Georgetown, OH -- Feb. 13, 2001 -- State Highway Patrol Trooper Toby Via swallowed hard, staring at the shallow waters of Straight Creek and the severed head of a teenage girl who would haunt this small rural town for the next 24 years.
A few minutes earlier on that June 11, 1977, day, four boys who had been fishing the creek had frantically flagged down Via's cruiser as it approached the U.S. 68 bridge.
They led Via and Sgt. Wayne Vessels to a spot near the bridge where the boys had found horror instead of bluegills and bass - a sight Via would later describe as one of the worst in his 25-year patrol career.
"It was all bloated up to about the size of a basketball," the retired trooper recently recalled. "I assume whoever did it was driving over the bridge and just flipped it out the window."
Seventeen days later and 18 miles distant, two boys camping near Ohio 125 in an adjoining county found the matching, headless body of a 16- year-old girl lying just off the highway.
The disappearance of Cheryl Fossyl, a Georgetown High School junior missing for 24 days, had been solved. It was later determined that she had been beaten to death, then decapitated.
But discovery of her body only partially eased the fears of this close-knit farming community 45 miles southeast of Cincinnati.
Then, as now, the question remained: Who killed Cheryl Fossyl?
Whatever scar that may have healed over this ragged wound of uncertainty during the last 24 years was ripped open when newly elected Brown County Sheriff Dwayne Wenninger announced he was reopening the case.
Wenninger said a deathbed confession by a woman who said she saw Fossyl killed led to two suspects still living in the area. But no charges have been brought against the men, since the case is still under investigation, and no names of anyone involved in the slaying have been released.
Nevertheless, the sheriff's announcement rekindled many of the old fears and suspicions that swept Georgetown two dozen years ago in the wake of the slaying.
Only this time, people have been told that Fossyl was killed not by some crazed, anonymous outsider but conceivably by two of their own.
"Not knowing who did it, that's the worst thing, both then and now," said Kathy Vessels of Georgetown.
"We may be living among them. They may even be our friends. You just don't know," she added. "You're looking with a jaundiced eye at everybody now. It's a strange situation."
And once again, people are not only wondering who, but why?
"Things like that just don't happen around here," said Donna Sowers of Georgetown. "You think of something like that happening in the city, not in a quiet little town like this.
"It's a story you just can't believe when you hear it."
She wanted something more' Twenty-three years ago, Georgetown was a community of about 3,000 people in Ohio's tobacco heartland. Things were pretty much the way things had always been since the village was established as the Brown County seat in 1824.
Here, God and country meet. There are a nearly equal number of churches and farm equipment dealers. Apple joins Cherry and Main streets on the town square of hardware, sundry and barber shops. Houses come with a front-porch neighborliness of rocking chairs and wooden bench swings.
In other words, this was a good place to escape from in 1977 - if you were a local teenager coping with the kind of problems and possibilities, from drugs to sexuality, that you thought your grandparents never knew or even dared whisper.
"The further you got away from town, the better. We knew all the back roads and hideouts," Roger Parker, 41, recalled. "We'd go down to the creek and have a bonfire or a party, just sit around and talk, or walk in the woods, throw some rocks, go swimming."
There were drugs, mostly marijuana, and alcohol, too, "but not like anyone getting falling-down drunk," Parker said.
Above all, there was a bond between teens that Parker believes may have contributed to the slaying of Cheryl Fossyl, his classmate. "I think Cheryl's downfall was that she was too trusting of the society we had back then, here in the country."
He remembered her as a quiet, popular girl. She was an average student who "could've been better, but she put more focus into friendships and belonging, being cool."
And yet, "she wanted something more for herself." Parker said that may be why Fossyl was taking law enforcement courses at a vocational school.
"She would've been good at it, too," he said. "She was a small girl, maybe 120 pounds soaking wet, but she had good street smarts."
Apparently not good enough, however.
Capt. Barry Creighton, chief of detectives, outlined what the Sheriff's Department believes happened:
Fossyl was taken to an unknown location in the countryside by two local women and two men who thought she was going to turn them in for some drug activity.
After Fossyl was beaten to death and an attempt made to decapitate her with some kind of sharp object, her feet were tied to a tree, a chain wrapped around her neck and hitched to a car, and her head pulled off.
"They wanted to make it look like some weird cult did it, and get it [the crime] off their backs," Creighton said. "The girls were watching, fearing for their own lives. They didn't interfere, but nevertheless, they were in for the long ride, you know."
Everyone, as it turned out, was in for a long ride.
It was easier not to think about it' "Truth has only to change hands a few times before it becomes fiction," warns the sign outside the Georgetown Church of the Nazarene.
And it didn't take long for the scant details of Cheryl Fossyl's slaying to become the stuff of whispered speculation - then and now.
Some locals suspect that "big money people" with power and influence were somehow connected to the killing, a cover-up or both.
Some claim to know the suspects, describing them as respectable family men, but say no more. As one resident remarked, "This is a close-mouthed town, and I wouldn't even dare to say who was involved."
In 1977, rumors were fueled by fear and the sheer brutality of the killing.
"Killing her was one thing, but doing what they did afterward was just cruel, that's all," said Donna Sowers. "For a long time, people were really scared. They wouldn't let their kids out to do anything."
Small children told tales of a headless ghost haunting Straight Creek. "As a kid, I'd always be scared going across that bridge," said Joe Vaughn, 30, who works at the same local funeral home that had handled Fossyl's memorial service.
Fossyl was survived by her mother (since deceased) and two sisters and two brothers who no longer live in Georgetown.
After the slaying, teen bonfire parties in the countryside became a thing of the past among Fossyl's classmates, who started socializing closer to home.
"You didn't know who to trust," Parker explained. "Everybody thought the killer was someone in the area, that Cheryl just wasn't some random victim."
But, "in time, people forgot about it," he said. "Parents started letting their kids back out again, but it was never like it used to be. The town had changed a lot."
Pat Donaldson-Mills of Georgetown said people tried to return to a sense of normalcy. "It was easier not to think about it. You didn't hear a lot of hue and cry, We have got to have the answers.'
"It got buried."
It wasn't Jack the Ripper' Yet the case didn't die with Fossyl.
Gary Wise, current director of criminal justice instruction at the same vocational school Fossyl once attended, briefly reinvestigated the slaying when he was a sheriff's deputy in 1984.
"There wasn't a whole lot of the original interviews or information to be found," Wise said. But he unearthed enough to convince him that "somebody within our own community got away with this."
Four years later, one of the women who witnessed Fossyl's slaying was killed, struck by a car while walking along a Houston interstate highway. Houston police determined that the death was accidental.
The other woman at the Fossyl slaying scene moved to Florida. Creighton believes she may have heard of the woman's death in Houston, and fearing for her own life, went into hiding. In 1995, dying of cancer, she contacted the Sheriff's Department and confessed to what she had seen when Fossyl was killed.
That confession was a key part of Sheriff Wenninger's decision to take another look at the case - one of three unsolved homicides he reopened, from a county that averages about one a year.
Wenninger said it was also the most wrenching for a community where everybody knows everybody else, or thought they did. "It's a sad thing to think that someone you might know was capable of doing this, and living in this county now for the past 24 years," he said.
Though the sheriff said the department might not have had the manpower, expertise or technology at the time to deal with Fossyl's slaying, he wondered why the woman's confession was apparently shelved for six years.
"Nobody did anything with it, didn't take time to follow up on it, and that's amazing to me," he said.
Creighton said one of the men named in that confession recently failed a polygraph test. The suspect then claimed he did not participate in the killing, but he did implicate the two women and the other man whom Creighton said was questioned and refused to take a polygraph test.
The investigation will continue, but Creighton noted, "I'm 100 percent comfortable with who we suspect, for various reasons."
He added, "Even if for some reason we have to stop right where we're at and can't bring this to trial [for lack of evidence], Brown County will know who did it - that it wasn't Jack the Ripper or some unknown weirdo who's still out there killing people."
It may be some comfort to a town divided over dragging a death from the past, into the present.
"I'm sure it would bring closure to the family and friends of the girl, and us, as a community, who may not be blood relatives, but we can certainly feel for her," Kathy Vessels said. "She didn't have a chance to grow up, didn't get a chance to have a life, and that's sad."
Gloria Parker, a Georgetown Village Council member, said: "People just want to get it settled. Resolving this would be a big help to get our little town back in order."
Leave the past in the past, countered Ruth Salisbury, 77, who lives not far from where Fossyl's body was discovered. "After all these years, what good is it going to do? It'll only bring more heartache and sorrow to the people involved. I don't think it's going to resolve anything."
That's what Roger Parker fears most. "My biggest concern is that they'll bring all this back up, then drop the ball because there's not enough evidence and let it fade away again," he said.
And while Georgetown remembers or tries to forget, guesses at suspects and conspiracies, Cheryl Fossyl lies beneath a stone that bears a birthday but no death day, decorated with red plastic flowers to match the inscription, "The rose still grows beyond the wall."
Parker provided his own epitaph for his former classmate - "She was my buddy, and it's a shame she's much better known dead than alive."
Dec. 18, 2001 -- The 24-year mystery of who killed and decapitated 16-year-old Cheryl Fossyl will once again confront residents of this small town when the remains of the high school junior are exhumed today.
Capt. Barry Creighton, chief of detectives of the Brown County Sheriff's Department, said the body was being exhumed for an autopsy and collection of DNA samples - procedures not performed before Cheryl was buried in 1977.
The case was reopened in January by newly elected Sheriff Dwayne Wenninger, who hoped to find new evidence based on a deathbed confession made six years ago by a woman who said she had seen Cheryl killed. The woman implicated two others still living in the area, which is southeast of Cincinnati.
Based on that confession, the Sheriff's Department believes Cheryl was taken to a remote location in the countryside by two local women and two men who thought she was going to turn them in for drug activity. At the time, Cheryl was taking law-enforcement courses at a vocational school.
Cheryl was beaten to death and decapitated in an attempt to make the slaying appear cult-re lated, Creighton said. The head was later tossed from a highway overpass into a stream and the torso dumped along the road in an adjoining county.
Creighton said investigators are seeking DNA sam ples from under Cheryl's fingernails - "she may have scratched someone while fighting off the attack" - and additional evidence from other wounds. The DNA will be compared with samples from the two local suspects, by court order if necessary, he said.
The two women allegedly involved in the murder have since died. Cheryl was survived by her mother, now deceased, two sisters and two brothers.
Creighton was optimistic about the latest development. "We'll just keep our fingers crossed," he said.
The exhumation also gave some hope to one of Cheryl's former classmates, Roger Parker.
"I know it's kind of a gruesome task, and I feel sorry for the family," he said. "But if it helps prove once and for all who did this, or ultimately leads to the killers, I think it's a good thing."
Aug. 21, 2002 -- A special grand jury looking into the death of a 16-year-old girl 25 years ago has ended its investigation without issuing indictments.
Cheryl Fossyls decapitated body was found in a creek in Brown County in southwest Ohio on June 11, 1977. Her head had been found about two weeks earlier in another creek several miles away.
The passage of time, exposure to the elements and decomposition of the body handcuffed the investigation from the start, said Mark Piepmeier, a Hamilton County assistant prosecutor who served as one of two special prosecutors in the grand jury investigation.
He said Tuesday that Fossyl was killed on or about June 4, 1977.
Officials with the Brown County Sheriffs Office reopened the investigation last year, and the grand jury began reviewing evidence on May 8.
In February 2001, sheriffs officials said that a 1998 deathbed confession had given them new leads in the slaying. They said that a dying woman admitted her involvement and named another woman and two men.
The grand jury met six times over the past few months and heard testimony from 40 people, including coroners, forensic experts, police investigators and anyone thought to have information in the case.
The grand jury, while not exonerating anyone, determined there was insufficient evidence to return any indictments.
There was no forensic evidence developed to link anyone to this crime, no known living eyewitnesses and no one came forward to confess, Piepmeier said. As a result there was little solid evidence for the grand jurors to rely on.
Brown County Sheriff Dwayne Wenninger said Tuesday that his office went as far as it could with the evidence available. He urged anyone who may have information and has not come forward to do so.
Although the special grand jury investigation into the death of Cheryl Fossyl is closed, there is no statute of limitation on murder, he said.