The search for Savannah Spurlock is entering its 6th
week, as law enforcement continue to reconstruct the events that led up to her
disappearance. On January 4th, after spending some time with her
mother, the 23-year-old had decided to go out with friends. It would be her
first return to her social life since recently giving birth to twins. Her
mother, Ellen Spurlock, was glad to see her daughter getting out to have fun
again. She told the Lexington
Herald-Leader, “I thought she needed a little break. She hadn’t done
anything for months since she just had the twins.” The next time Ellen heard
from her daughter was 2:30 AM on January 5th, when she FaceTimed her.
“…she said, ‘Everything was fine. I’m just having fun with friends. I promise I
will be home later this morning.” Six hours later, Savannah’s phone was turned
off, and her mother has not heard from her since.
The first news of Savannah’s disappearance came on Monday through the Richmond Police Department. In a tremendous investigative find, law enforcement obtained a surveillance video of the young mother, dressed in a black, sleeveless top, a maroon skirt, and high heels, leaving The Other Bar in Lexington in the company of two men. “Savannah Spurlockwas last seen leaving the bar with an unknown black male and an unknown white male. The Richmond Police Department is seeking the identity and whereabouts of these two individuals. The white male was seen leaving the area in a black, Chevy S-10 pickup” Police broadcast the surveillance footage, asking the public to help identify them. The footage is a crucial find for investigators, not only because it contextualizes Savannah’s movements in the moments before she went missing, but it contains other vital information, such as an accurate physical description and manner of dress for missing person bulletins, a description of the last people to have contact with her, a time stamp for her last known whereabouts, and a description of the vehicle they left in.
In addition to law enforcement and other investigators, the Cajun Coast Search and Rescue Team joined the search for Savanna Spurlock on January 27th. They’re K-9 unit specializes in missing person investigations and assists in missing person investigations all over the country. Despite their best efforts, having covered miles in their search, as of February 3rd, they had not uncovered a trace of Savannah. Just when it seemed the trail might go cold, police announced a break in the case. They confirmed that they knew the identities of the men Savannah left The Other Bar with, but did not release any names. They also confirmed that she was driven to the residence of one of these men in nearby Garrad County. They secured the vehicle she left in for forensic testing, but will not be releasing those results to the public. One of the most compelling details released by police was that there was no indication Savannah knew the men before that evening. Police were unable to corroborate an account of one of the men, who claimed Savannah left the home later that morning, but could not explain how. The Cajun Coast Search and Rescue team searched an area near the residence where they knew Savannah Spurlockhad been taken. The K-9 unit lead investigators to some discarded clothing items, “We found some jeans and a t-shirt that somebody tried to burn,” team leader, Tony Wade, told Radar. The damaged clothing was turned over to law enforcement, who were quick to point out that the clothing did not match the description. Wade further explained of the K-9 unit, “They’ll hit on clothing with blood. A month or so out, it gets hard. So much of the evidence is gone.”
Concerned pleas for information leading to Savannah’s safe return continue pouring out from friends and family. After the first 11 days of the search, Ellen Spurlock said of her daughter’s disappearance, “I’m lost.” The overwhelming support from the community and the rest of the public garnered appreciation from the family, but the fear and worry grows for them daily. In a video posted to the Missing Savannah Facebook page, her aunt, Lisa Thoma said, “Waiting is hard, not knowing answers to questions is hard…when you’re living it and breathing it, it can be crippling. If you know anything, we beg you, come forward and call the Richmond, Kentucky Police Department. If you heard something, if you saw something, I don’t care how small it was—what if that one thing is the piece of the puzzle that they’re missing? What if you hold the key to bringing her home?”
Investigators in Tennessee have tied a missing Indiana woman to their murder investigation 33 years after her disappearance.
New Year’s Day in 1985, a young woman was found dead near Jellico, along Interstate 75, in Campbell County, Tenn. Police believed the woman had been murdered several days prior to being located along the highway. Campbell County is on the border of Tennessee and Kentucky.
In 1985, investigators were unable to identify the young woman until decades later Tennessee Bureau of Investigations (TBI) agents saw a post about 21-year old Tina Marie McKenney Farmer’s 1984 disappearance posted on a missing person’s blog. TBI investigators then cross-referenced Farmer’s fingerprints with the unidentified homicide victim and got a match. Her identification was announced September 6, 2018.
Farmer’s family last saw her on Thanksgiving Day in 1984.
Farmer is believed to be the victim of the still unsolved “Redhead Murders” committed by an unidentified serial killer also known as the Bible Belt Strangler who operated in Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Tennessee. Independent private investigators believe the serial killer is a truck driver based out of Knoxville and that he could still be out there, having moved locations, possibly changing modus operandi, going undetected.
It is presumed the murders began in approximately 1978, continuing through the 1980’s until 1992. The victims, many who have never been identified, predominately have reddish hair and thought to be engaged in prostitution or hitchhiking, their bodies dumped along major highways. Farmer had been bound and strangled and was 2-5 months pregnant at the time of her death. She was found fully clothed.
Of the six to eleven victims of the Bible Belt Strangler, only two have ever been identified.
It is believed most of the victims who remain unidentified is due to being estranged from their families due living “high risk” lifestyles and may not be native to the state their remains were located.
Some were found nude and some partially or fully clothed. There were also some variations in the methods the serial killer used to murder his victims.
Lisa Nichols, 28, was found on September 16, 1984, along Interstate 40 near West Memphis, Arkansas. She had been a resident of West Virginia. It is thought Lisa may have been hitchhiking away from a truck stop. Lisa was identified in 1985 by a couple who had let her stay with them for a period of time. Lisa had been strangled and left alongside the freeway wearing only a sweater. Lisa is thought to have been the serial killer’s second victim.
Wetzel County Victim is thought to be the first of the Bible Belt Strangler’s victims, although some law enforcement is skeptical her death is connected to the Bible Belt Strangler. On February 13, 1983, two senior citizens reported to police that they thought they saw a mannequin before discovering it was a human corpse alongside Route 250 in Wetzel County, near Littleton West Virginia. It was determined the body had been dumped in the area fairly recently because the body was void of snow that covered the ground. It is presumed the victim had died approximately two days prior, however cause of death has never been determined, and one of the old victims being between 35-45 years old. She was well groomed, not consistent with someone being transient.
Campbell County Victim was found April 3, 1985. It is believed she had died one to four years prior to being located. She was one of the younger victims, estimated to be between 9 and 15 years old. She was located by a passerby near a strip mine, approximately 200 yards off Big Wheel Gap Road, in Campbell County, 4 miles southwest of Jellico near Interstate 75. Thirty-two bones including her skull were recovered, along with scraps of clothing, size 5 boots, and a necklace and bracelet made of plastic clothing buttons.
Cheatham County Victim was located March 31, 1985 in Cheatham County, in Pleasant View, Tennessee. Believed to be between 31-40, her skeletonized remains we found clothed, along with a hat with a Palm tree graphic. Her body was found on the side of Interstate 75, between mile markers 29-30.
An examination of her teeth indicates some crowding and overlapping of her teeth.
Knox County Victim was found in a white Admiral refrigerator alongside Route 25 in Knox County near Gray, Kentucky. The refrigerator has a decal of the words “Super Woman” on the front. The victim, who died of suffocation and had been deceased for several days.
She was found nude with the exception of two distinctive necklace with one heart pendant, the other a gold Eagle and two different socks, one white, the other green and yellow stripes. There were reports the victim may have been on a CB radio prior to her death soliciting a ride to North Carolina. Forensic examination indicates she was between 24-35 years old and had previously given birth to a child.
Greene County Victim was found on April 14, 1985 in Green County, in Greeneville, Tennessee. Despite being in advanced decomposition, the autopsy determined the victim had died due to blunt force trauma and possibly a stab wound, approximately 3-6 weeks before being found. Investigators were able to obtain her fingerprints, dental information and DNA in an effort to identify her.
The victim is estimated to be between 14-20 years old. It was also determined the victim had been 6-8 weeks pregnant but had recently miscarried prior to her death.
As of May 31, 2018, there were 8,709 case of unidentified persons in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In addition, the number of active missing person cases in NCIC was 87,608 as of May 31st.
When unidentified remains are located, a forensic examination is conducted, and information is collected that will assist in locating the individual such as age range, race, physical description, dental records, fingerprints and most importantly – DNA. In addition, a facial composite is typically made depicting how the person “may look” when the were alive. At times, even post-mortem photographs are used to try to engage the public to help identify the individual.
Records containing physical descriptors, such as height, weight, eye color, hair color, scars, marks, and tattoos, to include clothing and jewelry is regularly cross-referenced within NCIC with the Missing Person files to potentially get a match, positively identifying the subject.
What did not exist in the 1980’s to help identify those who have no names, and remain unidentified, now gives investigating law enforcement agencies and families of missing persons hope their case or loved one’s disappearance will be solved through the use of DNA.
The use of DNA technology and creation of a national database to help identify missing and unidentified persons emerged in the early 1990’s with pilot program in 14 state and local laboratories. CODIS is the acronym for the Combined DNA Index System.
The FBI administers the National Missing Person DNA Database (NMPDD) as part of the National DNA Index System (NDIS). The NMPDD and NDIS cross references DNA records stored in the Missing Person, Relatives of Missing Person, and Unidentified Remains Indexes of NDIS.
During a missing person investigation, it is recommended that DNA be collected from several family members, to include mitochondrial DNA from maternal relative, to help maximize the potential for such associations.
Despite these efforts, when limited or no genetic information is available, associations may not be possible through database searches.
That’s when investigators commonly use other methods in an attempt to give an identity to an unidentified person and turn to the public.
It is often said, solving cases requires the cooperative effort between law enforcement, the media, advocates, and especially the public.
Thomas Lauth, private investigator and owner of Lauth Missing Persons has worked missing person cases throughout the United States for over 20 years. “First, in the 1980’s police reports of missing persons were treated differently, not with the urgency they are treated now, and many cases presumably not even reported,” said Lauth. “Tina Farmer, who was identified by a TBI detective going above and beyond and finding a public post online – the needle in the haystack, gives other families and other investigators hope and obviously the public can play a key role.”
For more information on missing persons, please visit our website.
For more of Kym Pasqualini’s work and expertise on missing persons, visit her website, Missing Leads.