COCONINO COUNTY, Ariz. — Patty Wilkins has been haunted for nearly four decades by the memory of the girl she saw dining at her family’s Arizona truck stop one graveyard shift in 1982.
It was early the morning of Feb. 4, 1982, when a strawberry-blonde girl and a much older truck driver in a cowboy hat entered the Monte Carlo Truck Stop near Ash Fork, about 45 miles west of Flagstaff. The pair seemed relaxed, Wilkins told CBS 5 in Phoenix.
“The camaraderie between the two of them was like she knew him, and she was comfortable with him,” Wilkins recalled.
The girl appeared to be 17 or 18, the man somewhere in his 50s. Wilkins found it odd that a teenager was out at that time of the morning with a man so much older, so she checked in with the girl to ensure that she felt safe.
“She seemed very comfortable. Very comfortable with this gentleman. Because I asked her, ‘Are you okay? Do you want to stay here or leave with him?’ And she said ‘No, I’ll go with him,’” Wilkins said.
About 10 days later, on Feb. 14, an Arizona state trooper searching for a tire that came off a passing truck found the girl’s decomposing body about a mile from the Monte Carlo.
Her body had been dumped face down under a cedar tree along Interstate 40 in nearby Williams. For nearly 40 years, the girl, dubbed “Valentine Sally” by law enforcement officers, has remained unidentified, becoming one of the oldest Jane Doe cases in Arizona.
Authorities announced Monday that they have finally identified the slain girl.
Valentine Sally’s real name is Carolyn Eaton. The 17-year-old Bellefontaine Neighbors, Missouri, girl ran away from home around Christmas 1981.
Bellefontaine Neighbors is a suburb of St. Louis
“Now that the victim has been identified, detectives are working leads that have been developed to identify any possible suspects,” Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll said in a statement.
Lt. Jason Lurkins, who is working on the case, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Eaton, who was one of six sisters, ran away following an argument.
“The family members were awestruck,” Lurkins said. “We told one family member we were investigating a missing person case, and they asked, ‘Is this about Carolyn?’”
Genetic genealogy, which has helped police solve dozens of long-cold cases in the past few years, was instrumental in leading Arizona investigators to the family’s door. Not only has the data helped to identify suspects across the U.S., such as California’s notorious Golden State Killer, but it has also helped to identify victims whose names had been lost to time.
“Detectives have been working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), National Missing and Unidentified Person System (NamUs) and the Arizona Department of Public Safety to identify ‘Valentine Sally’ through familial DNA,” Driscoll said. “This process utilized a private company that specializes in DNA processing for submission into online databases for genetic comparison.”
Data found in one of the online genealogy databases allowed detectives to locate some of Sally’s family members in Missouri. Investigators collected DNA samples from them and compared it to the genetic profile of the body found along the interstate.
The DNA proved that the body was that of Eaton.
Pangs of regret
For Wilkins, not a Valentine’s Day has passed in the 39 years since Eaton’s body was found in which the slain girl has not been on her mind.
“She was a pretty girl. She really was,” Wilkins told CBS 5 earlier this month, before the positive identification of the victim was announced. “And she smiled a lot.”
She told the news station she was stunned when detectives came to the truck stop less than two weeks after the teen was there and showed her photos of the clothes found with the body. Eaton’s jeans, the only item of clothing found on her body, had torn belt loops that indicated she had been dragged 25 feet off the roadway to the tree under which she was found.
The girl’s red and white striped sweater and her bra were found nearby.
“She was wearing those clothes,” Wilkins told the station. “I said, ‘I know that girl.’ And he said, ‘Can you describe who she was with?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I can.’”
Aside from her estimation of the man’s age, there was little of note about him except what he wore on his head.
“The only thing I really got about him was he wore a cowboy hat with a peacock feather in it,” Wilkins said.
When detectives asked if there was anything else of note about the time the pair spent at the truck stop, she said there was. While the man ordered breakfast, the girl did not.
The teen had a toothache, she said. Wilkins got her an aspirin.
“I said, ‘We crushed up a baby aspirin — that’s all I had — and we put it on that tooth,’” Wilkins said. “He said, ‘What side was it on?’ I said, ‘Left side.’ He said, ‘That’s our girl.’”
At the teen’s autopsy, the medical examiner found aspirin on her back left lower molar. The tooth had been drilled in preparation for a root canal before she was slain, but the procedure was never completed.
The presence of the aspirin and the level of decomposition of Eaton’s body indicated that she was killed shortly after Wilkins saw her. Her cause of death could not be determined beyond the fact that she died by homicidal violence.
Coconino County authorities said she was most likely suffocated or strangled.
Wilkins said the trucker’s concern over the girl’s tooth pain made her believe that he was a relative, maybe the girl’s father or her uncle. She told the Post-Dispatch in an interview Monday that she wishes she had done more to help Eaton.
“I could have pulled her off that truck. I could have forced her to stay with me. I could have called 911,” Wilkins told the newspaper. “I could have done a million different things that I didn’t do. The only thing I did was put that aspirin on her.”
Decades of dead ends
Investigators had previously believed they’d identified Valentine Sally. In July 1984, with the help of an Albuquerque orthodontist and a facial reconstruction from a forensic artist, they tentatively identified the body as belonging to Melody Cutlip, an Istachatta, Florida, 14-year-old reported missing by her mother in 1980.
Cutlip would have been 16 when the body in Arizona was discovered.
Cutlip’s mother refused to claim the body, however, because she did not believe it was her daughter, The Associated Press reported in 1986. Melody’s name was added to the headstone of the missing girl, who Wilkins had buried in a local cemetery at her own expense.
In the summer of 1986, Cutlip returned home, proving her mother right, the AP reported. Valentine Sally was once again an unidentified victim of a brutal crime.
According to the Doe Network, a Northern Arizona University student believed that he had given the girl a ride on Feb. 2, 1982, near Cordes Junction, about 100 miles from the Monte Carlo and where Valentine Sally’s body was later found.
“She told the driver that she was coming from Phoenix, where she was living with friends and working as a dishwasher,” the Doe Network reported. “Because of some family problems, she had to get to New Jersey and was planning to go to the Little America truck stop when she got to Flagstaff to try and get a ride from a truck driver to the East Coast.
“It is possible she went to a dentist in the Phoenix area before Feb. 2, 1982.”
Authorities believe the drilling on her tooth was done about a week before Eaton was killed.
“Coconino County Sheriff’s Office Detective Sgt. Jack Judd, now retired, began this investigation as the responding detective working on this case,” Driscoll said. “Detective Sgt. Judd continued working this case throughout the remainder of his career, following up on numerous leads.
“The investigation passed through many detectives over the years since the initial report and transitioned to cold case detectives when all other leads were exhausted.”
It was through a NCMEC grant that Coconino County authorities were able to do the necessary genetic testing that led to the identity of Valentine Sally.
Detectives in Arizona continue their work to identify the teen’s killer. Meanwhile, they and their Missouri counterparts are glad to at least be able to tell the Eaton family what happened to Carolyn after so many years.
“It is an absolute reminder that hope springs eternal for police investigators and someone with a missing family member,” St. Louis County missing persons Detective Tom Taylor told the Post-Dispatch. “And it shows the investigators kept this case alive over all these years.”
As for Wilkins, she said she will again mourn the loss of that pretty young girl she gave aspirin to nearly 40 years ago.
“Well, I’m going to cry. It’s like one of my girls,” Wilkins told CBS 5. “It’s only been me and her (but) now she’s got a family. Isn’t that great? It doesn’t get any better.”
The former waitress said she will be glad to finally turn Eaton’s remains over to her family.
“We’ve got a name, and I’m no longer in charge of her,” she said. “I love you, and I’m glad you’re going home.”