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UPDATE | Victim's name revealed in decades-old murder case known as 'Belle in the Well'

(WSAZ)
Published: May. 18, 2018 at 1:59 PM EDT
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UPDATE 7/29/19 @ 7:45 p.m.

The southern hills of Lawrence County have long been home to a legend.

Sharon Mayberry has lived in the Willow Wood area for over 50 years. She first heard about the story of the “Belle in the Well” when she moved there, and through the years she has often wondered about her.

"We heard that there were children playing, young children playing and just stumbled on the well,” Mayberry said. "It’s a tragedy you don’t want to hear of that anywhere--especially close by."

As the story goes, in April 1981, a woman was found in a well just down the road. Her cause of death -- strangulation.

Investigators estimate that her body was in the well for about one to two years. A cinder block was tied around her neck with a rope to weigh her down.

They estimate she was 63 inches and weighed 100 pounds.

At the time, she was found she was wearing several sweaters, gray pants and she had rubber bands around her wrists.

"At the time of course you think surely they'll find some clues,” Mayberry said.

Despite having a lot of soft tissue present, decomposition ruled out fingerprinting.

Over the years no one came forward about her identity.

But on Monday, 38 years later, the Lawrence County Coroner’s Office held a news conference finally revealing her identity: Louise Virginia Peterson Flesher, born in 1915 in West Virginia.

At some point Flesher moved to Wyoming where she went to high school and had a family. Her husband’s name was Donald Benjamin Flesher and she had three daughters, two who are still living. By 1944, she returned to West Virginia and lived in Parkersburg.

But it was a long and winding road to finally identify this Jane Doe. Investigators say her case was especially difficult because of the high rate of intermarriage in the area.

In 2017, the Lawrence County Coroner’s Office teamed up with the DNA Doe Project. Using DNA from her tooth taken in 2017 and uploaded to a site called GEDmatch and through genealogy, they were able to find her youngest daughter, confirming the Belle’s identity earlier this month.

"When you finally make an identification it's like real. It becomes real, it's not theoretical anymore. It's not a person in a well. It's not just a Jane Doe, it's a real person with mother, father, children, went to high school, had jobs,” Colleen Fitzpatrick, a forensic genealogist with the DNA Doe Project said.

County Coroner Ben Mack says the mystery surrounding her identity wouldn’t have been solved without this cutting-edge technology.

"Combining new technology such as DNA and old, old times -- going clear back to biblical times of genealogy and putting those two together to come up with modern day answers,” he said.

A piece of the puzzle now is now in place to allow some healing.

"I’m glad that they finally solved it, even though it's all these years and I’m sure her family has probably gone on -- her family -- some of them, but at least there’s some closure for her descendants,” Mayberry said.

According to representatives from the DNA Doe Project, the identification effort took thousands of hours, more than 30 volunteers helped and they reviewed over 40,000 family trees.

At this point, the sheriff says there are no suspects. But they ask anyone who might have known something about this crime to reach out to the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office.


UPDATE 7/29/19 @ 9:24 a.m.

Investigators have identified the victim of a decades-old murder case as Louise Virginia Peterson Flesher.

Flesher's body was found in a covered well in Chesapeake, Ohio, on April 22, 1981. Investigators said she was strangled and could have been in the well -- located in a rural part of Lawrence County -- for up to two years.

Law enforcement could not identify the body. About 38 years went by, and it became widely known as the "Belle in the Well" case.

As technology improved, investigators were able to use forensic genealogy and DNA samples from family members to confirm her identity. The DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit organization based in California, helped solve the mystery.

Flesher was born in 1915, according to law enforcement at a press conference Monday morning.

Investigators also released a photo of Louise from her 1934 high school yearbook in Wyoming.


UPDATE 7/29/19 @ 9 a.m.

Investigators are having a press conference Monday to reveal the identity of the victim in the murder mystery widely known as the "Belle in the Well" case.

The woman's body was found in a covered well in Chesapeake, Ohio, on April 22, 1981. Investigators said she was strangled and could have been in the well -- located in a rural part of Lawrence County -- for up to two years.

Law enforcement used forensic genealogy and DNA samples from family members to confirm her identity 38 years later.

We have a crew at the press conference. Keep checking the WSAZ app for the latest information.


UPDATE 7/25/19 @ 10 p.m.

Investigators say they've finally identified the victim in a murder case from nearly 40 years ago.

The mystery is widely known as the "Belle in the Well" case.

Law enforcement will be announcing the woman's identity and giving an update on the investigation at a news conference Monday.

Back on April 22, 1981, teenage girls spotted a woman's decomposed body in a well on Wright Ridge in the Willow Wood area of Lawrence County, Ohio.

Authorities believe she was between 30 and 60 years old at the time of her death.

Families of missing people from all over the country have reached out to investigators through the years, wondering if the victim was their loved one.

Goldie Stapleton moved to the adjoining property a few years after the body was found.

"So many people come here wanting to know," she said. "They'll ask questions."

Investigators say the victim had been strangled, and her body had been in the well for as long as two years.

"I've wondered for so many years because we live right here," Stapleton said. "I can't imagine the torment the family has gone through, the wondering all these years, and absolutely no clue."

A forensic facial reconstruction of the victim was released in 2018 in an effort to identify her.

Investigators used forensic genealogy and DNA samples from family members to finally confirm her identity.

"I've heard about this lady in the well my whole life," Goldie's daughter Jennifer Stapleton said. "My grandmother lived here. We always heard stories about it growing up. I'm excited to finally find out who it is."

Neighbors say it's horrifying to imagine whoever was responsible has gone this long without being brought to justice, but they're thrilled to be getting a big piece of the puzzle.

"It's huge," Goldie Stapleton said. "This is so amazing. It touches my heart, my soul. I'm very excited about this."

WSAZ will have a crew there Monday as law enforcement releases the identity.


UPDATE 7/25/19 @ 1:52 p.m.

Investigators say they have finally identified the victim in a decades-old murder case.

The 38-year-long mystery is widely known at the "Belle in the Well" case. A woman's body was found in a covered well in Chesapeake, Ohio, on April 22, 1981. Investigators said she was strangled and could have been in the well -- located in a rural part of Lawrence County -- for up to two years.

According to the Lawrence County Coroner's Office, investigators now have a positive DNA identification for the victim. Several law enforcement agencies, as well as team leaders from the DNA Doe Project, are gathering for a press conference Monday, July 29 to release the woman's name and give an update on the investigation.

What we do know is that investigators used forensic genealogy and DNA samples from family members to confirm her identity.

for our previous coverage of the case.

Keep checking the WSAZ app for the latest information.


ORIGINAL STORY 5/18/18

Investigators are still trying to solve the mystery of the “Belle in the Well,” a cold case in our region that dates back decades.

On Friday, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and Lawrence County Coroner Dr. Benjamin Mack unveiled a new forensic facial reconstruction of a woman whose remains were found in Lawrence County in 1981.

The clay model was created by a forensic artist with the Attorney General's Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) in an effort to identify the murder victim.

The woman's body was found in a covered well in Chesapeake, Ohio, on April 22, 1981. Authorities believe she was between 30 and 60 years old at the time of her death. She weighed around 140 pounds and was about 5 feet 3 inches tall. Her eye color and hair color are unknown.

The woman was found wearing a dark pullover sweater underneath a lightweight shirt with a red cable-knit sweater on top. She was also wearing gray slacks, red socks, and a rubber band on each of her wrists.