Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Who Killed Bonnie Huffman?

The following article is from The Forensic Examiner, summer 2007, volume 16, number 2. Many thanks to Karissa Scott, Editor in Chief, who kindly granted me permission to publish the full length article on this forum, so that it may be read, in it's entirety, without having to pay a subscription fee to the various services that were charging to access this article. I republish it here, in hopes that it may find a new audience and jog someones memory. The Huffman family, especially Bonnie's niece, Wanda Ross, deserve to know who murdered their loved one all those years ago.

Who Killed Bonnie Huffman?
By Kristin Crowe, Associate Editor

On the night of July 2, 1954, a young, dark-haired schoolteacher known to be prim-and-proper left her friends and headed home shortly after midnight, but she never reached her destination. Searchers found her decomposing body in a road ditch 59 hours after she was reported missing. Her name was Bonnie Huffman, and her case is the oldest cold case in Missouri.

Bonnie left her Delta home on Friday, July 2, after telling her mother that she might spend the night with relatives in Cape Girardeau and not to worry if she did not come home. She lived with her mother and half-brother about 8 miles north of Delta, where she stopped at a gas station to buy a tire and call her friend, Mrs. Bess. The Besses met her at a movie in Cape Girardeau and afterward they all went to the Colonial Tavern to eat. Bonnie’s boyfriend, Doug Hiett, had broken up with her the day before, and Mrs. Bess said that she “had never seen Bonnie quite that upset before.” When Bonnie realized it was near midnight, she said she needed to go home. According to Sgt. Friedrich, the officer currently assigned to the case, the Besses tried to get Bonnie to stay with them. in Cape Girardeau, but she insisted on going home. Shortly after midnight she got in her 1938 Ford and started making her way toward Delta. The Besses just assumed she made it home, and her mother and brother assumed that she spent the night in Cape Girardeau. The truth—she did neither.

A person reported passing Bonnie’s empty car, which was sitting in the road with the lights on at 1:30 Saturday morning. However, no one reported her missing until mid-morning on Saturday. Bonnie’s half-brother Bobby Thiele found her car in the road about 8:30 a.m. Saturday on his way to Delta. He thought she must have had car trouble, left the car, and gone back to Delta, but the car started and he moved it out of the road. After checking with Hiett and calling the Besses, Thiele went home to tell his mother what he had found. Together, they went to Delta and called the police department in Cape Girardeau to report her missing. After an extensive search, the body was found at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, July 5, 1954, by a couple that noticed the smell. Her killer has never been found. The Delta Community has not changed much in the last 50 years, according to Sgt. Friedrich. The tight-knit community still talks about the murder, and it is as if the case never went away. Wanda Ross, Bonnie Huffman’s niece, has kept the case alive and in the forefront of people’s minds. If she had lived, Huffman would be around 73 this year, and the family would like to find closure.

At the time, there was much speculation concerning who committed the murder and how Huffman was killed, neither of which were ever positively determined. Some thought that Huffman’s boyfriend Hiett, who is still alive, committed the murder, but three other people verified his account of the evening. Many thought that she had been killed intentionally and then left in the ditch. Some speculated that the killer felt guilty and left her body where he thought it would be easily found, while others speculated that the killer placed the body there shortly before searchers discovered it. One of the primary tools investigators used to determine whether a person knew anything about the murder was the newly created polygraph machine. A 1956 article reported, “between 65 and 75 persons had been requested or had volunteered to take the [polygraph] test” in relation to the case. The police conducted many interviews and tried to ascertain whether the killer was someone Huffman knew or a transit visiting the area. The communities in the Delta area began collecting money for a reward soon after Huffman’s body was found. By July 14, 1954, The Southeast Missourian reported that someone had given or pledged $1340.75 to the fund, which would have been given to the person who provided information that led to the arrest and conviction of Huffman’s killer. Authorities eventually returned the funds to donors.

In 2004, an anonymous witness sent a letter to the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff’s Department detailing what he or she saw that night. Friedrich said the kind of information given in the letter could only have come from a witness. The person was coming home from a dance and came upon a car stopped in the road. There were two men in the ditch, and when the person stopped to see if they needed help, they tried to pull the person from his or her car. The letter writer managed to get away, but said that there was “someone in the Ditch hollering.” Friedrich said that the location the letter writer gave of the car is the same location Huffman’s body was found. The writer, however, has not come forward or given any other information. Friedrich (2007, March 12) said, “I don’t understand why they can’t come forward and give this family some closure. It’s the right thing to do.” However, he also admits that the writer may have passed away, as all suspects and people living at the time are either deceased or in their later years.
There are many aspects to this case that are not common knowledge. In 1954, police actually arrested a suspect. The Scott County Sheriff arrested Roy Wilson Jr., but the charges were later dropped. Many believe that this was a political move on the part of that county’s department used to garner attention. A psychiatrist determined that Wilson did not have the capability to perform the act of homicide and that his confession had been forced. Wilson later recanted his statement. According to the original officer on the case, Sgt. Percy Little, myriad rumors of how Huffman was murdered circulated in 1954, hampering the investigation from the start. Some of these rumors still persist today. The Southeast Missourian commented on these rumors: “Meanwhile, rumors all without foundation spread like wildfire over the weekend. How they started no one could tell.” Friedrich (2007, March 12) said that it “seems like that area was the wild west down there in the 50s,” with families and clans feuding against each other and trying to blame Huffman’s homicide on whomever they liked the least. There were rumors that she had been held in a cabin in the woods and that her body was carried in the trunk of a vehicle, but neither rumor had any substance. According to photographs, Huffman’s body was bloated around three times its normal size due to decomposition, and the ground beneath the body was reported to have been saturated with bodily fluids. Anything in which the killer(s) stored or transported the body would have contained physical evidence from the body, but investigators only found such evidence in the ditch. Recently, a man reported to the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff’s Department that he thinks his father committed the murder. The St. Louis man’s parents were from the Allenville community. When he was 7, he overheard his father and another man speaking, and the other man said to his father, “I think we should’ve shoved her up in the culvert farther.” However, there is no physical evidence, and both suspects are deceased.

The case proves frustrating to Sgt Friedrich for a variety of reasons, one of which is the case file, or lack of one. Only a single latent fingerprint taken off the rearview mirror has survived. No other physical evidence remains. The fingerprint did not lead anywhere when it was sent through AFIS, the Automatic Fingerprint Identification System. A “boatload of polygraphs” and seven or eight black-and-white photos still exist, but that is all (Friedrich, 2007, March 12). The Highway Patrol destroyed all other evidence in 1974, and the case information from which Friedrich is working is not the complete case file. Sergeant Little was called to the National Guard, leaving State Trooper Swingle to continue the case. Friedrich is working from Swingle’s paperwork. The case file tells who the officers talked to, but not why they chose to talk to each particular person. With so much information missing, Friedrich is unable to follow any sort of coherent thought pattern or evidence trail.

What Friedrich does have, though, is enough to posit a possible scenario. The coroner’s report states that Huffman died of a broken neck—“a displacement of the third cervical vertebra upward and to the left.” Huffman was 5 feet, 10 inches tall, weighed 133 pounds, and was very pretty by all accounts. Her good reputation was known throughout the area. Friedrich (2007, March 12) said that the 20-year- old, petite, attractive schoolteacher was known to be “a virgin—prim and proper.” The pathologist stated the following in the autopsy report: There is a single area of contusion and abrasion on the left side of the vaginal wall approximately 3 cm. within the vaginal canal. The speculum is introduced rather easily into the vagina. There is no evidence of a hymen and the introitus is intact with no evidence of blood or damage to the hymenal ring. (Lovinggood, 1954) While decomposition of the body prevents definitive proof the killers raped her, the contusion “suggests that rape was at tempted” (Friedrich, 2007, March 12). When searchers discovered Huffman’s body, the only article of clothing that was missing was her underwear. Her glasses, watch, necklace, and purse were missing, but she was still dressed in her dress, brassiere, and shoes when found. The physical evidence of possible rape, coupled with the missing underwear, provides a semblance of motive. The post-mortem changes and insect larvae on the body indicated that time of death was between 48 and 72 hours before the autopsy. In the autopsy report, the pathologist noted a “superficial abrasion over the left knee” (made before death) and the “dislocation of the 3 rd cervical vertebra and a dislocation at the left tempero-mandibular joint,” or a displaced jaw. There were no other wounds or broken bones. It appeared that Huffman’s killers forced her car over. People found her seat cushion and earrings scattered outside, indicating a possible struggle. Huffman left the car with the keys in the ignition, three-quarters of a tank of gas, and the running lights on. A toy gun was either in the car or in the road near the seat cushion and then placed in the car when Huffman’s half-brother moved the car off the road. Two different witnesses who saw Huffman driving home that night said she was alone. One passed her and saw her pass his house after he arrived home. He also saw “a two-tone green Chevrolet go northwest on the road at a very high rate of speed” shortly after. As the car reached the edge of town, the driver began blowing the horn steadily, which the witness said continued until the car was out of hearing distance. Within 15 minutes, the car came back through Delta, again traveling at a high speed.
The most plausible theory is that Huffman was driving home that night, and as she passed one of the taverns on her route someone noticed that she was alone. It was likely a crime of convenience, not premeditation. She had no known enemies and seemed to get along with everyone. The man (or men) followed her in his car, but allowed her to get a distance ahead of him. He then began honking his horn and sped up, attempting to get her to stop. Huffman stopped and the man drug her out of the car, leaving the keys in the
ignition and scattering the seat cushion and earrings in the scuffle. As he was trying to get her into his car, the letter-writing witness came upon the scene and was scared off. The man forced Huffman into his car and took off quickly enough to leave skid marks in the gravel. Huffman, trying to escape, opened her door and jumped out of the car, thus making the abrasions on her knees. The fracture of the third cervical vertebrae is result of “classical whiplash motion” from Huffman hitting the street. She was killed upon impact and the man sped off after realizing she was dead. At some point, he had attempted to sexually assault Huffman, possibly when the letter- writer came upon the scene.
There is one piece of evidence that has not yet entered this discussion of the case. A VFW magazine, American Legion, was found in the ditch in close proximity to the body. The magazine was the July issue and had been recently mailed to the address on the magazine, which was 150 miles north, in Saint Louis, MO. When police talked to the subscription holder, he admitted to being in Hiram, near the Bollinger-Wayne county line, over the Fourth of July to visit relatives. He had no reasonable explanation concerning why his magazine was found in the ditch with Huffman’s body. The man drove to the area from Saint Louis with his nephew, who says that his uncle then turned around and left that very day—a fact that leaves Friedrich suspicious. The magazine was “something that could have fallen out of the car if there was a struggle” (Friedrich, 2007, March 12). It was later determined that the nephew had raped someone in Bollinger County and had been placed in jail, casting even more suspicion on the uncle and nephew. However, the uncle was investigated and given a polygraph test, which he passed. Friedrich believes “they [police investigators] should have pounded on that and pounded on that.” The man is now deceased, leaving us wondering—was he the speeding man on the road behind Huffman that night? Was the uncle, or uncle-nephew team, responsible for Huffman’s death? Although the man passed a polygraph, Friedrich thought that the situation should have been more thoroughly investigated. While he readily agrees that the investigators at the time were “quickly over- whelmed” by the amount of information to be processed, Friedrich (2007, March 12) said that, as a new tool at the time, investigators “shouldn’t have used the polygraph as the sole tool to eliminate suspects; it is only as good as the operator.” Today, a well-done polygraph takes between three and four hours to complete, but some of the polygraphs given to suspects in the case took less than 40 minutes. As a new tool, it was somewhat unpredictable and the basic standards used to garner more accurate results had not yet been established. Another mistake investigators made at the time, Friedrich said, was to dismiss the case as just a disgruntled girlfriend who had run away. Huffman’s car was not processed for several days, before which her family was allowed to drive it home and let it sit for days in a dusty barn. Friedrich (2007, March 12) mentioned that, because the running lights were left on and the driver was missing, the investigators “should have taken greater care and processed the car.” A lack of manpower contributed to these and other such mistakes.

If the Huffman case had happened today instead of in 1954, Friedrich (2007, March 12) “would like to think we would have solved it.” Southeast Missouri has created a Major Case Squad that can be called in on special cases, contributing a vast amount of manpower and expertise to the specific case. Medical examiners now have better resources, and forensic knowledge has increased tremendously in the last 50 years. Additionally, all evidence is now run through the centralized database of the Highway Patrol, enabling crosschecking and cross-referencing between cases. The lack of preserved evidence and lack of a case file, however, continue to plague the Huffman case. Unless the missing glasses, necklace, watch, or purse are found, it seems unlikely that our improved methods will crack this case.

While he has gotten to know the family and would like to provide closure for them and the entire community, Friedrich (2007, March 12) said that the “chance he’s [the killer] still alive is slim to none.” Huffman’s killer was unlikely to be much younger than Huffman herself, meaning at the youngest he would be in his seventies. At this point, Friedrich’s hope is that the killer, if alive, will come forward, or that someone with information on the case, such as the letter-writing witness, will offer more information that could lead to answering who killed Bonnie Huffman?


Clues fade as hunt goes on for slayer of school teacher. [sic] (1954, July 10). The Southeast Missourian, pp. 1, 8. Lovinggood, T. A. (1954). Autopsy report: Miss Bonnie Huffman. Huffman Official Case File. Missing teacher found. (1954, July 6). The Southeast Missourian, pp. 1, 14. More cleared in slaying case. (1956, April 2). The Southeast Missourian, p. 1. No new clues at inquest into mystery killing. [sic] (1954, July 13). The Southeast Missourian, pp. 1, 4. Press hunt for killer in death of teacher. (1954, July 7). The Southeast Missourian, pp. 1, 12. Redeffer, L. (2004, July 6). Letter may be from witness to 1954 murder. The Southeast Missourian. Retrieved February 20, 2007, from http://www.semissourian.com/story/141049.html Remsberg, C. (1964, Summer). Schoolteacher murdered after the movies. Unsolved Murders, 30–37. Reward fund in slaying probe mounts to $275. (1954, July 9). The Southeast Missourian, p. 1. Reward grows in hunt for slayer. (1954, July 12). The Southeast Missourian, p. 1. Spur search for mystery killer. (1954, July 8). The Southeast Missourian, p. 1, 12. Why was body of slain teacher left by killer on public road? (1954, July 7). The Southeast Missourian, p. 1. $1340 reported in reward fund. (1954, July 14) The Southeast Missourian, p. 1.

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