Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence, including sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.
One murder is solved. Four Jane Does are identified. But other victims in the so-called “Redhead Murders” remain a mystery as does their killer or killers.
When the bodies of multiple young women with red or reddish hair were found discarded near highways in Tennessee, Kentucky and neighboring states between 1983 and 1985, it prompted fears of a serial killer.
Police formed a multistate task force in 1985 to pool information and stop the violence, but it wasn’t until 2018 that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) connected the dots in one slaying.
New evidence revealed that a redheaded Jane Doe found bound and strangled along Interstate 75 in Campbell County, Tennessee, on January 1, 1985 was Tina Marie McKenney Farmer, the TBI reported. The Indiana native was just 21.
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In late 2019, a Campbell County grand jury implicated deceased trucker Jerry Leon Johns in Farmer’s death. Johns died in prison in 2015 while serving time for aggravated kidnapping and assault.
In Farmer’s case “evidence sat for a very long period of time,” TBI Special Agent Brandon Elkins tells A&E Real Crime.
“[Police] did all they could do then, but the top-notch technology basically was blood typing, which only provides a circumstantial pattern at best,” Elkins says. “We were able to resubmit [evidence] using techniques we currently use, and we were able to obtain DNA evidence that ultimately led to solving the case.”
A Grim Count
With myriad states and police departments involved over 35 years, there’s no official consensus on the exact number of Redhead Murders. Tallies have ranged from six to 11 women.
A June 26, 1985, article in the Louisville-based Journal-Courier cited eight murders of red-haired females that police speculated were committed by one person.
In addition to Tina Farmer, women who have been linked with the Redhead Murders include:
- An unknown auburn-haired female found on February 13, 1983, near Route 250 in Wetzel County, West Virginia. Her age was 30 to 45, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).
- Lisa Nichols, 28. The West Virginia woman’s strangled body was located on September 16, 1984 along Interstate 40 near West Memphis, Arkansas. Nichols, who had strawberry blonde hair, was identified in June of 1985, according to the Courier-Journal.
- An unknown redheaded female found on March 31, 1985 in Cheatham County, Tennessee, along Interstate 24. Her age was between 31 to 20, NamUs estimates.
- Espy Regina Black-Pilgrim, 28. The redheaded North Carolina woman’s body was found on April 1, 1985, in a refrigerator in a dumping area along Route 25 in Knox County, Kentucky, but not identified until 2018.
- Elizabeth Lamotte, 17. The New Hampshire teen’s body was found on April 14, 1985, along Interstate 81 in Greene County, Tennessee. She had been staying at a group home in Manchester. Lamotte was identified November 14, 2018. She had dark hair with reddish tints.
‘He Wouldn’t Admit to Anything’
The police task force that gathered in 1985 to collaborate on the Redhead Murders faced a daunting conundrum.
At the time, authorities were focusing on nine to 10 murders of unidentified woman, retired TBI special agent and former Jefferson County, Tennessee, Sheriff David Davenport tells A&E Real Crime.
The women “were mostly redheads with exception of one brunette,” Davenport recalls.
“They were all found dumped on the side of interstates. Some were wrapped in blankets with duct tape.”
As to who was responsible, “it was always thought at that time that it was a [long-distance] truck driver.”
On March 5, 1985, a few months after Farmer’s slaying, a young dancer with red hair named Linda Schacke was propositioned by a customer at the club where she worked in Knox County, Tennessee.
The customer, who later proved to be Jerry Johns, tore up a pair of $100 bills, gave her two halves and promised the remainder when they had sex, authorities said.
Instead, later that night, an armed Johns ripped up Schacke’s T-shirt, bound her and drove to a wooded area near I-40. He strangled her until she passed out, court records show.
Amazingly, Schacke survived, and her testimony led to Johns’ conviction in 1987. Police also questioned him about the other murders.
“He was very cocky and wouldn’t admit to anything,” recalls Davenport who interviewed Johns. “Any time we’d get into the motive or ‘why did you do what you did?’ he wouldn’t answer.”
Serial Killer or Random Crimes?
In 2016 when Farmer was still unidentified, Elkins submitted her clothing and a blanket from the crime scene to the TBI Crime Lab. An analysis detected semen that was traced to Jerry Johns through an FBI database.
Two years later, another breakthrough occurred when an entry on a missing persons blog surfaced that listed Farmer by name. Agents found details that matched the Jane Doe from Campbell County and fingerprint checks confirmed Farmer’s identity.
Sharing the news with Farmer’s family was “bittersweet,” Elkins recalls. “They got some answers. I don’t really believe in closure per se, but I do believe in some peace. Putting a name on somebody who deserves a name.”
In 2018, DNA testing enabled TBI and Kentucky State Police investigators to identify Elizabeth Lamotte and Espy Black-Pilgrim, respectively.
Was there one or multiple perpetrators targeting redheaded women in the Tennessee region in the mid-1980s?
Davenport thinks “because of the similarities in all the cases and how they were dumped along the side of the interstate, it was probably done by the same truck driver or traveling person.”
However, “I have to say upfront—we’ve not made a positive connection, at this point, with any other cases with Jerry Johns,” besides the Farmer and Schacke cases, Elkins explains.
“There are redheaded females who have been killed in the state of Tennessee around that time period. But to say— we’re connecting the dots on all these [cases or] they all have to be Jerry Johns—I’m not to that point. I don’t know, frankly, if we’ll ever be at that point.”
Asked about the plausibility of a murderer fixated on redheads, forensic psychologist Joni Johnston tells A&E Real Crime “the idea that serial killers wait for the perfect victim is overrated. It’s true that some sexually motivated serial killers do seem to have a fantasy of an “ideal victim” based on race, gender, certain physical characteristics or some other special quality. But these preferences evolve over time.
“At first, a serial killer’s victim choice may seem almost random,” Johnson says. “As his killing career progresses, and he develops confidence in his ability to lure or kidnap a victim, some serial killers narrow down the type of victim they prefer and will stalk a more specific type of victim.”
Police aren’t the only ones trying to shed light on the Redhead Murders.
Four years ago, investigative journalist Shane Waters of Indiana began digging into the mystery. He traveled to the locations where six victims’ bodies were found and planted red crosses there.
In 2018, Waters produced a series of podcasts about the Redhead Murders. He tells A&E Real Crime: ” I think the world forgot about these women because they were deemed as throwaways.”
Waters’ crusade connected him with several victims’ families and an enterprising sociology class at Elizabethton High School in Tennessee.
Students developed a profile of the murderer, whom they concluded was a male trucker frequenting the I-40 corridor. They also coined a nickname, “The Bible Belt Strangler,” announced at a 2018 press conference with law enforcement.
Pilgrim’s daughter, Elizabeth, thanked the class saying: “The hope of one day finding what happened to her has never left my thoughts.”
As for police, “we’re not going to stop,” Elkins says. “We’re just going to keep on … trying to use the techniques and technologies of today to solve those dusty cases—[they] have waited so long for resolution.”
If you have information on the Redhead Murders contact the TBI at 1-800-824-3463 or TBI.firstname.lastname@example.org.