Johnson City Press: Sociology class holds press conference in effort to find the Bible Belt Strangler

Sociology class holds press conference in effort to find the Bible Belt Strangler

John Thompson • May 15, 2018 at 11:23 PM

ELIZABETHTON — For more than 30 years, the deaths of six women who were strangled or smothered have gone unsolved.

Now the cases are getting renewed attention, thanks in part to the efforts of 23 students who chose to take a sociology class at Elizabethton High School during the spring semester.

On Tuesday the hard work paid off: reporters from as far away as Knoxville and law enforcement officers from as far away as Kentucky came to the high school for a press conference held by the sociology class. Shane Waters, producer of the “Out of the Shadows” podcast, also attended.

Teacher Alex Campbell previously said the reason for the press conference was to develop more public awareness of the murders, which the sociology students believe to be the work of one serial killer, a man the students are calling the Bible Belt Strangler. The students hope the publicity reaches the six communities where the slayings took place: three in Tennessee and one each in Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia.

Campbell used the murders to bring sociology insights to the students, teaching about different classes and how some poor women become transients, with no links, friends, family or home. It was these types of women who were the victims of the killer. Waters said the killer knew there would be no pressure from family or friends to spend a lot of time on these hard-to-solve murders.

He said now that the public is becoming aware, they will act as family to seek a solution to the crimes.

Students said the press conference was a powerful conclusion to a semester of hard work.

Mason Peterson, a student who spoke at the event, said their ultimate goal is to identify the victims and to find the killer. He thanked the media and law enforcement partners and said they are one step closer to accomplishing their goal.

Campbell used sociology to explain how suspects could be narrowed down from 250 million to just one by developing a profile of the killer.

Using the knowledge they picked up in the sociology class, the students showed that the six murders were very likely to have been the work of one killer. Their sociology tools also enabled them to take the meager shreds of evidence from the cases and use it to create an eight-page profile of the killer.

At the press conference, Campbell gave a summary of the profile the students had developed. Campbell said the students determined the killer was a white male, born between 1962 and 1936, between 5 feet, 9 inches and 6 feet, 2 inches tall, weighing between 180 and 270 pounds. They believe he was a commercial truck driver frequently commuting near the Knoxville area on Interstate 40.

One of the highlights of the press conference was when sociology student Aubrey Toncray read a letter from Elizabeth, a North Carolina woman who believes one of the victims, who was killed in Kentucky, may have been her mother. She wrote on how the disappearance of her mother had affected her life.

In the letter, Elizabeth wrote why it is so important to identify these victims. “Honestly, I never gave up hope, but I didn’t think I would live to see this day, or to even be a part of this unraveling story,” she wrote. She closed the letter with words for her mother. “… All my life I hoped to find you alive and well. To greet you one day with open arms and wrap you in a tight embrace. To tell you that even in not knowing you, I have loved you.”

The press conference was live-streamed on the Elizabethton City School System Facebook page, and Elizabeth was watching as her letter was being read. She posted on the Facebook page.

One product of the students’ effort is that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has announced it will coordinate with state and local law enforcement agencies on the cases. Anyone with information on the six slayings can call TBI at 1-800-TBI-FIND.

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