On March 5, 2016, Joey LaBute Jr. went out for drinks with friends in Columbus, OH, and vanished. Three weeks later, his water-logged corpse was found half-submerged in the Scioto River. Five years later, the case remains unsolved, and his unknown killer is still at large. LaBute’s disappearance has more questions than answers. What happened to Joey LaBute?
Friday nights in the Short North district of Columbus are typically busy but the crowds were extraordinarily large that weekend due to The Arnold Sports Festival. Each year, tens of thousands of fitness junkies from around the Midwest flock to Columbus to attend the event hosted by movie star and former governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
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Joey LaBute was excited to have recently come out as gay. He planned to celebrate in the Short North the following Friday, March 5, with his cousin Stacey and her husband Kyle. They started the evening with dinner at Fabian’s Pizza then relocated to the popular hot spot, Union Café, for drinks around 9 pm.
LaBute was normally a homebody, but that night he was in high spirits, dancing and mingling with other patrons. Just after midnight, Stacey lost track of Joey in the packed bar and tried to call Joey’s cellphone. Stacey wasn’t feeling well, and she left with Kyle. Joey had driven himself to the bar and Stacey assumed he was staying with friends who lived in the area, as he often did.
According to a surveillance video, Joey was seen at 12:15 am on the dancefloor, then entering and exiting the bathroom. At 12:30 am, the cameras captured LaBute leaving Union Café alone, without a coat, and was never seen alive again.
Joey’s Suspicious Text
At 1:22 am, a friend of Joey LaBute received a text that said, “Jnhstioj”. Some believe this could mean “Johnstown,” a city near Columbus where Stacey worked. The friend that received the text confirmed that they had talked about Johnstown earlier in the night.
Joey’s ex-boyfriend, Eric Renner says he also received a text from Joey in the early morning hours that said, “I’m driving,” though this text has never been confirmed by police.
When no one heard from Joey by the end of the weekend, friends and family began passing out flyers heavily around Columbus, looking for any information leading to his whereabouts. They maintained hope until March 29, when his body was discovered.
Cause Of Death Still Unknown
LaBute’s cause of death is still a mystery. Medical Examiners determined that he was dead before his body entered the water, as no water was found in his lungs or stomach. The Franklin County Coroner confirmed that there were no signs of struggle or physical abuse and the only drugs found in his system were alcohol and caffeine.
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The area where his body would eventually be found had already been searched, suggesting he was dumped after the killer knew search teams would be elsewhere.
In March of 2017, one year after Joey LaBute’s death, police ramped up their efforts on the case. They gathered information and kept an eye on the crowds returning to Columbus for the Arnold Sports Festival for suspicious activity, but leads were minimal.
One online belief suggests the Smiley Face Killer could be involved in the death of Joey LaBute and the disappearance of another Columbus man, Brian Shaffer, six years prior. However, the Smiley Face Killer is only a theory and not a proven murderer, and no evidence of the Smiley Face Killer’s trademark “graffiti” was found near his body.
If you or anyone you know has any tips or information on the death of Joey LaBute, please contact Columbus Police at 614-645-8477.
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