TAHLEQUAH — The story of Ronald Stan reads like a novel. But investigators say the saga of a Canadian man who disappeared after a barn fire in 1977 and resurfaced 37 years later with a new name and family in Tahlequah isn’t fiction.
Stan had been living as Jeffery Walton for decades when his secret unraveled. Many questions remain.
When he was 32, Stan was seen just before the mysterious barn fire and then disappeared, said Constable Laurie Houghton, a spokeswoman for the Ontario Provincial Police Middlesex County unit. Crews searched the debris but didn’t find human remains. Neighbors said he left behind a wife and two children, the Toronto Star newspaper reports.
In 1986, Stan was declared deceased by Canadian courts. But his case remained unsolved, and was reviewed earlier this year in a regular check of open cases, Houghton said.
“There are tools available to us today that weren’t available to us in 1977, as you can imagine,” she said.
The Cherokee Nation Marshal Service located Stan, now 69, in Tahlequah on Aug. 5. Only now, his name was Jeff Walton, and he was married with a grown son and grandchildren.
The police then broke the news to his wife, Debra Proctor. Her husband wasn’t who she thought he was.
She mulled over the news for a couple of days, then called Walton’s son, Jeff Walton Jr., who lives in New Orleans.
“I talked to my father and he confirmed it,” the son said when reached by telephone Tuesday. His father also explained why he did what he did, but Walton Jr. declined to elaborate.
Stan’s listed phone number is disconnected. He didn’t call Tuesday after a message was left with his son.
Walton Jr. said he doesn’t judge his father for keeping the secret all these years.
“It’s not a deal-breaker. He’s still the same gentleman I’ve known for 35 years and nothing changed,” he said. “Technically, in my mind, it’s a name change and that’s pretty much it.”
Walton’s wife wasn’t so forgiving. She filed for divorce in Cherokee County District Court on Aug. 14, asking a judge to award her two vehicles and 100 percent of her retirement. She requested Walton take responsibility for all the couple’s debt and pay for her attorney. Walton approved the terms, according to court records.
Thursday, Proctor posted a written farewell on her Facebook account.
“Ronald Stan GOODBYE I’ve lived my life with Compassion, Love & Service. The past 16 1/2 years will not change this, for I will continue to life this way,” it reads.
Attempts to reach Proctor by telephone were unsuccessful.
The couple married April 23, 2000, in Eureka Springs, Ark., a popular city for out-of-state weddings.
Walton worked as a plumber. He registered to vote in Oklahoma in 1998, records show.
Walton Jr. said his father suffered a stroke in January and is beginning to show signs of dementia.
Canadian authorities say he broke no laws and will not face charges in that country. Tahlequah’s police chief said his department is investigating. Walton doesn’t appear to have a criminal history.
The divorce file reveals another alias of Stan’s — Jeff Winton — adding to the mystery.
Contributing: Staff Writer Nolan Clay