Flip on the television most any time of day or night and you can catch one of the CSI episodes. CSI, short for Crime Scene Investigation, often features intuitive investigators playing whodunit with some of the most sophisticated, high-tech crime-solving stuff you can imagine.
Two Sundays ago at Bethlehem school, just off Highway 32 between Salem and Licking, there was a crime scene investigation going on. Only this time it wasn’t CSI’s Gil Grissom or Horatio Caine trying to figure out if it was Mr. Plumb in the library with the candlestick. This CSI in rural Dent County is for real, with real people trying to figure out a real murder.
Twenty-five years ago this past March, 21-year-old Judy Lynn Spencer, a switchboard operator at Salem Memorial District Hospital, was strangled with a shoestring and then shot in the neck with a shotgun. Her car was found off Route FF in a ditch. Her purse was found near the bridge just east of the Bethlehem school. Two men going to feed cattle in an adjacent field discovered her body a stone’s throw from the school, at the time an infamous nighttime party spot.
Who? Why? Where? When? Two and a half decades later, and the case is still open. Houston High School graduate Judy Spencer was buried March 14, 1982, in North Lawn Cemetery. A little over two weeks later an ad in The Salem News offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the murderer. Though several people underwent polygraph tests at the time, no one has ever been arrested, leaving the family hurt and frustrated to this day.
No murderer. No motive. No closure. A ray of hope came over the past few months in the form of a forensic science class at Drury University’s Cabool campus doing a cold-case study of the Spencer murder. The 28-member class was swarming over the old Bethlehem school grounds, now private property, the afternoon of Oct. 14, recreating the scene, poring over old files and reports and getting a first-hand look at the scene of the crime. “Our objective is to develop theories describing possible events leading to the death of Judy Lynn Spencer,” said Michael Bowersox of Licking, adjunct professor for the class.
“The class project has opened police archives, probing unexplained details and examining the lives of those possibly involved.” The class has soaked up every bit of information it can, from the official investigation done by the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the Dent County Sheriff’s Department to stories in 1982 editions of The Salem News. You name it, they’ve studied it.
Bowersox said sometimes a fresh look at evidence can help solve a crime, even one as old as the Spencer case. Another important factor is technology available now that wasn’t available in the 1980s. DNA testing is one example of that improved technology.
In fact, DNA played a major role in Bowersox’ class taking on the Spencer investigation. Darla Spencer, who is married to Judy Spencer’s brother, Paul, works at the South Central Correctional Facility in Licking. Bowersox is the prison superintendent. Darla Spencer was asking Bowersox about improved DNA testing, and how she read about a Mississippi murder being solved with DNA testing. She asked if DNA collected 25 years ago could now be processed. Darla Spencer then relayed the story of Judy Spencer’s murder.
Bowersox was taken aback by the case and the details. He was sold on taking on the cold case study.
“I asked Darla if the family would allow the fall 2007 class to use the Judy Lynn Spencer murder as our case study,” he said. “Once I gained family permission, I informed the forensics’ class we would be working on a cold case.
“Our approach has been a follow-up investigation, not so much to gather evidence, but to think about and develop theories.” At the end of the semester, the class will provide the Spencer family with a written document theorizing about the death of Judy Spencer. At that point, family members say they will decide what to do with the information.
The family has also contacted the MSHP and is waiting on word from them on possible DNA testing. The Dent County Sheriff’s Department is taking another look at the case to see if it can come up with something new, too, says Sheriff Bob Wofford. “It’s been a long time, but we still would like to know what happened, and why,” said Judy’s mother, Mildred, who along with Judy’s father, Kenneth, still live in the Montauk area.
What happened and why? Those are the questions the Drury class on forensics is trying to answer. They are hoping to answer in one semester what no one else has been able to answer in 25 years.
-Salem News, Oct. 23
Links to Judy Spencer stories from the archives of the Houston Herald:
ORIGINAL STORY: Original murder story
REWARD OFFERED: Original murder story