Belle in the Well to be identified: Mystery of murder victim could be coming to end after 38 years; press conference set for Monday

Published 9:25 am Friday, July 26, 2019

For nearly four decades, the identity of a woman’s body found in a well in Lawrence County has remained a mystery. But on Monday, the identity of the “Belle in the Well” will be revealed.

On Thursday, the Lawrence County Coroner Ben Mack announced that he would have a press conference at 9 a.m. at Bowman Auditorium at Ohio University Southern to identify the body of a female murder victim found on April 22, 1981 in a cistern near Dobbstown.

In the announcement, Mack said that no further questions would be answered until that time.

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Last year, then-Ohio Attorney General and now-Governor Mike DeWine and Lawrence County Coroner Mack unveiled a new forensic facial reconstruction of a woman in hopes of identifying her.

“Despite many efforts to identify this woman over the years, she is still without a name,” DeWine said in March of 2018. “We hope that this forensic facial reconstruction will trigger someone’s memory of a friend or loved one who hasn’t been heard from for decades. Finding out who this victim was is the first step toward finding out who killed her.”

Besides Mack, other officials at the event will be Lawrence County Sheriff Jeff Lawless, Lawrence County Coroner investigator Bill Nenni, David Marcum from the Lawrence County Prosecutor’s office as well as a forensic anthropologist, two forensic genealogists and team leaders from DNA Doe Project.

The murder victim was found in 1981 by a pair of teenagers who were looking at a cistern and decided to drag the concrete lid off it to see what was inside. They spotted a body and ran off to tell their father,  who called the sheriff’s office.

A local fire department used a concrete saw to cut the concrete slab off so the water could be drained out. When they went to retrieve the body, they found that concrete blocks were tied to her with panty hose to weigh down her body. There was no wallet and no identity card. There was a three-year-old bus ticket and a key to locker at the Huntington Greyhound station.

Investigators looked in the bus station locker and found a bag of clothes and some family photos. They interviewed people at the bus station and some remembered her as being from Arkansas. Or Alabama. She had gotten on the bus somewhere in Tennessee.

An autopsy was performed and it was estimated that the body could have lain in the cistern since 1979. Her neck had been broken.

Authorities estimate that the Caucasian woman was between 30 and 60 years old at the time of her death. She weighed around 140 pounds and was approximately 5’3” tall.

It was assumed she was a transient because no one claimed the body. She was buried in an unmarked grave off of Homeless Road.

In 2011, then-County Coroner Dr. Kurt Hofmann had the body exhumed to collect DNA samples. Her bag with her clothes was in the grave with her. The family photos had disintegrated after three decades.

Hoffman put the data from that autopsy into National and Missing Unidentified Persons System to see if there would be a match with any missing women listed. Nothing ever came of it.

In April of 2012, Hoffman and Sheriff Jeff Lawless unveiled the first clay model that is supposed to give an approximate model of her face. Nothing credible ever came of the first clay bust.

In 2018, Coroner Mack said retired Chief Investigator Nenni was a major driving force in keeping this case alive and pursuing new avenues. He also believed that the Belle in the Well was of local Appalachian decent from Ohio, Kentucky, or West Virginia.

A Tribune story dated May 5, 2012, gave a possible identification of the “Belle of the Well” as Sheila Gail Wears Pierce, a woman from Point Pleasant, West Virginia, who was last seen on June 24, 1978.

“Her time frame fits,” Nenni, who was the chief investigator for the coroner’s office, said in the 2012 interview. “We have looked at her before and have talked to the state police in charge of the case. She has always been someone we thought was a possibility.”

What could exclude Pierce is that she was 24 when she disappeared and investigators believe the unidentified body is of a women is much older. And the women in the cistern had missing lower teeth and a super erupted upper molar.