Letter may be from witness to 1954 murder

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

Fifty years ago on July 3, Delta schoolteacher Bonnie Huffman went to the movies in Cape Girardeau with some friends, then left them after midnight to drive home in her 1938 Ford.

She never made it.

Her car was found in the middle of Route N, keys in the ignition, half a mile from Delta, 6 miles from the home she shared with her mother and brother. On July 5, 1954, her body was found in a culvert about two miles from where her car was found. She had died of a broken neck. She was 20.

Huffman's murder remains unsolved. Like all unsolved murders, the case remains open because there is no statute of limitations.

Recently investigators came perhaps a little closer to solving the mystery.

Shortly after KFVS12 ran a recent segment on how investigative advances could have helped the Huffman case, the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department received an anonymous letter that Sgt. Eric Friedrich believes may be from a credible witness.

"It had some information that I would think only a person who might have been in that area at that time would have," Friedrich said.

The letter is handwritten, has no signature and no return address other than Cape Girardeau, where it was postmarked.

Part of it reads: "I was driving back from a dance either Sat or Sunday night about 1 AM turned on Route N and a car stooped at the curve about 1/2 mile from Delta. Back then people would stop to help someone. I did.

"When I stopped 2 men came in a hurry and hollering what the hell are you doing, get the Hell etc. out, then I saw some one in the Ditch hollering. Why I tried to help I will never know because without the help from God I would of been killed. Because one of the men grabbed me and tried pulled me out of my car. I got my foot against the car-body, and my hand on the steering, my other hand was on the door handle, the other fellow was trying to get in the other door luck is that the door was locked.

"How I ever got the clutch in and shifted I will never know."

Fear of retaliation by Huffman's killers kept the writer from coming forward earlier, the letter said.

Friedrich said much in the letter matches other information he already has. He thinks this person may know more and hopes the writer will come talk to him in confidence.

In 1964, investigators tried to reach witnesses by releasing details of Huffman's murder to True Detective magazine, which published a story about the case.

Yet who killed Bonnie Huffman and why remains unknown.

'No place for us'

What is known is that the day before her murder, Huffman's boyfriend, Doug Hiett, had broken up with her. Huffman called her friend, Mary Lou Bess, suggesting they go to the movies.

"She was very upset," recalled Bess, who now lives in Perryville, Mo. "I had never seen Bonnie quite that upset before."

The two women and Bess' husband went to the Broadway Theater in Cape Girardeau. After that, Huffman said she wanted to drive by a certain tavern by the bridge because, according to accounts of that time, she thought it would be fun to watch the people going in and out. Some speculated she was looking for Hiett. Bess said that if that's what Huffman had on her mind, she didn't say it, but she thought it was unusual that her friend would want to go to that area.

"It was no place for us," Bess said. "I certainly would never get out or be seen in a joint like that."

Huffman also did not drive home on her usual route, accounts indicated. Investigators at that time speculated that she took a different route to pass by other taverns where she suspected Hiett might have gone. Hiett was among dozens of men questioned as a suspect at that time. He later was reported saying he regretted breaking up with Huffman and realized too late that he loved her.

"He has the feeling that if he had not broken up with her, none of this would have happened," Friedrich said. "He has a little bit of guilt."

Hiett is still alive but declined to be interviewed.

Sometime around 12:30 a.m. that night someone got Huffman to stop her car. A toy gun found at the scene led investigators to believe someone wielding it made her think it was real. She was apparently forced from her car and taken to another location and killed by a sharp blow that snapped her neck.

A police search turned up nothing, but a passing couple found Huffman's body in a ditch two days after she disappeared.

Because her underpants were missing, police think she may have been sexually assaulted; however, the body was too decomposed when it was found to be certain.

Suspects were questioned and polygraphed. Reward money offered eventually was returned to the donors. It yielded no results.

With a case half a century old, witnesses are becoming scarce. Cape Girardeau County Prosecutor Morley Swingle said it's possible Huffman's killer is still alive. People who commit murders are generally between 15 and 25, he said, leaving open the possibility that her killer is 75 at the most. Then there's the matter of 50 years of a guilty conscience.

"It's not unusual for someone who has done such a terrible thing, if he's getting closer to Judgment Day, to start feeling more and more guilty about it," Swingle said.

Looking for closure

Swingle, who has not yet seen the anonymous letter, said he has special reasons for wanting to prosecute Bonnie Huffman's killer. His late father was one of the Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers who worked on the investigation the year before Swingle was born. Swingle has read the entire file in the sheriff's department.

"It would be nice closure for me if I could have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of prosecuting a case my father helped investigate," he said.

Huffman's family wants closure, too. Wanda Ross of Chaffee, Mo., Huffman's niece, is planning a candlelight vigil Saturday at Huffman's grave in Bollinger County Memorial Cemetery. She hopes someone will come who can answer a lifetime of questions.

Ross has grown up listening to rumors about who might have killed Huffman. After reading the anonymous letter, Ross said it firms up her belief that at least two men were involved.

Swingle said DNA evidence, unheard of then, could solve the crime now. He and Friedrich both said they have heard of killers who kept souvenirs from their victims. Such souvenirs could yield DNA evidence. No one has been able to find Huffman's watch, jewelry, purse, glasses and underpants. Someone somewhere might have something with Huffman's DNA on it, Swingle said. If that is the case, Ross said, the family would not hesitate to have Huffman's body exhumed for DNA testing.

Swingle said he wants the killer to know that the death penalty will not apply. It was in effect in 1954, he said, but its constitutionality was then under question. The most he can, and will, go for is life in prison.

After 50 years, the case remains a classic murder mystery.

"It's like picking up a book and reading halfway through," Friedrich said, "and the conclusion is missing."

lredeffer@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160


Want to go?

What: Candlelight vigil for Bonnie Huffman.

When: Saturday. Visiting at 7 p.m.; prayers, guest speakers and music at 8 p.m.; candle lighting at dusk.

Where: Bollinger County Memorial Cemetery in Marble Hill, Mo.

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