Todd Matthews had an obsession. He lives in Livingston, Tennessee, and out of the blue he recently contacted Master Detective. He had a fascinating story to tell. It began before he was born, but he was destined to become an important part of it. Thanks to him, it was to have a sequel...
Case report by Todd Matthews and Alan Markfield
The saga started on Friday, May 17th, 1968, when Wilbur Riddle, a Kentucky water well-driller, turned up for work at a drill site near Georgetown. A note asked him to wait for his boss before he started drilling. Killing time, he looked around and spotted some telephone workers in the distance. They were replacing old-style glass insulators. He had a friend who sold the old insulators as paperweights at $3 a time, so he headed for where they'd been discarded and began collecting them .
Wilbur Riddle & Todd Matthews on location for the film RESURRECTION
The spot was near Eagle Creek, along a dirt road just off the then new four-lane Interstate 75. Having gathered an armful of the insulators, Wilbur was making his way back up the embankment to his truck when something caught his eye. It was a five-foot-long bundle roped-up in an old green tarpaulin. When he tugged at it, the tarpaulin tore and he caught the whiff of a foul smell. He nudged the bundle with his foot, sending it rolling down the slope. And as it rolled, the outside wrapper came off, revealing the shape of a human body.
Wilbur Riddle had seen enough. He jumped into his truck and drove the two miles to the nearest filling station, where he phoned the Scott County Sheriff Bobby Vance.
When the sheriff arrived with Deputy Jimmy Williams and Deputy Coroner Kenneth Grant, the well-driller led them to the bundle. As Vance bent to examine it, he recoiled and gagged. "Come here and smell this," he called to his deputy.
Riddle and Sheriff Vance at scene where the body was found.
"There's only one odor in the world like that," said Williams, "and that's the stench of rotting human flesh."
Friday, May 17th, 1968.
Deputy Coroner Kenneth Grant and the tarpaulin
covered corpse of the Tent Girl whose identity would remain a mystery for 30 years
The rope securing the bundle was cut, and the canvas was opened to reveal the nude, badly decomposed body of a young woman. Her right hand was clenched, as if she'd tried to claw her way out of her shroud. Her eyes had rotted away, and her once-white flesh was mottled by pock-marks of deterioration.
An ambulance took the corpse to St. Joseph's Hospital in Lexington, where Coroner Grant began his examination. When Detective Edward L. Cornett of the state police arrived from Frankfort an hour later, Grant told him: "We've just finished a preliminary autopsy. The victim was a white female, sixteen to nineteen years, five feet one inch tall, eight stone. She had short, reddish-brown hair, and no identifying marks or scars."
"Could you get any fingerprints?" asked the detective.
"Not yet, the body is too badly decomposed."
But Cornett had one of the girl's fingers removed and soaked in a chemical for a week. Finally it yielded a good print.
The canvas shroud in which the body was found prompted the Kentucky Post & Times Star, to dub the unidentified teenager "The Tent Girl," and the name stuck.
The Scott County Attorney Virgil Pryor headed attempts to establish her identity. He called in Dr. Frank Cleveland, an Ohio coroner acknowledged as an expert in his field, to perform a final autopsy.
"I could find no trace of poison or toxic material in the girl's body," Cleveland reported. "There was a slight discolouration of her skull, but the autopsy shows no definite cause of death."
Cornett told reporters: "We think the girl was rendered unconscious by a blow to the head, then tied up in the bag to die a slow death by asphyxiation."
Harold Musser, a 40-year-old patrolman with the Covington police department, was also a talented artist often called on to sketch unidentified murder victims and suspects from their descriptions. He spent several days viewing photos of the Tent Girl's remains, and then produced a sketch portraying an attractive, short-haired girl with an obvious flaw between two of her upper front teeth.
Covington Patrolman Harold Musser and his sketch of the TentGirl
The sketch appeared in the region's newspapers, and the response was immediate. Cornett and his boss Chief of Detectives Lieutenant Algin Roberts were swamped by inquiries from people throughout the mid west and south who thought they knew the Tent Girl.
"One by one we have eliminated the possibilities," Cornett told the media. "Obvious discrepancies in height, weight, age and dental structure have ruled out many leads."
Musser's sketch seemed to resemble everyone's missing daughter, but a promising lead surfaced on June 7th, 1968, when Lieutenant Roberts received a phone call from Detective Sergeant Miller of the Maryland police.
Lieutenant Roberts and Sergeant Cornett were swamped with inquiries.
"I think I've got the name of your Tent Girl," the sergeant told Roberts. "I've been searching for a missing fifteen-year-old girl, and there's a strong resemblance between her and the Tent Girl sketch."
The missing Pasadena girl was Debbie Krane, last seen getting into a blue Chevrolet Corvair with her 17-year-old boy friend Carl Colby on March 3rd, 1968. Colby's 21-year-old brother Floyd was with them, and a police report noted that Debbie had left home with "a group of swingers, hippies and undesirables."
"She's five feet tall, and was wearing a brown skirt, a gold-coloured blouse, a three-quarter length light blue coat, and has dark brown hair," said Sergeant Miller.
Roberts checked the description in his Tent Girl file. The details more or less matched.
"Can you get Debbie's folks to come down here to try to make an identification?" he asked Miller. "The details match and then again they don't. If her family would take a look, then we can be sure either way."
"Sure," said Miller. "I'll take care of it."
Meanwhile the green canvas shroud, the rope used to tie it and a small piece of white towelling found over one of the Ten Girl's shoulders were sent to the FBI's Washington laboratory for examination.
Debbie Krane's dental records were obtained, and proved to be similar to the Tent Girl's teeth. "The Colbys were part of the group with whom Debbie left town," Miller told Roberts. "They apparently headed for the Campbell and Kenton County area of Kentucky, about an hour's drive from where the Tent Girl was found."
He added that Debbie was believed to have become involved with youngsters suspected of using narcotics. "Her mother nearly fainted when she saw Musser's sketch of the Tent Girl," the sergeant concluded. "Debbie's resemblance to her is striking."
On June 13th Velma Krane and Debbie's aunt arrived in Georgetown, where they spent two hours examining photos of the Tent Girl. But they were unable to make a positive identification. "The body is too badly decomposed for Mrs. Krane to be sure," Sheriff Vance told reporters.
Meanwhile a national alert had been issued for the Colby brothers, and a truck driver reported that two weeks before the Tent Girl's body was discovered he had seen two hitchhikers near where she was found.
This tip was supported by a motorist who told Sheriff Vance that he had picked up two hitchhikers in the same vicinity. One was a girl wearing a short dress and a grey sweater, and the motorist said he felt sure she was the Tent Girl because she closely resembled Musser's sketch.
"She and the guy with her kept arguing as we drove south," he told the sheriff. "I made them get out. When I last saw them, they had crossed the interstate highway and were trying to hitch a lift back north to the Georgetown area." He said the boy had long, hippie-style hair, and the girl appeared frightened.
Police hopes that the Tent Girl and Debbie Krane were one and the same turned out to be short-lived. Sergeant Miller was at his desk when he received an anonymous phone call. "Debbie Krane ain't that Tent Girl," a gruff male voice told him. "You want to find her, go to Bradford, Pennsylvania. She's alive as you are." Then the caller put the phone down.
On June 17th Miller made the long trip to Bradford, where he found Debbie living with her boy friend. She said she had never been to Kentucky. She had gone straight to Bradford with her boy friend, where he'd told her they could find somewhere to live. The couple were brought back to Maryland, and they told Debbie's parents they planned to marry. It was a happy ending to what had appeared to be a tragedy, and the Kentucky police were pleased that their investigation had at least yielded some good.
But the Tent Girl remained unidentified, and the FBI lab reported that tests on the canvas, the rope and the towelling had all drawn a blank. All were of common make, too widely manufactured and distributed for their sources to be located.
Then a fresh lead surfaced in Pennsylvania where a girl was found dead in circumstances strikingly similar to those of the Tent Girl. Anthony Fergione, the police chief of Northampton, Pennsylvania, reported that 16-year-old Candace Clothier had disappeared from her home about 8.30 p.m. on March 9th, 1968. A police search had been launched for her, but she wasn't found until April 13th when fishermen discovered her nude body tied up in a canvas bag and dumped in a local creek.
Fergione was so struck by the similarity between the fates of Candace and the Tent Girl, that he gave up part of his vacation and drove to Kentucky with his wife in his quest to find Candace's killer.
There he conferred with Detective Cornett, and they compared their cases. Fergione noted: "Autopsy findings were the same in both cases-no identifiable cause of death; both bodies showed a slight discolouration of the skin covering the skull in the same spot on the right side; both corpses were wrapped in canvas bags, tied with rope from top to bottom, and the feet tucked under the torso."
Both bodies had also been dumped off main roads near creeks and had remained undiscovered for four to six weeks.
Suspecting that the Tent Girl might be from Pennsylvania, Fergione took a copy of Musser's sketch with him when he returned to Northampton, but no match was found with any of the state's missing girls.
On August 4th, 1968, Cornett was in his office at Frankfort when his phone rang. A soft voice drawled: "I know a girl who's the Tent Girl you've been looking for. She's a young kid that disappeared from Covington in late April." Then the phone clicked dead.
Covington police gave Cornett a list of all the town's girls reported missing in April, and he soon found the lost teenager. She was a pert, five-foot-one brunette, and she was alive and well. She had simply moved home in Covington because of family trouble.
"Evidently there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of teenagers who resemble the Tent Girl," Cornett told reporters. "But we're going to keep looking for the right one."
Harold Musser was asked to make another sketch. This time he produced a picture of a girl with a slightly fuller face, less of a smile and lower cheekbones. Its publication produced several new leads, but all were eliminated because of one physical discrepancy or another.
By now the case had interested the American edition of Master Detective, which published a full account of efforts to identify the Tent Girl. "This case has bothered me more than anything that has happened in my twelve years as sheriff," Bobby Vance told the magazine. "If we could only identify the Tent Girl, I'm sure we would find whoever caused her death. Any reader in any state who has some idea of who she is, please contact us right away. It is quite possible that she was killed somewhere else and brought here."
And Scott County Attorney Virgil Pryor thanked the journal: "Please accept my gratitude for the assistance Master Detective is lending our investigation. You are making it possible for us to broaden the scope of our search for the Tent Girl's identity.
"It is my sincere hope that one of your readers will recall some detail about the unidentified teenager we may have overlooked, and provide the clue which will break this case."
Lieutenant Roberts also hoped that a Master Detective reader would come forward to solve the mystery. "Although we are handicapped by the lack of a good physical description of the girl," he said, "we have one obvious feature that someone may recall. That's the decay between the Tent Girl's two upper front teeth. It would have been apparent as a dark spot whenever she smiled. Anyone who knew her might recall this."
He added that the print obtained from one of the Tent Girl's fingers was routinely compared with the prints of other missing girls. "If we do come up with a possible identification, we can probably get fingerprints from the missing girl's personal effects. This could lead to identification by comparison with the one print we have."
Meanwhile the Tent Girl, in such a state of decomposition that embalmment was impossible, had been buried in a county-owned section of Georgetown cemetery. Her grave was marked simply "No. 90." Local residents subsequently donated a gravestone inscribed with a drawing of the deceased's face and the words:
"Tent Girl. Found May 17, 1968 on U.S. Highway 25 North, Died
about April 26-May 3, 1968-Age about 16-19 years-Height 5 feet 1 inch-Weight 110-115 lbs. Reddish-Brown hair, Unidentified."
But that wasn't the end of her story. Remember Wilbur Riddle, the well-driller who discovered her body? He retired 20 years later and moved to Livingston, Tennessee. By now he had a daughter Lori, and she had a 17-year-old boy friend, Todd Matthews, whom she was later to marry.
Riddle happened to tell his future son-in-law about the Tent Girl, showing him the 1969 Master Detective account of her body's discovery. Todd Matthews was fascinated by the magazine's reproduction of Harold Musser's sketch of the unidentified victim.
"This girl's got a mother," Wilbur Riddle told him. "She's got a Daddy. She could have a husband. We've got to find out who this girl is."
And for Todd Matthews the quest developed into an obsession, occupying so much of his time that it placed a strain on his marriage. For a start he studied yellowing newspaper cuttings reporting the authorities' efforts to put a name to the Tent Girl and locate her family. Digging deeper, he noted that the FBI's lab report on the white towelling found with the body said it was a baby's nappy. This prompted him to suspect that the Tent Girl was older than the investigators had supposed: she could have been a mother.
He wrote to the authorities, explaining his reasoning about the Tent Girl's age. He also wrote to the county coroner, seeking to have the Tent Girl's remains exhumed so that her pelvic area could be re-examined to see whether she had been a parent.
But he got nowhere, and the case began taking a toll on his life. He made the 200-mile trip from his home to see the Tent Girl's grave, at the same time visiting the undertaker who had handled her burial, and the local newspaper where he learned that there had been no new developments. The case so obsessed him that he began sleepwalking. He tried to put it out of his mind, but he couldn't.
Meanwhile major changes were taking place in the world of technology. In 1992 he heard the Tennessee politician Al Gore talk about the internet. This was a tool, Todd Matthews realised, that he could use in his search. He didn't have a computer, so he saved hard and months later he bought one.
He began searching missing-person websites on the internet for clues to the Tent Girl's identity. He hung a picture of her gravestone over his computer to keep him motivated. And he spent so much time hunched over his screen that his four-year-old son complained, "Daddy's always at the 'puter."
Lori had something to say about this, too. She felt her husband wasn't giving his own family enough attention.
Todd created a website devoted to the Tent Girl, and this brought him e-mails, but nothing to advance the search that had now occupied him for 10 years.
He was pursuing his hunt late one night in January 1998, his wife and son long since having gone to bed. He was in his pyjamas and becoming dozy himself as he surfed yet another missing persons' website. He had already viewed about 400 descriptions, none of which matched the Tent Girl, when three words leapt out at him from his screen: "Lexington...1967...Missing"
Someone named Rosemary Westbrook had posted details of her missing sister Barbara Ann Hackman-Taylor, born in December 1943. The item read:
"My sister Barbara has been missing from our family since the latter part of 1967. She has brown hair, brown eyes, is around five feet two inches tall, and was last seen in the Lexington, Kentucky, area. If you have any information, please contact me at the address posted."
Todd Matthews jumped to his feet, stumbling over a chair. "Lori, wake up!" he shouted. "I found her!"
He contacted Rosemary Westbrook, who told him that her sister was the 24-year-old mother of a daughter when she vanished in December 1967. She had been working at a Lexington restaurant, and was married to George Earl Taylor, a carnival worker. None of her family had known she was in Kentucky, and they hadn't reported her missing at the time. Another sister had later reported her missing in Florida, the last state she was known to have lived in. Barbara's husband had told the family she had run off with another man.
Rosemary said she herself was only 10 when her sister disappeared, and she agreed with Todd that there were enough similarities between Barbara and the Tent Girl to warrant further investigation. But the authorities were slow to answer, perhaps thinking Todd a nut-case.
Undeterred, he did more detective work which finally persuaded officialdom to exhume the Tent Girl for DNA tests.
On March 2nd, 1998, the Tent Girl was exhumed and her remains sent to a laboratory in Frankfort, Kentucky. Dr. Emily Craig, anthropologist with the state medical examiner's office, concluded that the Tent Girl was between 20 and 30 years old.
Dr. Emily Criag
Danielle Fowler later reported in the Advocate Messenger, a Danville, Kentucky, newspaper, the tests compared cells from one of Rosemary Westbrook's cheeks with pulp from a tooth of the Tent Girl.
In April 1998 the tests found that Rosemary's DNA genetically matched that of the Tent Girl, who therefore had to be Barbara Ann Hackman-Taylor.
Riddle's riddle had been solved. By now 70, he paid tribute to his son-in-law's efforts: "He has put in more than a thousand hours on this case. There's no law enforcement office that worked harder on any case than he did on this one."
Arrangements were made to give the Tent Girl's grave a new headstone, inscribed at last with her real name. Was she a homicide victim? The authorities believed that her husband could have shed more light on her disappearance, but he was no longer around. He had died of cancer in October,1987.
Todd Matthews wrote to America's Master Detective with news of the sequel to the story it had published 29 years earlier. "I wanted them to know," he says, "that there was a statement in that issue that said it was the hope that one day a Master Detective reader would come forward with the answer. Well, that had indeed happened. My father-in-law had carried that issue around for twenty years prior to my seeing it. It was my main source of information in the ten years that I personally searched for the answer. So one of their readers did come forward."
By this time, however, the American magazine had ceased publication. Three years passed, and then this summer Todd Matthews chanced to spot Britain's flourishing Master Detective on the internet. So he contacted us with his story and we were more than pleased to tell it.
Todd Matthews believes that George Earl Taylor's tale that Barbara left him for another man was a cover to hide his crime. "But Barbara's death," he adds, "could indeed have been an accident."
Whichever, the case is surely unique. It must be the only killing in which the victim was identified 30 years later through the efforts of the son-in-law of the man who found the body!
The drawing of the Tent Girl that
Todd Matthews produced in 1995.
I want to thank Master Detective for running the December 2001 Tent Girl article! Things went full circle for me with the publication of this issue. I had a copy of the original 1969 magazine that I carried around for years!
Even though the Tent Girl died two years before I was born...she changed my life forever! I came to realize that there were many other unidentifieds in Kentucky and elsewhere as I worked on her case.
After gathered a list of these Does in Kentucky I spoke with the state medical examiner, Dr. Emily Craig. She was able to verify that a vast number of the cases remained unsolved, but little information was available regarding the backgrounds. Many cases occurred prior to the centralization of the state medical examiners' office. Since the upgrade and the addition of Dr. Craig, Kentucky has one of the most advanced examiners' systems I have encountered in my work.
I decided to start a Web site to categorize Does for possible comparisons to missing persons' cases in 1998. The first online databases of unidentified deceased. Dr. Craig warned me that this would be an overwhelming process. The "The Lost And The Found" was created with the help of Lynn Johnson from Lexington, Kentucky and members of the Tent Girl's family. The Lost and The Found featured all of the available Kentucky unidentifieds at the time. I wanted to organize the cases county by county and gather data on these Does to profile on the site and managed to add a few.
Soon the wisdom of Dr. Craig's warning was clear. It was indeed overwhelming; I found it most difficult to try and research and maintain the database. It took me 10 years to solve the Tent Girl case...just one case. Quicky realized it was an almost impossible dream.
After our creation of the original nationwide
"The Lost And The Found"
web-site in 1998, Kentucky was inspired to create their own state site. I soon consulted with them and they created their official state site:
In 2001, I merged the original Lost & Found site into the newly emerging
Doe Network. An international volunteer group attempting to organize many missing persons and unidentifieds' cold cases. Their web capability was clearly superior to my own. I learned that the strength was in the "network" of people who care about these cases. The dream can come true with hard work and teamwork.
I now serve in an Administrative position as USA Media Director as well as Area Director of Kentucky and Tennessee for The Doe Network. It's volunteers are comprised of people who care -- or whose lives have been touched in some way by a missing person or loss.
The Doe Network has become a respected resource for the cause and is recognized by many government and law enforcement agencies across the globe since it's official formation in 2001.
The Lost & The Found has since transformed into a 501-c non profit org dedicated to support missing and unidentified persons recovery and identification efforts.
I am also the Media Director for The Outpost For Hope, an active support group for the families of missing persons. Founded by Libba Phillips and based in South Carolina.
You are invited to join my ColdCases discussion group, where since 1998 we have discussed countless crime related cases, also including those featured on The Doe Network.