LITTLE ROCK Bonnie Taylor, now Carpenter, was 7 when the woman she knew as her mother disappeared in 1967.
Bobbie Hackmann Taylor was 24 and married to Bonnie’s father, carnival worker Earl Taylor.
The couple and their three children - Bonnie, 3-year-old Sonny and 8-month old Shelly - lived in a one bedroom apartment above a restaurant in Lexington, Ky.
“I woke up in the middle of the night the day before she disappeared, and they were fighting,” recalls Bonnie. “The next morning when I woke up, she was gone.”
Later that day, Earl Taylor loaded the children into the family’s gray station wagon and headed to Warden, Ohio. He left the children with relatives without explanation.
“When he dropped us off, he said he’d be back in a couple weeks,” Carpenter’s sister, Shelly Ohler, said recently.
The children didn’t see their father again for two years.
“He told the family that our mother had run off with somebody else and didn’t want anything to do with us,” Ohler said.
Carpenter and Ohler, raised as cousins by different relatives, wouldn’t learn they were sisters until Carpenter’s wedding when Ohler was 10.
They wouldn’t learn what happened to their mother for 30 years, and then only because of the tenacity of an Arkansas woman - Bobbie’s sister, Rosemary - and Todd Matthews, a Kentucky man whose father-in-law found the body of a young woman wrapped in a tent in 1968.
The unidentified woman became known as Tent Girl, and her story gives hope to families of the long-missing that they too may someday discover the fate of their loved ones.
For years, Anthony Allen’s family dealt with his 1978 disappearance privately, rocking between believing that the 16-year-old was dead and hoping he was alive.
“For so many years, there were no organizations, so it was something we dealt with as a family,” said his sister, Laura Hood.
Hood was 14 when Tony, as his family called him, disappeared from Fort Smith.
The more time that passed, the more the family worried that he had been killed. Later, they worried that his remains had been buried as a John Doe.
With the advent of the Internet, the family tried to find information about Tony online.
In early 2004, Hood came across the story of Tent Girl and decided to contact Matthews.
Tent Girl’s story “paralleled every fear I ever had, but it gave me hope,” Hood said.
In old cases like those of Tent Girl and Anthony Allen, today’s scientific tools and state and national databases of missing persons seldom provide help.
Unlike today, police weren’t required to maintain files on missing children until the mid-1980s.
“[Tony] was not listed as a missing person, not listed anywhere,” said Hood. “It was as if he never existed. It was heartbreaking.”
The handling of unidentified skeletal remains in the past poses another hurdle for families like Tony’s who have spent decades looking for lost loved ones. Before DNA-tracing and computerized databases became commonplace, remains were buried, cremated, or stored and forgotten.
Police reports, if they ever existed, are in storage or destroyed.
Many families like Bobbie’s and Tony’s hire private investigators or start networking on their own to find answers. Others give up ever knowing what happened to lost loved ones.
Arkansas Crime Laboratory Director Kermit Channell says it’s time to “do right” by these missing people and their families.
Channell is calling on the state’s coroners and law enforcement leaders to send any unidentified remains to the west Little Rock laboratory so that the medical examiner can try to identify them.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s been a long time coming,” he said.
“I think it’s been somewhat of a daunting task to go back and find those things, but that’s kind of what our job is.”
County officials should send skeletal remains, he said, even if the lab examined them years ago. Why? Because more tools - such as mitochondrial DNA - are available.
Also, the U.S. Department of Justice created the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, in 2007. The system, which can be used by police and civilians, uses extensive and detailed twin databases to match missing-persons cases with unidentified remains.
“It’s no different than an unsolved homicide case that we decide to revisit,” Channell said.
“It’s something that we have to do.”
Wilbur Riddle found Tent Girl near Georgetown, Ky., on May 17, 1968.
For years, he couldn’t shake the grisly image and often shared the story.
In the early 1980s, he told Matthews, who was dating his daughter.
Matthews, who went on to marry Riddle’s daughter, joined in his father-in-law’s obsession with the case. He pored over FBI files, trying to piece together clues.
With the advent of the Internet, Matthews began hunting for clues to Tent Girl’s identity by looking through lists of missing people, and scanning message boards and chat rooms established by families of the missing.
Matthews estimates that he spent more than 1,000 hours trying to identify Tent Girl.
In 1998, he came across a post from Rosemary Westbrook of Benton, Ark. She had been searching for her sister Bobbie for 30 years.
Shelly Ohler, now 42, grew up knowing she was adopted but knew little else about her past.
Her adoptive parents didn’t talk much about her father, Earl Taylor, until 1984, when her brother Sonny died after being struck by a car.
She was 17.
“They sat down with me and said, ‘Do you want to know who you are?’” she said.
They were afraid that Taylor, whom they described as the black sheep of the family, would show up at the funeral. Taylor, who used an alias because he was AWOL from the Army and was wanted on various charges, had periodically resurfaced without warning throughout Ohler’s childhood.
All Ohler’s adoptive parents knew about her mother was the information found on her birth certificate.
When Ohler tracked down Taylor and asked for his help finding her mother, he said only, “You’ll never find her.”
Bonnie Carpenter, now 48, lives in the same northwest Ohio county as Ohler.
Carpenter eventually learned that Bobbie wasn’t her biological mother. As an adult, Carpenter was able to track down her birth mother to get more answers.
Carpenter learned that Taylor took her away from her mother when she was a baby and that Bobbie took over the role of mother when Carpenter was 18 months old.
Carpenter, who spent most of her life wondering why both women had abandoned her, is now comforted to know that both women loved her and didn’t want to part with her.
Before Taylor died in 1987, he told Ohler that her mother Bobbie’s family, the Hackmanns, were from Collinsville, Ill.
After Taylor’s death, Ohler stopped in Collinsville, a town across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, during a road trip.
“All we had was a handful of quarters and a phone book,” she said. “We just started down the list, calling all the Hackmanns in the book.”
Her third call led her to someone who knew one of Bobbie’s distant relatives. That tip led her to her mother’s sister, Rosemary Westbrook, in 1989.
Bobbie’s sisters had reported her missing in Florida, the last state they knew she’d been living in. After Westbrook connected with Carpenter and Ohler, she filed a missing-persons report in Lexington, Ky.
No one in law enforcement made a connection to Tent Girl, although the body was discovered in a neighboring county.
“We worked for quite a few years with the hopes that she was still out there,” said Carpenter.
Westbrook remembers getting the e-mail from Matthews in January 1998.
“I think I know where your sister is,” he wrote.
Matthews told her to contact the Scott County, Ky., sheriff’s office. They told her about Tent Girl.
“I kind of knew then,” Westbrook said.
But Matthews’ hunch that Tent Girl could be Bobbie wasn’t enough to prove it. He and Westbrook had to persuade officials and a judge to exhume the body for DNA testing.
After Westbrook shipped a sample of her blood to the Kentucky medical examiner, it took about eight weeks for DNA analysis to finally identify Tent Girl as Bobbie.
Though Ohler had been waiting her entire life to learn her mother’s fate, those final weeks were the hardest. She spent the time trying to give up on ever knowing her mother.
“I maintained a hope that she was out there hiding in fear,” Ohler said.
Bobbie’s family was able to bury her remains. But as in many of these older cases, questions remain.
Although Bobbie’s family knows she was killed, they have no place to channel their anger.
Evidence is gone. Her killer is likely dead.
Earl Taylor took any information he had about her death with him when he died in October 1987.
When Ohler found out what happened to her mother, her anger overflowed.
“He died of cancer,” she said of her father. “Based on what I think he did to our mother, he didn’t suffer enough.”
Carpenter feels grateful that she has memories of Bobbie, and that she and her sister were adopted by loving families.
She remembers family trips to Hot Springs, then a popular winter vacation spot for carnival workers.
“I remember her lifting me up to touch the hot water,” she said. “She was a good mother.”
For Ohler, the void Bobbie left is different. She doesn’t remember her mother.
Bobbie’s killer robbed her of that too.
She finds comfort in photos of Bobbie. In side-by-side snapshots, Ohler and her mother could pass as twins.
The similarity is so striking that Bobbie’s sisters dissolved into tears the first time they met Ohler.
And now Bobbie’s sisters and children are haunted by the knowledge that Bobbie wasn’t dead when her killer wrapped her in the canvas tent. She clawed at the tent with her fingernails.
“I can’t imagine a person going through that,” Ohler said.
She, like others in the family, suspects that the killer had an accomplice who helped him dispose of Bobbie’s body. She’s frustrated that law enforcement officials didn’t seem to seriously follow leads in the case, but she understands that they had little to go on because so much time passed between Bobbie’s death and the discovery of Tent Girl’s identity.
“When you’ve got a cold case, people don’t want to put the effort into it,” Ohler said.
For Westbrook, the experience taught her the value of family.
“That’s why I hold my family so close together,” she said.
At the request of Saline County Coroner Will Bearden, Westbrook uses her experience to help counsel grieving families as a deputy coroner.
“I tell my story. I can relate to what they’re going through. I know the hurt. You can’t stop the hurt, but you can share it.”
Westbrook doubts that she would have been able to find her sister without Matthews’ help. She knows most police detectives wouldn’t have been able to give a missing-persons case so much time.
Matthews went on to help found the Doe Network, a volunteer-run clearinghouse for information on missing and unidentified individuals. Since 2001, the Doe Network has assisted in solving 50 missing-persons and unidentified-remains cases.
Matthews also founded the EDAN (Everyone Deserves A Name) Project, a group of volunteer forensic artists who do free facial reconstruction for unidentified remains and age progressions for the missing.
More recently, he became a system administrator for NamUs.
NamUs has solved six cases in the past eight months and has been focused on pushing state medical examiners and law enforcement agencies to put information into the NamUs database in hopes of linking many more missing people with remains.
Matthews said he won’t stop pushing until every state’s medical examiner has entered all the information they possess about unidentified remains.
“This has to work because I don’t know of any other way to make it happen. There’s only so much a civilian troop can do,” he said.
After Laura Hood emailed Matthews about Tony Allen, her long-missing brother, Matthews said the first thing she needed to do was get her brother’s case file from the Fort Smith Police Department.
She was stunned to learn that no one had ever created a case file. The case had not been investigated, she said, because police dismissed Tony as a runaway. His name and Social Security number had never been entered into the Arkansas and National Crime Information Center databases.
He disappeared long before the law required that.
Hood believes that the case of a missing child like her brother would be handled with more care today.
“When my brother disappeared and my parents went to the police ... it was a to-tally different era and things were handled differently,” she said. “Now there are so many mandates.”
Despite the lack of a case file, Matthews and Hood forged ahead with their search for Tony.
More than once, the pair thought they had found remains that belonged to Hood’s brother. Not long ago they were convinced that a body tucked away in a Texas medical examiner’s closet was Tony’s.
“The process took 11 months from start to finish, and it was not my brother,” Hood said.
Matthews recently came upon a new NamUs listing that he thought might be a match for Tony.
The body of a white man with brown hair was found on Dec. 28, 1978, near mile marker 196 on Interstate 40 in Seminole County, Okla.
The remains were found less than two months after Tony, who also had brown hair, disappeared. Shortly before, Tony traveled to Hartshorne, Okla.
It frustrates Hood to think that her brother’s body could have been found so soon after he disappeared. If the remains are Tony’s and he was murdered, clues and evidence in the case are long gone.
“My gut really doesn’t tell me anything, except to wait and see,” Hood said. “I’ve been through this so many times.”
Hood supports proposed federal and state legislation that would require medical examiners and law enforcement agencies to catalogue human remains, and treat them with respect and accountability.
“I do think the state of Arkansas should put a call out for each county to account for unidentified remains either in a box or in a grave,” she said. “You don’t really know where to start and what steps to take next. No one kept track.”
Over the years, Hood and Matthews formed a bond in their mutual drive to find Tony.
“She has no choice. I had achoice,” Matthews explained. “But the choice is really over. This is who you are, and you build your life around it.”
Tony’s case was the first to be entered into NamUs. It’s a case that’s never far from Matthews’ mind.
Tony has become his new Tent Girl.
“There are so many times we would look at each other and say, ‘Oh my God. This could be Tony,’” he said.
For Matthews, it’s hard to decide what outcome to hope for.
“I don’t know what bad news is anymore,” he said. “It would be over, and we could move forward. They could have a funeral. It’s like everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die.”
About a year ago, Hood called state Crime Lab director Channell and asked him if her brother could be among the lab’s 98 sets of unidentified remains. His response was similar to other state medical examiners she’d contacted.
He was embarrassed, he said, that he had no idea.
“That’s when I realized that we haven’t had good policy, and we haven’t been very proactive,” said Channell, who became lab director in June 2007 after leading the lab’s DNA section. “It’s my responsibility to make sure it’s being corrected.”
Channell acknowledged that the families of people who disappeared before the 1990s have more hurdles to jump.
“They’re sad cases,” Channell said. “Today, of course, if we were to send a skeleton back and it was unidentified, we would have retained all the information that we possibly could.”
The lab, he said, would take samples from the bones for anthropological work-ups and mitochondrial DNA analysis.
For Hood and other family members of missing people, unidentified remains represent possible evidence in homicide cases. More than that, though, they are deceased people who should be treated respectfully.
“This was a living, breathing human being who has a family somewhere who love them,” Hood said.