The Murder of Kathy Kohm

Yesterday while out with a relative it was suggested that I should look at this case.  I was given only enough information to allow myself to fall into a rabbit hole that I had to FORCE myself out of after a few hours.  Despite the fact I have been working through a list I had decided to take on this case next.  By the time I was done I had amassed more pages of notes than most cases that I discuss here.  In fairness, seeing as this case was from near the Evansville Indiana area I had a lot to work with as there is a website that I can access that has articles from the local newspaper, especially from this era.  This case took on national attention and the fact that today it officially remains unsolved added to the information available.

Sometimes a case remains unsolved because there are no clues leading to a suspect. There are even cases in which someone has been found, tried and even convicted only to die during their appeals process which from a legal standpoint can wipe away their conviction.  And then there are cases such as this one in which it seems everyone knows who committed the crime but investigators and prosecutors fail to charge the person due to claims of lack of evidence.  This is really all dependent sometimes on the prosecutor in charge.  I have seen plenty of cases in which a prosecutor takes much less evidence than was available in this case to trial and yet I have seen cases in which a prosecutor involved is the type that will only take a case when they are absolutely certain they can obtain a conviction.  The latter seems to be the case here.  

On April 5, 1981 eleven year old Kathleen, also known as Kathy, as well as Katie, Kohm went out for a jog and never returned.  Kathy lived in a gated community called Christmas Lake Village near the town of Santa Claus Indiana.  Today Santa Claus is known as the home of Holiday World theme park.  Back in 1981 it was known as Santa Claus Land.  Most of the residents of the town lived in Christmas Lake Village with rural farms spread throughout the area outside the gated community.  The 1990 census showed a population of 927 residents so it would have been a little less in 1981.  

There have been some arguments that while the town did not have a large population that the amusement park brings thousands, upon thousands to the area even back in 1981.  Others argue that the theme park was only open on weekends until the school year ended and that the massive amounts of tourist did not arrive until then.  To be fair, April 5th, was a Sunday and while schools do have different weeks in which their Spring Break time is observed the most prevalent time in the state, even dating back to 1981 was the first and second weeks in April.  It is conceivable that there were many tourists in the area visiting the park.  However, it has also been argued that it was nearly impossible to visit and enter Christmas Lake Village without having one's name on a list held at the guard shack.  I assume that residents were not required to sign in and out but I could be wrong about that.

At any rate Kathy's parents, Bill and Rosemary would report their daughter missing.  A ranger from the nearby Lincoln State Park was sent to the Kohm home to conduct a search of the home for clues.  Much has been made about this and the fact that it was a ranger and not an official officer of some kind but I find little unusual about this.  It is a very rural area in which the rangers are very involved in conducting some of what we would consider police duties especially at that time.  We have to remember that this was a different era in our lives and crimes were not as prevalent as they are now, especially in this area.  There has also been a lot of speculation over the years about an eleven year old out jogging, let along jogging alone.  You have to know the area, and even Kathy Kohm to know this was not unusual.  Again, crimes did not happen a lot, everyone knew everyone, this girl lived in what was a considered to be a very safe community and she was an athlete like I gander to guess many of the children in the area were.  At seven Kathy had excelled at baseball.  She was very much into the competition offered by her swim team and she enjoyed running and exercising.  The Kohm's were interviewed years later and mentioned that they were taken aback by the conduct shown by John and Patsy Ramsey when their daughter JonBenet was murdered in their home in 1996. The Kohm's had allowed searches of their home, spearheaded searches outside the home and fought to have justice for their daughter.

The area was combed it seems by several different search parties but nothing was found.  A few weeks later the town marshal sent out notices to all the residents in the area asking about the day Kathy disappeared.  Apparently they thought if they knew what everyone was doing and what everyone had seen they could find a clue somewhere.  Whether it was through this questionnaire or by his own accord, a local farmer named Jack Harry told investigators that on the day Kathy had gone missing a man by the name of Stanton Gash had gotten his car stuck in the mud near his property and he had helped him get the car out.  He told authorities that Gash had told him he was returning from a basketball game in a nearby town and that he had pulled a few hundred feet down this muddy road so that he could get out and urinate.  The area in which the car had gotten stuck in the mud was surrounded by tall grass and brush. Harry would tell authorities that Gash had told him that he had attempted on his own for approximately an hour before walking to Harry's home to get help.

On June 10, 1981 the paper in nearby Evansville published an article on the still missing persons case.  It was in this article that they reported what had been stated by Jack Harry and that the Spencer County Sheriff's office, while not naming Stanton Gash specifically viewed him as a suspect.  The newspaper received a lot of criticism for the fact that they had published Gash's name. The local authorities, citizens and even other newspapers had chastised the Evansville newspaper for their actions.  However, after reading the article on the following day a man and his two teenage grandsons decided to go to the area in which Harry had reported that Gash had been stuck in the mud and within a few hundred yards of that area the badly decomposed body of Kathy Kohm was found.

I was born near the Evansville area but moved away when I was young. However, I have moved back to the area in the last few years and I have often said that the weather here is very different from weather I have ever experienced.  I do believe that much of that has to do with the lay of the land. The area is considered to the Ohio Valley.  The summers here are extremely hot and humid.  Often times when comparing temperatures to friends who live further south I have found that not only are actual temperatures often higher in the summer but the "feels like" temperature, along with the humidity is also much higher.  These temperatures and heat begin in early April and rise as the months progress. It is often late September or later before they subside.  So Kathy's body had been exposed to these elements for two months and even taking in today's ability with forensics, it was no match for 1981.  It was reported that she had been raped and shot in the head, although specifics on both of these things are a bit sketchy.

It appears the initial autopsy stated that Kathy had been shot in the face with a .22 caliber bullet.  Later a pathologist would say she had been shot in the back of the head.  I am unclear as to whether this was a mistake made or if the condition of the remains were so decomposed that truly unclear.  It was also later said that the decomposition had been unable to officially determine if she had been raped.  She had been found fully clothes, with her shoes on but her panties were reportedly found in her pocket.  

Stanton Gash remained the prime suspect and his behavior was not helping. The day before Kathy's body had been found authorities had spoken to Gash and had set up for him to come in the following day for an interview that would include taking a lie detector case.  When the time came, Gash did not show up. Instead his wife reportedly found a note from him in which he appeared to be "sorry" for things he was not specific about and had stated he was leaving town. Later that day at some point he was found and he had seemingly had a drug overdose but survived.

Authorities would learn that Gash, who only lived part time in Christmas Lake Village also had a home in nearby Evansville where he was a firefighter.  They had also found it odd that the spot in which Jack Harry claimed to have helped Gash remove his car from the mud was only about five minutes from his home. Not to mention that while Harry was saying that this had occurred, on the questionnaire given out by the town marshal just a few days before Gash had stated that he had been home all day and had not seen any strangers.  If Jack Harry's story is true I find something rather interesting about it.  April 5th was a Sunday as I stated earlier and Harry would say that Gash had stated he was coming back from a basketball game from the nearby town of Chrisney.  What is interesting about this is that the town of Chrisney is one of those towns that if you blinked you would miss it.  In the early 2000s the census only recorded just over 500 people in just over 200 households. There is literally nothing there, I have personally seen it.  That being said I would be curious to know just what kind of basketball game was supposedly going on there on a Sunday night (unless of course possibly on a television but that was not indicated). Not only was this not an era of 24/7 gas stations and stores like we see today, it was a time in which even in large towns stores closed at 6 pm on Sundays.  You are also talking about a very religious area where Sundays were treated even differently.  Although admittedly I found no references to religious beliefs in my research.

Still although announcing they had not other suspects the investigators and the prosecutors claimed they had no evidence to charge Gash.  They had inspected his car but had discovered that five days after Kathy disappeared he had replaced the mat inside his truck saying that he had attempted to use that when trying to get his car out of the mud.  Years later a television station would obtain a private detective to help on the case and they were able to get the car, one that had now gone through six owners, and had it disassembled and searched, specifically looking for earrings and a ring that had never been recovered but were unsuccessful.

Kathy's parents were not happy with the investigation or the lack there of and was surely not shy in expressing their views.  About five months after their daughters body had been found the Kohm's decided to sue Stanton Gash for wrongful death in a civil court.  While it was not the first time in the country that a person was sued for wrongful death without being charged criminally, it was apparently the first time in Indiana.  In 1982 a law had been enacted that allowed criminal evidence to be presented in civil courts and it seems that is what the Kohm's were after.  Understandably they wanted answers.  They were also aware that the standards in civil court are much different than those in criminal court.  In order to convict someone in criminal court for a crime one must be found guilty beyond all reasonable doubt.  In civil court someone can be found liable by the "preponderance of evidence" which means you can get a judgement against someone without truly proving for sure.  The idea behind this is that while civil courts deal with monetary amounts, criminal courts have the right to take away freedoms.  Of course attorney's for Gash fought this action from the very beginning claiming it unethical and having the potential to set a precedence in court rooms that could bring unjust burdens on innocent people. The courts allowed the case to proceed.

In 1983 a jury in nearby Warrick County (this happens to be where I currently live) had been chosen to here the case.  It has been moved here due to the publicity surrounding the case.  The Kohm's had been on the news and even on national talk shows discussing the case and it was not felt that Spencer County, who held jurisdiction, could find unbiased jury members.  In fact, the television show 20/20 and the ABC World News were present at the case.

The attorney's for the Kohm family were able to bring in Jack Harry to testify to what he claimed had happened on the day that Kathy disappeared.  They also brought in the pathologist to describe the wounds Kathy suffered.  There were others that testified to the area as well as Gash's behavior.  For Gash his attorney's of course argued that he had not done the crime but he himself did not testify.  There became a debate in whether Gash, who did not plan to testify, was required to take the stand to assert his 5th Amendment rights or he had the right to simply not testify.  Again, this comes down to the difference between criminal courts and civil courts.  Everyone has the right to take the 5th Amendment against self incrimination regardless of the court.  However, a criminal defendant cannot be forced to get on the stand and testify in their own behalf, and many do not.  However, in civil court that same right does not apply so the judge ruled that Gash had to take the stand and basically what he did after that was up to him.  So Gash did take the stand but the only question he answered was when he was asked his name.  He would not even answer the question about his address or location.  On every other questioned he asserted his 5th Amendment right.  Later a juror would say that this was detrimental to Gash and was instrumental in their decision to find him liable in Kathy's death. Of course Gash's attorney knew this going in and why they had argued against forcing him on the stand.  They would later use this same argument when arguing for an appeal in the case.

Aside from Gash asserting his Amendment rights, his attorney's had a few more witnesses to take the stand.  One was a friend of Gash's who testified that at some point, although it was unclear if this was before or after Kathy's body had been found, that he and Gash had been driving in the area when Gash pointed out the spot in which he said he had gotten stuck in the mud.  According to the witness this place was some three miles away from where Jack Harry had stated and hence from where the body had been found.  But, the more interesting testimony came from a woman name Mae Risley although her statement would be entered in the court through a deposition she had taken and not in the courtroom.  Risley's doctors had stated that due to her health and the stress involved in the case she could not appear so the deposition was read into the court.  According to Risley on the day that Kathy had disappeared she had heard someone scream and she saw "three or four people" struggling to put another person in the trunk of a car.  She would say she was about two blocks away from the scene and could not identify the people or even if they were male or female.  In fact, throughout her deposition she often seemed to flip back and forth between the others placing the person in the trunk or the backseat.  She also seemed to be inconsistent on what the car looked liked or if it was even a car as sometimes she stated it was a van.  Risley would suffer a stroke the following day and be hospitalized.  I did not find anything on a possible age for Risley or her mental competence.  All I could find was that like Gash she too had a home in Christmas Lake Village and one in Evansville.  The attorney's for the Kohm's were able to provide a rebuttal witness to Risley's deposition and convincingly argued (although not to the judge) that her "testimony" was unreliable as well as unfair as they were unable to cross examine her.  

For their part Gash's attorney was stuck having to answer to Gash's behavior. They would claim that at the time that he became a suspect Gash was having personal problems along with work issues and that his attempted suicide on the day the body was found was just the "last straw" in a lot of things coming together, including the fact he was a suspect in a murder investigation.  It was stated in an article that Gash's brother had planned to testify for Gash saying that between his job as a firefighter and personal issues they had "driven him off his rocker."  This was the only reference I found to this and I am not even clear if his brother testified at all, let alone exactly what his brother meant by this.  

Due to the legal restrictions at the time the Kohm's were only allowed to receive a judgment of $5,000 of which the jury awarded them.  Stanton Gash moved to Florida shortly there after and the Kohm's had moved to St. Louis.  Gash's attorney attempted to appeal the civil verdict but was unsuccessful.  By June of 1986 the Kohm's, who had vowed to give any money they received to a charity that helped children, had yet to receive anything from Gash and so a judge pulled him into court.  Gash was told he still owned some property in Spencer County that was a vacant lot worth just about what he owed the Kohm's, with interest, and that he had thirty days to sell it or the state would do it for him at auction.  The following month the Kohm's received $5,600.  

The funny thing about this story is that with all of the information out there on the story, once the civil suit was settled everything seems to get less specific on a timeline.  Of course as forensic science progressed and the advent of DNA came along the case was looked at again.  At some point (it appears sometime maybe around 2006 or 2007) investigators decided to try and see if they could get any DNA to link Gash, or apparently anyone, to the crime.  It was said even in the beginning that experts were not hopeful because of the massive decomposition the body had suffered.  Oddly I read an article that indicated that DNA was recovered from both of Kathy's parents to even create a DNA profile for her as recovery was difficult.  But, investigators went down to Florida where Gash was now living and obtained a sample of his DNA for testing also.  The following week Stanton Gash would commit suicide and be found dead in his home.

Investigators seemingly attempted to continue with the DNA testing presumably to see if they could conclusively solve the case, if not legally.  The results were reported as inconclusive.  Some information indicated that it proved Gash was not guilty but that is not how I read the information that was given.  I read it as being that no true profile could be found due to the lack of preservation of what evidence was available, as well as the decomposition causing the lack of evidence to begin with.  It was also said that at some point some forensics were done on a .22 caliber gun owned by Gash presumably at the time of the murder but again, nothing conclusive could be found.

So, on the books this is an unsolved crime and it will most likely remain so. Either Stanton Gash committed this crime and was guilty, or he was innocent and with his own actions presented himself as a suspect that followed him until the day he died.  Someone out there knows something, that is almost a given. It is unlikely that someone, Gash, or otherwise, committed this crime and never told anyone.  


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