Commonly called America’s Corn Belt, southern Indiana is a fertile state where you can find hilly farmland that stretches into the states of Illinois and Iowa on up to the higher hills and majestic glacial kettle lakes. A place where families gather for holidays and traditional family values are still alive and well.
But Indiana also has a dark side where the light has been overshadowed by fear. A place where those who have vanished have left no trace.
Denise Pflum, 18, was last seen leaving her house on March 28, 1986, in Connersville, Indiana. An honors student, a brilliant artist, and a promising scientist, Denise was the apple of her father’s eye.
“It was Good Friday. A beautiful Good Friday weather-wise,” said her father David Pflum. Now, 33 years later, she remains missing and still no answers as to what transpired that day.
It started with a house party she went to the night before her disappearance. Denise forgot her purse so the following day she told her family that she had plans to go search for it. It would be the last time anyone would ever see Denise again.
“We do not believe that she ever went back to that area—something or some person interrupted that opportunity to do that,” said David. “We knew right away that something was wrong because she had never been out without our knowledge about where she was going to be. When time unfolded into the next day and the subsequent next days then we knew we really had a problem and the problem has continued on now for 32 years,” David told WTHR 13 in 2018.
The neverending nightmare continues for the Pflum family.
A Rising Star
Active in track, volleyball, softball, and basketball, her activities included 4-H. She was also the top of her class at Connersville High School. She planned to go to Miami University in Ohio to major in microbiology, but the bright light of her future was suddenly snuffed out.
With her prom dress already picked out, a month before her prom the highschool senior would vanish in broad daylight.
A family left tormented. “There are days that go by and it is almost like you are floating because you are so consumed by the thought and the various thoughts about what has happened to your daughter, who is responsible, what kind of action took place,” said David.
The day after Denise’s disappearance her Buick Regal was found in a rural farm in the neighboring town of Greenwood. In 1986, the car was processed by police for fingerprints and other evidence but none was found.
In recent years, with advancing technology, police collected DNA samples from the family, along with a DNA sample from Denise they were able to obtain through evidence. Those DNA samples were uploaded into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a national database at the FBI.
With the advancement in technology, evidence was resubmitted to the Indiana State Police lab to check for any new results but those tests produced no new results.
Now in their 70s, David and Judy Pflum fear they will pass without knowing what happened to their daughter.
“We feel compelled to keep looking. You don’t give up, you spend your life looking,” Judy said.
Kokomo is a small city with a population of only 40,000. During 2017, there were only 6 reported homicides, that were all solved. A safe town where abductions of young girls just don’t happen. In fact, there are only three unsolved disappearances in Kokomo history.
On October 11, 2016, Karena McClerkin, 18, was last seen walking in the 1000 block of South Washington Street in Kokomo, Indiana. She left her wallet and identification behind and has never been seen or heard from again.
Police have executed search warrants and pursued several leads over the past three years but none have led them any closer to finding her.
The McClerkin family has hired four private investigators over the years to help follow up on leads, including a tip from an inmate who claimed to know where Karena was buried. However, that tip and so many others have gone nowhere.
A Father’s Promise
Karena’s father, James McClerkin has been tirelessly searching for his daughter since her disappearance. James has handed out hundreds of fliers while canvassing the neighborhoods where his daughter went missing.
“I just need answers,” James said. “I just need people to talk. It’s not snitching — trying to help find a kid.”
For James time has been the enemy.
Kokomo Police Department has continued to investigate the case, even bringing in cadaver dogs to search portions of Howard County. They also offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to Karena’s whereabouts and arrest of the individual responsible for her disappearance, all to no avail.
However, James didn’t want to stop there. The previous reward would have only been awarded if there was an arrest . . . now James just wants answers. James is now preparing to withdraw his 401k and use the $75,000 to create a reward that simply leads to her whereabouts.
“It’s just to keep her alive, keep it going, and keep the information out there,” said James. “I’m just trying to get new details back in. Right now we don’t have anything . . . All it has to do is lead to my daughter. It doesn’t have to lead to an arrest or anything, just my daughter, her body, or herself. They can have the cash.”
Grandmother’s Heart is Broken
Gerry McClerkin is Karena’s grandmother and when the two spent time together they would always hold hands.
“I didn’t get to see her all the time, but when I did and we said goodbye, we’d both cry almost every time,” Gerry told Dateline.” When I think about the last time I said goodbye to her, it’s even more heartbreaking now.”
Things were rough for Karena prior to her disappearance. Karena had been dealing with a number of substance abuse issues. Her grandmother recalls seeing her hanging out with an older crowd, and very concerned about her granddaughter’s future.
“I told her not to go down that path. That there were other, bigger things she could do with her life,” Gerry said. “She had her whole life in front of her.”
Prior to the disappearance, Karena seemed to be listening, as she had talked about going into a rehabilitation facility in Florida. She began to fill out the paperwork.
Then she vanished.
Rumors began swirling around town right away and some of the stories continue to haunt Gerry. She heard Karena’s body had been thrown into a waterway to conceal the crime, and that her granddaughter had been killed and buried in a tarp in a wooded area. Those are not the worst Gerry has heard.
“It’s just a horrible mess, and the things you hear just make you sick,” said Gerry. “I didn’t want to believe she is dead. It took me a while to accept that idea.”
Lack of Media Interest
Another thing that bothers the McClerkin family is the lack of interest on behalf of the media and the authorities.
Gerry doesn’t believe Kokomo police have taken the disappearance seriously and failed to follow up on leads reported to them.
“Every and all leads are being investigated,” Captain Cockrell told Dateline. “The family has been updated on all searches. It’s not just leads we are following up on, it’s any and all avenues in relation to this case.”
Gerry wishes her granddaughter’s case was all over the news like other cases in the state. “Because of her race and age and the situation, no one seems to care,” Gerry told Dateline. “None of it means she isn’t important. Every person is important and that includes my granddaughter.”
“She may have been out there since October. All alone. But where?” said Gerry. We aren’t going to give up until we find her.”
Lauren Spierer, 20, a sophomore from New York was attending Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. On June 3, 2011, she went out on the town with friends and vanished from downtown Bloomington as she was walking home to her Smallwood Plaza apartment at approximately 4:30 a.m., in the vicinity of 11th Street and College Avenue.
Lauren had left the bar without her shoes or cell phone and later seen on surveillance stumbling out of an elevator at her apartment.
Lauren’s case has received national attention and the Bloomington Police Department says the case is still a top priority.
As of May 24, 2013, investigators have received 3,060 tips on Lauren’s disappearance, 100 of them being received during the first half of 2013.
On January 28, 2016, the FBI conducted a raid of a home in Martinsville, Indiana, approximately 20 miles north of Bloomington. Police said the raid was connected to a man suspected of exposing himself to women.
Thousands of other leads have been followed throughout the years but none have led police any closer to deliver answers to the Spierers.
A Mother’s Letter
It has been eight years of not knowing for Lauren’s family, but they say they still hope someone will eventually reveal the “brutal truth.”
This year, on the eighth anniversary of Lauren’s disappearance, Lauren’s mother Charlene wrote a Facebook post to Lauren’s abductor just like she has done in the past. Her letters give a glimpse into the ambiguity and loss the parents of missing children experience and the never-ending roller coaster they ride.
“Eight years after Lauren’s disappearance and we are no closer to finding her or getting answers. The expression, “the more things change the more they stay the same” seems apropos. We continue living in the past and in the present.
No one escapes this life unscathed. Everyone has struggles and somehow, we all survive but it is not without costs.
As every June 3rd approaches, I am faced with the dread of reliving all the horrific minutes of that day and the days which followed. I now know of course, despite how desperately I wanted to believe the words “we will find her, it just wasn’t meant to be.”
Our timeline has no end. It begins with a phone call from my husband who heard the news that Lauren was missing from our older daughter, Rebecca. In an instant, our family was irrevocably changed. The not knowing is almost unbearable.
Over the course of these last 8 years we have tried our hardest to get answers but the brutal truth, the only truth, is that any resolution depends on someone willing to come forward with information.
Despite everything, something propels us forward. Of course, it is hope. Hope that today someone will have the courage, to tell the truth, or send an email or make a call or post a lead on social media.
We still have a PO box in Bloomington, just waiting to receive a letter with words that will lead us to the truth. It remains unfilled. Another dead end. No tips or leads have ever been sent which took us one step closer.
Logically you think…it’s anonymous…what you don’t realize is that the monster responsible for Lauren’s disappearance simply does not care.
Hope is a strange bedfellow. Some days you want to abandon all hope but our desire to bring Lauren home whether literally or figuratively is a strong motivator.
To those responsible, you’ve moved on, but we have not. We will never give up. There is always someone actively working to find you. SOMEONE IS ALWAYS LOOKING FOR YOU.
How ironic, just as we are looking for Lauren, we are just as diligently looking for you. I have to believe that someday you will let your guard down. You will need to share your truth and it will just be too big for the person you’ve told to keep it to themselves. That is what we hope for.
Missing you Lauren. Loving you with all our hearts.
Eight years later…. Just as determined as day one. Hoping today is the day.” Charlene Spierer
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.
Every week there are new stories in the news about children and teenagers who have either run away or been kidnapped. When parents see these tragedies play out through media coverage, there’s usually one common thread running through their minds, “This could not happen to my child.” Despite statistics on the demographics most often affected by missing or runaway teens, no family is immune. Parents of a missing child or teen will most certainly have never found themselves in these frightful circumstances before and be at a loss for how to proceed. In addition to filing a report with police, the parents might also consider hiring a private investigator to conduct an independent, concurrent investigation, which begs the question: Should you hire a private investigator to locate your missing or runaway child?
An Overwhelming Task
At first glance, hiring a private investigator may seem superfluous. You may think, “The police are here to help me, and they’re here to help me for free. Why should I consider hiring a private investigator?” The Office of Justice Programs estimates the first 48 hours after your child goes missing are the most crucial in the timeline of any investigation. During these moments, your instinct might be to go find the child yourself or help conduct searches; however, as a parent or guardian of a missing child, your information is the most crucial. A 1982 congressional mandate requires law enforcement to immediately take a report following the disappearance of a child under the age of 18. However, recent reports estimate the excess of some 800,000 missing persons cases reported every year, 85-90% of those cases are individuals under the age of 18. What this statistic tells us is law enforcement, in most parts of the country, are overwhelmed by a caseload (with some departments averaging over 40 cases per investigator) leaving your missing child as a file amidst a stack of equally devastating missing child cases. As law enforcement agencies across the country remain stretched, missing child cases—especially ones where the child appears to have run away—are not always the first priority, as investigators attempt to perform a triage regarding which case requires their attention the most. Private investigators only average between three and four cases at any given time, meaning your child’s case will be at the top of their list of priorities. During the crucial FIRST 48 hours, having a private investigator treat your case as a priority can be the difference between acquiring invaluable information and losing a lead.
Constitutional Red Tape
One of the glowing advantages of hiring a private investigator to find your missing child or teen is the fact PIs possess far more autonomy than the average law enforcement officer or investigator. For instance, when a suspect has been identified, law enforcement often must secure a warrant for them to be tracked as the investigation unfolds. Paperwork and bureaucracy within the chain of command can cause the wheels of justice to turn slowly in regards to local or state law enforcement. Not only are PI’s not required to file this sort of paperwork, but they can also do so without the supervision of a governing law enforcement administration, so the case progression is not stalled for lack of warrant or administration approval.
The Binds of Jurisdiction
Hiring a private investigator conducting an independent, concurrent investigation, means there will never be any issues of jurisdiction when pursuing leads. Say your family lives in Indiana, but while on an out-of-state family vacation, your child goes missing in a crowd. As missing and abducted children across state or even international borders, local law enforcement exponentially lose power to follow leads maybe illuminating the child’s whereabouts. It is also not uncommon for two or more law enforcement agencies to enter a tug of war when it comes to who has jurisdiction over a particular case based on the specific circumstances. This can lead to the loss of leads or time as agencies hash out the details. Private investigators are never bound by jurisdictional bureaucracy. They can travel between states following the trail of a missing child, all without having to file any paperwork or obtain special permissions from superiors.
While law enforcement may have a wealth of experience and exclusive tools at their disposal, it’s important to remember that these civil servants are often overwhelmed with an immense case-load and can only do so much when it comes to the constitutional and jurisdictional boundaries they cannot cross. When hiring a private investigator, remember they have the expertise and similar tools of law enforcement, while also having the time to treat your case as a top priority.
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.