Lil' Miss murder

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Cover of book documenting the case

The Lil' Miss murder is the name given to the murder case of Lisa Marie Kimmell (July 18, 1969 - March 31, 1988), who disappeared while on a trip home from Colorado to Billings, Montana. Her murder would remain a cold case, until DNA profiling eventually linked a prison inmate to her kidnapping, rape and murder some 14 years later, which led investigators to the most vital piece of evidence in the case: Kimmell's missing car, which bore the distinctive personalized license plate that gave the case its name, "LIL MISS".

Case history[edit]

Kimmell was visiting a friend in Denver, Colorado, and left on March 25, 1988, for her parents' home in Billings, Montana. She planned to stop in Cody, Wyoming, along the way to pick up her boyfriend. Wyoming Highway Patrol records showed that she was stopped for speeding in Douglas, Wyoming, just before she disappeared. Though unverified, some witnesses reported seeing her later that evening near Casper.

Eight days later her body was found floating in the North Platte River near Casper, Wyoming, by a local fisherman. An autopsy determined that she had been bound, beaten and raped, for at least six days. Evidence showed that she was then taken to the Old Government Bridge, where she was hit on the head with a blunt object, stabbed six times in the chest and abdomen, before being thrown into the river. The autopsy showed that the head wound would have killed her in a matter of minutes even if she had not been stabbed.

Lisa's case was profiled on the television program Unsolved Mysteries within weeks, and A&E's Cold Case Files in the years since, with each case concentrating on locating witnesses who might have seen her black 1988 Honda CR-X automobile with a Montana plate bearing the unforgettable "LIL MISS". Investigators knew recovering the car was extremely important as it would be a direct link to the killer. The only other piece of evidence, assumed at the time to be from the killer, was a short letter left on her grave on October 13, 1988:

  • Lisa -
    There are'nt(sic) words to say how much you're missed
    the pain never leaves
    it's so hard without you
    you'll always be alive in me.
    Your death is my painful loss but Heaven's sweet gain.
    Love always, Stringfellow Hawke[1]

Signing-off as "Stringfellow Hawke" was a reference to actor Jan-Michael Vincent's character in the television program Airwolf, the meaning of which is still unknown, but showed the author's need to conceal his identity, whereas a loved one or friend would not feel a need to do so.

Breakthrough[edit]

In the summer of 2002, investigators researching cold cases came across Kimmell's rape kit, and a DNA profile was then developed from the seminal evidence. Entering the DNA profile into law enforcement's CODIS database got a hit showing that it belonged to Dale Wayne Eaton, 57, of Moneta, Wyoming, who, at the time, was incarcerated in Englewood federal prison at Littleton, Colorado, on an unrelated weapons charge. The ultimate crack in the case came when witnesses who lived next door to Eaton reported to investigators that they had seen him digging a large hole on his property, which was located about an hour's drive from where Kimmell was last seen alive. When the site was excavated, Kimmell's Honda CRX was unearthed and pulled from the ground, still bearing her distinctive "LIL MISS" license plate.

Eaton was subsequently charged with eight crimes connected to the Kimmell case, including first-degree premeditated murder, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated robbery, first-degree sexual assault, and second-degree sexual assault. He was tried and found guilty of all charges and sentenced to death on March 20, 2004.

Eaton appealed his conviction and lost. Scheduled to be put to death in February 2010, he sought and received a stay of execution in December 2009. Eaton is currently the only inmate on Wyoming's death row.

Noteworthy[edit]

  • Wyoming State Highway Patrolman Al Lesco, who stopped Lisa for speeding that night, was investigated and cleared as a potential suspect. He even produced a taped recording of their conversation inside his patrol car. This was the only confirmed sighting of her that night. The playing of the tape in the courtroom caused a collective gasp and tears from her family and friends as they heard her voice for the first time in 15 years.[2] Another suspect tragically committed suicide while under investigation, but eventually, DNA evidence cleared him as well.
  • Eaton's DNA profile was placed in the CODIS database in 1997 after being arrested on a separate charge. Posing as a Good Samaritan and offering assistance to the Breeden family after their car broke down on a road trip from Chicago to their home in Stockton, California, Eaton kidnapped the couple and their child at gunpoint. They managed to turn the tables on Eaton and subsequently nearly beat him to death.[3] After his arrest, Eaton later escaped incarceration but was later recaptured in Shoshone National Forest with a weapon which made it a federal charge. He was then placed in federal prison, where he was obliged to submit a DNA sample. It was the addition of that sample to the CODIS database that eventually led to his arrest for Lisa's murder.
  • Lisa's murder may have been part of a pattern of serial murders, known as the Great Basin Murders, which took place between 1983 and 1996.[4] Most of the victims were young women who initially disappeared, only to be later found murdered. Because her body was located in a popular fishing spot (creating a public spectacle) and that her car was buried on his property (kept as a trophy) it is believed that Eaton exhibited some of the tell-tale signs of being a serial killer.[5]
  • Amy Wroe Bechtel is among the Great Basin killer's potential victims. On the morning of July 24, 1997, the 24-year-old left her Lander, Wyoming apartment to run errands. At 2:30 that afternoon, Amy was seen at a photo shop. This was the last confirmed sighting of Amy. It's believed she left the photo shop and drove into the Shoshone National Forest to check the course of a 10K race her gym was planning. When her husband returned home at 4:30 p.m., she was not home. By nightfall he alerted neighbors and the sheriff's department. Amy's white Toyota station wagon was found parked off a dirt road in the Shoshone Forest.
    No trace of Amy has been found but subsequent investigation placed Eaton on business in the area around the time of the disappearance.
  • According to testimony given by one of Eaton's federal prison cellmates, Eaton confessed and described Lisa's murder to him. In his testimony, the cellmate described how Eaton had recounted to him that around an hour after the last confirmed sighting of Lisa on the day she disappeared, Eaton was at a rest stop about 22 miles from his home when she pulled-in to use the facilities. He pulled a gun on her and forced her back to his home, where he tied her up and assaulted her for six days. Once he decided to kill her, he drove her to the Old Government Bridge on the North Platte River, where he bludgeoned and stabbed her, before throwing her body over the railing and into the river.
  • A couple living next door to Eaton's property reported to police that, around the time that Lisa went missing they witnessed Eaton digging on his land. When they asked him what he was doing, he explained that he was digging a new well. The neighbors considered that explanation odd, because the hole Eaton eventually dug was only about 10 feet deep while, in that part of the state, wells were usually at least 50 feet deep. This information was what subsequently led investigators to find Lisa's car.
  • It was discovered that Eaton had mounted the Honda CR-X's sport leather seats and high class Sony stereo system into his Ford pickup truck. He had also sold its 17 inch aluminum rims to an unknown individual. The black Honda was heavily damaged in its front section, most likely during the abduction.
  • Eaton's property was awarded to the Kimmell family after a wrongful-death lawsuit, and the buildings were burned to the ground on July 18, 2005, on what would have been Lisa Kimmell's 36th birthday.
  • Both Lisa and Amy's cases were profiled on Unsolved Mysteries and Disappeared. To this day, Eaton remains silent about these or any other crimes he may be responsible for.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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