A fifteen-year-old cheerleader is murdered in a desolate cemetery.

Smiling Jessica Keen

Jessica Keen

Police investigators looking over the lifless body of Jessica Keen in a cemetary

Her body was found in a cemetery

CASE DETAILS

On March 16, 1991, a Madison County, Ohio, teenager was abducted and raped. Her clothes had been torn off. But somehow she escaped into a cemetery, only to end up hiding behind tombstones. She attempted to flee the graveyard, but in the pitch-black she smashed into a fence post. Once her assailants caught up with her, they struck her in the face with a blunt object and left her to die. Her name was Jessica Lyn Keen and she was only 15-years-old. Later, investigators were able to pinpoint Jessica’s final moments based on clues in and around the crime scene. There was mud on the fence, a sock that belonged to her, and an impression of her knee in the ground. But the police didn’t have a clue why anyone wanted to kill her.

Jessica entering a car

Did Jessica go off with a stranger?

The gruesome murder of Jessica Lyn Keen has baffled local and state detectives for years. Jessica had been a popular cheerleader, an honor student and a talented performer. According to her mother, Rebecca, Jessica had many goals and dreams:

“Jessica, idealistically, would have loved to have been a singer, an actress. I guess, realistically, Jessica loved animals and wanted to go to college to be a zoologist.”

In high school, Jessica’s life began to have its ups and downs. It had to do with being a teenager and with meeting her first love, 18-year-old Shawn Thompson. Jessica’s relationship with Shawn was new and exciting. But according to her mother, the romance began to distract Jessica from her schoolwork:

“I had forbidden her to see Shawn. I said you can’t see him till your grades come up. And as far as her going to college, she knew she’d have to keep a good grade average in order to get a scholarship. And her grades started dropping. She had skipped school a couple times to be with Shawn. And of course, she was threatening, ‘I don’t want to live with you anymore.’ But I knew I had to do something.”

Arguments between Jessica and her mother escalated. They both knew they needed a cooling-off period. Mother and daughter mutually decided that Jessica should spend two weeks at a local live-in counseling center for teenagers. On March 15th, the day before she was to move back home, and just hours before she died, Jessica spoke to Shawn. According to Special Agent Gregg Costas of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Jessica became upset:

“Jessica and Shawn ended up getting into an argument that day on the telephone, at which point they broke up. Numerous people witnessed this telephone call and said that Jessica was very, visibly upset.”

An investigator wearing latex gloves picking up a white sock

This sock matched the one on Jessica’s foot

After the call, Jessica told a friend that she was going to the mall. She was last seen at a bus stop near the counseling center at 6:00 PM. It was there that Special Agent Costas suspected that Jessica was abducted:

“There is a chance that maybe it was somebody who Jessica kind of knew—maybe wasn’t really good friends with, but familiar enough with them to trust them enough to get into the car… Not knowing what would ultimately happen.”

Jessica’s body was found 42 hours later, 20 miles from the bust stop. Investigators believed that after Jessica was abducted, she was held captive for at least six hours. Based on a semen sample, Special Agent Costas believed she was raped between two and four hours before her escape from the car:

“I don’t think she had any idea at the time that she was actually climbing into a cemetery to hide. But at that point, that was her only means for getting away from whoever was chasing her. This is the area where the crime scene investigators found one of Jessica’s socks. She obviously lost it while she was running.”

According to Special Agent Costas, the sock that was found matched the one that remained on Jessica’s foot:

“We do know that she hid behind this headstone. That was based on the crime scene investigators who found her knee print in the soft ground behind the headstone. We are pretty certain that Jessica saw the light on from the farmhouse. And that’s what she turned to run for when she collided with the fence post in the back of the cemetery. Because it’s so dark out here at night—she was not able to see the fence back here and collided with this fence post. Once she collided with the fence post, she knocked herself down, and at that point, her assailants were able to catch up with her. This is the spot where she was ultimately killed… I’ve never been so passionate about anything that I’ve ever worked on in my life. The thought of this young girl, 15 years old, who had such a bright future, being murdered in such a horrible, horrible fashion, you cannot help but want to do everything humanly possible to find out who did this.”

A blue ruler leaning against a gravestone

Jessica hid behind a gravestone

Sheriffs in Madison County turned their attention to Jessica’s boyfriend, but Shawn Thompson wasn’t in Columbus. He had left for Florida with some friends. According to Sheriff Stephen Saltsman, Shawn and his friends were eventually returned to Ohio:

“Shawn was questioned. The friends that had gone with him were also questioned. And through the questioning, examination of physical evidence, we all but eliminated the boyfriend and the friends.”

DNA evidence from the semen sample did not match Shawn or the others. The group was cleared of any wrongdoing. But for investigators, an entire week had been lost. The trail of the actual killer or killers had grown cold. Still Jessica’s death never stopped haunting her mother:

“What they did to her, the fear that Jessica felt, she would do anything to get away. And I can feel her heartbeat, running through the cemetery. I can feel the deep breathing she was probably doing when she knelt behind the tombstone. I can hear her praying. And I realize that that was the worst thing that I believe anyone could go through.”

UPDATE:

Seventeen years to the day that Jessica Keen was murdered, authorities match DNA from her case to a convicted felon name Marvin Lee Smith, Jr. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.


 

Watch this case now on Amazon Prime in season ten with Robert Stack and in season three with Dennis Farina. Also available on YouTube with Dennis Farina. Various seasons available now on Hulu.

 

24 Comments

  1. D Hartley

    I cannot imagine having this happen to a child of mine. My heart goes out to her mom. Nobody deserves to have this done to them, and no mother should have to bury her child because of something like this. My eldest daughter was best friends with Catherine (Cat) Woods. We watched her family be totally devastated. Rebecca can live on, but will never be the same.

    Reply

  2. Elise

    No, her mother dropped the ball. Girls don’t just drop their lives in high school for a guy unless there are problems at home. Her mother never should have declared war on her, and that’s exactly what she did. She couldn’t have led her daughter to this conclusion quicker with the way she handled it. The truth hurts I know.

    Reply

    • Tarvia Clair

      What???? She had an amazing mother! Her mom was trying to ensure her daughter was a productive member of society, like parents should.

      Elise, I’m sure you don’t have any kids. Hopefully!

      Reply

  3. Rebecca Smitley

    I am Jessica’s mother..
    Thank you all for your condolences..please remember..not all things you read or hear about Jessica her family or her friends etc. Is always true.
    Some is exaggerated or not true facts. If anyone has any questions I am open to to answer the truth and any other thoughts you wish to know.
    Thank you and God bless.

    Reply

    • Tess

      I saw Jessica’s story on the ID Channel twice. I cried, it was so intense. I couldn’t imagine being her and the fear she felt while running away from her killer. My heart just broke when it got to the part of the story where she ran into the fence post. It’s chilling to think what goes through someone’s mind when they are in such a situation: the fear, the desperation. My heart hurt for her and for you. Especially, when you had to look at crime scene photos of your own deceased child for identification purposes. I can truly understand your denial at that moment in time. That’s heart breaking and soul crushing all at once. I give my condolences to you for your loss of a child in such a violent and sadistic way. God Bless you too.

      Reply

    • Amanda patterson

      I’m watching her story now I hope y’all
      Get the justice y’all deso

      Reply

  4. Sonja

    Es ist unfassbar was mit der jungen Jessica passiert ist. Ein absolut sinnloser Mord. IHR wurde einfach die Chance auf ein weiteres Leben, wie Mutter zu sein, zu Heiraten, Ihren Traum Beruf als Zoologin zu Arbeiten, VERWEHRT. Es wurde Ihr EINFACH GENOMMEN … Ich hoffe, dass der Mörder in der HÖLLE VERROTTET..!!!!

    Möge JESSICA KEEN in Frieden Ruhen …
    R.I.P.

    Reply

  5. Krissy

    I’m watching Dead Silent season 3 episode 4 titled “Get Out” now on ID. I’m so sorry that happened to such a young woman. She must have been TERRIFIED!!! I hope Marvin Lee Smith ROTS IN HELL FOR ETERNITY!!! I hope her family and friends find peace. May she Rest In Heaven!!!

    Reply

  6. Ashley Jason

    I just saw something on TV about this. It touched me in such a deep way. I wish there was something I could do to change what happened to this incredibly talented and beautiful young lady. The world gained a beautiful angel. My love and prayers go out to her family, they will remain in my prayers.

    Reply

  7. Karen

    Huckleberry House dropped the ball…

    Reply

  8. Lori L Valderaz

    I’m so glad they found Jessica’s killer esp. fitting they found him on the 17th year to the day she died.

    Reply

  9. Kimberley Dagon

    A very sad, extremely unfair, tragic case!! She was a young lady, going through typical things at the time. Her sweet lovefor her boyfriend is what drew her out. She thought so innocently that she would be ok. A monster took her from her family, took her life! Glad he was caught!!!!Amen!!!

    Reply

    • Jason

      I hate this story. I can’t even fathom the fear this poor girl had. I saw this episode once and think about how terrified she must’ve been. Life in prison is too good for her killer. I hope her family has peace and support.

      Reply

  10. Anonymous

    In February 2009, Marvin Lee Smith, Jr. (DOB: 11-11-56) and Madison County prosecutors reached a deal that would spare him the death penalty in exchange for his guilty plea. Smith pleaded guilty to a charge of aggravated murder, with specifications of rape and kidnapping. The deal called for Smith to be sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 30 years.

    Reply

  11. Anonymous

    Thank GOD for a fine police/Agent. He never gave up! GOD bless him for bring justice and peace to Jessica and hopefully her family. May she finally rest in peace!

    Reply

  12. Amber

    I know Agent Costas personally. He worked tirelessly on this case from the time he re-opened it until the time he solved it (12 years). Thank God there are law enforcement officers such as him who have the passion and perseverance to never give up on such a horrific murder. My Jessica rest in peace, and may her family have some closure that they deserve.

    Reply

  13. kelly

    The THOUGHT of what this poor girl went thru ALWAYS Haunted me since I heard this story on UM. May She Rest in Forver Peace & for what its worth, I HOPE her family found some sort of closure

    Reply

  14. ab

    I remember watching this on UM. i was terrified just sitting there. So glad it was solved.

    Reply

  15. Jen

    I’ve just (March 2016) learned of this case via On the Case with Paula Zahn. Does anyone have a copy of the Unsolved Mysteries segment? Terms to be worked out privately.
    jennielucas@gmail.com

    Reply

  16. Linda

    i was just 10 years old when this happend she is my cousin from my moms side of the family i often think of her and pray that she gets justice and our family can get the peace

    Reply

  17. Johnny

    I’m glad that Jessica’s case was solved. Beautiful young girl life extinguished too soon. That recreation of Jessica running through the cemetery was haunting. Running for her life. Such a senseless murder. I thought this case would be solved quick but lasted many years. Thanks to DNA technology some of these cold cases can be solved. Marvin Lee Smith Jr took something precious from Jessica’s family and deserves the ultimate punishment.

    Reply

  18. angie

    This is the most horrific things I have heard. Jessica had to be so scared! I cried when I read what happened to her. I want to school with Jessica and knew her sister. My heart goes out to her family!

    Reply

  19. Miranda. shortt

    I hope Jessica’ s family. Can. Be. Relieved. Now that her killer has been found

    Reply

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