A fifteen-year-old cheerleader is murdered in a desolate cemetery

Jessica Keen

Jessica Keen

On March 16, 1991, a Madison County, Ohio, teenager was abducted and raped.  Her clothes had been torn off.  But somehow she escaped into a cemetery, only to end up hiding behind tombstones.  She attempted to flee the graveyard, but in the pitch-black she smashed into a fence post.  Once her assailants caught up with her, they struck her in the face with a blunt object and left her to die.  Her name was Jessica Lyn Keen and she was only 15-years-old.  Later, investigators were able to pinpoint Jessica’s final moments based on clues in and around the crime scene.  There was mud on the fence, a sock that belonged to her, and an impression of her knee in the ground. But the police didn’t have a clue why anyone wanted to kill her.

The gruesome murder of Jessica Lyn Keen has baffled local and state detectives for years. Jessica had been a popular cheerleader, an honor student and a talented performer.  According to her mother, Rebecca, Jessica had many goals and dreams:

“Jessica, idealistically, would have loved to have been a singer, an actress.  I guess, realistically, Jessica loved animals and wanted to go to college to be a zoologist.”

In high school, Jessica’s life began to have its ups and downs.  It had to do with being a teenager and with meeting her first love, 18-year-old Shawn Thompson.  Jessica’s relationship with Shawn was new and exciting.  But according to her mother, the romance began to distract Jessica from her schoolwork:

“I had forbidden her to see Shawn. I said you can’t see him till your grades come up.  And as far as her going to college, she knew she’d have to keep a good grade average in order to get a scholarship. And her grades started dropping. She had skipped school a couple times to be with Shawn.  And of course, she was threatening, ‘I don’t want to live with you anymore.’  But I knew I had to do something.”

Her body was found in a cemetery

Her body was found in a cemetery

Arguments between Jessica and her mother escalated.  They both knew they needed a cooling-off period.  Mother and daughter mutually decided that Jessica should spend two weeks at a local live-in counseling center for teenagers.  On March 15th, the day before she was to move back home, and just hours before she died, Jessica spoke to Shawn.  According to Special Agent Gregg Costas of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Jessica became upset:

“Jessica and Shawn ended up getting into an argument that day on the telephone, at which point they broke up.  Numerous people witnessed this telephone call and said that Jessica was very, visibly upset.”

After the call, Jessica told a friend that she was going to the mall.  She was last seen at a bus stop near the counseling center at 6:00 PM.  It was there that Special Agent Costas suspected that Jessica was abducted:

“There is a chance that maybe it was somebody who Jessica kind of knew—maybe wasn’t really good friends with, but familiar enough with them to trust them enough to get into the car… Not knowing what would ultimately happen.”

Jessica’s body was found 42 hours later, 20 miles from the bust stop.  Investigators believed that after Jessica was abducted, she was held captive for at least six hours.  Based on a semen sample, Special Agent Costas believed she was raped between two and four hours before her escape from the car:

“I don’t think she had any idea at the time that she was actually climbing into a cemetery to hide.  But at that point, that was her only means for getting away from whoever was chasing her. This is the area where the crime scene investigators found one of Jessica’s socks. She obviously lost it while she was running.”

This sock matched the one on Jessica’s foot

This sock matched the one on Jessica’s foot

According to Special Agent Costas, the sock that was found matched the one that remained on Jessica’s foot:

“We do know that she hid behind this headstone. That was based on the crime scene investigators who found her knee print in the soft ground behind the headstone. We are pretty certain that Jessica saw the light on from the farmhouse.  And that’s what she turned to run for when she collided with the fence post in the back of the cemetery.  Because it’s so dark out here at night—she was not able to see the fence back here and collided with this fence post. Once she collided with the fence post, she knocked herself down, and at that point, her assailants were able to catch up with her.  This is the spot where she was ultimately killed… I’ve never been so passionate about anything that I’ve ever worked on in my life. The thought of this young girl, 15 years old, who had such a bright future, being murdered in such a horrible, horrible fashion, you cannot help but want to do everything humanly possible to find out who did this.”

Sheriffs in Madison County turned their attention to Jessica’s boyfriend, but Shawn Thompson wasn’t in Columbus.  He had left for Florida with some friends.  According to Sheriff Stephen Saltsman, Shawn and his friends were eventually returned to Ohio:

“Shawn was questioned. The friends that had gone with him were also questioned.  And through the questioning, examination of physical evidence, we all but eliminated the boyfriend and the friends.”

DNA evidence from the semen sample did not match Shawn or the others.  The group was cleared of any wrongdoing.  But for investigators, an entire week had been lost.  The trail of the actual killer or killers had grown cold.  Still Jessica’s death never stopped haunting her mother:

“What they did to her, the fear that Jessica felt, she would do anything to get away.  And I can feel her heartbeat, running through the cemetery.  I can feel the deep breathing she was probably doing when she knelt behind the tombstone.  I can hear her praying.  And I realize that that was the worst thing that I believe anyone could go through.”


Seventeen years to the day that Jessica Keen was murdered, authorities match DNA from her case to a convicted felon name Marvin Lee Smith, Jr.  He is currently in custody in Ohio, awaiting trial.