Her street name was “Baby Doll” and she hustled for a living in West Memphis, Arkansas. Some called her by her given name, Lisa, and she was well-known by the cops. Lisa Ann Nichols hailed from West Virginia. She was 28 years old when she died, the victim of homicide by strangulation.
Nichols was found near the exit ramp off I-40 in Tennessee, her body brutalized and beginning to decompose. She’d been making her way out of town, hitchhiking from her home base in eastern Arkansas. Her body was covered only by the remnants of a knit top.
Whoever killed Nichols dumped her on the side of the highway in the early fall of 1983. She wasn’t the first redhead, but she was one of the few who would get her name back.
Despite all the traffic, her body lay alongside the highway for four days before a hitchhiker noticed Nichols’ corpse and contacted local authorities.
Their first objective was to find out who she was. Tennessee State Police were unable to identify her on the scene but after nine months traced her as a local, transient sex worker with a long history of arrests using fingerprints.
Nichols was one of at least six women murdered by the serial killer later named “The Bible Belt Strangler,” almost certainly a truck driver, who murdered mostly redheaded women between 1978 and 1992.
Although one man was convicted, definitely tied to a victim by DNA and to two other victims by method, it is certain there was more than one killer.
Authoritiesbelieve the killers, who spanned territory from Pennsylvania to Mississippi, could be responsible for up to 14 murders but are confident six homicides are linked.
Baby Doll’s body was transferred back to the morgue once they knew her identity. When the police notified her two brothers, neither man showed up to claim her body.
A MYSTERY BY ANY OTHER NAME
At the time Tennessee Police identified Nichols, a member of the Metro Police Vice Squad in Nashville told The Tennesseean, “Her rap sheet stretches from the ceiling to the floor three times.”
Multiple agencies in Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, West Virginia and Pennsylvania have handled the cases potentially linked as “redhead murders” with similar victims but with limited collaboration, especially in the 1980s. The Vice Squad wasn’t the only law enforcement agency who saw the victims as less deserving of justice.
The victims of the “Bible Belt Strangler” were young women, often homeless, making their living as sex workers — usually at truck stops, but not always. In 1983, when their bodies began surfacing, sex worker homicides received little attention and there was no definite connection between bodies found in several states.
In April 1985, with seven similar victims, authorities from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, along with FBI agents and law enforcement from five states, met to discuss eight potentially related homicides, according to Knox News.
In September 1983, Nichols’ body was recovered four days after she’d been murdered. She is believed to have been the second victim. Her pimp was located nine months later, and he told authorities he last saw her climb into a semi-truck outside a Shearerville, Arkansas, truck stop.
The autopsy concluded she was murdered within 24-hours of leaving the truck stop.
Nichols — who also went by the last name Jarvis — got her name back but at least three of the victims are still classified as “Jane Does” and have never been identified. Not all were redheads, but other forensic clues left behind linked the women as possible victims of the same killer.
The TBI Task Force suspected a serial killer, probably one who drove a truck, but they had no way to identify his vehicle and many of the victims. It wasn’t until 2018 that several of the women would be identified through fingerprints, family and DNA.
THE LOST AND FOUND
On Jan. 1, 1984, an unknown pregnant woman with red hair was found dead alongside I-75 in Tennessee. Her body had been tossed down an embankment. She was fully clothed in a tan pullover and blue jeans. She remained unidentified until 2018, when she was determined to be Tina Farmer, from Indiana. Along with her identity, the cause of death was finally assigned: strangulation.
Her identity and manner of death, along with DNA from semen, would finally confirm the prime suspect.
Farmer had red hair and green eyes, with a light, freckled complexion. She’d been wrapped inside a blanket after she was strangled to death. Her body also revealed she’d once given birth. Although her family reported her missing, Farmer’s vital information hadn’t been entered into a national database. She was 21-years old when she died, and the autopsy showed she was five months pregnant, according to Knox News.
Another victim was assigned the name “Kentucky Jane Doe.” Her body had been stuffed inside a rusty refrigerator in Kentucky, off I-25. She would be identified 37 years later through DNA by her grown children as a young woman named Espy Pilgrim.
The last unknown victim who was later identified was discovered on April 14, 1985, in Greene County, Tennessee. Although authorities lifted good quality fingerprints, they couldn’t track down her identity from any police blotters or state police databases. She was not a redhead, and was stabbed and beaten to death rather than strangled; however, investigators tied her to the other homicides based on timing and location.
In 2018, law enforcement confirmed her name as Elizabeth Lamotte, 17, of New Hampshire. She’d walked away from a group home a week before she was murdered.
THE ETERNAL JANE DOES
On Feb. 13, 1983, before the discovery of Nichols, a female homicide victim was reported in West Virginia. Unlike many of the other victims, she was older. She lay dead for only two days before she was discovered by a couple taking a walk along the highway.
She has never been identified but is linked to the others because she had red hair and her body was dumped beside a highway.
Although recognizable, no one has ever claimed her. It is believed she was the first woman murdered in the series. Her corpse was left off a two-lane highway where it was common to dump trash.
On April 1, 1984, another female was found strangled to death, also in Tennessee, off I-24. She was somewhat older, perhaps close to 40 years old, with red hair. She’d been lying by the side of the highway for three to five months, and her remains had skeletonized. She has never been identified.
On April 3, 1984, in the same general area where Farmer was discovered off I-75, a young woman’s decomposed remains surfaced in the form of a skull and 32 bones. In this case, the medical examiner estimated her age between 9 and 15 years. Her hair color could not be determined.
On March 31, 1985, a couple pulled off the highway on I-24 in Cheatham County, Tennessee, because their car radiator was acting up. They strayed into the woods to find water and came upon a skull. It was later estimated the woman, with a few strands of red hair remaining, had been dead two to five months. She has never been identified.
Investigators did not immediately connect the very young victim due to her young age as part of the series, but she was later linked to the other cases because a piece of cloth tied around her neck had a unique knot. The knot was a serial killer’s signature and had been used before on a victim who survived to tell her story.
SOLE SURVIVOR TESTIFIES
At least one of the killers’ victims escaped. She was courageous enough to go to the authorities and later testify in court.
Her name was Linda Schacke, a redhead working her job at the Katch One Club in March 1985. A customer named Jerry Johns, a long-haul trucker, offered her money for sex. When she accompanied him back to his hotel room, he pulled a handgun on her, spitting out an unlikely story about being a Texas Ranger.
Johns forced her into his vehicle and drove her to a remote spot off I-40. He dragged her down beneath the busy highway, then used her own clothing to bind and strangle Schacke. He threw her unconscious from his vehicle and she landed in a storm drain under I-40. Johns believed she was dead, but somehow Schacke had kept breathing.
Schacke was found by a motorist. She went to authorities and identified Johns as the man who tried to murder her. Johns was charged with aggravated kidnapping and assault with intent to commit murder. He denied any involvement, according to Knox News.
The knot used to tie Schacke would later be scrutinized as a key piece of physical evidence, as it matched a knot in a piece of cloth used to strangle the unidentified child or teen from Campbell County, Tennessee. Although that victim was only a skull and bones, around her neck a knotted piece of cloth still lay.
Schacke has not spoken publicly since her court appearance.
THE LIKELIEST SUSPECT
In early April 1985, the TBI arrested Johns, who became the prime suspect in several of the murders. According to 10News, the murder of Farmer was solved when TBI connected Johns to her death. TBI did not conclusively tie Johns to any of the other redhead murders.
On April 15, the body of an unknown female was found in Greene County, Tennessee, near I-81. She was redheaded, and authorities have never determined her identity. Johns was in custody at Knox County Jail, in the company of two other suspects — Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole — at the time of “Kentucky Jane Doe’s” murder, according to The News-Sentinel.
Two weeks earlier, Johns was also in jail. He cannot be tied to either crime — the murder of Jane Doe from Greene County — murdered by blunt force — or “Kentucky Jane Doe,” who died by suffocation and was later placed in the abandoned refrigerator. “Kentucky Jane Doe,” who was later identified, was found only a few hours after her death.
Johns died in prison in 2015. He’d been incarcerated continuously since 1987.
Johns fit the profile put together by a class of sociology students, who concluded the killer would live near Knoxville, Tennessee, and be a long-haul truck driver. They worked with the FBI, who confirmed the psychological profile not only fit the killer but matched the details of Johns’ life.
On March 8, 1985, troopers apprehended Johns, who sped away at over 100 mph in a stolen pickup truck, according to the Associated Press. They arrested him just outside Knoxville, not far from his home in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Schacke testimony sent Johns to prison in 1987. In 2019, DNA from Tina Farmer’s body connected her to Johns. On Dec.19, 2019, a Campbell County, Tennessee, Grand Jury found Johns responsible for Farmer’s death.
Because Johns cannot be linked to at least two homicides in this series, authorities believe it is likely at least one more serial killer was active. He may have been a long-haul trucker driver, and he has not been apprehended.
THE CASE OF ESPY PILGRIM, MISSING 37 YEARS
Pilgrim, long known as “Kentucky Jane Doe,” was identified by DNA when family members contacted Kentucky State Police to volunteer a DNA sample. They believed the woman, a redhead between 25 and 35-years-old, was their mother.
Pilgrim’s remains were found April 1, 1985, inside a junked refrigerator that lay within a dumping ground full of appliances in a rural area of Gray, Kentucky. She was wearing two pieces of jewelry — an eagle and a heart pendant — when she was discovered.
She was petite, only about 4-feet-10-inches tall and weighing 100 lbs. Her body indicated she’d given birth at least once. She had freckles and red hair. Authorities put out information about her and the items that lay beside her, naming her “Kentucky Jane Doe” and hoping she had family members who would recognize her.
Witnesses confirmed she was last seen at a truck stop in Corbin, Kentucky, according to FoxCarolina.com.
Before her grown children made the connection, Pilgrim was buried by law enforcement with a donated headstone that read simply: UNKNOWN, April 1, 1985.