Editor’s note: Information for this article was compiled from the Marion County Record archives, and additional sources as cited.
She stares straight ahead, expressionless and silent. She is an artist’s best guess in pencil, a sculptor’s conjecture in clay. No one knows how she smiled, how she laughed.
No one knows how she looked and sounded the day she was murdered 25 years ago, or the day her naked, bound body was hidden behind hay bales and underneath a hedge row along the Durham-Lincolnville road.
A quarter-century later, still no one knows who she was.
On Sept. 21, 1987, a county Road and Bridge Department crew was doing routine repairs to the Durham-Lincolnville road. Garry Klose of Marion was a member of the crew.
“We were blade-patching. They’d shoot a stretch of oil over a swag in the road and we’d dump blacktop on it, and a blade man would come along and smooth that out,” Klose said.
The crew was working both sides of the Pilsen road intersection at about 2 p.m. when Klose got a call on his radio from another crew member, Kenneth Jost.
“He said ‘I need for you to come down here,’” Klose said. He had pulled up on the west side, so I drove the truck down there.”
Jost had stopped his oil truck a half-mile west of the intersection, near a hedge row and large round hay bales on the north side of the road. He was in the ditch scooping up some dirt to shovel on a spot of oil when he saw a skull underneath the trees.
Klose arrived to find Jost and another man (Klose was uncertain who the man was) standing down by the hedge row, approximately 20 feet off the blacktop.
“As soon as I looked to where they were standing I saw the skeleton laying there, and you could see part of a rope around the wrist,” Klose said. The woman’s ankles and wrists were bound with rope.
Klose radioed the county dispatcher, and soon Sheriff Mike Childs and his deputies were combing the scene for clues.
“They got on their hands and knees and went through the dirt looking for evidence,” Klose said.
Kansas state troopers joined the search, and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation was brought into the case. Kansas State University anthropologist Michael Finnegan analyzed the remains to develop a profile of the victim.
Finnegan estimated the age of the woman to be between 22 and 30 years old. She was white, 5 feet, 8 inches tall, and weighed between 115 and 130 pounds. She had brown hair. Her left forearm had a cross-shaped tattoo with four marks radiating from the axis of the cross. Based on the decomposition of the body, Finnegan believed the homicide occurred sometime between June 21 and Aug. 10.
Childs said the woman likely was killed outside the county and brought here to conceal the crime.
Armed with this information and dental records, investigators went to work paring down a list of 350 missing person reports compiled by KBI that were similar to the victim. In less than two weeks, they eliminated 285 of them.
One possible match was extremely close, but additional analysis by Marion dentist D.K. Schroeder ruled it out. No matches were found in the KBI list, but the sheriff’s department and KBI continued to receive missing person inquiries from law enforcement agencies around the country.
Childs hired Topeka forensic artist Edna Armstrong to draw a frontal sketch and profile of the woman based on skull measurements and other evidence from the scene. The Record published the sketches Nov. 11.
Armstrong, consulting with Finnegan, used clay to create a three-dimensional model of the woman’s head, which she completed in mid-December. Photographs of the model were distributed to law enforcement agencies.
Nothing ever happened. The woman has never been identified.
No information about the killer was discovered, but Klose related one possibility.
“I was told years ago by (former sheriff) Ed Davies that they thought the guy that did it was in prison,” Klose said. “Whether that’s fact or not, I don’t know. That might’ve just been to stop the questions.”
The question of the woman’s identity remains, and has generated interest in recent years. In 2009, posts on a message board at Websleuths.com noted similarities between the unknown woman and Rita Mae Hughes, a woman from Houston, Texas, who went missing in December 1986.
The clay model picture and woman’s profile, as well as case number and KBI contact information, are posted on several different missing persons websites.