Suspect charged in 1991 killing in Fulton County

Prisoner’s letter solves hitchhiker’s slaying

Rick Allen Headley (left), an inmate at the Varner Unit in Lincoln County, and Sabrina Lynn Underwood are shown in these undated file photos. Headley has been charged with first-degree murder in Underwood's 1991 death. (Courtesy photos)
Rick Allen Headley (left), an inmate at the Varner Unit in Lincoln County, and Sabrina Lynn Underwood are shown in these undated file photos. Headley has been charged with first-degree murder in Underwood's 1991 death. (Courtesy photos)

An inmate tip, a confession letter and a jailhouse interview that revealed disturbing details of a woman's slaying near a Fulton County cemetery resulted in the closing of the 32-year-old cold case this week, the Arkansas State Police announced Friday.

Rick Allen Headley, an inmate at the Varner Unit in Lincoln County, was charged this week with first-degree murder in the 1991 death of 19-year-old Sabrina Lynn Underwood of Huntsville, state police said.

A combination of old news reports and a newly filed police affidavit tell the story of the case that began when Underwood's remains were found in April 1991, less than three months after she was reported missing.

Underwood's mother, Loretta, last saw her on Jan. 20, 1991, when she dropped her off at the intersection of U.S. 412 and U.S. 62 near Bear Creek Springs in Boone County.

According to an Arkansas Democrat story from the time, Sabrina planned to hitchhike roughly 70 miles east to Izard County, where her boyfriend was incarcerated at the North Central Unit in Calico Rock.

The police affidavit said she had made the same trip a week earlier on Jan. 13.

This time, she never made it.

After Sabrina's boyfriend called Loretta asking why Sabrina didn't make her scheduled visit, she filed a missing person report with the Madison County sheriff's office on Jan. 24.

On April 8, roughly 140 miles from Huntsville, two turkey hunters stumbled upon a suspicious bundle of clothing near the Gum Springs Cemetery in Fulton County. An investigation of the area by the Fulton County sheriff's office and state police found human hair, a pair of panties, human bones and an earring stud.

The remains were identified as Sabrina's, as the clothing matched what she had been wearing when her mother dropped her off. In an April 25, 1991, Arkansas Democrat story, state police investigator Tommy Cleveland said a medical examiner couldn't determine the cause of death because only "slivers" of bones were left.

Loretta spent the summer of 1991 talking to store owners and travelers along the route her daughter would have taken, trying to find any clues that would lead to Sabrina's killer.

"I don't care what the police do," Loretta said in May 1991. "He just better pray they get to him before I do."

. . .

In July 2022, state police Special Agent Justin Nowlin was given a tip from the Madison County sheriff's office that a local attorney had a client with information that could possibly lead to identifying a suspect in Underwood's murder.

In an interview in mid-August, the witness provided investigators with a confession letter given to him by Headley that contained details of Underwood's killing.

Headley, now 48, was already serving a life sentence for the murder of his estranged wife, Kirstie.

In 2019, Headley pleaded guilty to that crime, which occurred on March 13, 2018. That day, he went to the Mountain Home store where she worked and was caught by surveillance cameras dragging Kirstie out of the building and stabbing her several times. She was taken to a hospital, where she died from her wounds.

On Aug. 24, 2022, Nowlin and Fulton County sheriff's office investigator Dale Weaver met Headley face-to-face to question him.

Before being told the purpose of the meeting, Headley was shown a photograph and asked if he knew who was in it, according to the affidavit. He correctly said it was Underwood and admitted to writing the confession letter, the affidavit says.

Over the course of the interview, according to the affidavit, Headley said he remembered her name "because you never forget the person if you've ever killed someone." Headley also claimed he had never seen any news reports or been told by anyone about Underwood's murder and that no one had "put him up" to making his claims, the affidavit says.

The document says Headley recounted his version of what transpired on Jan. 20, 1991:

A native of Mountain Home who was 16 at the time, Headley had been driving his red Chevrolet LUV truck home after taking his uncle to Huntsville.

During a stop at a gas station in Bellefonte, about 12 miles southeast from where Loretta dropped off her daughter, Headley said he was approached by Underwood.

She asked him where he was heading. He told her Mountain Home, and she asked if he would give her a ride.

Headley recalled the woman saying she was going to a family member's home in either Viola or Salem, which are further east of Mountain Home. Calico Rock is about 25 miles to the southeast.

After the 50-mile trip to Mountain Home, Headley claimed Underwood asked if he would take her the rest of the way. He again agreed.

Headley recalled that Underwood told him she didn't have any money to help pay for gas, which he said he wasn't worried about.

As they headed toward Fulton County, the affidavit said Headley claimed Underwood began making sexual advances and "offered to take care of Headley another way" to compensate for her lack of money.

Headley said he intended to stop at Harber's Cycle Shop in Viola, but he continued on when he saw there were people outside.

He turned the truck onto the first road he came to and then pulled into a small cemetery, where he and Underwood had sex. As he got dressed, Headley claimed Underwood asked for "a couple hundred dollars" or "she was going to tell everyone that he hurt her."

Shocked, Headley said he "knew right then there was going to be problems."

According to Headley, he told her that he would have to return home to get that amount of money.

Headley started to drive off and leave Underwood behind, "but he knew he could not let her ruin his life ... over something he didn't do."

That's when he attacked Underwood, dragging her deep enough into the woods behind the cemetery "to where no person could see what was about to happen."

Headley claimed he took a "Rambo style" knife with a compass on the end of it and killed Underwood.

He then used the knife and a rock to decapitate Underwood, "so there would be no chance she would ever be able to tell on him."

Headley tried to cover her body up with leaves and sticks and threw what possessions Underwood had with her nearby.

He then fled the scene and threw the murder weapons into the woods several miles away. After returning home, he put the clothes he wore that night in a trash bag and disposed of them in a garbage bin behind the Village Mall in Mountain Home.

In his interview, Headley said he hoped nobody else had been arrested for Underwood's murder.

Nowlin said in the affidavit that, two days later, he interviewed a woman who said Headley told her about a month earlier that he had committed the murder.

She said Headley "wanted to get the murder ... off his chest." The woman also confirmed that Headley had an uncle, now deceased, who lived in Huntsville in the 1990s. Investigators also confirmed the type of truck Headley owned at the time and that he lived in the apartment complex he described living in.

Headley is set to appear in Fulton County Circuit Court on Nov. 13.

Three decades since her death, Underwood's surviving family includes Loretta, now in her 70s, a half brother and her son, who was 4 years old at the time of her disappearance.

An Arkansas State Police spokesperson said the family was "very happy" about the case being solved, but they declined to be interviewed.

"Sabrina's family still suffers from the pain of her absence, but we hope this week's arrest will provide them with some comfort and long-sought answers," Col. Mike Hagar, director of the state police, said in a news release. "We will never give up on finding justice for families like the Underwoods."

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