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Elizabethton students working to solve 30-year-old murders

John Thompson • Apr 29, 2018 at 10:52 PM

ELIZABETHTON — Could high school students help solve a series of murders committed 20 years before they were born? Could that class join with a national podcaster and a Netflix personality to help bring the killer to justice?

Those questions have suddenly made sociology class very exciting for the 23 students taught by Alex Campbell at Elizabethton High School this semester. It’s a question that brought Shane Waters, from the podcast “Out of the Shadows,” to Campbell’s class last Thursday.

Waters said his podcast reaches 450,000 listeners. He is based in Marion, Indiana, most famous as the boyhood home of James Dean.

The sociology class and the podcaster began independent investigations of several unsolved murders that some people suspect may be connected and the work of a serial killer.

Why a serial killer?

First, all six of the women were unknown in the community where they were killed, leading investigators to believe the victims were transients or prostitutes.

Second, all of the victims had red hair.

Third, all of the women were killed by strangulation or blunt force. No weapons were involved.

Fourth, all the victims were unmolested and their bodies were left near major highways. Most were found near Interstate 40 or other major roads near I-40, and all of the cases are in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee or Arkansas.

For these reasons, some people have combined the six cases and started calling them the “Redhead Murders.” On Thursday, Campbell and the class debated a name for their suspected serial killer. Because of the locations of the murders and the method most of the women were killed, the majority of the class liked “the Bible Belt Strangler.”

The spring semester class began in January and students started to study how sociological techniques could be used in crime-solving. The Redhead Murders were studied because one of the crimes was committed about 60 miles away in Greene County.

Waters also began exploring the crimes. He told the class it was unlike any of the earlier cold cases he had examined, because he always used family members of the victims in telling the stories. Because the victims in the Redhead Murders were unknown, there will be no family stories.

As the two groups continued their investigations, each became aware of the other. Campbell and Waters began talking to each other.

Waters planned a trip to Barbourville, Kentucky, where one of the victims had been found. He made the trip this week and decided to head southeast to Elizabethton as part of the trip. He not only sat in on the class, he recorded much of it for a future podcast.

The highlight of Thursday’s class was the reading of profiles of the serial killer that the students had developed. While nothing is known about the perpetrator or perpetrators, the students used details they could glean from the crimes, the victims, the time when they were committed and the locations to develop a detailed profile.

First, the students were able to get a lot of information simply by examining how the murders were committed. They determined the man must be taller than average and heavier than average in order to subdue and strangle the women using no weapons. The victims also appeared to be carried by the murderer. There were no tracks to indicate the victim had been dragged or wheeled to the place where the bodies were dumped.

While he must be larger than average, the students believe the killer would not be so unusual that he would attract attention. They said the killer’s ability to avoid being identified indicated his intelligence was average to slightly above average.

The students also decided the killer must be a truck driver. They believe a truck driver would be most likely to travel the many distances between the places where the crimes were committed. Because the crimes were committed near highways, the students felt the killer must have felt comfortable around highways and truck stops.

Because the bodies of the victims were not molested, but were partially nude, the students suspect the crimes were not driven by lust, but may have been mission-oriented killings. That led to the suspicion the man may have been attempting to eliminate something he considered repulsive, such as prostitution.

Campbell sent the profiles to an FBI profiler, who was impressed. He thought every student in the class deserved an ‘A’ for the amount of information and the justifications.

Gemma Hoskins, from the Netflix series “The Keepers,” was also impressed with the work the students are doing. She is a friend of Waters and she joined the class by way of FaceTime.

“These are just high school kids?” Hoskins asked.

She then spoke about all the impact that high school students are making on the national level this year and encouraged the students to continue their work.

Hoskins also encouraged the class to keep working on the cold cases, reminding them that the 40-year investigation into the Golden State Killings had ended in an arrest just that week.

Campbell hopes to get recognition for the work with a press conference in May to publicize the profiles and other findings and to urge possible witnesses to some of the crimes to come froward.

A class project to bring solve a series of 30-year old crimes? School just isn’t what it used to be.

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