West Memphis cold case spotlighted in student project
Tennessee Bureau of Investigation names suspect linked to local 1984 murder By Ralph Hardin
On Sept. 16, 1984, the body of Lisa Nichols, 28, was found in West Memphis. Nichols, who was not identified until June of 1985, had been missing for some time from West Virginia before being found along Interstate 40, a victim of strangulation.
Between 1978 and 1985, at least a half-dozen women were believed to be the victims of the “Bible Belt Strangler,” often referred to as “The Redhead Murders.”
In February 1983, the first victim of the Redhead Murders was found in Wetzel County, West Virginia.
Over the next few years, several more victims were found along interstates and highways in Tennessee and surrounding states. However, because victims’ bodies were dispersed across multiple states and bodies were unidentified (Nichols was the only victim whose identity was ever confirmed), officials never confirmed connections between the murders, and they became separate cold cases.
In January 2018, Alex Campbell’s spring sociology class at Elizabethton High School began investigating the cases and created an eight-page profile of the murderer. They released their findings to the public at a press conference on May 15 at the school, about 60 miles from the where the nearest body was found.
Their hope was that by releasing the profile, the public would take interest and provide tips related to the cases. Media outlets and law enforcement from each county and state where a body was discovered were invited to the conference. The profile was the culmination of a semester of studying human behavior and correlations between the victims.
Students identified several similarities between victims including gender (female), age (between 17-45), weight (under 145 pounds), and most prominently each victim’s red hair.
The class determined that six victims were ultimately connected to one killer. The profile identifies 21 characteristics of the killer like appearance, occupation, family background, and motives.
In addition, they developed a timeline of events leading up to the murders.
These resources were made available to the media, law enforcement and the public. Details from the profile have already aired on the Out of the Shadows podcast with Shane Waters, who is currently conducting his own interviews of witnesses and related persons.
“These are unsolved murders in which only one victim has been identified,” said Bekah Price, Public Relations Coordinator for Elizabethton City Schools.
“Because the profile, a timeline, a name for the killer, and a podcast on the murders now exist, we are calling on the public to provide tips related to the cases.
State, federal and local law enforcement in each county will receive tips related to the case,” said Alex Campbell, Elizabethton High School Project-Based Learning Coordinator “Most of you should remember that my students worked on a case of 6 unsolved murders (class in spring of 2017) in and around Tennessee in the 1980’s. It was featured in the XQ Live Event in the segment, Cold Case Class, numerous local and regional newspaper outlets, 3 podcasts, 1 nation-wide radio show, featured on the ID Network, Oxygen Network website, Sociology Lens magazine, etc. Only one of six had even been identified, and there had been no breaks on the case in over 30 years.”
But now, according to Campbell, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has had a breakthrough in one of those cases.
“Within a year of the students taking up the case to bring attention back to it, they had identified three more.
Yesterday, they announced that they had a confirmed a killer for on of those victims.
They even said that the reason they were able to identify the victim is because of the social media and internet tips they received within the last year. They will not say, but I know that our students had an impact on getting the cases out in front of people again.”
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said Thursday it solved a more than 3-decade-old cold case, but there’s no evidence at this time that it’s connected to a string of similar murders.
On Jan. 1, 1985, the body of a woman was found along I-75 in Campbell County. Fingerprint comparisons helped identify her in 2018 as Tina Marie McKenney Farmer, a pregnant woman in her 20s who was reported missing from Indiana.
It has been believed she was a victim in the “Redhead Murder” killing spree, where six similar victims were found dead along interstates in Tennessee and Kentucky in the mid-80s.
On Thursday, the TBI said the man believed to be responsible for Farmer’s death died in prison in December 2015. A Campbell County Grand Jury found there was enough evidence to indict Jerry Leon Johns of Cleveland, Tennessee, of first-degree murder in Farmer’s death, according to District Attorney General Jared Effler.
“While I am extremely disappointed that this case has not ended in the prosecution of Jerry Johns, I am pleased that this investigation has answered questions for Ms. Farmer’s family that heretofore had gone unanswered for over thirty-four years,” said Effler.
“We have heard law enforcement rumors that there could be links to several of the other murders forthcoming, but nothing could be confirmed yesterday,” said Campbell.
“I communicated with Tina’s sister yesterday and she was so appreciative of our students’ work. There are more families still waiting for those answers. We feel there is much more work to be done to understand who Jerry Leon Johns was, possible connections with other murders, and if further information would further allow us to evaluate our students’ work.”