Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Death in Harlan County, Kentucky

In 1969 there was a girl’s decomposing body discovered on Pine Mountain in Harlan County, Kentucky. A man picking wildflowers for his wife stumbled upon her. She was young, possibly late teens, 5 foot 3 inches tall, very petite, with strawberry blond hair. She had been beaten and stabbed. The body was so decomposed they couldn’t tell if she’d been raped but she was nude, and had been punched hard enough that some of her teeth rested in her throat.. It was believed she’d been murdered elsewhere and dumped about fifty feet off the Little Shepherd’s Trail. A receipt from a restaurant in Cincinatti, Ohio, a blouse, and a man’s sweater rested near her.

I was thirteen at the time of her death. At that time domestic violence was a thing swept under the rug by family members, endured by the parties involved, and certainly not put in the paper or discussed in the neighborhood. And discussions of rape were taboo. But this young girl’s death brought all those thoughts to the forefront of every mind in the small community of Harlan, Kentucky. Every parent who had a teenage daughter had been slapped with the possibility that by the grace of God, it could be them facing the death of a child.

My family physician, Dr. Phillip Begley was the coroner at that time. Which made it feel like I had a connection to this girl. He was in a sense her doctor, too. I’m sure he was asked by several of his patients for every gory detail. He must have kept the information about the case to himself, as he should have, because rumors and speculation became the next best thing to truth.

The funeral home who prepared the body for burial held a wake and despite the decomposition had an open casket in the hopes that someone in the community could identify her. That was certainly a social event and a circus all rolled up into one.

What made the girls death even more tragic was that she remained unidentified. At that time there were no databases of missing persons. No DNA profiles to send out. No computerized dental records to access. Authorities from outlying states did come to view the body in the hopes of identifying her, but no one did.

Despite all the curiosity and gossip, the community of Harlan embraced the dead child as one of their own and buried her in a local cemetery in a donated burial plot in a casket paid for by the city. The fire department acted as her pallbearers.

This nameless, girl who had died at the hands of a killer, still at large, became a legend in our community. She’s still talked about. Her death still speculated about. And she’s still mourned by the community who buried her. She touched every person old enough to understand how terrible it was that she had no family to claim her or to push for justice.

Recently I read an article in the Lexington Herald-Leader about a new nationwide database created to stockpile information about unidentified bodies discovered in each state. It’s been titled NamUs. I had great hopes that someone had entered her information in the database and went there myself to see if they had. She’s not there.

I know that it will probably take years to upload the information for every unidentified person discovered in our state, but time is running out for this girl. After 40 years of waiting, those who loved her are 40 years older. They may be sick or dead. But the desire to find her family is still alive in those of us who remember her. After 40 years of waiting, she deserves to go home. And her family deserves closure for their loss.

The chances of the killer being apprehended, if he’s still alive, are nil. I hope he’s been haunted every day of the 40 years that have passed by what he did. And if he hasn’t, he’ll have to take that up with his maker whenever he comes face to face with him. I hope it’s as painful for him as it’s probably been for her family all these years.

In the meantime, I’ll be checking back at the NamUs site to see if she’s been entered into their database. With all of today’s technology her features could still be reconstructed using FACE software from photographs taken 40 years ago, if they still exist. Her DNA could still be viable if her casket was properly buried. There are still roads not traveled to find her family. I hope the state of Kentucky decides to pursue them.

Though nothing can bring her back, I still want her to rest close to those who knew and loved her best.

If you’d like more information about NamUS you can go to their site at http://www.namus.gov and use the drop down menus to enter the parameters of any unidentified case and the state and find out about it.


Write on,
Teresa Reasor

14 comments:

Doralynn Kennedy said...

Thank you for posting that. I'm an victim's advocate with the police department. It's very moving that you have become this girl's advocate... fighting for justice for someone you never even knew. I'm very touched by this post. I hope she will be returned home, and that her family can find some peace in that. Doralynn

Teresa Reasor said...

Doralynn:
I was very moved by her death. And I haven't forgotten. Maybe there are other's out there who haven't as well.
Thanks for posting.
Teresa Reasor

Tracy Preston - Romance Writer said...

Teresa,

I remember you telling me about this story before and it has hung around in my head ever since. Something like this is just such a terrible thing. There are no words. It's just haunting. I can see why it's stayed with you.

Hopefully you'll write about it one day, and at least put her to rest in your heart. Until then, I'll keep hoping they figure out who she was and reunite her with any loved ones she may have out there. Somebody somewhere still needs closure.

Tracy

Miss Skunk said...

Every body should be laid to rest with their own name. I'm sure she is glad that you remember her.

Teresa Reasor said...

Tracy:
Yes, you've heard me talk about this before. It made such a huge impression on me as a 13 year old.
I'll never forget it or her.
Teresa R.

Teresa Reasor said...

Miss Skunk:
I believe she deserves to go home, too. Now that I'm a parent, it brings all this so much closer to me.
Teresa R.

Chicks of Characterization said...

Wow, Teresa what a heart wrenching story. AND what a great thing your town did by giving her the burial that she deserves. BUT I wholeheartedly agree with you, she needs to be home, surrounded by the family that loved her. I will pray that she is identified and brought home!

Carolynn Carey said...

That's a touching and gripping story, Teresa. I'm constantly amazed by the inhumanity of some people and the generosity of others. I would love to think that this poor girl's family might someday discover what became of her. Thanks for keeping her memory alive.

Mary Ricksen said...

Gosh I hope they catch who did it. And do the same thing to them...

But the peace of mind for her family is the best gift of all.

Teresa Reasor said...

Ladies:
Thanks so much for commenting on my blog. I have a friend who wrote about this girl in her book "Harlan County Haunts". She and I have both prayed a lot about this and want her to find home again. I have a call in to the reporter who wrote the article about the NamUs site. I'm hoping she'll use her contacts to see our Jane Doe added to the list.
Teresa R.

ArkansasCyndi said...

It's obvious that this murder affected deeply. I hope she finds her name and her family get some peace.

Teresa Reasor said...

Cyndi:
Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Yes, it really did effect me deeply.
I really wish we could find out who she is.
Teresa R.

Philip B. said...

Update: The unidentified female found in 1969 on Little Shepherd Trail has been identified thru DNA comparison. Let me know if you want more information.

Philip Bianchi
Harlan County Coroner

Teresa Reasor said...

I'd love to know who she was!!! Thank you.
Teresa Reasor