The forgotten and the found: 2 girls, 1 mystery remains
Disappearance of small-town teens highlights value of accurate records on unidentified human remains as well as the missing.
Posted: October 25, 2009 at 5:02 a.m.
LITTLE ROCK First of two parts
At first, no one panicked when Robin Lynn Farnsworth left her Bald Knob home on Jan. 27, 1995, and didn’t return.
The shy 15-year-old had run away before. Her family and friends figured she’d turn up after a few days.
A month had passed with no word from Robin when another girl disappeared from the small town about 60 miles northeast of Little Rock.
Kenyatta Haynes, 18, a popular Bald Knob High School cheerleader, vanished after she left school on March 8.
Law enforcement and community reaction to the two missing teens couldn’t have been more different.
Robin’s parents reported her missing to the Bald Knob Police Department four days after she failed to return home. But police never passed along the report to state and federal authorities.
Police “had kind of considered her a runaway,” said White County Chief Deputy Jeremy Clark, whose office inherited Robin’s case.
Being a runaway or leaving home voluntarily isn’t supposed to matter to law enforcement officials under laws enacted in 1985 for children and 2001 for adults. Police are required by law to immediately enter missing-persons reports into state and national databases.
Yet, police routinely fail to follow through on that requirement.
“The police never tried to find my daughter,” Robin’s mother, Kathy Bolles, said recently. “Her casewas never handled right - right from day one.”
In contrast, Kenyatta’s disappearance consumed the community. Dozens of people volunteered to help with the search.
The mystery was frontpage news across the state.
By comparison, Robin’s case generated little news coverage.
Today, many people in Bald Knob don’t remember Robin. But everyone intown remembers Kenyatta.
“She was a pretty little cheerleader in Bald Knob that came from a super good family,” former White County Sheriff Jess Odom said recently.
Odom remembers seeing Robin’s photo on a missingpersons poster while he was interviewing witnesses in Kenyatta’s disappearance at the Bald Knob Police Department.
“It scared me. Here we had two young girls missing, I thought, ‘Whoa, serial killer or something,’” Odom said.
But when Odom asked the police chief about the other missing girl, the chief assured the sheriff that Robin wasn’t connected to Kenyatta.
She was “just a runaway,” Odom remembers the chief saying.
“At that point, I just let it go. We went back to investigating the Kenyatta case,” Odom said.
Aside from Odom’s brief alarm, investigators at the time didn’t consider the possibility of a link between the two disappearances.
In hindsight, the probability of a connection was high, Clark, the chief deputy, now concedes.
Bald Knob has a population of just over 3,000, and fewer than 200 girls were enrolled at the high school in 1995.
Complicating matters, the two girls were reported missing to two different law enforcement agencies. City police handled Robin’s case while the sheriff investigated Kenyatta’s disappearance.
Two days after Kenyatta disappeared, her bound, beaten body was found submerged in a creek in Devil’s Kitchen, an isolated, wooded area near the Bald Knob Country Club. Odom told a stunned Bald Knob community that he had no suspects.
Meanwhile, Robin’s trail had grown cold. Her family struggled to care for Robin’s 9-month-old baby - a girl born when Robin was 14.
Robin’s brother, Christopher Bolles, was serving time in state prison between 1993 and 1998 on a burglary conviction, so he wasn't homewhen his sister disappeared.
He wishes he’d been able to prod law enforcement officials to pursue leads in Robin’s case.
“I’m frustrated that I was locked up at the time and couldn’t do nothing about it,” Bolles, who lives in Judsonia, said recently.
The day after Kenyatta’s body was discovered, two of her classmates - James Derrick Grubbs, 17, and Donnie Ray Tempel, 18 - were arrested on capital-murder charges.
Tempel told police that Grubbs had picked him up from school the day Kenyatta disappeared. The girl, still alive, was bound and lying in the floor of Grubbs’ truck. She had been raped, he said.
Tempel said he watched Grubbs kill Kenyatta in the woods by hitting her over the head with a shovel. Grubbs ordered him to help fill her clothes with rocks to sink her in the creek, Tempel told police.
As the gruesome details emerged, more than 1,000 people gathered for Kenyatta’s funeral.
Grubbs, a college-bound senior, was friends with Kenyatta, sharing a locker with her and eating at the same lunch table. Tempel, a special-education student, and Grubbs became friends while working together at the Bald Knob Piggly Wiggly.
Robin’s boyfriend worked at the same store. He and Grubbs were friends. They had even searched for Robin together.
Tempel and Robin were cousins by marriage.
“We’ve known Donnie since we were kids,” Robin’s brother said.
Grubbs said during a recent phone interview from prison that he remembers Robin and remembers seeing missing-persons posters in the halls of their high school before his arrest.
“I knew her vaguely,” Grubbs said. “I heard she was kind of wild. That she kind of ran off somewhere.”
On April 4, 1995, Donnie Tempel asked to speak to a jailer. He and Grubbs were awaiting trial in the White County jail.
“He told one of my guards he had something very important to tell him,” Odom, the former sheriff, recalls.
Tempel told the jailer, Odom said, that Grubbs had taken him to a barn on a dirt road near Russell shortly before Kenyatta’s death. Inside the barn, Grubbs lifted a pile of newspapers to reveal Robin Lynn Farnsworth’s badly beaten body, Tempel said.
The stunned jailer stopped Tempel midstory and notified the teenager’s lawyer and the sheriff. Tempel, advised by his attorney, never again talked about what he said he saw.
But Odom says he immediately began hunting for barns off dirt roads near Russell.
“We established a search and started hammering away,” Odom said.
Grubbs said recently that he remembers his lawyer asking him while he was in the White County jail if he knew anything about Robin. Grubbs asked why.
“He said don’t worry about it because whatever Donnie said, they went and checked it and nothing ever panned out.”
But investigators did find the barn that Tempel had described off Old Russell Road, a road frequently used by locals to travel between Bald Knob and Russell, towns separated by five miles.
After an extensive search of the barn and the thick woods surrounding it, a deputy found a patch of ground under a cedar tree where something large had decayed. The search team found what looked like fingernails, some finger bones and buttons from pants.
They found no other remains.
Detectives sent everything they found to the state Crime Laboratory to see if the bones belonged to a human.
Odom said he told Robin’s mother what Tempel had related to the jailer, but the woman insisted that Robin was alive. She swore she had seen Robin, from a distance, before Tempel told his jailhouse story.
In September 1995, Grubbs unexpectedly pleaded guilty to capital murder in Kenyatta’s death. Tempel pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the cheerleader’s killing early the next year. Both were sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
Grubbs says now that police did not question him about Robin’s disappearance or her possible homicide until years later.
Kenyatta’s case file contains no reference to Tempel’s statement about seeing Robin’s body in the barn. In fact, the file includes no notes about Robin, said Clark, the White County chief deputy.
Robin’s case file is closed to the public because it remains an open investigation.
Robin’s name never appeared on a list of missing people maintained by the Arkansas Crime Information Center.
The Bald Knob Police Department has a new police chief. No one can find the old missing-persons files.
Most law enforcement and even ACIC officials suspect that the state’s missing-persons list, with 614 names, is incomplete and out-of-date. Names of missing people who have been found likely remain on the list.
The list isn’t open to the public, except when a law enforcement agency asks ACIC to post a case on the agency’s Web site. The site recently contained information on only 23 missing persons.
“It’s up to them to submit it and give us a picture,” explained Sharron Stallings, Crime Information Center operations manager.
To try to keep the list current, ACIC sends a list every month to any law enforcement agency in the state that has missing persons in the database and asks the agencies to “certify” that each missing person is still missing.
Each law enforcement agency is required to regularly place calls to missing persons’ families to see if the person has turned up or if there is new information in the case. For larger cities with several cases listed, making those contacts - in cases that are sometimes more than 30 years old - is a daunting task.
Little Rock, for instance, has 132 missing-persons cases listed. The Little Rock police officer in charge of missingpersons didn’t return calls for this story.
Johnny Johnson looked down at just the right moment on Dec. 28, 1997, while deer hunting in a wooded area off Old Russell Road, not a mile from his home.
“It was a human skull with no jawbone sitting on top of the ground. There was a red sweater with tassels that barely had dirt over it. And you could see some fingernails laying in the dirt that were painted purple,” Johnson said recently.
His clearest memory of the discovery was the pair of brown penny loafers.
“They were itty-bitty shoes,” he recalled. “A size 4 or 5. I thought it was a kid’s when I found them.”
Someone with the White County sheriff’s office told Johnson that the remains were probably those of Robin Lynn Farnsworth. Johnson was incredulous a few days later to read a brief in the local newspaper saying officials weren’t sure if the remains belonged to a person or an animal.
Johnson remembers seeing another short newspaper story a year later. The article said the remains he found belonged to a human. The story didn’t mention Robin, he said.
“That was all that was said about it for, like, forever,” said Johnson, who now lives in Bald Knob.
Odom said he sent the bones to the state Crime Lab and contacted Robin’s dentist to see if the skull’s teeth could be matched to the teen’s dental records.
But Robin’s records didn’t include X-rays, in part because she was pregnant with her daughter during her last appointment. No other useful records were found.
Crime Lab records indicate that the remains were examined on Dec. 30, 1997 - two days after Johnson discovered them.
Then, for the first time, Odom tried to interview Tempel and Grubbs about Robin’s disappearance. Neither cooperated.
The Crime Lab determined that the skull belonged to a female. Since Robin was the only girl known to be missing from White County, most law enforcement officers sus-pected that the remains were hers.
Also, the remains were found within 100 yards of the barn Tempel described in his 1995 jailhouse statement.
“To me that’s some conclusive evidence,” former sheriff Odom said. “How else would he know that?”
But Robin’s mother remained unconvinced, Odom said.
When Odom left office on Dec. 31, 2000, the bones remained unidentified at the state Crime Lab.
“We didn’t know for sure it was Robin,” said Odom, who hasn’t been able to shake thoughts of the girl, even in retirement. “The only thing that made us believe that it could have been was Donnie.
And we didn’t have any other missing persons.”
The bones made news again seven years after Johnson found them.
White County Sheriff Pat Garrett, who succeeded Odom, held a news conference May 7, 2004, to announce that the FBI had verified that the bones found in 1997 belonged to Robin.
He told the media that he had discovered a box containing the bones in an evidence room in March 2003.
Soon after, he said, he sent the remains to the FBI lab in Virginia for mitochondrial DNA analysis, an expensive technique that wasn’t yet widely available and not then being done by the Arkansas Crime Lab.
Many involved in the case, which spanned the administrations of three sheriffs, disputed Garrett’s account of how the bones resurfaced.
Chris Edwards, coordinator of unidentified remains at the state medical examiner’s office, said his records indicate that the lab released the remains to White County detective Fred Cheek on March 11, 2003.
Reached Thursday, Garrett said that he had inaccurate information when he called his 2004 news conference. He didn’t realize then that Cheek had checked the bones out of the lab and placed them in the evidence room.
“After I’d already run my mouth, it was too late to come back and ... to say I misspoke on that,” Garrett said. “It made me look like an idiot. It had died over ... and we know who it is, and that’s the reason I never made a correction.”
Edwards could find no record that the fingernails and small bones found in the first search of the barn in 1995 had ever been submitted to the lab.
That’s not unusual, considering no laws regulate the storage of unidentified remains or require that a statewide inventory be maintained. For years, some law enforcement agencies and coroners didn’t even send remains to the state lab, because they aren’t required to.
Few kept records detailing what they did with the rare unidentified bodies. Some counties cremated or buried remains. Some law enforcement agencies treated skeletal remains as they would any evidence, by boxing and storing them in cramped evidence rooms.
Regardless, no one could say how or when Robin died. The medical examiner’s office was never able to determine an official cause of death because the remains were so old and the skeleton incomplete.
Records indicate that White County released Robin’s remains to the Powell Funeral Home. She has a gravestone in Shady Grove Cemetery on Bald Knob Lake Road.
For Christopher Bolles, being able to bury his sister didn’t offer much comfort.
He spends as much time ashe can with Robin’s daughter, Samantha, who was adopted by an aunt and uncle. He shows Samantha letters that Robin sent to him in prison after she became a mother.
“All she really wanted to do was be happy in life,” Bolles said. “And she was happy. She loved Samantha. There was nothing that made her happier in the world.”
Samantha, now the same age her mother was when she disappeared, is doing well, Bolles said.
“Some days, she’ll sit down and cry and say she wants her mama, especially during holidays,” Bolles said. “She didn’t really know her mother, and I hate that because her mother was a real good person.”
Kathy Bolles, Robin’s mother, remains angry withpolice.
“The Bald Knob police didn’t take it seriously because Robin had ran away from home once before,” Bolles said. “If they had’ve taken it serious, then shewould still be alive.”
Christopher Bolles, who hasn’t talked to his mother in years, acknowledged that his mother’s insistence that Robin was alive may have hampered any investigation.
His mother is the only one who ever reported seeing Robin after that winter day when she left for school, he said.
Even today, Kathy Bolles doesn’t believe that Grubbs and Tempel killed her daughter because she still believes she saw Robin after their arrest. She clings to hope that a psychic will help her learn the truth.
Kathy Bolles declined interviews for this story in person or by phone, but talked briefly by e-mail on some aspects of the case. She declined to say where she lives, other than that she resides in Arkansas.
Odom says he did everything in his power to figure out what caused Robin’s death.
“I would give anything if I could solve the case,” he said recently. “It’s an unfortunate situation of facts, but the evidence just is not there to put a case together.”
State Crime Lab officials have acknowledged that they could have more carefully managed remains they have stored in the state’s morgue in previous years.
Edwards, a lab technician also trained in anthropology, has been working with Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Charles Kokes for nearly a year to organize the 98 sets of remains stored in their “bone room.”
He hopes his efforts to identify long-neglected remains will help families who have waited decades to learn the fate of missing relatives and help law enforcement officials solve old homicide cases.
After taking an inventory of the remains, Edwards shipped portions of each of the sets either to the University of North Texas or the FBI for mitochondrial DNA analysis.
The Texas university has a backlog of cases because the school has a federal grant and has offered to do this testing for crime laboratories across the country for free.
Edwards has also entered all of the remains kept at the state morgue, and all the details of their cases, into NamUs - the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, created in 2007 by the U.S. Department of Justice to match remains with missing persons.
“I just really want to find all their names. I want to help the families find closure,” Edwards said.
Robin’s family still has questions, even though her remains were identified.
“I’ve tried for years and years to find out what happened to my sister,” Bolles said.
Donnie Ray Tempel and James Derrick Grubbs remain the only suspects in her death, which is classified as an unsolved homicide.
The two convicted murderers did not cooperate in two interviews with investigators.
B olles only recently learned, from a reporter, that Tempel told jailers where to find Robin’s body in 1995.
Odom says he hasn’t given up hope that someone will be punished for killing the girl.
“Somewhere along the line, there may be a person that’s arrested or a deathbed confession that just blows that case all open,” he said. “The skeletal remains is the only thing we have. Even at that, there’s not enough to prove that there was a criminal act committed.”
By the numbers
- 40,000 unidentified human remains are estimated by the U.S. Department of Justice to be in the offices of the nation’s medical examiners, coroners or buried before being identified.
- 6,000 of those cases, or 15 percent, are entered into the National Crime Information Center database.
- 4,400 new unidentified-remains cases are estimated to surface each year nationwide.
- 100,000 active missing-persons cases are contained in the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database.
- In Arkansas, Act 764 of 1985 made it mandatory for police to immediately enter information about children reported missing into the Arkansas Crime Information Center and its national counterpart. Most cities did not enter outstanding missing- persons cases at that time.
- 614 active missing- persons cases in the state are listed by the Arkansas Crime Information Center.
- In 2001, the Legislature changed state law to require law enforcement officials to immediately enter data about missing adults and unidentified remains into the Arkansas Crime Information Center and the National Crime Information Center. Also added was a requirement that police not delay a missing-persons investigation because of previous waiting-periodpolicies.
- The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, was created in 2007 by the U.S. Department of Justice to match remains with missing persons. The system contains a database listing detailed information on remains, including DNA, dental X-rays, photos of the deceased and fingerprints. A twin database includes the same type of information on missing-persons cases. At NamUs.gov, the public can access much of the information using a searchable database.
Front Section, Pages 1 on 10/25/2009