Transcript: 188. Tent Girl (Special Guest: Todd Matthews) | USA

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In a county-owned section of the leafy Georgetown Cemetery, was a single grave standing alone. The headstone simply read: ‘Tent Girl’. A police sketch of the unidentified, young homicide victim, as well as details about her height, the colour of her hair and the date of her discovery did not make up for the fact that she had no name, and her family did not know about her demise.

 

A local man, Wilbur Riddle discovered the body tied up in a canvas, 30 miles north of Georgetown in May of 1968. The body was transported to Lexington for an autopsy, but the examiner could not determine her identity. A Kentucky Post & Times Star reported gave her the name ‘Tent Girl’. She became part of local history, and would remain unidentified for another 30 years…

 

>>Intro Music

On the 17th of May, 1968, well digger Wilbur Riddle, was walking along a grassy hill on Route 25, near Georgetown Kentucky. He was gathering glass insulators that had fallen down from telephone poles, when he made a strange discovery. The first thing that caught is attention was a pungent smell. He followed the odour and came upon a green tent canvas, rolled up around something, lying on a flat rock. When Wilbur prodded it with his foot, so he could see what was inside, the tent rolled downhill. Intrigued, Wilbur followed, and made the grisly discovery of human remains rolled-up inside. The body was that of a young woman… 

 

Wilbur immediately realised what needed to be done, and made his way to the nearest gas station, from where he called police to come to the scene. They cut open the tarpaulin and revealed the badly decomposed body of a young, white girl. 

 

An autopsy ruled the cause of death as homicide. The coroner was unable to how the victim was killed, however. Dr Frank Cleveland, an expert who was brought in to help in the identification process noted:

 

“I could find no trace of poison or toxic material in the girl’s body. There was a slight discolouration of her skull, but the autopsy shows no definite cause of death.”

 

Detective Edward Cornett told the press what law enforcement theorised had happened to Tent Girl:

 

“We think the girl was rendered unconscious by a blow to the head, then tied up in the bag to die a slow death by asphyxiation.”

 

Her death must have been one of unimaginable agony, trapped inside the rolled-up canvas of a tent, trying to get out, but being unable to move. When she was first found, her hand was clenched, like she had tried to claw her way out. 

 

Sadly, without the victim’s identity, investigators did not have much to go on if they wanted to solve the case. A police artist composed a picture, showing what the victim must have looked like in life. In the summer of 1968, the mother of 15-year-old Doris Dittmar of Maryland reached out to authorities, wondering if the remains could belong to her missing daughter. Some elements did not match up with the evidence they had and police were sceptical. Fortunately for Doris’s family, she was found, alive and well, living with her boyfriend in Pennsylvania. 

 

In a renewed appeal, Sheriff Bobby Vance told the American edition of the magazine, Master Detective:

 

“The case has bothered me more than anything that has happened in my twelve years as sheriff… If we could only identify the Tent Girl, I’m sure we would find whoever caused her death. Any reader in any state who has some idea of who she is, please contact us right away. It is quite possible that she was killed somewhere else and brought here.”

 

Still, despite many newspaper articles asking for the public’s help, and no missing person’s reports matching the description of the victim, the case went cold. After three years, the police had still not been able to identify the body. No suspects had been named and police were sceptical of ever solving the case. It was decided that burying their Jane Doe, who had been dubbed ‘Tent Girl’, was the only respectful thing left to do. She was laid to rest in the Georgetown Cemetery. A local company donated a headstone with an engraving of the police sketch of the girl and bearing the inscription:

 

TENT GIRL
FOUND MAY 17 1968
ON U.S. HIGHWAY 25, N.
DIED ABOUT APRIL 26 – MAY 3, 1968
AGE ABOUT 16 – 19 YEARS
HEIGHT 5 FEET 1 INCH
WEIGHT 110 TO 115 LBS.
REDDISH BROWN HAIR
UNIDENTIFIED

 

And that seemed to be the tragic ending of an unsolved mystery. 

 

That is, until many years later, when Lori, the daughter of Wilbur Riddle, who had discovered Tent Girl, told the story to a school friend. This friend, who would later be her husband, is Todd Matthews. And he is here, with us on the line today, all the way from Livingstone, Tennessee.

 

Noel: Hi Todd, welcome to The Evidence Locker, we appreciate you making time for us. We’ve been exploring the case of Tent Girl on our podcast today, and we’re right up to the part where you learnt about her for the first time. Would you care to share your story with us?

 

Over to you, Todd! Freely tell your story, I’ve just made some notes. 

-       Kindly tell us about hearing about the story for the first time from Lori.

-       What urged you to start the investigation? Was it a hobby that gradually grew into an obsession?

-       Mention everything you did to investigate: gather information from Wilbur Riddle, made countless phone calls to journalists, retired police officers etc, interviews, and ultimately setting up a website

-       How did you find a match in the end?

-       Can you recall the feeling when the final confirmation came through, that Tent Girl was indeed, Barbara Ann Hackmann?

 

Noel: So, without realising, you laid the foundation for the future: making it possible for families with missing relatives to match them up with unidentified remains. Can you perhaps tell us more about your current job: Director of Communication - Justice Department?

 

-       You assisted in the formation of an organisation called EDAN – an acronym for ‘Everyone Deserves a Name’ – which gives volunteer artists and sculptors an opportunity to donate sketches and facial reconstructions to help with the identification of bodies. Which is a very important step in the process, right?

 

Noel: …And eventually the DOE Network was born. Can you please tell us a bit more about who the DOE Network is, and what you do?

(Please also mention that the DOE Network is international)

 

Noel: We here at Evidence Locker donate a percentage of the income we make on Patreon to the DOE Network every month. But let’s say our listeners would like to make a once-off donation, or would like to support you on an on-going basis, how would they go about doing so? And what would the money be used for?

 

Noel: What a worthy cause to support. It makes unsolved mysteries feel solvable, and thanks to your persistence, countless families have found the closure they so desperately needed. Thanks for your time today Todd, and we look forward to staying in touch with you.

 

In 1998, after years of researching the Tent Girl case, Todd Matthews was doing an online search, scrolling through a missing persons website when all his efforts finally paid off. He discovered a post by Rosemary Westbrook, Bobbie Ann’s younger sister, that said:

 

“My sister Barbara has been missing from our family since the latter part of 1967. She has brown hair, brown eyes, is about five feet two inches tall and was last seen in the Lexington, Kentucky area. If you have any information, please contact me at the address posted.”

 

Todd’s gut instinct told him that this could be the break he had been looking for, for years. By that time, his website about Tent Girl was well-populated with information and he emailed Rosemary the details. Rosemary also believed that the information matched her missing sister and contacted the Scott County Sheriff's Office. Rosemary was asked a couple of questions, and she was able to confirm that, like Tent Girl, her sister had a distinctive gap between her two front teeth. However, there were certain inconsistencies: police were under the impression that Tent Girl was about 16 to 19 years old, and that she had died between April and May of 1968. Rosemary’s sister was 24 and was believed to have vanished at the end of 1967.

 

However, after 30 years, there finally was enough cause to warrant and exhumation. On the 2nd of March 1998, Tent Girl’s remains were dug up and sent to a lab in Frankfort, Kentucky. An anthropologist for the State Medical Examiner’s Office, Dr Emily Craig, was able to determine that Tent Girl was in fact older when she died – between 20 and 30 years old.

 

Ultimately Tent Girl’s DNA was found to be a match to her siblings: the Hackmann family. It was a big day for Scott County Sheriff’s Office when on April 16 1998, they were finally able to provide the identity of their victim: she was 24-year-old Barbara Ann ‘Bobbie’ Hackmann. 

 

Bobbie Ann’s body was found in 1968, she likely died towards the end of 1967, but who was she? And how did she end up, dead and discarded next to Route 25?

 

Barbara Ann, or ‘Bobbie’ sometimes ‘Bobbie Ann’ Hackman Taylor was born on the 12th of September 1943 in Illinois and was one of seven children. Her father was sadly swept away in the St Clair flood of 1957, along with Bobbie Ann’s little brother Harry, when their boat capsized in a small canal. 

 

As a single parent, Bobbie’s mother, Louise, was unable to care for her large family. Eventually she made the heartbreaking decision of giving them up, and asked extended family to step in. She still saw her kids and all of the Hackman siblings stayed in touch after they were separated. 

 

Bobbie Ann met George Earl Taylor while babysitting his daughter. He claimed that his wife had left them and that he was raising little Bonnie all by himself. George was a truck driver for a travelling carnival, and his life seemed very exciting to Bobbie Ann. Before long, she was head-over-heels in love and the couple married before the carnival left town, in August 1963. Bobbie Ann was 19 and George 24.

 

As the newlyweds travelled along the East coast, Bobbie often called home, making collect calls, and checking in with her family. A year after she left Illinois, Bobbie called to say that she had a baby boy, George Earl ‘Sonny’ Taylor. Not long after, she gave birth to a little girl, Dorothy Michelle, or Shelly. At one point, Bobbie Ann and her young family lived in Florida for a while. Eventually, though, Bobbie Ann fell out of contact with her relatives back in Illinois. Or so they thought…

 

By 1967, Bobbie Ann and George Earl Taylor had a daughter together and lived in Lexington, Kentucky. Without informing her siblings, Bobbie Ann had relocated to Kentucky from Florida. 

She worked as a curb waitress at the Quick Draw Drive-In and George still worked at the carnival. She was last known to have been in Lexington – about 15 miles from Georgetown where her body would eventually lay, unidentified for 30 years. 

 

When it was announced that Tent Girl was in fact Bobbie Ann, three of her sisters were still alive: Rosemary Westbrook of Arkansas, Jan Daigle of California and Marie Copeland of Maine. Bobbie Ann’s daughter, Shelly, was traced to Ohio, where her father's family had lived. She had married and had children of her own by the time her mother was identified. Sadly, Bobbie Ann’s son, Sonny, was killed by a drunk driver in 1984 when he was only 19 years old. 

 

Bobbie Ann’s husband, George, passed away from cancer in October 1987. He always claimed that Barbara had left him for another man and said that he hadn’t seen her in years. He never reported her missing, which attributed to the fact that it took so long for her remains to be identified.

 

Bobbie Ann’s stepdaughter, Bonnie and her daughter Shelly recalled that George left them with his parents in 1967, claiming that Bobbie Ann had left him and the kids. George carried on his vagrant life of working for travelling carnivals and driving trucks, and the children were raised by three different families – relatives of George’s – and were told that they were cousins.

 

After Sonny was killed, the family told Bonnie and Shelly that they were actually half-sisters. So, when George was on his death bed, they begged him for information about their birth mothers. All he told Bonnie was that her family was in Florida, and Shelly learnt about her family in Illinois. Shelly managed to establish contact with Bobbie Ann’s siblings, and everyone grew concerned when they learnt Bobbie Ann had abandoned her children. This was not the type of person she was; she had many young siblings and knew how to care for a family. There was no way she would have left her kids.

 

Bonnie, who was just about 10 when Bobbie Ann disappeared, recalled waking up one night in December 1967. She overheard an argument between George and Bobbie Ann, and some scuffling. The next morning, her beloved stepmother was gone, never to be seen again. She saw Bobbie Ann’s purse on the front seat of George’s car, and when she asked him where Bobbie Ann was, he said that she had left with another man. 

 

George took his three children to a man called the Colonel and left them with the man’s wife, and George and the Colonel took off. The Colonel’s wife bathed and fed them, and they fell asleep there. George then carried his sleeping children into his station wagon and took them to Ohio. All of their lives changed forever that day. After leaving them, it was two years before he returned. 

 

George was never implicated in her disappearance at the time, though there are elements in the case that point to his guilt. In Deborah Halber’s book, The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America's Coldest Cases, the author reveals that George Earl Taylor went AWOL from the US Army in 1962, shortly before he married Bobbie Ann. Also, besides Bonnie and his two children from his marriage to Bobbie, George had fathered at least ten other children with nine women between 1958 and 1987. He was a con-artist of sorts, who would take one child with him to a new city, play the forlorn single father, and reel in his next victim. 

 

Bobbie Ann’s body was found along the route from Lexington, Kentucky to Ohio – a road frequently used by George Earl Taylor. The green tent canvas that became her shroud was the kind of material used to store carnival tents. If Bobbie Ann had been identified when she was found by Wilbur Riddle five months later, chances are she would have been identified, and George would have had a lot to answer for. 

 

In the late nineties, Barbara’s family decided to have her remains re-interred in the Georgetown Cemetery, where she had been laid to rest back in 1967. The original headstone was put back in place, with an additional inscription bearing her name, date of birth and approximate date of death, erasing her anonymity by stating that she was a ‘Loving Mother, Grandmother and Sister’. Significantly, the name on the headstone is Barbara Ann Hackmann, and there is no mention of her married name Taylor, strongly implying that the family believes her husband, George Earl Taylor to have been responsible for her demise. 

 

In the end, this is a story about family. Wilbur Riddle discovered Barbara’s body, and his son-in-law finally solved the mystery of her identity. Wilbur praised Todd’s efforts, saying:

 

“He has put in more than a thousand hours on this case. There’s no law enforcement office that worked harder on any case than he did on this one.”

 

And thanks to this family’s persistence and tenacity, thousands of other families can find closure, knowing the fate of their loved ones, and lay them to rest, honouring their memories.

 

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