High school class shares updated information on Bible Belt Strangler

Published 5:07 pm Wednesday, February 15, 2023

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Elizabethton students, law enforcement call on public for tips related to Redhead Murders
By Alex Campbell
Elizabethton High School Teacher
They say if you want something done, give it to a busy person. Well, two very busy students from Elizabethton High School still find time to fit cold case research into their hectic days.
Marlee Mathena and Reiley Whitson, both juniors at the school, have been researching connections in a series of crimes known as the Redhead Murders, which took place in and around Tennessee from the late 1970s to early 1990s, to go along with their academics, sports, church, family, and community obligations. Monday, Feb. 6, the students presented their research to a panel of five detectives from three different law enforcement agencies as well as media at the Elizabethton/Carter County Chamber of Commerce.
The students are continuing the work of students from a 2018 sociology class at the school. Those students felt that six of the more than a dozen Redhead Murders fit the profile of the same killer. They did this profiling work with the oversight of an FBI behavior analyst. The students dubbed him the unknown killer, the Bible Belt Strangler.
Within six months of the work of that previous class, three Jane Doe victims were identified. More recently, one of the murders, Tina Farmer’s, has been solved and another victim identified. The students looked at these recent developments to continue the research on the case.
“Tina Farmer was the linchpin,” stated Whitson. The TBI stated in 2019 that trucker Jerry Johns, who had been incarcerated since 1985 for his attempted murder of another redheaded woman in Knox County, had killed Farmer. He died in prison in 2015.
The students had been looking at the MO and signature in the Farmer case and presented evidence that supports the conclusion that whoever killed Farmer likely killed five other women as well. The students used TBI interview notes, police research in public records, research completed by the staff of podcaster Shane Waters, and interviews to complete their work.
The students also accumulated their own new information by working with a retired FBI behavioral analyst, an international knot expert, a former member of a DA’s office, retired homicide detectives, forensic experts, and personal interviews of people related to the case.
“I would want to know the truth. I would want to have that piece of mind and closure after so long,” stated Mathena when asked why she was so passionate about her work on these cases. The girls are not enrolled in a class that works on these cases, rather they work on their own time, in between homework, basketball practice, and church functions to complete their tasks. They often meet early before school to share their work and plan next steps with teacher, Alex Campbell.
“The knots and ligatures were definitely a big breakthrough,” stated Whitson. The students were able to obtain pictures of the ligature and bindings used by Johns on an attempted murder for which he was in prison. They then worked with knot expert, Lindsey Philpot, to develop a ligature signature to go along with the MO of the murders.
The students also presented never before released evidence that a matchbook from a nightclub over 1,000 miles away in Texas, less than two miles away from where the killer of Tina Farmer was living, was found near the body of Greene County victim, Elizabeth Lamotte.
At the end of the presentation, detective Larry Vaughn of the Carter County Sheriff’s Department asked the students why they wanted to work on this. “I am being a voice for those that don’t have a voice anymore,” said Mathena while Whitson responded, “Because that could have been me or my mom.”
The students ask that anyone with information about of these or any related crimes, please contact law enforcement.

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