his mother, who was a vegetarian.
“He told vegetarian jokes to her,” says Kari Weber. “He liked to be funny and to make people laugh. He loved being taller than everyone else, and he’d swing the little kids around, and they loved all of that.”
In spite of this, Shannon sorely lacked self-confidence and found Helena harder to acclimate to than the smaller town life in South Dakota or even life on the West Coast. In truth, he was a bit klutzy and uncoordinated, still adjusting to his large form and long limbs. Shooting hoops outside his mother’s house was about the extent of his sporting life.
Like most teenage kids, Shannon tried to find a peer group, a pack of friends where things all jibed. He loved heavy metal and hard-rock music – indeed, Guns N’ Roses were the emperors of his airwaves – and he grew his thick, blonde locks disobediently.
Ultimately, Shannon found physical and, perhaps even more importantly, psychological validation through lifting weights and bulking up.
“Shannon wanted to appear tall and strong and look like a big, tough guy,” remembers Weber. “As big and imposing as he was, he didn’t have any confidence. If you were to be tough with him, he was a bit of a softy on the inside, especially if someone really tough came along.”
Shannon Meets “New Friend”
Shannon LaBau and Steve Rummel met while they were students at Helena High School. They both desired to be buff alpha males, spotting each other at The Broadwater, a Helena athletic and health club where they bonded around bench presses, back squats, and very muscular necks.
Born in 1975, Steve Rummel, according to later investigative reports obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, “had a reputation as a bully and angry individual.”
“Abusive, aggressive, and deceitful,” is how another witness later described Steve to investigators.
“Something about being the tough guy appealed to Shannon, too,” recalls Shannon’s nephew Jon Andersen. “It might have been Shannon wanting to fit in and to have that connection with a friend. I never remember Shannon lifting his hand toward anybody. I don’t know how he got so close to someone so different than him. “
From the onset, the 6’8” Steve Rummel was in complete control of the relationship. He was the leader, and Shannon was clearly the follower.
Fatherhood and Transitions
Shannon LaBau graduated from high school in 1994 and, a few years later, he met a girl named Leslie. It was a perfect cross of experimentation and impulsivity. Fatherhood arrived unexpectedly. On August 20, 1997, a 10-pound baby girl entered Shannon and Leslie’s world.
He and Leslie never married. The pair fought frequently and, at times, their arguments were volatile. For starters, Leslie didn’t like Shannon’s choice of friends, particularly his association with Steve Rummel. Shannon and Steve would drink at dingy places, and at times an argument would develop between the two, especially if Shannon’s generosity came to a halt and he refused to buy Steve additional drinks.
Leslie told Shannon that he needed to grow up, take on more responsibility, and be more serious about accepting his role as a father.
Around that time, Shannon and his own father became further estranged. When Blondie visited his newborn granddaughter, the visit ended as caustically as had Shannon’s failed attempt to live with his father years earlier.
Shannon looked to other male members of the family for guidance. He liked to talk about muscle cars, or anything car-related, with his half-sister Kari’s husband, Ron Weber. Shannon frequented Ron’s garage, parking his Chevy Nova inside and talking with him about all things automotive. It was a healthy outlet for Shannon: plenty of sparks, crossed wires, late nights, and elbow grease. Time spent with Ron imbued him with a sense of purpose and accomplishment – precisely the kind of self-worth that was otherwise so hard to attain in this young man’s life.
Working as a chef at a busy sports bar in Helena, Shannon learned a number of on-the-job skills. Despite Shannon’s chronic tardiness, once he started with the skillet, underdog pride suffused his work, and he rarely declined an extra shift. When one of the staff would pop behind the line to let him know that there was a table full of his relatives outside, he would allow a few minutes to duck out and goof around before retreating in his lumbering gait back to the kitchen.
When the weather was nice, he went hiking and took his dog Harley, a stray from the Humane Society, on long walks. The two made for an almost comic pair. Big Shannon, and little Harley, a German shepherd mix, with a lousy hip, strange walk, and an exceedingly long tongue.
At age 23, Shannon’s life was a relatively ordinary mixture of straightening out and sowing oats. Smoking pot wasn’t his pleasure. In fact, he disavowed drugs, and “he hated the fact that we were even pot smokers,” according to one friend. His beer drinking wasn’t fussy; the cheapest brands satisfied him.
Shannon enjoyed weightlifting and partying, and he lived alone in a property he had purchased close to the sports bar where he worked. Not one to shy away from a physical quarrel, he made efforts at curbing his temper and becoming a better adult and man than his own father was. In the midst of this, Shannon’s ex-girlfriend Leslie indicated that she was considering returning to Helena with their daughter after a period of estrangement.
No doubt he would’ve grown and matured through the pleasure and punch of experience, learned from his mistakes, and no doubt touched more lives with his “goofy grin.”
February 23, 1999
Shannon Clair LaBau was seen for the final time between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. in the vicinity of the 900 block of Kessler St. in downtown Helena. Security cameras recorded Shannon at a Helena bank at around 9 a.m., where he withdrew about $3,000 in cash from the sale of a black Chevy Nova.
According to later investigative reports, Steve Rummel had told Shannon that there was an old farmer who owned a muscle car somewhere close to Townsend, a car that might be of interest to Shannon. Rummel picked up Shannon, and in his initial statement to the police, Rummel testified that they left Helena to scope out the vehicle, and on the way, “shoot a couple of cows.”
In Rummel’s initial statement, he told police that he and Shannon were together on the Walking Mall area at about 11 a.m. Rummel told Sally LaBau, according to the April 28, 1999 edition of the Helena Independent Record, that after he and Shannon returned from Townsend, he dropped Shannon off in downtown Helena at about 11 a.m.
Rummel also told Sally, according to the same article, that Shannon relayed a message through him to his mother that “she should go lock up his mobile home and pick up his checks from work.”
Clearly, Shannon intended to go to Townsend with Rummell and either view or purchase a vehicle from an acquaintance of Steve’s.
According to witness depositions, Rummel told several people that the seller of the automobile had raised his price “so Shannon had not bought the vehicle.”
According to multiple deposed witnesses, LaBau had been “very excited” about buying the vehicle.
Two days before Shannon’s disappearance on February 21, 1999, Steve Rummel had asked a friend whether they had a pistol that he could borrow, “as he needed to help a rancher kill a cow.”
According to investigative reports, Rummel told one group of people that he dropped Shannon off at the Placer Building in downtown Helena, told another that he had let Shannon off at the Atlas Building, and yet another that he had taken Shannon to the bus station in Butte “because Shannon was afraid of someone” to whom he owed drug money. Another witness stated that Rummel said that he drove “clear to Billings and dumped his friend off there.”
A dark pattern emerges while examining the life of recidivism of Steve Rummel. His first felony conviction dates back to August 24, 1994, a theft charge. By the time of Shannon’s disappearance in 1999, Rummel had tallied a prolific criminal history, including arrests for obstructing a police officer, unlawful transaction with a minor, domestic abuse, tampering with or fabricating evidence, concealed-weapons violations, and numerous probation violations.
According to investigative police reports obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Steve often made fun of Shannon and his hair, “called him a girl,” and “used Shannon’s friendship for his own benefit.”
More troubling still, Rummel, according to police reports, threatened a woman with death and had stated that his older brother was a “high priest of Satan worshippers” who had previously disposed of bodies. Rummel stated that if he were to kill someone that he would “ground teeth” to avoid the body’s identification.
According to witness depositions “immediately following the disappearance,” Rummel frequented the sports bar where Shannon worked on a daily basis, inquiring about the investigation and he “had a new tattoo right after the disappearance of Shannon.”
Shannon’s disappearance has been treated from the beginning as a homicide. He left behind a baby girl; his money remained untouched in his bank account, and paychecks were waiting for him at the sports bar. His ATM card was never used again. Severely near-sighted, he couldn’t have made it far without his contacts.
When Shannon missed a day at work, his mother Sally LaBau was overcome with unspeakable dread. From that point forward, his disappearance would be a mystery to his loved ones.
“He was the guy I looked up to the most and who I wanted to be like,” says Shannon’s nephew Jon Andersen. “He was smart and tough. When I heard that he was gone, it changed my life completely. Here was the strongest person I knew, and he was gone, and it had everything to do with who he thought was probably his best friend. He was becoming the person he wanted to be – and that was all taken from him.”
Shortly after Shannon’s disappearance, on March 1, 1999, Steve Rummel purchased “a fairly expensive ring” for a girlfriend, “a 10K channel diamond band, ½ K diamond” that cost $339, with an additional $69 for a warranty, for a total of $408.”
An ex-law enforcement official, identified only as “OIC-16,” detailed Rummel’s “antagonistic” demeanor towards the police investigation, “almost bragging” that he had concealed facts and evidence from the police. According to another “ex-law enforcement official,” whose name has been redacted, Steve “almost bragged about the fact that he had not told the police anything.”
On June 8, 1999, Rummel showed up at a used-car lot in Helena and traded in the vehicle that he owned at the time of Shannon’s disappearance, an orange 1976 Chevrolet K-1500 pickup truck, valued at $3,200. When the Helena Police confiscated that vehicle for crime-lab analysis, according to investigative reports, the truck “was cleaned and detailed a few days before.”
Two days after the police returned the vehicle to the car dealer’s lot, it was stolen. There was no broken glass in the lot, according to documents, and “it is assumed that the person who stole the vehicle had an extra set of vehicle keys.” It has never been seen since. The VIN number of the stolen vehicle was CK446F479080.
Over almost two decades now, Helena authorities have tracked down a number of tips regarding Shannon’s whereabouts. Searches have been conducted by foot, with packs of cadaver dogs, and through overhead aerials. Authorities have searched streams and ditches, mine shafts and dark holes, even the cement plant that once employed Rummel’s father.
One year after Shannon’s disappearance, Steve Rummel was detained on a rape charge for a crime against a female committed in his pickup truck in Boulder, MT, violating his probation for a series of felony thefts and a possession-of-a-firearm conviction. In a federal court appearance in 2001, Rummel was remanded to custody of the marshals after a detention hearing where Helena police officer Mike Saindon testified that the only real lead in
Shannon’s case led to Rummel. Officer Saindon, an amateur pilot, told the judge that for some time he frequently flew above Helena and several other surrounding counties searching for any sign of an obvious geographical disturbance that might lead to discovering Shannon’s body.
Rummel served his time on the rape charge in Jefferson County, and as a habitual violent offender, he must register his whereabouts with the state of Montana. According to the Montana Department of Justice sexual and violent offender database, Steven Lee Rummel still resides in Helena.
Declared Legally Dead
In 2007, Sally LaBau had to face down the indignity and pain of declaring her son, Shannon Clair LaBau, legally dead.
“She didn’t want to do it,” recalls Pat Andersen. “She knew he was dead, even though she always held out that 0.5% hope that he wasn’t. Mom declared him dead for [his daughter] and Leslie; so [his child] could collect Social Security. It was one of the hardest days of my life to see that. It was so traumatic and awful for her.”
Most unsolved-murder victims are soon forgotten, outside a small circle of family and friends. Even notorious cases like this one fade in time. Many in Helena are far too young to remember Shannon’s story as news. Indeed, since Sally LaBau died in 2007, shortly after Shannon was declared legally dead, other family members also have struggled to keep his memory aflame.
Who might Shannon LaBau be today? Would he have furthered his interest in computers? Would he own his own mechanic’s shop? Perhaps culinary school would have been followed by a career of cooking the signature prime-rib dishes he loved to marinate and serve.
One thing Shannon LaBau would undoubtedly be today is a grandfather. In 2019, his daughter welcomed a son into the world. Earlier that same year, at her wedding celebration in Idaho, an empty chair was placed at the front row of the main aisle for her father.
“Shannon wasn’t perfect but he was a good person,” says Kari Weber, his half-sister. “He really had a good heart. He really would have grown into something good, a chef, a mechanic. I think about how he would be now, imagining him as a grandpa.”
In the minds of Shannon’s loved ones, there exists the hope that someone will eventually answer for his life.
“All these people [who might be holding information] are in their forties and have kids the same age as what Shannon was when he disappeared,” says another half-sister, Pat Andersen.
“If that was your child, would you want people to come forward with the information that would bring your child home? All we want is to bring Shannon home. He never had a memorial; he never had a funeral. He deserves so much more.”
Anyone with information regarding the disappearance of Shannon LaBau, may contact Crimestoppers at (406) 443-2000 or Helena Police Detective Danny David at firstname.lastname@example.org.