DNA helps ID remains of Lafayette teen, missing since 1978
Next up, police say: How did Tracy Sue Walker wind up dead on a remote Tennessee mountain? Local police stand ready to help investigate
Thanks to Tippecanoe County Historical Association for helping make today’s edition possible, as it preps for the Feast of the Hunters’ Moon. The 55th annual Feast returns Oct. 1-2 to Fort Ouiatenon. For advance tickets, weekend passes and more on the recreation of 18th century life along the Wabash River, click on the links below.
Four decades after 15-year-old Tracy Sue Walker was reported missing in Lafayette and 37 years after someone foraging on a remote Tennessee mountain found the unknown remains of a young girl police came to label “Baby Girl,” investigators Tuesday said they’d pieced things together.
Advanced DNA techniques and forensic genetic genealogy led investigators to Lafayette to identify Tracy Walker’s skeletal remains discovered April 3, 1985, about 50 miles north of Knoxville, Tennessee, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation officials announced Tuesday.
Next up: Investigators want to know how Tracy Walker’s remains wound up in a spot in Campbell County, Tennessee, that local TV reporters once described as so remote that “the person who dumped her body had to have used a four-wheel drive to get to the scene.”
Lafayette police did not immediately reveal who Tennessee investigators asked them to find to ask for DNA sample, including how that person might have been related to Tracy Walker.
Lafayette Police Lt. Justin Hartman said LPD would defer to Tennessee officials, for now, for those details. Hartman said Tuesday that LPD was not actively involved in the case, beyond getting the DNA sample. Hartman referred questions about the original investigation to the Tippecanoe County Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff Bob Goldsmith said his department was standing by to help. He said the request from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations likely went to LPD simply because Tracy Walker’s mailing address was Lafayette, even though the sheriff’s department took the initial report.
Goldsmith said that reports from 1978 indicate that Tracy Walker’s family, then living on Eisenhower Court just east of Lafayette, reported her missing as a runaway, last seen at Tippecanoe Mall. Goldsmith said it wasn’t clear in the 44-year-old reports what came of the investigation. Tracy Walker would have been 59 today.
An archive search of Lafayette newspaper accounts from 1978 to 1980 did not immediately turn up stories about a missing girl by the name of Tracy Walker.
In Tennessee, the mystery of “Baby Girl” remained an ongoing investigation since 1985.
Here’s coverage from Knoxville TV station WBIR after Tuesday’s revelation from investigators:
And here’s a WBIR piece from 2020, as investigators searched for clues: “Appalachian Unsolved: The Girl in the Woods:”
According to accounts from Leslie Ackerson and John North of WBIR, someone hunting for pokeweed in April 1985 found the girl’s skull in woods near an old strip mine clearing in the Big Wheel Gap area of Elk Valley, Tennessee. Investigators and forensic scientists eventually found more nearby: high-top sneakers, a plastic puka-style necklace, finger bones and ribs and some pieces of cloth.
The WBIR account said the site was about 12 miles from Interstate 75, less than 10 miles from the Kentucky border. According to the WBIR report, University of Tennessee anthropologists determined from the condition of the skull, the remains were those of a young girl and had been there for more than a year and may have been there for as many as three to five years.
Details from dental work didn’t produce matches and police couldn’t line up the remains with missing person reports from the region at the time, according to the WBIR report. “Baby Girl” went unidentified.
Tennessee investigators said that a sample of the remains were submitted in 2007 to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, which developed a DNA profile to put into the Combined DNA Index System – known as CODIS – and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, often referred to as NamUs.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said an agent revisited the case in 2013, looking for new clues. Earlier in 2022, the agency again worked with the University of Tennessee Anthropology Department to come up with a sample for Othram, a private lab that analyzes human DNA. That turned up a lead.
Investigators said Tuesday that in June, Othram pointed them to potential family members in Lafayette. Investigators said the people matched through the DNA confirmed that they’d had a family member go missing in 1978.
Investigators said DNA samples collected with the help of Lafayette police led to a positive identification of Tracy Walker, born in June 1963.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was asking Tuesday for anyone who knew Tracy Sue Walker before she disappeared from Lafayette, knew how she wound up in Campbell County, Tennessee, or knew about anyone she might have been around before her death to call 800-TBI-FIND (800-824-3463).
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