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 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