(This is my non-fiction essay that was previously published several years ago about a young woman who was murdered in my hometown. The case was never solved. She was abducted on March 10, 1977, and so I’m publishing it again, today, the 39th anniversary of her disappearance.)
I have only slept with the lights on three times in my life. The first time I was seven and having nightmares about Bigfoot. Actually, it was a commercial for a movie that scared me. In the commercial, Bigfoot crashed his arm through someone’s living room window and tried to grab a woman sitting on a coach. I can still see her long straight hair whipping around as she jumped. I woke up screaming, sweating, snot running down my face. For some reason my mother made me drink grape juice from a silver cup to calm me down. The second time I had to sleep with the lights on was after seeing The Shining. I heard noises and was sure Jack Nicholson was outside my bedroom door. I turned on the light and waited for Jack to come limping through the doorway, smiling with an ax over his shoulder. That time I didn’t scream. I woke myself up, once again sweating, with snot running down my face. The third time I had to sleep with the lights on was while writing this essay about Sharon Blankenbeckler.
I didn’t know her. And besides, I was busy in the spring of 1977. I had just turned eleven on March 17th and as usual Aunt May brought me a colossal chocolate cake with green candles (green for St. Patrick’s Day). My friends and I rode our bikes all over our hometown of Chilhowie, Virginia. There was nothing for us to be afraid of as we glided down every street, walked through every backyard and cut across every cornfield. We watched John Belushi on Saturday Night Live and Heart on The Midnight Special. We owned Rumors by Fleetwood Mac. There were no strangers in Chilhowie. It’s population was around two thousand, and everyone knew everyone. We were all family, related one way or another. Everyone went to church. In particular, there were loads of Baptists. When they forced us to square dance in gym class, several of the kids sat on the bleachers with notes saying it was against their religion. Teenagers pulled their cars next to each other in the Tastee-Freeze parking lot, talked and passed beer and joints between them. Any road you took out of Chilhowie would lead you to the countryside–beautiful green rolling pastures, farms, apple orchards and the mountains. We were surrounded the Appalachians. The word Chilhowie is Cherokee for “Valley of ManyDeer.” On the first day of deer hunting season, the schools were vacant. Then, later in the day, vehicles rolled back into town with deer tied stiff to their roofs. It was hard to keep a secret in Chilhowie. Everyone made it their business to know everything. I knew a guy who got his girlfriend pregnant, and people called him every day demanding to know what he intended to do about it.
Smyth County News 3/31/77
MISSING – Sharon Ann Blankenbeckler of Chilhowie has been missing since March 10.She was last seen at the K-Mart parking lot in Marion at approximately 2:30 p.m.
A white 20-year-old female, she has long brown hair and blue eyes, weighs 108pounds and is 5’4” tall. Anyone having information concerning Ms. Blankenbeckler isasked to call the Smyth County Sheriff’s Department, Marion…
Sharon Blankenbeckler was much older than me. She was twenty, which normally would have seemed ancient to an eleven year old, but under the circumstances she seemed young. At least that is what everyone kept repeating, “she is so young.” There was talk among the adults mostly. One person insisted that she was fine and had eloped with an older man. Another source said she had run away. At any rate, there was no panic. It was the subject of many conversations because people don’t just vanish, but everyone seemed convinced she would turn up fine. Weeks went by and the talk subsided. Chilhowie had other problems. We had a horrible flood. The black people who “lived down by the tracks” had to be evacuated. Many black families stayed at the Methodist church just up the street from my house. One girl told me about rats and water snakes that floated by as her family waded out of their house with clothes and photos over their heads. The water subsided and exposed the roads damaged by the flood, cracked and buckled.
Smyth County News 4/12/77
Local Girl Found Dead
The body of Sharon Blankenbeckler, missing since Mar. 10, was found Fridaymorning near Highway 16 on Walker’s Mountain.
According to Sheriff Billy J. Dolinger, the body was sent to Roanoke, where thecause of death was determined by an autopsy, and where identification of the body wasmade.
According to the autopsy, Miss Blankenbeckler, 20, had been strangled and herbody left on the mountain about a month.
Described by friends and family as a quiet girl, Miss Blankenbeckler had beenreported as missing Mar. 10 after leaving her home that day to apply for a job at the K-Mart store in Marion. Her car was found abandoned on the shopping center parking lot that night with a flat tire, but police officers said there was no evidence of the tire being punctured. There were no reports of anyone seeing the girl leave the lot, nor of anyone suspicious being around her car, policemen said.
Her whereabouts remained a mystery until Howard Buchanan of Rich Valley,riding in the back of a truck on Highway 16 Thursday, thought he spotted somethingalongside the road. He returned around 7:30 a.m. Friday and found the body.
The body was on the north side of Walker’s Mountain, about .3 of a mile from the top ofthe mountain. Sheriff Dolinger said the body was 12 to 15 feet from the shoulder of theroad and was lying face down, head first down the mountain, indicating it had beenshoved from a moving vehicle.
When Miss Blankenbeckler was found, her hands had been tied behind her back and a rope was around her neck, said the sheriff. The autopsy report …showed the body was still fully clothed and revealed no signs of assault.
…the Smyth County Sheriff’s Department said an investigation into the matter is
Everything changed. The town exploded with talk.
First, it was said that a teenager, who had lived at the foster home on Old Stage Road, confessed to killing her. I used to spend time there playing with the sons of the people who took care of the foster home. It was an eleven year old girl’s dream: enormous fish tanks, an air hockey game and permissive parents. I knew the kid everyone was talking about. He was sixteen or seventeen and used to play really rough with us younger kids. I was scared of him and didn’t stop at the foster home when I saw him sitting on the front porch steps. As it turned out, this kid was in jail in another state at the time of the murder. No one could figure out why he would confess to such a crime. Some said he confessed because he had been “bewitched.”
Many claimed Sharon had died at the hands of Chilhowie’s very own serialkiller, Lem Tuggle. While on parole for the 1971 strangulation of a 17-year-old girl, Tuggle raped, sodomized and shot a woman, Jessie Havens, after he met her at a dance at the American Legion Hall. But Lem Tuggle couldn’t have been the murderer. He had only been out of prison four months when he killed Jessie Havens in 1983. He was in prison in 1977 when Sharon was killed. Tuggle was put to death by lethal injection on December 12, 1996. His last words were, “Merry Christmas.”
Smyth County News 4/14/77
An investigation into the murder of Sharon Blankenbeckler is continuing, SheriffBilly J. Dolinger said Wednesday. Sheriff Dolinger said he had no new developmentswhich could be reported at that time, but added the mystery was beginning to unravel.
Dolinger said rumors that other bodies had been found in the county were justthat–rumors. He said another woman who had been reported missing turned up recently unharmed.
The body of Miss Blankenbeckler was found Friday on Walker’s Mountain, where it had been for about a month. She had been strangled to death.
One school of thought was that Sharon had been killed by a prominent local businessman. Supposedly, he was having an affair with Sharon, and had gotten her pregnant. Since he didn’t want to give half his fortune over to his wife and suffer the public humiliation, he had had Sharon killed. I heard over and over that Sharon’s tires had been flattened by golf tees and that this “rich man loved to play golf.”
The other school of thought was much darker. People whispered of some kind of satanic cult. They said that the police had to guard Sharon’s body because they were sure someone would come to get it at the funeral home. It was said the group held their meetings in an old metal warehouse deep in the country somewhere between Adwolfe and Marion. People dressed in robes and danced on her grave. According to one story, a woman who lived close to the graveyard called the police because they were making too much noise. When the police arrived, they found small plastic wine cups. Also, everyone said her grave sank “too quickly” into the ground, like there was no coffin to hold the earth up. It was assumed, her coffin had been stolen. It was even rumored the gravestones of some of her relatives were toppled over in another different graveyard.
The whole community was on edge. In 1977, we didn’t have twenty-four hour news reporting crimes from every part of the country. Rarely did anyone hear of a murder, much less a murder surrounded by these strange circumstances. The town had been kept in suspense long enough, and they wanted an answer.
Smyth County News 4/28/77
Arrest Rumors Bring Warning
Persistent rumors about the death of Sharon Blankenbeckler, found dead Apr. 8 on Walkers Mountain after being missing for about a month, have prompted the following statement from Robert L. Asbury, Commonwealth’s Attorney for SmythCounty:“It has come to my attention that there are many rumors concerning the investigation of the death of Sharon Ann Blankenbeckler.
The rumors concern persons who are not under investigation and are doingirreparable harm to them as individuals, to their families and to their businesses.The commonwealth’s attorney went on to warn that any person who either makes aslanderous statement or repeats one previously made by another is subject to criminalpunishment as well as civil damages.”
Any person who has any information concerning the death of MissBlankenbeckler should contact… the Smyth County Sheriff’s Department, said Asbury.
He added that any such information will be kept confidential.
This is the last mention of Sharon Blankenbeckler I have been able to find in the Smyth County News.
All the talk around town stopped. No one was ever arrested for her murder.
A few years later, I was finally old enough to drink and drive. Once in a long while, sitting in our cars in the middle of the mountains, someone would bring up the murder. The talk would always drift back to people dressed in robes dancing around her grave. Sometimes the robes were black, sometimes red, but the story lived on. It had become a legend. But it only popped up from time to time and just as details started to blossom, someone would cut off the heads off the flowers by saying, “We better not talk about it.” Other times when the story was told, we all seemed to go silent at the same moment. The subject would change. Or being stoned teenagers, we would laugh everything off.
I moved away from the area when I was eighteen, went about my life and didn’t think much more about the incident.
A few months ago something reminded me of Sharon Blankenbeckler. It could have been any number of stories about murdered young white women on CNN or 48 Hours. I decided to look her up on the internet. I found nothing. Nothing. It was like she had just vanished. This murdered girl who rocked our community was no where to be found. I decided to see what I could dig up. I figured there would be oodles of mentions of her in the local paper, The Smyth County News, and I thought I could get information from people who grew up in Chilhowie.
When I started working on this essay thirty-three years after the murder, I called some old friends and was told time after time that “people don’t like to talk about that.” A couple of people even warned me not to talk about it. They were worried for my safety because they believe that the person/s who committed the crime “are still out there, and they will come after anyone who talks about it.” A few people even claimed they knew who the murderer was, but would not say the name. One detail everyone I spoke to agreeed on was this: Sharon was lovely.
This is certainly true. The paper published a photo of her along with the first mention of her disappearance in the 3/31/77 edition of the Smyth County News. She had long dark hair, parted down the middle, full round checks, an Elizabethan forehead and a long graceful neck. She wore a blouse with a classic 70s dotted seventies pattern with a white collar and white cuffs.
After I read the articles about Sharon from the Smyth County News, I had a good idea where her body was found. My friend and I decided to drive up Walker’s Mountain to find the exact spot. My friend also grew up in Chilhowie and remembered the murder well. Highway 16 leaves the town of Marion (which is seven miles from Chilhowie) and passes by the west shore of Hungry Mother Lake and the entrance toHungry Mother Park. Like the Sharon Blankenbeckler story, Hungry Mother figures large in local mythology. It got its name because a woman named Molly and her child were the only survivors of a nearby settlement, which was attacked by Indians. They were taken to an Indian camp, but they soon escaped. Molly and her child wandered around the forest eating berries until Molly finally collapsed. The child ran for help and stumbled upon some settlers; However, the only words the child could say were, “Hungry mother, hungry mother.” The child led them back to find Molly dead in what is now the state park.
Shortly after you pass the entrance to the park, there is a campground and stables. It is unclear if the stables are still in use. They are gray and dirty, but the paint is not quite peeling. You really begin to climb Walker’s Mountain after these last remnants of Hungry Mother Park. Highway 16 snakes steeply upward. It is two lanes and extremely narrow. Even if you are familiar with driving in the mountains, you still have to slow way down to take these sharp turns. Just as you come out of one, you go into another. There are guard rails now (not in 1977), but they would be of little help if you hit them with any force. As you go up Highway 16, sometimes you are at the base of trees and suddenly you are in the treetops, like you are tumbling as the mountain rises and falls around you. For those moments you are traveling in the treetops, the mountain is so steep you can’t see the bottoms of the trees, and it feels like you are soaring through the air.
Even though it’s against the law, occasionally truck drivers, not familiar withWalker’s Mountain, decide to drive over it because it is a shortcut to Tazewell, Virginia. They soon get caught on the curves and can go no further. The police are called and close the road so the truck can be backed down the mountain.
There is not much traffic. But the word traffic doesn’t apply. Even normal sized cars are transformed into runaway freight trains hurling down the mountain. You can’t hear anything until it’s right on top of you because the woods are so dense.
According to the paper, Sharon was found “about .3 of a mile from the top of the mountain.” We stopped at the top of the mountain and turned on the odometer. About .3 of a mile from the top of the mountain is a steep embankment. Just beyond the embankment, the woods are thick. The road is so curvy we both are convinced that it would take at least two people to throw a body out of a moving vehicle.
After we drive by the place we think Sharon was found, my friend tells me that she heard someone dumped an ashtray at this spot, and the cigarette butts had lipstick on them. Also, the cops somehow knew that the rope tied around Sharon was done by a woman. I asked her if she remembers how she felt after hearing about the murder as a kid.
“Confused,” she says. This answer really surprised me.
“When people were talking about satanic cults, they said the Satanists only killed virgins. At that age, I wasn’t quiet sure what a virgin was, but I was pretty sure I was one. So I thought they could come after me next.”
Finally, we visited Sharon’s grave at Grosses’s Creek Cemetery several miles outside of Chilhowie. It is a quite place. The tombstones spill down a hill to a country road. Across the road from the graveyard is a cornfield. Even the countryside in Chilhowie has many more houses than it did when I lived here, but Grosses’s Creek Cemetery is still a tranquil country place.
On top of Sharon’s grave was a large fake bouquet of birthday cake blue roses. The bouquet was tied with a frayed white satin ribbon. Silver vases stood on either side of her gravestone and were stuffed with bunches of plastic sky blue hydrangea. Engraved over her name was a flowery pattern with an open Bible-type book in the middle. The book said, “Asleep in Jesus.” As we drove out of the cemetery, a teenage boy sitting on the steps of a house whittled a large stick. He smiled and waved at us like we were kin.
The people of Appalachia love the grotesque: amputations, disease, blindness, suicide, madness. This story of Sharon Blankenbeckler is something that normally would be the stuff of conversations even 33 years later. It’s the silence that makes me keep my light on at night, the silence of people who are still scared of something faceless, nameless in the dark.