One man's obsession changes the way cold cases are solved
As a teenager, Todd Matthews had an unusual obsession. He was fascinated by the human remains found along the side of a highway in a small community in rural Kentucky. The woman had been wrapped in a tent bag, and the tale of Tent Girl became a sort of urban legend. He never let go of his obsession with the case. Later in life, while working the assembly line at an auto factory, Todd created an early web page about Tent Girl, asking for the public’s help solving the case. That site helped Matthews do what police could not – solve an unsolved murder. And in doing so, it changed the way investigators across the country handle missing person cases today.
Todd Matthews went on to create The Doe Network, a nonprofit database of missing persons, unsolved murders and cold cases. His search methods helped shape NamUs, The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
In this episode, Todd describes his first and most famous case, and how the work he started as a teenager sparked a revolution in unsolved murder investigations.
DISCLAIMER: This podcast contains frank descriptions of human remains and physical violence. Listener discretion is advised.
Amanda: In the spring of 1968 a man named Wilbur Riddle was walking along the side of a highway in rural Kentucky. He was looking for things he could recycle to make a little extra money...
He was just doing his thing when he came across what looked like a heavy green canvas bag.
Todd Matthews, The Doe Network: He kind of nudged the bag and he noticed the way that it rolled that there was something inside of it that wasn't alive and he cut the bag open, and she was inside.
Amanda: A young woman, dead, stuffed inside this canvas bag.
Todd: She was wrapped in a canvas tent wrapper. That's why they gave her the name…
Amanda: Tent Girl.
At that moment, as cars sped past Riddle while he ran to find help, he had no idea this was the making of a local urban legend.
Amanda: Investigators have nothing to help them identify the woman. There’s no missing person cases matching her description.
Eventually, the authorities bury the remains in a Georgetown, Kentucky cemetery. The headstone simply read “Tent Girl.”
Like so many other missing person cases, her’s went cold…that is until a teenager living in rural Tennessee, named Todd Matthews, became obsessed with solving it.
Todd: I started out with an unidentified body, so I knew the end. So, reverse engineering this back to the family, just the satisfaction to be able to unravel something that somebody tried so hard to hide at some point you know, somebody didn't get away with murder.
Amanda: From WRAL Studios, this is What Remains – stories of connecting unidentified human remains to the missing and the murdered. I’m Amanda Lamb.
In this episode, the case that took Todd on an unlikely path from small-town country boy to one of the leading advocates for missing and murdered people. He reshaped the way these cases are handled.
Amanda: When I first met Todd Matthews over Zoom, he looked every bit the country boy he’s been described to me as. His unruly, long graying hair sticks out beneath a white baseball hat with a fraying brim. He continually apologizes for his appearance which he tells me his wife is appalled by.
Todd: Well, I was assuming it was audio only, and then my wife said, uh, you better ask because you look like you just got out of bed.
Amanda: It's totally fine. It's totally fine.
Amanda: It’s hard to say which came first: Todd Matthews’ obsession over the Tent Girl case or his love for Lori Riddle.
They kind of both came into his life around the same time. She had just moved with her family from Kentucky to his hometown in Tennessee. When she and her two sisters first walked into Todd’s high school, she immediately caught his eye.
Todd: Met her when she walked into the room, literally her and her two sisters. And I picked out the one in the middle and it was Halloween time. It was October of 1987.
Amanda: People were telling ghost stories, when Lori told a real story – a story about how her dad was out one day 19 years ago, looking for glass insulators beside a highway when came across a dead body. It was the story of Tent Girl.
Todd: Tent Girl just become part of the story of the day during our study hall. I'm 17 years old. And that story sounds like something I've heard before. So I asked to see more, there were local news articles. They made an urban legend out of Tent girl in that community. And now just in that little rural region, But they didn't have her name.
Amanda: That’s what started a lifetime dedication to Lori Riddle, and this unidentified Tent Girl.
He and Lori got married right after high school and from early on, Todd kept asking his new father-in-law questions about this case that he had become so fixated on.
Todd: I think at the time my father-in-law, didn't see me as somebody that would be relevant. He moved around a lot. And if his neighbor was a law enforcement officer retired, oh I’ve got to tell you this story and he would tell him all about it. And it was because he thought they were somebody they could help. I think he saw it telling me the story as entertaining a child.
Amanda: But Todd’s father-in-law did answer his questions, and the answers only increased Todd’s interest in the case. The first question: Was it the body of a girl or a woman?
Todd: My father-in-law said he saw her body and said her fingernails had been very well-manicured. He said they'd been painted and he didn't associate that with children.
Todd: And he said her breasts are large. So he felt like that maybe that it could have been an older person just short. I went with that because, it was hard to imagine a 13 to 17-year-old person that nobody's looking for.
Amanda: Shortly after they got married, Lori's family moved back to Kentucky. When Todd and Lori would visit... their route took them not far from the spot where his father-in-law discovered “Tent Girl”.
Todd: So finding ways throughout the early years to pit stop where the body might have been found, as you're going to visit family in Kentucky and visit the grave, you know, that just became more, more normal to do that.
Amanda: Lori didn’t seem to mind, she kind of just went along with it – accepted it as a part of who her husband was.
For a full decade, the case percolated in Todd’s brain. He read about it, researched it and talked about it with anyone who would listen. When he was 27 and working in an automotive parts factory, Todd decided to make a web page with specifics about the Tent Girl case. He was hoping someone would see it and that might generate leads.
Todd: There was actually a local newspaper article because the thing of it was somebody made a website for a murder victim in a small town in 1997. That was very unusual for somebody to do that.
Amanda: Todd scoured message boards and posts online looking for clues. On one website where people could post items and services for sale, a kind of early version of Craigslist, he found an unusual post.
Todd: I literally found a note: “My sister was last known to be in Lexington in Kentucky, December of 1967.”
Amanda: The more he read the post, the more the pieces seemed to fit into place, she had to be talking about Tent Girl.
Todd: It gave a brief description of her sister, you know, the dark hair and reddish hair, you know, it wasn't blonde. And, um, just, just a little bit about her and children. It mentioned children and an infant. There was a baby diaper that had been found in the bag, a cloth diaper. But they really didn't know for sure it was a baby diaper at the time. It was just a cloth square, literally. That's how they were back in the day. And, um, it was her, you and I knew it at the time because of the, just the release. It's just like, this is the only thing that's ever, the only puzzle piece that's ever fit together.
Amanda: What year was that?
Todd: That was early 1998, January of 1998.
Todd: At first, Todd emailed the woman who made the post, he didn’t hear back. Then he decided to call her. He realized it was going to sound bizarre. Here’s some random guy in Tennessee who happened to marry the daughter of the man who found a body that might be her sister. Oh, and, by the way, I created a website about her.
Todd: How do you call somebody and say, Hey, your sister is an urban legend in a Kentucky community. How do you do that? You know?
Amanda: Todd picked up the phone and found Rosemary Westbrook on the other end of the line. He laid out for her what he knew about Tent Girl.
Todd: Just look at this, look at the information that I've gathered. Uh, I think it could be your sister and, you know, I knew that was gonna be a lot to take in, so to allow them to process that. And, uh, of course it seemed very strange at first.
Amanda: She told Todd about her little sister, Barbara Ann Hackmann Taylor. Friends and family called her Bobbie. She was one of four sisters in the Hackmann family. And in late 1967 when she was just 24 years old Bobbie had disappeared near Georgetown, Kentucky.
At the time, she was living with her 8-month-old daughter, her 7-year old stepdaughter and her husband. He was a carnival worker named George Earl Taylor. They moved around a lot for George’s job.
Bonnie, the stepdaughter, would later tell investigators she heard her parents arguing in their bedroom the night before Bobbie vanished. She says the next morning her father packed the car and left with her and her baby sister refusing to answer questions about her stepmother’s whereabouts.
George told the family that Bobbie had left him for another man. They were suspicious of this story, but had nothing to go on. The family reported her missing and George became the prime suspect in her disappearance, but the investigation went nowhere. He was never charged with anything. George died of cancer in 1987. Bobbie’s family never got any answers.
Todd: I think they always had a hope that they were going to find her alive and that she chose to leave. And, but, um, That not being the case that was kind of hard to accept for the family members.
Amanda: Armed with this new information, Todd decided it was time to reach out to law enforcement in Kentucky and tell them what he’d learned. But like his call to Rosemary, he knew it was going to be hard to convince them that he was for real and not just some quack, some obsessed true-crime junkie with too much time on his hands.
Todd: You know, there was no playbook. There's still not really a playbook, but I knew the sheriff of that county had to be the people that I connected with. It’d take him a little bit to call me back. I think the only reason he originally called me back was because I was the son-in-law of the man that found the body.
Amanda: When the sheriff and Todd got on the phone, at first they just shared pleasantries, chit chat.
Todd: And then it's like, how about that Tent Girl? And then when I started yelling about what I knew, and what I found, I could see that he got really excited and that, that was when I knew he believed it, you know, and that we're going to look at this.
Amanda: And they did look at it.
Investigators got a court order to have the body of Tent Girl exhumed from the local cemetery where she had been buried in 1971. They took a DNA sample from the remains and got one from Rosemary to compare it with.
On April 23, 1998, the Scott County Medical Examiner and the sheriff’s office asked Todd to come see them. He was making minimum wage as a factory worker at the time. It was a big deal for him to make the 200 mile trip. But he felt like they weren’t calling him up there for nothing.
When he got there, they were all set up for a press conference.
Todd: There was cameras from all over there.
Amanda: In front of those cameras and newspaper reporters, law enforcement announced that 24-year-old Barbara Hackmann Taylor was last seen alive on December 6, 1967, about 15 miles from where Tent Girl was found.
Todd: And then hearing her say, “The Tent Girl is indeed Barbara Hackmann Taylor,” that sent chills up the spine.
Amanda: Rosemary’s DNA had matched the sample from the exhumed remains.
TTodd: That was just an incredible validation.
Amanda: Barbara Taylor’s family – including her now adult daughter – was very glad that Todd didn’t give up on seeking that validation. There’s a bond between them now that’s hard to explain. While on one hand he gave them the worst news of their lives, on the other hand he helped them resolve a mystery that had plagued their lives for three decades.
Todd: I've met Barbara's family several times. Uh, especially Rosemary. She came up and my youngest son was born. He just turned 19.
Amanda: Todd says Barbara’s family even helped name his son, Devon.
It’s a constant reminder of why he does what he does, because this case was just the start.
Todd has gone on to change the way nearly every law enforcement agency in the US handles cases of Jane and John Does.
That’s after the break.
Amanda: Tell me what Doe Network is.
Todd: Doe Network is a volunteer based organization that manages missing and unidentified persons cases in different parts of the country. I mean the world, not just the United States…Canada, Mexico. Often we hear from law enforcement from those countries that look for help.
Amanda: Todd Matthews says the advent of the user-friendly internet made all the difference in tracking these cold cases.
Todd: The internets came along, everybody does their part. And the smartest thing I think to do is to get the information online and available to other people. That's the biggest deal.
Amanda: It was in 1997, when the public’s daily use of the internet was still in its infancy that Todd created his website about Tent Girl, trying to figure out who she was.
The publicity he got in cracking it, well law enforcement across the country started to keep tabs on what Todd was up to.
Todd: I was able to identify her once I took her to the internet.
So after 30 years of being a Jane Doe. That was the first time the internet was used to identify a John or Jane Doe.
Amanda: Using the Tent Girl case as a kind of prototype, Todd started the Doe Network, named after the John and Jane Does he was trying to identify.
At first, it was just a collection of pages highlighting cold cases where remains were found, but had not been identified. A single place for this kind of information, accessible to anyone curious enough to look at it.
Todd: I started hearing from law enforcement. Hey, we have a Jane Doe over here or we have a John Doe, and from other people in the community – Uh, there was a Jane Doe found in my hometown. Or a John Doe found nearby and I'm concerned about the case.
Amanda: Today, the website features cases that date all the way back to 1912. Each case includes information about where and when the remains were found. Some have facial reconstruction pictures. These are drawn by forensic artists either from a photo of the dead person, or from the person’s own skull. If scientists can figure out someone’s age, sex and ethnicity, they’re also included in the case’s online profile.
Each entry contains every possible detail, scientific and otherwise, anything that might help the public identify them. No detail is too insignificant.
Todd: We literally start with unidentified remains and you try to find ways to connect that to a missing person. And that could be the artifacts found with the body, not just the medical examinations like sex, height, weight. All of that stuff is important, very important, but sometimes what’s found with the body or where the body was found, local circumstances – all of that kind of fits in.
Amanda: The website also has the remains listed by state. There are thousands of cases. Some states have a lot of unidentified remains – like Florida has 494 John Does listed, but Connecticut has just 5 Jane Does. Todd says the numbers depend on the state’s population, the transient nature of people living there, and how much information police are willing to share.
Amanda: I think it's hard for a lot of us to understand how could there possibly be somebody missing and that not be reported or connected to remains, but sometimes these cross state lines. And like you said, there are old cases where people just forget.
Todd: They do, and back in the day before the internet came, the internet is the thing that helped glue all of this together, where we can communicate so instantly.
Amanda: As you’ll hear, Todd’s phone constantly pings during our interview, that’s because he’s always getting messages from families of missing people and tipsters who think they might have a lead in one of his cases. It’s kind of overwhelming.
But it’s this kind of nexus of information that got the attention of federal authorities who thought Todd was onto something when he created the Doe Network.
Todd: You know, I had an opportunity in 2007 to help build NAMUS, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons database. So that was part of the working group. I thought I would have no place there whatsoever because these were PhDs. These are people struggling with human ID. And I thought, well, what am I going to bring to them?
Amanda: At first, he thought they just included him as a courtesy, because of the Tent Girl case. He may have been surrounded by PHDs, but he brought his real life experience to the table. And they were listening.
From the beginning, Todd’s goal in helping with this project was to encourage police to dust off all those old files in these cold cases that had been relegated to a back room, and pick the brains of the investigators who were still around, who still remembered the cases. And then include all of this information on the NAMUS website.
Todd: So you can't Google a filing cabinet. So unless there's a living knowledge of a missing or unidentified person's case, that's being communicated. You can't access it. I can't, I can't Google search your brain, but I can Google search things that you've written down or a story that you might’ve reported.
Amanda: Like Todd’s early website, NAMUS has information like the ethnicity, sex, possible age, where and when the remains were found. For example, I just popped into an entry from August of 2020. On August 13, a white male was found floating in the Cumberland River in Nashville, Tennessee. For other details – age, height, weight, it’s a pretty wide range, so there’s not too much to go on. But then I click on another one for an unidentified female skeleton that was discovered in the desert in Arizona on August 2, 2020. While there’s not a lot to go on as far as what she looked like, there is one major clue. The skeleton is wearing a reversible Cary, Illinois basketball league jersey with the number 54 on it. That’s pretty specific.
It’s details like this that Todd encouraged the creators of NAMUS to include.
Todd: And at the time sharing pictures was not the common, you know, it wasn't a common thing because the internet was still young back in those days. So it was just new, you know and it's normal today.
Amanda: Todd told them not to hold anything back, that every little detail was important when trying to identify someone, especially photos of the items found with the body. In the example I just referenced, a photo of the basketball jersey accompanies the entry.
Todd: So when I got there to the first working group meeting, uh, it was the sharing of the information I felt like they were having trouble with. Like, this is not just a gold ring with black stone. This is a 14 karat gold ring with a marcasite stone. And here's the picture of it.
Amanda: He had to convince investigators they weren’t hurting their cases by sharing too much.
Traditionally, detectives hold back some details of how a person died, or what was found on or around a body -- these are details only the killer may know about. They want to be able to trip suspects up if they bring them in for questioning, get the person to reveal something only they could know.
So, initially the investigators sitting around the table hesitated at the idea of sharing everything with NAMUS. But Todd convinced them that especially in these old cases, it really was more about identifying the remains than anything else.
Todd: It's been 30 years or 20 years since this person was found murdered, we could loosen up a little bit.
Amanda: Todd also encouraged NAMUS to create regional program specialists, people in each state who could develop relationships with local law enforcement so they could share information freely about these cold cases and unidentified remains, .making sure they didn’t fall through the cracks.
Todd: Sort of like the idea with Kentucky. I had to develop a relationship with Kentucky. So when I continued to work with them, um, that data sharing becomes easier cause you're calling people you knew and, uh, and they knew what you were calling them for was pertinent. And it was, it was something very relevant to what they were looking at and they've come to trust you.
Amanda: NAMUS.gov has become the go-to federal clearinghouse for solving cold cases in the country.
It’s funded and run by the National Institute of Justice. And when you consider the fact that about 4,400 unidentified remains are discovered in the U.S. every year, and 1,000 of those are still unidentified a year later, NAMUS is essential to keeping track of all these cases.
And it’s a crucial resource for medical examiners, investigators and the families of missing people trying to find answers and share what they know. Anyone can register with the website and access the information for free. The idea is that the more eyes on this information, the better chance someone will connect the dots.
And so far, the website has helped solve thousands of cases.
Amanda: Todd, a former automobile part factory worker from Tennessee changed the way we handle these cases nationally through NAMUS.
He’s pretty humble about all this. Todd mostly gives the internet credit for creating a gateway to widely share this information. He also gives credit to advances in DNA technology and the scientists that made it all that possible. Because realistically, many of the unidentified people are murder victims. And even if a family member identifies someone on NAMUS or the Doe Network, that identity still needs to be confirmed scientifically, through DNA.
Todd: So forensic science and evidence is very, very important to actually prove it. Like we all knew who Tent Girl was in our hearts immediately. The pieces just fit together. It's just proving it scientifically was the big deal.
Amanda: Suffice it to say that 17-year-old boy who just couldn’t let the details of this one unidentified woman go has never stopped trying to solve these cases. He’s trying to find answers and identify new tools, technology or science that may help.
He chalks it all up to good old country boy ingenuity:
Todd: We're fixers here. I think, I think a lot of times, if there's something broke, you kinda…we've always had a need to kind of fix it.
Amanda: On the next episode of What Remains… a relentless detective works for 20 years to solve the case of the boy found dead under a billboard.
Tim Horne, Detective: As he mowed around the edge of the field, around the, the, a sign, he noticed something white in the edge of the woods and he stopped and looked and it was a skull.
Amanda: This episode of What Remains was written by me, Amanda Lamb, and produced by Anita Normanly. Our executive producer was Wilson Sayre who also edited the episode with mixing from Marc Maximov. What Remains was directed by Shelly Leslie. Please subscribe to our podcast on whatever app you use. That makes it easier for us to get you the latest episode. Thanks so much for listening.