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Hitchhiking to Oblivion

It was one of those extraordinary teenage friendships formed in elementary school. Two buds joined at the hip. Best friends always and forever. Neighbors who played, slept, and ate at one another's houses. Sisters by choice instead of blood. They even had their own private path through the woods between their homes in Forestville.

You can picture them in a school hallway, the zippy little squirt teamed with her larger younger buddy. Girls not quite old enough yet for boys, a bit too old for dolls, still childishly innocent and naive, yet young lives eager for life's experiences. Just kids.

In 1978, Kerry Graham was a petite 15, and her best friend Francine Trimble was 14. Kerry had just moved up to high school; Francine anxiously awaited her next school promotion so she could rejoin her friend during school hours.

The last day of school before Christmas vacation was December 15th. While the girls came to the Forestville schoolyard that morning to socialize, they didn't report for class. On this final day of school, they told Kerry's sister Kelly they had been invited to a party. There is also a report they were going Christmas shopping at Coddington Mall—the mall being a teen magnet and meeting spot. In either case, there was no mention of Snoopy's Home Ice, across from the mall, although it would be a likely spot to hook up for a teen party.

Instead, they seem to have gone to one or both of their homes. Kerry had recently had her appendix out; she was still on antibiotics, and may have gone home to dose herself. Her medicine was later found in her bedroom.

At Francine's home, the girls dabbled with some makeup in Francine's room. leaving the kit out on her bedroom dresser. Francine's mother Chrissie recalled the girls still giggling in Francine's bedroom as Chrissie left to run an errand. The girls were gone when she returned. At this late date, it's hard to tell if this occurred on Friday afternoon, or the next day. However, Chrissie found the makeup kit still out, with a makeup mirror light left on. Although there were no signs of a disturbance, this would lead the girls' parents to wonder whether there had been an abduction from the home that interrupted the makeup session.

At any rate, excited to be free of school, the youngsters were seen at the corner filling station, which was on the direct route to Coddingtown Mall in Santa Rosa. One eyewitness recalls Francine was wearing Kerry's fitted full-length denim coat that day. Again, which day? Unspecified.

In the 1970s, everyone hitchhiked freely, so once they were at this traditional pickup spot for hitchhikers, the two girls stuck out their thumbs. They were already experienced hitchhikers, having previously thumb-tripped to San Francisco. As far as is known, they caught a ride. And they vanished.

On the 8th of July, 1979, a pair of tourists stopped at the first Route 20 turnout west of Willits. The female tourist was unhappily car sick from the swooping curves of Highway 20. While she sat in the car, the male driver decided to walk about. Upon strolling off the pullout into the woods, he looked down the slope and spotted what he first thought to be a huge mushroom. He scrambled down for a closer look. Then he realized it was a human skull. Looking about wildly, he spotted two rib cages. Scrambling up the slope, he placed a soft drink can as a marker. Then the tourists rushed to report their find to the authorities.

Investigators gathering evidence worked on a slope so steep they had to hang on with one hand and pick up clues with the other. One deputy broke his wrist in a fall. Despite this, over 90 percent of two skeletons were found, along with bits of associated evidence. 

With little but bones to go on, forensic analysis became the major investigative tool. Even that was of limited value. It did not disclose the cause of death in either case. However, it did conclude that one skeleton was female, the other male. They were estimated to be 14 or 15 years old. A bird-shaped handcrafted shell earring was found with the skeleton identified as a Caucasian female. They were also believed to be related.

Investigators checked nationwide for brother-sister duos who had run off together. No results. On a hunch, they broadened their search to runaway romantically involved teen couples. Again, no results. 

By 1985, with the case dormant, it was turned over to the FBI in hopes that the Feds' greater resources might crack the case. The Feds had no better luck that Mendocino's Sheriff did. They turned the case back to the locals.

A tenth anniversary TV broadcast on the case showed the earring. Kerry's older sister Kelly recognized it; she had given it to Kerry. And the skeletal ages reported on TV were right; that had to be her sister and Francine. Kelly called the Mendocino Sheriff's office, and told them about her sister, Francine, and the earring. She was told, sorry, we know it's a case of a boy and a girl, and they're related. Bye.

By this time, public attitudes toward runaways had become a lot less casual. Also, the internet was booming into popularity. Cold case websites began to spring up. This would seem to be a natural publicity springboard. Instead, it proved useless for several reasons. First, the myth of their being related was being publicized. So was the claim they were a boy and a girl. Also, it had somehow become assumed they came from the midwest. Next, just to further confuse matters, Kerry's and Francine's folks had reported them missing on different dates. Fourth, and worst, the year of their disappearance somehow became 1979 instead of 1978; it made it appear the girls had vanished after the skeletons had been found. A classic case of, garbage in, garbage out. The widespread internet postings thus actually excluded the girls from consideration. 

In 2000, a false confession caused the skeletons to be exhumed. Doctor (and present day Assemblyman) Jim Wood examined their jaws and teeth. Surprise! He concluded that they were probably both female, and weren't related. This sparked a followup DNA testing, which confirmed his findings. The false listings on the internet continued.

In 2011, the British Broadcasting Corporation grew interested in cold case disappearances and settled on this case for a documentary. Their interest sparked another exhumation of the bodies; DNA samples were again gathered and submitted. The skulls were used for a reconstruction of the girls' faces; again, law enforcement was hoping for an identification through publicity featuring the reconstructions.

In 2012, Kelly Graham saw the documentary, and immediately recognized a reconstruction of Kerry's head. The teeth were distinctive. Because of her prior poor experience with law enforcement, she called the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. A case manager there recommended that Kelly make an official missing persons report. So Kelly went to the Guerneville post of the very law enforcement agency that had originally refused to take a missing person report on her sister. When she requested the needed forms, the desk sergeant chewed her out for failing to report the disappearance—which happened when Kelly was 16 years old. A furious Kelly filled out the forms, and Sonoma County finally accepted a missing persons report. After 33 years, Kerry Graham was officially missing.

After some torturous maneuvering through law enforcement bureaucracy, DNA samples from the Graham and Trimble families were analyzed. In November, 2015, Francine and Kerry were definitively identified. Now the girls were officially homicide victims, although the medical examiner couldn't determine the exact means of death.

In February, 2016, a chagrined Sheriff Tom Allman held a news conference announcing their identity, and 'fessing up to his predecessors' errors. Ironically, Kelly Graham was in the hospital, and missed out on both attendance and credit for solving the disappearance.

Once it was known the children were murdered, mad speculation began as to the perpetrator. As usual, “celebrity” serial murderers were randomly suggested for blame. Rodney Alcala…Robert Durst…the Zodiac…the Gallegos couple…ad nauseam. Every notorious killer was suggested except Jack the Ripper, with no thought given to the killer's methods, habits, or predilections.

As a researcher of local murders and disappearances, I based my search for a villain on the fact that homo sapiens is a creature of habit. I searched for a similar crime showing those very same habits, methods, and predilections reflected in the double disappearance. Here's what I found.

In 1984, six years after the girls disappeared, Jackie Ray Hovarter was an independent trucker hauling pulp from the Louisiana Pacific mill at Samoa to San Pablo. He routinely drove from San Pablo to Samoa at night, arriving for his 7 AM loading at the mill about 4:30 AM. On one of his nighttime runs, he kidnapped 16 year old Danna Walsh from Willits in the middle of the night. He raped and murdered her before chucking her off the Rio Dell bridge on his way north. Long story short, he is now residing on death row in San Quentin for that murder. H has also confessed to two other murders for which he wasn't prosecuted.

Now consider this. A left turn in Willits in the late 1970s, headed you toward the Fort Bragg mill instead of Samoa. So far as I have been able to discover, no one has checked to see if Hovarter hauled from the Fort Bragg mill. If Hovarter picked up the girls on his way north on 101, just as he did with Danna Walsh, the pulloff on Route 20 where they were found is the first spot where he could discard their bodies on his way to Fort Bragg. He would have been there in the middle of the night, with little traffic to disrupt him.

The natural question is, How did he subdue two girls at once? The simple answer is, no teenage girl is a physical match for a grown man. Kerry was tiny but fiery. Francine was larger, but passive by nature. However, Hovarter carried a pistol and a knife in his truck, which could have been used for intimidation—and murder.

So that's my candidate for the culprit. If law enforcement wants to grill Hovarter, they got him. The law also has both his and the Samoa mill's logbooks, according to Hovarter's legal appeal. An astute investigator might just come up with the Fort Bragg mill logs, or they might even be in the files.

There's also the chance retired millworkers could still identify Hovarter. With any luck, a detective might come up with the mill's gatekeeper.

And even if it's discovered Hovarter didn't commit these murders, this case could still be solved. Back in the day, they had disappeared from their student bodies, with no notice taken by the faculty and little by their fellow students.

Usually, when a case is this old, the possible witnesses have died or gotten lost in the turmoil of American society. This case is unusual because the youth of the victims means many of the victims' contemporaries are still alive; some are still living in Sonoma County. There may be unexplored leads in their memories. Certainly, they have apparently never been interviewed.

This case may just need one last clue, another lead, a final bit of information, for solution. If you know anything concerning this case, please, please call the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office and share the knowledge with Detective Quintin Cromer. 

Kerry and Francine deserve justice.

One Comment

  1. Eric Enriquez October 11, 2019

    Nicely done, old friend!

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