Unsolved Crimes: 1983 murder of Taylor teen still haunts investigators old and new

Published 8:38 am Monday, September 2, 2019

In this installment of Unsolved Crimes, we again go back to the early 1980s to shine a spotlight on the brutal rape and murder of 16-year-old Cynthia Louise Taylor.

Taylor was from the Shell Creek community of Roan Mountain. School counselor reports that she came from a broken home, living with her mother and two older sisters. The reports read, “Cynthia never had money for entertainment and always preferred friends over family…[she] lived by a day to day attitude, with no goals or ambition.”

Taylor’s body was found dumped on the side of what was then called Roaring Creek Road on Ripshin Mountain in Roan Mountain.

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Fisherman Coy Smith found Taylor’s body on June 12, 1981. At the time Smith said he thought the body was a “store dummy.”

“I gotta admit, I went all to pieces,” he said when he became aware he was looking at a human body. When that realization hit him, he ran to a nearby store on Tiger Creek Road and notified the Carter County Sheriff’s Office.

Smith also told officers that from the spot where he was fishing, he saw a rust-colored vehicle through the trees. He said after the vehicle went from his view, he could hear the sound of car doors opening and closing.

When authorities arrived on the scene they discovered that Taylor had been stabbed four times, three times in the chest and once in the abdomen and had been sexually assaulted. Her body was found in an almost fetal position and completely nude except for her socks.

Surrounding the immediate vicinity of Taylor, articles of clothing, as well as a baseball cap, were found.

Police officials later confirmed that Taylor did not die at the Ripshin location, but was dumped there by either the killer or persons aiding the murderer.

Bill Crumley, Carter County Sheriff at the time, said the girl’s body was taken to a state lab in Morristown for an autopsy and that preliminary reports show that the girl had been sexually assaulted.

The TBI also became involved at the scene and assisted local investigators. A previous Star report pictured TBI agent Don Collins at Taylor’s Shell Creek home looking for clues that would hopefully lead to the killer.

The annual carnival came to Elizabethton during the month that Taylor was killed, and it was speculated that was where she started her ill-fated trek back home.

Taylor was seen by friends between 11:05 and 11:45 p.m. at the Hop-in Market on Siam Road in East Side.

Chief Deputy Mike Sellers in a report revealed that some of Taylor’s friends confirmed that she left the store walking, and began hitchhiking. She was last seen wearing blue jeans, a grey pullover sweater with dark trim on the sleeves, and a baseball cap with the word “Jeep” on the front.

Sellers, according to reports, said that the girl eventually found a ride around 12:30 a.m., and she reportedly told the person who picked her up, whose name was not revealed, that she needed a ride back to Shell Creek. However, because the driver was only going to Hampton, Taylor got out at Rittertown Bridge. This was the last time the teen was seen alive.

After the teen was let out at the bridge, the time line of events that led up to her death become somewhat skewed, but she would eventually get a ride to the house that law enforcement officers believe she was killed in.

The house belonged to Gurney Markland and was located on Fork Mountain Road. The house was burnt down in early July not long after the murder due to suspected arson that officials believe was done to destroy evidence.

Chief Sellers and Kim Birchfield, lead detective in the case, conducted the initial investigation, and early on developed leads that led them to Markland as a person of interest.

In a recent interview, Birchfield said that they developed Markland as a person with information based on interviews that were done with some persons that would later be charged with the crime.

“We [Chief Sellers and Birchfield] picked up Gurney Markland and drove him to the scene of the crime, which had been flattened by a fire,” Birchfield said. “Gurney kept giving stories that did not add up, so when we threatened to take him down and charge him with first degree murder, he broke down and started crying and said, ‘they stobbed her right over there,’ and pointed to a corner inside of where the house would have been had it not been destroyed by fire.

Birchfield said they then took Markland to the sheriff’s office, where he gave a full statement in which he named the perpetrators of the murder of Taylor.

Markland named four persons who were involved in the 16-year-old’s slaying: Linda Markland, Arnold Wayne Markland, Frank Stewart Markland, and Blaine Hughes.

Investigators also had an eyewitness by the name of Lisa Holden, who said she was at the house the night Taylor was killed.

Birchfield and more recently, CCSO Captain Mike Little and some former CCSO investigators confirmed that the statement given by Gurney Markland and Holden set the series of events that led up to the murder.

When Taylor was dropped off at Rittertown Bridge, she got a ride either by the suspects or some unknown person and was driven to or dropped off at the Gurney Markland house. While it is not exactly known who drove her to the house, what is not disputed is that suspects were there or showed up minutes later.

At some point Linda Markland went into a bedroom of the house to lie down, but when she got up and returned to the living room she discovered that Taylor and Hughes were allegedly either having or about to have sex.

Taylor had removed her clothes and was wearing only socks (the condition she was found in). An argument ensued between Linda Markland and Taylor. According to a statement given by Holden, this was when Linda Markland allegedly borrowed a knife that belonged to one of the other suspects and used it to stab Taylor.

Holden also said in her statement that she witnessed Frank Markland and Hughes carry Taylor’s body to a car.

Investigators also recovered the carpet from the trunk of the vehicle suspected of transporting the body to the Ripshin site. The carpet was sent to a FBI crime lab.

Investigators used the statements from Gurney Markland and Holden to obtain warrants for the suspects. However, the cases were dismissed in general sessions court by then Judge Jerry Weaver due to lack of evidence.

Press reports at the time also show that prosecutors declined to try the case because a witness recanted and the elder Markland admitted he was intoxicated while witnessing the murders.

Captain Little said that the witness that took back her testimony was Holden, and that there were indications in the case file that Blaine Hughes may have had a threat delivered to her. “They got to her,” he said.

When Paul Peters followed Crumley as sheriff in 1990, he reopened the case.

“After an overall view of the entire offense of the evidence that has been well preserved here and a request from the family, I have decided to reopen the case,” Peters was recorded as saying to the Star not long after he took office.

Peters reported a year later that the possible murder weapon had been discovered in one of the suspect’s home.

After the Peters administration, the file on the murdered teen remained dormant until around 2001 when CCSO Captain Patrick Johnson, who was an investigator at the time, took another look at it. Since the crime happened in 1983, the carpet from the vehicle was not much use at the time. However, when Johnson reached out to the FBI, he discovered that because of the advent of DNA, some hair that was found in the trunk carpet of the Hughes vehicle matched samples of Taylor’s hair.

“I was in the process of getting an indictment on her [Linda Markland],” Johnson said, “but she [died] before I could do so.”

The case has returned to being cold. However, since all the evidence points to suspects, most of whom have died, the case is considered closed but unsolved.

“In 2001, at the direction of then District Attorney General Joe Crumley, the [Cynthia Taylor] case was closed pending any new developments or leads,” said TBI Public Information Officer Leslie Earhart via e-mail.

Anyone with any information can call 1-800-TBI-FIND or the CCSO at 423-542-1845.

(The Elizabethton Star’s cold case series examines unsolved homicides and other major crimes throughout Carter County. We want to remind our readers of the crimes that remain unsolved. We want to, when we can do so without compromising any ongoing investigations, tell the victims’ stories. We want to see these cases solved because every life counts.)