The deaths of Kerry Ann Graham and Francine Marie Trimble
The deaths of Kerry Ann Graham and Francine Marie Trimble, who vanished in December 1978 after leaving their homes in Forestville, California, to visit a mall in Santa Rosa, are still unsolved crimes. At the time, the girls were 15 and 14, respectively.Their remains were discovered in duct-taped rubbish bags and buried in an embankment of a densely overgrown woodland area close to a rural part of Highway 20 in July 1979, about 80 miles (130 km) north of Forestville and 12 miles (19 km) from the city of Willits.
The precise cause of death of each victim has never been determined due to the advanced level of decomposition of the girls’ remains, although both girls’ deaths have always been thought to be homicides.Graham’s body was also wrongly classified as belonging to a male until DNA tests revealed differently.
Before their identities were established through the use of DNA profiling in November 2015, the bodies of Kerry Graham and Francine Trimble remained unidentified. The actual case is still one of Mendocino County’s oldest unsolved crimes.
Graham and Trimble both lived in the Californian town of Forestville.The two girls had known one another since they first met while attending elementary school, and they were best friends for life.The two girls reportedly left their houses on December 16, 1978, to go to the Coddingtown Mall in Santa Rosa, with Graham having told her mother that she planned to go shopping for Christmas presents before leaving her home. Both families lost contact with their daughters.
Within 24 hours of her disappearance, Trimble’s mother had filed a missing person report on her daughter with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office; Graham was reported missing to the same sheriff’s office on Christmas Eve the same month. Family members of both girls informed investigators of their fears that their daughters had become the victims of foul play, perhaps having been kidnapped prior to their departing to the mall from the Trimble residence, and possibly by someone they knew, as there were no signs of a disturbance having occurred at either girl’s residence, and makeup was found arranged upon a dresser in Trimble’s bedroom.
In addition, neither girl had taken any personal possessions from her household prior to her disappearance, and although Graham was known to have previously run away from her home, at the time of her disappearance, she had recently undergone an operation to remove her appendix, and was still physically recovering from the procedure, having also left her prescribed antibiotics in her bedroom. Nonetheless, neither family could completely discount the possibility the girls may have hitchhiked to various regions, including New Jersey, or as far as Nova Scotia, Canada.
Initially, investigators concluded Graham had arrived at Trimble’s home on the date of the girls’ disappearance when no other member of Francine’s family had been present within the household, and that the two girls were likely together at the time of their disappearance later that day. Furthermore, although investigators initially concluded the most likely explanation for the girls’ disappearance was that they had been runaways, they could not discount the families’ theory both girls had been abducted from Trimble’s home. As no signs of a struggle were noted within the Trimble household, had this been the case, the two girls would have either known their abductor, or been taken from the residence at gunpoint. The aunt of Francine Trimble would later recollect that on one occasion, out of sheer desperation, her family had contacted a psychic in the hope of obtaining information regarding the girls’ whereabouts and welfare.
The unclothed, skeletal remains of Graham and Trimble were discovered by two tourists traveling to Fort Bragg, California on the afternoon of July 8, 1979. Following a minor argument within the car, the two tourists had stopped their vehicle on private land near the Jackson Demonstration State Forest, alongside Highway 20 in Mendocino County, approximately 12 miles west of Willits and 80 miles from the girls’ residences. One of these individuals exited his vehicle to briefly walk in the vicinity where the two had parked. Venturing into a steep, heavily overgrown area near James Creek, this individual located a human skull protruding from a shallow grave in brush midway down an embankment of the creek, a short distance from the road. The tourists left a can of soda at the side of the road to mark the location of the remains and drove to the city of Willits, where they reported their discovery to the police.
Responding to the tourists’ discovery, Mendocino County sheriff’s deputies extensively searched the area in and around James Creek, finding numerous skeletal remains later determined to belong to two individuals. Both victims had been bound with duct tape and concealed within plastic, before being buried in a shallow grave. Sections of duct tape, hair, and numerous bones were scattered in the vicinity of this grave—indicating the bodies had been disturbed by wild animals. Investigators would subsequently conclude the two victims had been murdered elsewhere, and their bodies later buried at the scene of their discovery, with this act most likely occurring after nightfall. No clothing was present with either set of remains, although a solitary shell earring depicting a bird—later determined to belong to Francine Trimble—was discovered at the scene.
Following a two-day search of the crime scene, in which approximately 90 percent of the victims’ bones were recovered with FBI assistance, the remains recovered from the embankment alongside Highway 20 were sent to the coroner’s office to undergo a thorough forensic examination.
The initial autopsies performed on the remains found in James Creek provided little reliable forensic information about the victims other than the fact that they were both likely Caucasian, about 14 years old, and had been murdered on or around December 8, 1978.However, the coroner was unable to tell whether the victims’ remains belonged to a man or a woman. However, following additional examination of the bones with a forensic pathologist, the coroner determined that one of the deceased had been a man and the other a woman.All analyses performed on the remains have been completed by 1980.
The results of these initial examinations also established several approximations of the physical statistics of the victims, including their sexes, ages and heights, and although the actual cause of the victims’ deaths could not be determined due to the advanced state of decomposition and the lack of any evident trauma upon the largely skeletal remains, both the coroner and the forensic pathologist could not exclude the possibility that each victim had been strangled to death.
Although both victims were correctly determined to be of Caucasian race, both the coroner and the forensic pathologist determined they could not be completely sure of the specific ethnicity, or the precise gender of one of the recovered bodies, which was initially determined to be that of a male. The initial autopsy reports also erroneously concluded the two victims may have been related, stating there was a “high probability” the two decedents were a brother and sister.
The first victim to have been recovered from the crime scene (later identified as Francine Trimble) was estimated to have been between 5 feet 3 inches (160 cm) and 6 feet 0 inches (180 cm) tall, possibly 5 feet 5+1⁄2 inches (166 cm) in height. The age of this victim was initially placed as being between 10 and 20 years old—perhaps being no older than 14. Her remains were found with a single earring of a bird, presumed to be handmade and constructed from a shell-like material described as being often seen in the works of “hippies and Native Americans.”
The second victim recovered from the crime scene and the subject originally believed to have been a male (later identified as Kerry Graham) was inaccurately estimated to have been between 5 feet 2 inches (157 cm) and 5 feet 11 inches (180 cm) tall, possibly 5 feet 5 inches (170 cm) in height, when in reality, Kerry Graham had been just 4 feet 9 inches (145 cm) in height. The age of this victim was also initially placed as being between 10 and 20 years old—perhaps being no older than 13. As had been the case with the first body recovered from James Creek, this decedent also had light brown hair, and had received excellent dental care in her lifetime, having never undergone a tooth filling procedure.
Following their initial autopsies, the girls’ remains—informally known simply as “John Doe” and “Jane Doe” among homicide detectives—were interred in a cement crypt in the Russian River Cemetery in the city of Ukiah.
The remains discovered in James Creek had been unidentified for six years by the year 1985. All of the case’s evidence was given to the FBI for additional review that year, however the investigation would mostly fall cold for the next 15 years.But on many occasions between 2000 and 2011, the remains of the deceased would be exhumed to undergo additional forensic examination in an effort to identify them.
Speculation as to the accuracy of the initial theory of a probable relation between the victims first arose in 2000 when a further examination of the decedents’ dental charting revealed dissimilarities too great for the pair to have been biologically related. The initial assumption the victims had been related was first questioned by a forensic odontologist named Jim Wood who, having closely examined the jawbone of each victim, concluded the jaw structure and actual dentition were too dissimilar for the decedents to have been related, and further opined his belief that both victims had most likely been female. This belief that both victims had not been related was formally confirmed via an examination of the victims’ mitochondrial DNA the following year, which conclusively determined that the two victims had not been maternally related.
Despite these revelations, speculation remained the decedents may have been in a romantic relationship, which may have been a reason why they were together at the time of their deaths. As no contemporary missing persons reports of a male and a female missing since late 1978 or early 1979 existed in California which matched the physical characteristics of the decedents, theories remained that the pair may have hitchhiked to California, perhaps from as far away as the Midwestern United States, and possibly as runaways.
Beginning in the 1990s, a number of forensic facial reconstructions of the deceased were produced and made available to the media. These reconstructions showed how the two deceased individuals may have looked in real life. Initially, these reconstructions had taken the shape of clay sculptures made from forensic models of the victims’ faces based on three-dimensional images of their skulls. These clay sculptures would eventually be replaced by digital reconstructions of the deceased—still thought to have been a male and a female—that were made public in the early 2000s thanks to advancements in technology.
In July 2012, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children released updated, digital renderings of the victims’ faces. These renditions had been obtained with the assistance of a forensic anthropologist, who—via performing a modern CT scan upon the skulls of the two decedents—had been able to construct a more accurate digital, three-dimensional reconstruction of the victims’ faces as they had most likely physically appeared in life. This forensic examination had also narrowed the ages of both victims to being most likely aged between 13- and 15-years-old at the time of their death, although the anthropologist did not question the original 1980 conclusion that one of the victims’ skulls had been that of a male.
This entire process was covered by the BBC America network, who had paid to have the victims’ skeletalized remains exhumed in 2011 in order to produce a documentary detailing ongoing cold case investigations within the United States and worldwide as part of a series they had commissioned titled Naming the Dead. This documentary had detailed just how the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children utilize modern technology, the work of forensic artists, the Internet, and general law enforcement determination in the hopes of identifying unidentified child murder victims, and the methods currently used to do so, with these two decedents intended as being the primary case focused upon within this program within the series.
While Graham had been reported missing by her mother on 24 December 1978, some recent missing persons reports have incorrectly stated the date of Graham and Trimble’s disappearance as being 24 December 1979.Additionally, until DNA testing revealed Graham’s remains were actually those of a female in 2014, all primary sources referring to the two decedents described Graham’s remains as those of a male.
When these errors had been corrected, as a result of the renewed publicity and focus on the case following the 2012 screening of the BBC America series highlighting the work of forensic artists at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a sibling of Kerry Graham contacted authorities voicing her concerns one of the decedents may be her missing sister, adding that at the time of her disappearance, she had been in the company of Francine Trimble.
As investigators had initially concluded the two girls were likely together at the time of their disappearance, DNA samples were obtained from family members of both girls. These samples were entered into both the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children databases for comparison with nationwide unsolved murders and unidentified decedents (within which the subjects of whose DNA, odontological, anthropological, and other general information already exists).
These DNA comparisons later corroborated this sibling’s belief. Consequently, 36 years after their murders, the two decedents discovered alongside Highway 20 in Mendocino County on July 8, 1979 were formally identified as being Kerry Ann Graham and Francine Marie Trimble.
The formal identifications were made in November 2015, and later announced to the media via a February 2016 joint press conference held by the Mendocino and Sonoma county sheriff’s offices in Mendocino’s county seat of Ukiah, and in which both girls’ families were informed that the disappearances of Graham and Trimble had never been connected with the remains discovered alongside Highway 20 as police had originally believed the victims had been a young boy and a young girl, and that a likely factor in the original misidentification of one of the bodies as being that of a male was that much of the skeletal structure of young females typically resembles those of males until a female begins to physically mature.
Following this formal announcement, one of the individuals who had worked on the forensic reconstruction of the victims’ faces was to state: “It’s been such a collaborative effort giving these victims back their names; an identity that has been lost for 30-plus years. It’s extraordinary that we were able to help the investigation and these families find answers to their questions. I can’t sum up how incredible that is.”
The remains of Kerry Graham and Francine Trimble were released to the surviving members of their families in February 2016.] At a press conference, one family member stated that although both families had “largely resigned [themselves]” to the fact foul play was an extremely likely reason the girls had disappeared, both families were “glad to know” the girls’ bodies had been identified, in order that they could receive a dignified burial by their families.
The investigation remains active
Although no formal suspects have been named, Mendocino County authorities have indicated that the case is “as active as it’s ever been” and that investigations into the killings are still ongoing.Tom Allman, sheriff of Mendocino County, added that investigators are hoping to learn more about the moments before the girls vanished with the identification of the victims in order to track down whoever or whatever is responsible for the girls’ deaths and the subsequent concealment of their remains.
People who may be related
Although no specific suspects have ever been identified in the killings, Kerry Graham and Francine Trimble’s murders are still an open and ongoing investigation.A prisoner from New Jersey who was imprisoned in 2000 gave a fictitious confession to the killings. The victims’ bodies were initially removed from the cement vault where they had been buried after their initial autopsies as a result of this false confession.
This individual was quickly excluded as a suspect in the case after investigators discovered he would have been approximately 12 years old at the time of the murders, in addition to the fact that this individual had “never [even] left New Jersey” in his lifetime. The man is believed to have falsely confessed to the girls’ murders after reading about the case in a local newspaper.
Investigators have also stated that they are eager to learn more details surrounding the girls’ deaths in order to conclusively prove they were murdered. It is unknown if Graham and Trimble had hitchhiked to the Coddingtown Mall, had ever reached their destination, or even if they had actually intended to visit the Coddingtown Mall on the date of their disappearance. According to a friend of the two girls named Eileen Goetz, she had last seen Graham and Trimble in the grounds of El Molino High School on the date of their disappearance.
The two girls had joined Goetz to smoke cigarettes in a parking lot near the school’s tennis courts. According to Goetz, neither girl had actually attended school that day, and had informed her (Goetz) of their intentions to hitchhike to a party in Santa Rosa. Both girls had asked Goetz whether she wished to accompany them to the party, but she declined this offer. Another friend would later state that on the date of Graham and Trimble’s disappearance, she had seen the two girls hitchhiking near a local Chevron gas station.
Potential persons of interest in the murders of Graham and Trimble include a number of serial killers including Rodney Alcala and Gerald and Charlene Gallego. The number of young women who were kidnapped and murdered in California during the late 1970s—some in the same county as the victims’ disappearances—led to the theory that a serial killer was responsible for this atrocity. Although the verified victims in this case were murdered between 1972 and 1976, a potential connection to the Santa Rosa hitchhiker murders has also been put forth.
There are currently no definite suspects in the deaths of Kerry Graham and Francine Trimble.