As true crime continues to climb the cultural ladder into mainstream culture, there has been a wave of true crime documentaries, television shows, and podcasts that revive interest in cold cases. A recent example has been the true crime podcast Your Own Backyard, hosted by Chris Lambert, which focuses on the disappearance of Kristin Smart—a Cal Poly freshman who went missing after a friend’s birthday party in spring of 1996. The podcast has listeners questioning the involvement of one of Kristin Smart’s friends, Paul Flores, who escorted her back to her dormitory after the party and was allegedly the last person to see Kristin Smart alive.
Paul Flores was instead labeled a “person of interest,” by
authorities in 1997 and has remained so for over 20 years. The sheriff at the time,
Ed Williams, told the media that there were “no other suspects” in Kristin’s
disappearance. Law enforcement was only able to interview Flores once when Kristin
was first reported missing and since then he had remained uncooperative in the investigation.
During that interview, Flores gave conflicting accounts of how he had received a
black eye that investigators observed, first stating that he got the shiner
playing baseball and then later said he got it while working on his truck
moments before he shut the interview down.
Flores was subsequently sued by Kristin Smart’s family in 1996, stating that Flores was the man responsible for their daughter’s disappearance and murder. Cal Poly was subsequently added to the lawsuit, with the family citing that the university did not do enough to keep their daughter safe while living on their campus. In a 1997 deposition, he repeatedly cited his right against self-incrimination, according to periodical archives. The lawsuit remains unresolved, as documents that could prove any of the family’s allegations still remain sealed in interested of preserving the criminal investigation. The family’s attorney, Jim Murphy, said in 2016, “In civil law, it’s what’s reasonable based on a preponderance of the evidence, not within a reasonable doubt as in criminal cases. Here, I believe there’s enough circumstantial evidence to prove to a civil jury that Flores is responsible for Kristin’s death.”
The popularity of Your Own Backyard has coincided with a recent break in the cold case, with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s office announcing that they have issued warrants to retrieve potential evidence from Flores’s mother’s home, including two vehicles and electronic devices, with authorities commenting only that these were “items of interest.”
Kristin Smart was legally presumed dead in 2002, but the
community still holds out hope that law enforcement will find answers in her
disappearance. A new billboard has been erected in Murphy’s front yard, urging
anyone with information about her disappearance to contact the San Luis Obispo
Sheriff’s office at 805-781-4500.
On New Year’s Eve, vandals defaced a billboard of KIMT anchorwoman Jodi Huisentruit, from Mason City, Iowa.
The billboard is among three in Mason City, that shows a picture of the beautiful Iowa news anchor, asking the question “Someone knows something, is it you?”
The cryptic words sprayed in bright yellow paint say, “Frank Stearns Machine Shed” across the bottom half of the billboard. Frank Stearns was a longtime detective with Mason City Police Department who diligently worked Jodi’s case. Now retired, Stearns is now a city death scene investigator.
In 2011, in a bizarre twist of events, the Globe Gazette reported that former Mason City police officer Maria Ohl accused two Mason City police officers and a retired Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) agent of being involved in the abduction and potential murder of Jodi.
Ohl, a ten-year veteran, said she received credible information from an informant in 2007, and again in 2009, who implicated Lt. Frank Stearns, Lt. Ron Vande Weerd and Bill Basler in the abduction. Ohl said she told her superiors but heard only crickets.
Ohl says she was terminated due to her handling of Jodi’s case information.
“It’s horrifically disturbing. They’re still working on the taxpayers’ dollar – the whistleblower was put on administrative leave and terminated.”
Joshua Benson, an evening anchor at an Orlando ABC affiliate who founded FindJodi.com, said Ohl had also confided in him but he could not find any information that would corroborate her claims.
In fact, at the time the complaint was filed, an official investigation also found no validity in Ohl’s claims.
Cold Case investigator Steve Ridge told KIMT that he knows how and when the billboard was vandalized. He says two individuals dressed in black parked in the rear alley behind a tattoo parlor and erected an aluminum ladder against the wall at 11:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.
While one held the ladder, the other spray-painted “Frank Stearns” in large letters and “Machine Shed” in smaller print below. Ridge said the parking lot of the nearby bar was full, as dozens of cars passed right below the billboard while the individuals were vandalizing it.
Ridge spoke to Frank Steans at his residence on January 3, 2020. His residence in a rural community does have a detached building on the premises, however, Stearns lived elsewhere in 1995. While the billboard vandals surely meant to dredge up old wounds and accusations, Stearns remains a respected member of the community and says he hopes they are found and punished.
Jodi, 27, vanished from the outside of her downtown apartment in Mason City on Tuesday, June 27, 1995. The day before, Jodi had played in the local Chamber of Commerce golf tournament. According to friend John Vansice, afterward, Jodi went to his house to view a videotape of a birthday celebration that he had set up for her earlier in the month.
Jodi went home and called a friend before going to bed. She usually left for work at 3:00 a.m. to anchor the morning show at KIMT. At approximately 4:00 a.m. KIMT producer Amy Kuns noticed that Jodi had not shown up to work. “I called her twice. I talked to her and woke her up the first time,” Kuns told WFLA news anchor Josh Benson. “The second time it just rang and rang. I don’t remember the times. I had obviously woken her up. She asked what time it was. I told her. She said she would be right in.”
Jodi was usually prompt and never missed work, so by 7:00 a.m. KIMT staff had called the Mason City Police Department to conduct a welfare check.
The Police Investigation
When police arrived at Jodi’s apartment, shortly after 7:00 a.m., her red Mazda Miata was in the parking lot. Officers found a pair of red women’s pumps, a bottle of hairspray, blower dryer and earrings, along with a bent car key, strewn around the car reflecting a struggle had taken place at the vehicle.
A search was conducted of Jodi’s apartment, the parking lot, and the nearby Winnebago River.
Early on, the then Mason City Police Chief Jack Schlieper said he suspected foul play. Investigators from the Iowa DCI and the Federal Bureau of Investigation would eventually join the search. It was later reported that investigators had lifted an unidentified palm print off her car.
By that Wednesday, as Jodi’s desk sat empty, police continued their extensive search for the young news anchor. Schlieper told reporters at a news conference that police and K-9 units were continuing to search along a two-mile area of the Winnebago River that runs through a park near Jodi’s apartment on North Kentucky Avenue.
Police did discover items of clothing along the riverbanks but at the time could not determine if they were Jodi’s.
Police confirmed that some residents heard noises that sounded like an animal or animal noises the morning Jodi vanished. We now know she screamed as she was dragged back down the center of the parking bumpers by her car, as her heel marks were left in the dirt on the pavement.
Neighbors also reported seeing a white van in the parking lot with its parking lights on that evening.
Eventually, there would be questions about whether the crime scene was correctly processed. In hindsight, the answer would be no. For instance, a friend of Jodi’s said police didn’t immediately tape off the crime scene which could have resulted in contamination or evidence being overlooked. In addition, Jodi’s car was released to her parents shortly after the disappearance instead of being kept as evidence.
Current Chief of Police Jeff Brinkley was asked by 48 Hours if he thought the car was released in haste. He replied, “Maybe.”
“We don’t have it,” Brinkley said. “But we just have to live with what we got, and –and try to do as good as we can with that.”
Brinkley is the fourth police chief to have Jodi’s case under his command.
“Basically, all my free time is following up on this case,” said Mason City Police Officer Terrance Prochaska, who took over the case in 2010.
“What caused her to sleep in that day? What caused her to answer the phone and rush to work? What was she doing the night before? We all want to know the fine details. We know where she was at. She was golfing. She had driven home and made a phone call to her friend. Those are facts. But it’s that gray area in between we don’t understand.”
Person of Interest
It is known after work; Jodi attended the gold tournament. While at the tournament, she told some of her friends that she had been receiving prank phone calls and was thinking of going to the police and changing her number.
Afterward, John Vansice, who was 22 years older than Jodi, was the last person to have seen her. They watched a video he had shot at the surprise birthday party he had arranged for her.
“She was like a daughter to me, she was like my own child,” Vansice said to KIMT in 1995. “I treated her like my own child.”
Though Vansice has long been suspected by friends of Jodi to have been involved in her abduction, a friend of Vansice named LaDonna Woodford says there is no way, because she had called him at 6:00 a.m. that morning wanting to go for a walk. When they walked, she says he didn’t seem anxious or out of sorts in any way.
Vansice also passed a polygraph in 1995 and never named an official suspect. However, in March 2017, search warrants were issued for the GPS records of Vansice’s 1999 Honda Civic and 2013 GMC 1500. It was the most substantial break in the case in decades. However, nothing of importance was ever recovered.
“We have never closed the case,” Chief Brinkley told 48 Hours. “It’s never been a closed case for us. It’s been an active investigation since it happened.”
“I’m not ready to quit yet,” Brinkley added.
JoAnn Nathe also told 48 Hours that she was once suspicious of John, but “we have to be objective; we have to have an open mind. It could be somebody we least expect.”
It has already been reported that Jodi had gone water skiing with John Vansice and a couple of friends the weekend before she vanished.
In Jodi’s June 25, 1995, entry in her journal she wrote, “Got home from a weekend trip to Iowa City — oh we had fun! It was wild, partying and water skiing. We skied at the Coralville Res. I’m improving on the skis — hips up, lean, etc. John’s son Trent gave me some great ski tip advice.”
In November 2019, Cold Case Investigator Steve Ridge revealed that Jodi also boarded the Mastercraft ski boat of two younger men she had met the same weekend.
Ridge told KWWL News that he spoke to witnesses who were at the lake that Saturday in 1995, who said Vansice was not enthused she had left to spend time with younger men, but he did not overreact or cause a scene, as some said Vansice was inclined to do.
Ridge said that once Jodi and a female friend boarded the boat, they were seen drinking and dancing on the boat. Ridge said the owner of the boat took a video of them which was given to Mason City Police investigators.
Ridge said he was still investigating whether one or both of the young men may have visited Jodi, or attempted to visit her the next day, or Monday, the night she was abducted.
Ridge believes it is conceivable that a confrontation could have occurred that would shed light on a motive for Jodi’s abduction. “A lot of unfortunate things came together in a relatively short period of time just before Jodi went missing,” claims Ridge.
Ridge continues to work with authorities though he is an independent investigator.
Jodi was born June 5, 1968, and raised in Long Prairie, Minnesota, a small town of less than 3,500 in 2010. She was the youngest daughter of Maurice Huisentruit and her mother Imogene “Jane” Anderson.
In high school, Jodi excelled at golf and was considered to have amazing talent at the game. Her team won the Class A tournament in 1985 and 1986.
After high school, Jodi went to St. Cloud University, where she studied speech and mass communications, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1990.
Though she wanted to be a reporter, after graduating, Jodi’s first job was with Northwest Airlines. She began her broadcasting career with KGAN in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as the station’s bureau chief. She then returned to Minnesota for a job with KSAX in Alexandria before returning to Iowa for the position as a news anchor with KIMT.
“She wanted to be famous,” her childhood friend Kim Feist told 48 Hours.
Jodi was driven but she also was very close to her mom. In a late January 1994 diary entry, it said “improve my career, make more money, communicate, have more impact on a larger audience. Get the Huisentruit name out. Make Mom proud.”
“I couldn’t have had a better kid sister,” said Jodi’s sister JoAnn Nathe told WOWT in Omaha. “She tried to motivate me. What are your goals? That makes me stronger. It’s a nightmare not knowing where she is. We thought we would find her in the first few months.”
Their mother, Imogene, passed away in December 2014 at age 91, not knowing where her daughter was. “She so wanted to find Jodi,” Nathe said.
As time passes, it doesn’t get easier for families. Memories fade and tips wane, but the hope to bring Jodi home for a proper burial still burns bright in the hearts of those that loved her.
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.
It has been over a decade since Facebook first broke ground in social media. Since its inception in 2004, Facebook has gone from connecting people in close proximity—students on college campuses—to closing the gaps of space and time as old high school flames reignite their old love through the lines of Facebook Messenger. However, not even Mark Zuckerburg could have predicted Facebook would be used to connect family members and amateur investigators in order to uncover new leads in unsolved or cold cases. The social media platform hosts hundreds of discussion pages, like Cold Case Discussion Group and Missing Leads, all ranging from the unsolved murder of child pageant star, JonBenét Ramsay, to the disappearances of private citizens.
As the epidemic of missing persons and unsolved cold cases in the United States grows, so does the number of Facebook discussion groups dedicated to the collection of new leads in these cases. These discussion groups and subsequent websites devoted to the re-examination of these cases have provided a new platform for connecting armchair detectives across the country. The phrase “armchair detective” refers to a person, who is not a member of law enforcement and who is not involved in the investigation process, who makes a hobby or career to research crimes and investigations in the hope of solving them. The phrase possibly first appeared in a Sherlock Holmes short story called The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter in which Holmes says, referring to his brother, Mycroft, “If the art of the detective began and ended in reasoning from an armchair, my brother would be the greatest criminal agent that ever lived.” Armchair detectives may be professionals such as investigative journalists or former law enforcement. They may also be retired private citizens, like Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub of Baltimore, Maryland.
Hoskins and Schaub are like many of the middle-class people who grew up in Baltimore in the 1960’s. They were involved in their community, they attended church, and like many of their peers, they attended an all-girls Catholic school, Archbishop Keough High School, where they were under the instruction of a nun named Sister Catherine Cesnik. Both Hoskins and Schaub were former students of Sister Cathy’s when she mysteriously disappeared in early November of 1969. Her body was found nearly three months later by hunters in a wooded area outside Baltimore. The medical examiner discovered Sister Cathy died by blunt force trauma to her skull—the manner of death is homicide. Despite various leads, including the victim’s car being found abandoned across the street from her apartment, the trail for those behind Sister Cathy’s murder went cold and stayed cold for nearly half a century.
In 2005, a journalist named Tom Nugent revived interest in the case when he wrote a story entitled “Who Killed Sister Cathy?” for the front page of the Baltimore Sun, but it wasn’t until 2013 that he contacted women like Hoskins and Schaub who might have been Sister Cathy’s students. This renewed interested prompted Gemma Hoskins to post a message on the Facebook group for Archbishop Keough alumni, seeking others who might have information about the circumstances around Sister Cathy’s murder. Her attempt to reach out was met with negative response, with one exception: Abbie Schaub. And thus, an amateur team of armchair detectives was formed.
Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins
Hoskins and Schaub are both retired—Hoskins from teaching and Schaub from nursing—and in the last five years, they have used the leads garnered from their Facebook discussion page about Sister Cathy to break new ground in the cold case, including identifying possible suspects, and circumstantial information that might point to a conspiracy to have the nun abducted and murdered. In the 2016 Netflix series, The Keepers, an original docu-series chronicling the mysterious circumstances surrounding Sister Cathy’s murder, Tom Nugent describes Abbie Schaub as “the intellectual,” and Gemma Hoskins as “the bulldog.” Between the two of them, they make a highly efficient investigative team. While Schaub’s strengths lie in research and the recovery of documents in public-access, Hoskins uses her people skills to pound the pavement in search of anyone with information about their favorite teacher’s murder.
In addition to seeking out the perpetrator behind Sister Cathy’s abduction and murder, Hoskins and Schaub have also taken it upon themselves to help another family who was devastated by a concurrent tragedy in Baltimore in 1969. On November 11th, 1969, three days after Sister Cathy went missing, Joyce Malecki, 20, also disappeared from the Baltimore area. Her body was discovered two days later. The circumstances surrounding the disappearances of both women were strikingly similar: Both women were out shopping on the day they were abducted. Both cars belonging to the respective victims were later found abandoned. The important difference was Malecki’s remains were recovered almost immediately, whereas Sister Cathy’s were not be found for three months. There was no difference to Hoskins and Schaub, who took it upon themselves to solicit tips about the disappearance of the 20-year-old office worker. In The Keepers, Schaub told director, Ryan White, “We thought, ‘As long as we’re doing all of this digging around’ let’s see if we can find something to help the Maleckis.”
The Facebook group monitored by Hoskins and Schaub also spawned a website about the case where anyone could leave an anonymous tip regarding any information they might have about the disappearances of Sister Cathy or Joyce Malecki. Their hard work, determination, and meticulous investigation skills played a major role in the development of The Keepers, with some interviewees alleging Hoskins and Schaub possessed more information than law enforcement. After the release of the Netflix docuseries, the Facebook group received such an overwhelming influx of new members the page was forced to temporarily shut down due to high traffic. The pair of amateur sleuths have made a glowing example of why the rising popularity of true-crime media will play a crucial role in shining new light on unsolved cases. When reflecting on the magnitude of their investigation in the first episode of The Keepers, Tom Nugent tells the camera, “I’ve asked both of them, ‘Don’t you guys want to become investigative journalists? Let’s have some real fun.’ And they tell me, ‘We’ll do it our way.’”
For more information on the cases of Sister Catherine Cesnik and Joyce Malecki, or to leave an anonymous tip, please visit: WhoKilledSisterCathy.com
Carie McMichael is the Communication and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International, a private investigation firm based in Indianapolis, Indiana–delivering proactive and diligent solutions for over 30 years. For more information, please visit our website.