A Lawton private detective thinks he has solved two cold cases from 1967, but he won't release the suspect's name. Not yet. Not until he's sure.
Troy Thiessen stumbled on the case of Judith Elwell — a 5-year-old girl who vanished July 6, 1967, from in front of her northwest Oklahoma City home — while researching another project two years ago. Something about the disappearance compelled him to research the case further.
“I was kind of astounded nobody was working on it,” Thiessen said. “She doesn't deserve to be forgotten, and I couldn't tell you exactly why I've taken up the cause, but this is what I do.”
No one is paying him to work on the case. He sees it more as a side project, something he does only after his other duties are finished.
On a typical day, Thiessen scans through piles of documents, hoping to find the next piece of the puzzle.
He compares the mind-numbing process to looking for a specific needle in a specific haystack in a field of haystacks. The lack of evidence and witnesses overcame many before him.
After a series of dead ends, Thiessen came to the conclusion that the answer to who took Judith could possibly be found in the case of another girl.
Brenda White was 6 when she was snatched Aug. 3, 1967, outside a Midwest City grocery store — less than a month after and about 18 miles from where Judith was taken.
Police immediately thought the two incidents were connected. Yet other than the proximity and the time frame, there was little information to support the theory.
Unlike with Judith, numerous suspects surfaced in the aftermath of Brenda's abduction. A boy claimed to have seen a man drive off with the girl in a white car. One man was investigated because he was once convicted of molesting children.
But nothing stuck.
Brenda's remains were discovered November 1967 buried in a field about 11 miles east of her home. Judith never was found.
Thiessen adopted the common theory that the girls were taken by the same person. To solve one cold case, he knew, he had to solve another. He began examining the suspects from Brenda's case to clear each of blame, largely by establishing alibis.
“That's what you do. You work not to develop somebody as a suspect but to clear them,” Thiessen said. “You try your best to find out why they didn't do it.”
As the list shortened, one name stood out. It belonged to a man who was a troubled teenager living in Harrah when Brenda was abducted, Thiessen said. After spending time in and out of prison for various crimes, he served about 15 years for sexual crimes against his stepchildren.
Thiessen eliminated most of the suspects, but not the man from Harrah.
“Now here's this guy who can't account for all his time, among other things, and every time I look at him, it gets stronger and stronger,” he said.
Over time, Thiessen has compiled a substantial amount of information that he says links his suspect to the crime. He is 80 percent sure the man from Harrah is behind both abductions.
But 80 percent isn't enough.
Before taking his claim to the police, Thiessen wants to be as sure as he can he has the right man. His suspect, who is still alive, was cleared of the crime more than 40 years ago.
He worries police won't take him seriously without solid evidence.
“Police departments are extremely understaffed and underbudgeted, and their caseloads are huge,” Thiessen said. “They don't have time to go back to a case from 1967.”
Midwest City Police Chief Brandon Clabes said he would take any information from Thiessen seriously. The case remains open, despite the passage of time and shortage of evidence, Clabes said.
“We're always hoping that somebody comes forward so that we can bring the case to a logical conclusion, but we have to have something to go on at this point,” Clabes said. “We don't have any viable leads that would lead us to any one suspect or any information that could lead us to the suspect.”
Thiessen advertises, usually on Craigslist or OK Jailbirds, asking people with any information to contact him. Two women have come forward, saying they were nearly abducted years ago. Both think it may have been the same person who kidnapped Judith and Brenda.
Oklahoma City resident Rhonda Miller, who has struggled to suppress memories of her near abduction in September 1967, told Thiessen her story, hoping it could help bring an end to these cases.
Her encounter, on NW 96 as she was walking home from school, happened about a month after Brenda was taken. The white Plymouth her stalker drove was similar to descriptions of a car that might have carried Brenda away.
The individual in the vehicle chased her through her neighborhood, until she was finally able to hide in a friend's house.
Miller thinks it was the same person who kidnapped Judith and Brenda.
“I feel that I've seen the abductor,” Miller said. “His face is right in my mind. It's always haunted me, and it's affected my life.
“My whole life, I've felt guilty, thinking, I know the car, and I know the guy. Why can't I help? How can I help? If I could just get the picture out of my mind of him, maybe someone would recognize him, like, ‘I know who that was!' ”
She said the man appeared to be white with darker skin, perhaps from being in the sun often. He wore glasses and had darker hair.
Thiessen has emailed countless pictures of suspects to Miller, including photos of his primary suspect. She didn't recognize any of them. But Miller's encounter was nearly 46 years ago, and details fade after time, Thiessen said.
Judith's only surviving family member is her older brother, Mark Elwell. In a 2007 interview with The Oklahoman, Elwell said his family was investigated after Judith's disappearance.
“They dug up our front yard,” he said. “They dug up our backyard. They dug up underneath our house. They dug up the place where my father worked. ... I couldn't tell you how many times they took my mother or my father down there (to police headquarters) and grilled them. You don't seem to understand. My father was a strait-laced Catholic. He never smoked. He never drank. He never cussed. My mother was a strait-laced Catholic.”
Their mother, who suffered from cancer, mourned Judith until her death six years after the abduction. Their father struggled keeping a job afterward.
Elwell still thought about Judith often, he said in 2007, and she continued to haunt his dreams.
He could not be reached for comment for this story.
Tammie Turner was 2 — the youngest of seven children — when her sister, Brenda, was abducted. She has no memories of her sister or the day that changed her family's life, but she remembers their mom being upset.
Turner and her family rarely discussed what happened.
“I don't know if it's just because we don't want to upset each other or it's been so long,” she said.
Turner's curiosity about what happened to her sister started building as she grew older. She started searching for information on the case on the Internet and looking through old newspaper clippings.
She said her parents probably don't expect to see the investigation solved in their lifetime, but she wouldn't mind being wrong.
“I guess anything is possible.”
I feel that I've seen the abductor. His face is right in my mind. It's always haunted me, and it's affected my life. My whole life, I've felt guilty, thinking, I know the car, and I know the guy. Why can't I help? How can I help? If I could just get the picture out of my mind of him, maybe someone would recognize him, like, ‘I know who that was!' ”
Oklahoma City resident