ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (WJHL) — Two Elizabethton High School students and their teacher believe a single person is responsible for the Redhead Murders after undertaking a months-long investigation.
The Redhead Murders took place in the mid-1980s across the South, leaving several women with red or brown hair dead. Many of the victims were found in Tennessee, including one in Greene County.
Elizabethton High School students first investigated the murders in 2018 under the guidance of teacher Alex Campbell.
After months of digging through court documents and talking to experts, juniors Reiley Whitsen and Marlee Mathena are continuing the work of their predecessors.
The 2018 student investigation developed a profile of a killer, connected to the deaths of six women. It raised awareness of those cases, leading to the identification of three victims and eventually the identification of a suspect in one of the killings.
After the identification of a victim as Tina McKenney-Farmer, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation named Jerry Leon Johns as a suspect in Farmer’s death.
Farmer was found dead along Interstate 75 in Campbell County, Tennessee in 1985. An autopsy revealed she had been strangled to death.
Johns died in custody in 2015. He had been charged with aggravated kidnapping and assault following a similar incident just two months after Farmer’s body was found. He was convicted on the charges in 1987.
Whitsen and Mathena learned of the investigation when Campbell was substitute teaching in one of their classes.
Campbell said the investigation is an extracurricular activity and estimated the two students have put in hundreds of hours of work from September 2022 to the presentation.
The students and Campbell decided to try to connect the cold cases in the Redhead Murders to Farmer’s murder and the suspect.
Mathena said she wanted to investigate to help victims’ families find some closure.
“I would want to know the truth,” Mathena said. “I would want to have that closure and peace of mind after so long.”
The Farmer identification and naming of the suspect gave the students access to a wider range of documents.
“Tina Farmer was really the linchpin of the entire case,” Campbell said. “Of course, we already knew who the perpetrator was.”
That started work to develop the method and signature of the suspect.
They found the suspect started his own trucking company in 1980 – driving with no supervision.
Many of the victims were found along interstates.
A key to their investigation was the knots tied in ligatures used in Farmer’s killing.
Some of the other cold cases involved the perpetrator tying up the victim. The students had a knot expert look at photographs of evidence from those cases, including still-tied pieces of cloth.
The expert determined the knot used in the Farmer murder matched knots in the case of four other victims.
“The knots and the ligatures were definitely a big breakthrough because we were able to tie the knots in the Tina Farmer case to newly identified victims,” Whitsen said.
The students also pointed to a matchbook found at the scene of one of the victims that came from a Houston strip club. They found the club was located only two minutes away from where the suspect had once stayed.
Additionally, the murders matching the suspect’s methods and signature stopped after his arrest in 1985.
“Every little similarity is just like an a-ha moment. It’s like ‘yes, yes, these are the same,'” Whitsen said. “They are so eerily similar, so many of them. Almost identical.”
Using those characteristics, a comparative analysis between the Farmer case and other victims determined six other victims matched the Farmer case by 90 percent or higher.
They presented those findings to current and former FBI behavioral analysts, a retired homicide detective, and other criminal justice experts. They all came back with positive results about the findings.
“It really clicked then, like I’m doing work to help people,” Mathena said.
In all, they connected six murder victims and one attempted murder victim to the same killer. That includes:
- Lisa Nichols, found dead in 1984 near West Memphis, Arkansas
- Tina McKenney-Farmer, found dead in 1985 near Jellico, Tennessee
- Tracy Sue Walker, found dead in 1984 near Jellico, Tennessee
- An unidentified victim, found dead in 1985 in Pleasant View, Cheatham County, Tennessee
- An unidentified victim, found dead in 1985 in Olive Branch, DeSoto County, Mississippi
- Elizabeth Lamotte, found dead in 1985 in Greeneville, Tennessee
- An unnamed survivor, who was kidnapping, attacked and left for dead in 1985
Both students hope their findings can bring new information to light about the two unidentified victims.
“It can get disheartening when there’s no new evidence, no new progress,” Whitsen said. “Any new evidence, anything we can get from this, I think, is great.”
Both Whitsen and Mathena are juniors at Elizabethton High School. They hope to continue their investigation in their senior year.