IRONTON, Ohio — Thirty-eight years after being killed and tossed into a cistern to be forgotten, Louise Virginia Peterson Flesher — known for decades as "Belle in the Well" — has finally regained her identity, thanks to evolving forensic science technology and Lawrence County authorities' never-wavering goal of solving the case.
"Belle in the Well," also known as the Chesapeake Jane Doe, is the name given to the strangled woman found in a cistern, a watertight receptacle for holding liquids, along McKinney Creek and Greasy Ridge in Windsor Township in Lawrence County on April 22, 1981. Her body was likely in the cistern for no more than two years before she was found.
After three decades, it took the DNA Doe Project 14 months of research and DNA testing to identify Flesher after extensively researching her family tree. The Familial DNA testing, which uses genetic material from relatives to identify family members, is a fairly new forensic practice, and was brought into the spotlight last year when it was used to identify California's Golden State Killer.
The next step, investigators and distant relatives said, is to figure out more about Flesher and what led to her demise.
A life reborn
Flesher was born June 16, 1915, in Fair View, West Virginia, near Clarksburg. Authorities believe she lived there for five years before moving to Kanawha County. The next record is of her living in Casper and Cheyenne, Wyoming, between 1933 and 1942. Flesher returned to West Virginia by 1944 and lived in Parkersburg until at least 1956.
She was killed in Chesapeake, Ohio, sometime between 1979 and 1981. Her husband, Donald Benjamin Flesher, died in Bel-pre, Ohio, in 1992.
She had three daughters, one of whom died in 1959. The remaining two daughters, now about ages 83 and 79, live in Wyoming.
That's all authorities knew of her life as of Monday, but they're hoping to learn more.
Lawrence County Sheriff Jeff Lawless said the case remains an active investigation and police are searching for leads. He asked Monday for the public to come forward with any information they might have about Flesher's life, including pictures of her.
The only one investigators have comes from her mid-1930s Wyoming high school yearbook, which was purchased on e-Bay. Volunteers believe she might have been on the high school's swim team, just from pictures from the yearbook alone, but that is pure speculation.
The Belle in the Well
"Belle" had been weighed down by a cinder block tied to a rope around her neck. An autopsy determined she had died from strangulation, not from drowning, Lawless previously said. She was found wearing a pair of gray flannel pants and a lightweight shirt under a gray pullover, along with a red cable-nit cardigan sweater, with rubber bands on her wrists.
Authorities found in her possession a key to a locker at the 4th Avenue Greyhound terminal in Huntington, a bus ticket, a pay stub and a Jerry Falwell commemorative coin.
Early in the investigation, authorities believed she could have been a victim of a Charleston area motorcycle group since she had elastic bands around her wrists similar to what some motorcyclists wear to keep clothing from flapping. They also said the spot where she had been found was a popular hangout for motorcyclists at the time.
But now identified as having died while in her 60s, investigators aren't so sure.
A team effort
The Belle in the Well case was Lawrence County Coroner Investigator Bill Nenni's first. His father, Dr. Harry Nenni, was the coroner at the time she was found. It has always been on the back of his mind with hopes he would one day solve it.
"This is probably why I ended up going to work at the (...) coroner's office, because they had no one to actually investigate this case," he said.
Now that he met that goal, he isn't sure what to do with his time.
"I spent so many years of not knowing, that I guess when you tell me who she is, it's like, it's alien to me. I don't know how to describe that," he said. "I go to bed at night and I think, 'Jeez. I know who this is and I've wondered that my whole life. Now that's changed and I need a new purpose.'"
Flesher's condition by the time she was found left little DNA to be tested. A single molar tooth was what authorities used to link her to her daughter.
The case was closed until 2009 when forensic anthropologist Elizabeth Murry, of Mount. St. Joseph University and a consultant for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), reached out to Bill Nenni about reopening the case.
Her body was exhumed in June 2011 and X-rays and dental exams helped complete a facial reconstruction.
The case remained silent until February 2017 when Murray met Collen Fitzpat-rick during a conference and learned of the newly forming DNA Doe Project's use of forensic genetic genealogy to make identifications.
The group took on the case and solved it within months, using GEDmatch, a public genetic genealogy database. The database showed her family was most likely from the Huntington area, but heavy intermarriage among her families made identifying her difficult.
Flesher's name came up first in March 2018, but investigators thought she was too old and moved on. Another facial reconstruction was released in May 2018 by then-Attorney General Mike DeWine.
In February 2019, the DNA Doe Project tentatively identified Flesher, and it was confirmed this month after DNA was obtained from her youngest daughter.
The DNA Doe Project estimates the 14-month journey consisted of more than 30 volunteers who dedicated more than 10,000 hours to the case. Testing and research cost them about $3,440.
A family found
Flesher's immediate family is estranged and did not want to participate publicly in the case.
Nenni said Flesher's youngest daughter believed he was trying to scam her when he originally called, but eventually agreed to the testing after seeing how dedicated he was to the case.
Paula Solar, of Huntington, a distant relative of Flesher, attended Monday's press conference to learn more about the case. Solar is a member of a Facebook group focusing on her family's genealogy, which helps about 75 members figure out their family tree.
The group had been contacted by DNA Doe Project member Margaret Press, who asked its members with help in identifying the Belle, but left out the details of her significance.
"I was just totally blown away, because I never looked at genealogy as helping solve a cold case," Solar said.
For the next few weeks, Solar said the group will be abuzz with people trying to find out more information about Flesher to help the investigation.
Flesher is currently buried in an undisclosed location on private land.
Solar said she believes there should be some type of memorial stone on her grave, if the owner of the land would allow it. Nenni was against it, stating he believed vagrants would damage the site or any memorial while thrill seeking.
Several questions remain
The biggest questions that remain are who killed Flesher, how she was killed and how she ended up in the cistern. Other questions remain, too.
David Marcum, of the Lawrence County Prosecutor's Office, said while prosecution on the case is unlikely, authorities still want to know the truth.
The original case files have not been found and Nenni said the memory of the original case investigators did not match each other.
The locker key found on Flesher opened a locker containing clothing, bus tickets and family photos, one investigator told him. The other said by the time they got there, it had been cleared. Nenni said without evidence telling him otherwise, he believes the latter.
The DNA Doe Project has solved about a dozen cases nationally, five of which come from Ohio, but the future success for the group is uncertain, as the main genealogy database it uses — GED Match — has automatically switched its users to opt out of their DNA being used for law enforcement investigations.
They solved Flesher's case shortly before the change happened.
Without about a million users going into their accounts and selecting to opt in, it would be nearly impossible to solve cases like Belle in the Well, officials with the DNA Doe Project said.
Anyone with information about the case can contact the sheriffs office at 740-532-3525.
Follow reporter Courtney Hes-sler at Facebook.com/CHessler-HD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.
HUNTINGTON — An interstate widening project in Cabell County announced last week is just part of the greater overall goal of widening the entire stretch of Interstate 64 from Huntington to Charleston, highway officials said Monday.
About 2.5 miles of road from just past the Huntington Mall to the Guyandotte River will be widened from four to eight lanes as part of the $71.7 million project, along with the replacement of five bridges. The project will begin next summer, with an estimated end date in 2022.
Heading west, the project begins about half a mile before the West Mall Road exit, replacing the bridge that crosses over the Mud River. From there, the bridge over East Mall Road, the bridge over Mud River Road, the bridge over Wild Cat Road and the bridge over Big Ben Bowen Highway will all be replaced and widened. The project ends just before the Guyandotte River bridge, just after the Merritt's Creek exit.
In the near future, the Guyandotte River bridge to the 29th Street exit — where the road widens again — will be widened, said Brent Walker, director of communications for the West Virginia Department of Transportation. According to estimates on the DOT's website, this portion would be widened to six lanes.
Walker said a traffic study was conducted, which determined this stretch of the interstate needed to be widened. While the goal is to expand all of I-64 to six lanes, it was determined the portion around the mall would be better served with eight lanes because of the amount of traffic and the exit and entrance ramps.
The project, awarded to Triton Construction Inc. of Nitro, was originally going to be paid for with the general obligation bonds voters approved as part of the governor's Roads to Prosperity project, but the state received federal funding.
DOT Secretary Byrd White told a joint
legislative committee on transportation and infrastructure last week the federal funding freed up bond money, which can be used for other Road for Prosperity projects.
The first round of bonds went to market in June 2018, bringing in $913 million to the state for road projects. Most of the projects slated for the first round of bonds are underway or complete, like the repaving of I-64 from Milton to U.S. 35.
The two biggest projects, however, were held up because of too-high first bids. The St. Albans-Nitro bridge and the Wheeling bridge will be put back up for bid in August, White told legislators.
The St. Albans project will expand the interstate, including the bridge, to six lanes from Scott Depot to Nitro.
Last week, the Legislature passed two resolutions authorizing the state to move forward with the second round of bonds.
Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.
CHARLESTON — Five members of the West Virginia House of Delegates want Attorney General Patrick Morrisey to reserve funds from a $37 million opioid settlement for substance abuse prevention and treatment.
In the letter dated July 29, the bipartisan group of delegates asked Morrisey to hold onto his office's portion of the settlement long enough to allow legislators to use the money to combat the substance abuse epidemic in West Virginia.
Delegate Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, chairman of the House Committee on Prevention and Treatment of Substance Abuse, signed the letter. He said Monday afternoon that he wants to see more state money going to programs targeting substance abuse prevention and preventative services.
"I feel strongly that the moneys recovered on behalf of the taxpayers in the state of West Virginia in regard to settlement from opioid litigation should go into helping us combat the opioid problem," said Rohrbach, a Huntington physician. "I think the taxpayers expect nothing less."
Morrisey announced a $37 million settlement with McKesson Corp. in May for the pharmaceutical company's role in the state's opioid epidemic.
After $4.85 million in attorneys' fees is taken out, the money is being split three ways, among the Attorney General's Office, the Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.
This year, McKesson paid an initial $14.5 million to West Virginia. The attorneys' fees were paid from that, and each of the three state agencies got $3.2 million.
Each year, from 2020 through 2024, McKesson will pay the state $4.5 million. The DHHR, DMAPS and the Attorney General's Office will get $1.5 million from the settlement each of those years.
To-date, $3.2 million from the McKesson settlement has been approved to purchase body and X-ray scanners for regional jails and prisons in West Virginia.
"These funds must not be spent on administrative costs; they must be used to combat the drug epidemic that our state is facing due to the actions of the pharmaceutical companies who have caused this plague on our communities," the delegates said the letter.
In addition to Rohrbach, Delegates Mark Dean, R-Mingo; Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette; Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell; and Andrew Robinson, D-Kanawha, signed the letter.
Last month, a federal judge ordered that U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency opioid shipment data from 2006 to 2012 be made public, after HD Media, which owns the Gazette-Mail and the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, and The Washington Post filed lawsuits to access the information.
The data showed drug companies shipped 76 billion pain pills throughout the country, during a time when the
highest per capita death rates nationwide from opioids were in rural communities in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia, The Post reported.
"The attorney general can hand out pamphlets at football games, and that's all well and good, but what we need are effective, proven results and data-driven models of prevention, treatment, law enforcement and other measures," Robinson said Monday. "I don't think the attorney general has that power within his office to do it like the Legislature would be able to do."
During a meeting with editors of The Charleston Gazette during his campaign in 2012, Morrisey said that, as attorney general, he would ensure that all settlement funds go into the state's general revenue fund, to be appropriated by the governor and Legislature.
"We look forward to working with the Legislature and the Governor to return the monies from our record-breaking McKesson settlement to the state and ensure that these dollars are used to attack the drug epidemic holistically," said Curtis Johnson, a spokesman for the attorney general's office. "We must attack this problem from a supply, demand and educational perspective, and address the many treatment and enforcement needs of our state.
"No state in the country has currently realized more settlement monies from wholesalers than West Virginia — $84 million to date. Our efforts, which include broad litigation within the pharmaceutical supply chain and against the DEA, are beginning to pay off as prescribing for legal pain pills has declined 51 percent since 2013. Yet, our state must still do much more to stop senseless death in West Virginia."
In May, Kessinger and Robinson sent a letter to Morrisey, asking that the Attorney General's Office's portion of the funds be deposited into the Ryan Brown Addiction Prevention and Recovery Fund. Lawmakers established the fund in 2017 to identify and meet the need for beds in substance abuse treatment centers throughout the state.
Earlier this year, the House passed House Bill 2991, which would have required that money received by Morrisey's office from settlements reached with drug manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers be placed in the Ryan Brown Fund. The bill died before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Reach Lacie Pierson at email@example.com, 304-348-1723 or follow @laciepierson on Twitter.
"The attorney general can hand out pamphlets at football games, and that's all well and good, but what we need are effective, proven results."
Delegate Andrew Robinson
"I feel strongly that the moneys recovered on behalf of the taxpayers in the state of West Virginia in regard to settlement from opioid litigation should go into helping us combat the opioid problem."
Delegate Matt Rohrbach