By Miriam Said with Alice de Sturler
Sarnia, Canada: a quiet border city on the Canadian side of the Blue Water Bridge linking Sarnia’s neighbouring village of Point Edward to the city of Port Huron, Michigan in the United States of America.
Here, thirty-seven year ago, Karen Caughlin was killed and ripped from her loving family. She was only 14 years old. Her family still misses and loves her very much. Kathy Caughlin, Karen’s older sister, in her own words:
“Karen and I were only 14-months apart and we shared a bedroom for her entire life. Her picture does not do her justice for it doesn’t reveal the beautiful person she was on the inside. She was so kind, thoughtful, loved animals and had the gift of making everyone laugh.
Karen had just entered her first year of high school and she wanted to make the world a better place by becoming a teacher because she believed children were our future. She was a Marching Angel (drum corp. band) with her sisters and loved going roller skating with her girlfriends. Her love of animals brought many strays to our family home.
Someone savagely took her life, when she was just 2 ½ months short of her fifteenth birthday and threw her in a ditch like a piece of garbage. They killed my sister; they killed my family, and went on with their own lives.
Our parents’ suffering ended in death for both passed away in recent years. The depth of suffering is impossible for anyone to imagine who has not experienced homicide. Something in you dies when your bear the unbearable. Unsolved homicide survivors never have peace and they live in endless grief and torment.
Karen has five remaining siblings whose lives continue to be affected by an unknown child killer(s.) Please help us capture Karen’s killers and bring them to JUSTICE. NO CHILD KILLER SHOULD TAKE SOLACE IN THE PASSAGE OF TIME!”
What happened in 1974?
On March 15, 1974, Karen went to school as usual. She was a ninth grade student at Sarnia Collegiate Institute and Technical School, in Sarnia. We know that Karen had made after-school plans. She went to a friend’s home. Later, Karen and this friend went to the Rose Garden roller rink located in Point Edward around 7:00 p.m. Karen stayed with that friend the whole afternoon until they left for the skating rink. They had also made tentative arrangements for Karen to stay over.
Karen and this friend left the rink around 11:00 p.m. and accepted a ride from a couple of boys and left in a pick-up truck. Karen’s friend was dropped off at her home a short time later. Karen continued to drive around the area with the boys and picked up a third boy. The four teenagers continued to drive around the city, stopping at the A & W for a root beer, and visiting other friends (unidentified) until Karen was dropped off near her friend’s house on Brock Street around 1:00 a.m. on the 16th of March, 1974.
This was the last time that we know that Karen was seen alive. The boys who last saw Karen have been cleared and are not suspects.
It seems that Karen was struck by a vehicle and was left for dead in a shallow ditch on the side of Plowing Match Road (formally known as Side Road 6-7) in Enniskillen Township, a couple kilometers northwest of the town of Petrolia. Her body was located on the 16th of March, 1974, around 9:50 a.m., by an area farmer, Mr. Fred Bygrove. He stated that he drove by and spotted her body. According to his statements in the papers, his son-in-law had driven by an hour earlier and he claimed that he did not see anything along the shoulder. If Mr. Bygrove and his son-in-law are correct about the time it means that Karen was placed in the ditch between 9-950am.
Karen’s coat and shoes were located a short distance away from her body in a pile of branches. Her purse was discovered several days later in a ditch just north of Petrolia, south east of where her body was located. Clearly, someone knows how her shoes, coat, and purse came to rest at separate locations from where Karen’s body was found. They were specifically placed there. The positioning of the shoes, coat and purse make us wonder whether those items contained any biological materials that could be tested for touch DNA. Also, it is not clear whether the soil around these items held any clues such as shoe prints or possibly dropped items.
Police has been able to identify the types of vehicles that may have been associated with this homicide. Paint chips were found on Karen’s clothing. Those paint chips indicate that the vehicle involved was a 1970–1971 Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodge product with metallic purple paint commonly known as “Plum Crazy Purple.” This type of paint was used predominantly on Chrysler’s performance vehicles such as the Barracuda, Challenger, Charger, Dart, Demon, Duster, and Superbee. This paint was also used on Chrysler’s Belvedere, Coronet, Satellite, and Valliant models. Police feel confident that someone in the Sarnia area knows who owned the vehicle that struck Karen and possibly knows who the driver was that night.
The problems that we have so far with the investigation are:
1: it is not clear whether the search for the vehicle stretched into Michigan. Remember that Sarnia is a border town.
2: we are not sure whether the vehicle was a car or could also possibly be a truck
3: the paint chips were found on Karen’s sweater and coat but were they found at the front or the back of her clothes?
4: there is a huge gap in the timeline from the moment that Karen is dropped off till Mr. Bygrove finds her. The gap is from 1am – at least 9am.
5: is there any possibility that Karen’s injuries were misinterpreted and that being struck by a car was not the only thing that happened to her that night?
The Caughlin family justifiably feels that in 1974, police did not handle the investigation well. They were asked questions but the family never got any answers to their questions. In fact, there was no contact with police for 28 years until the authorities opened a cold case unit and started to re-investigate Karen’s death again in 2003. Of course, you immediately wonder why there was no contact for so long and as a consequence, how much evidence got lost or, how many tips were never investigated, etc.
Timeline of events in 1974
After digging just a little bit into this case, it becomes clear that the timelines do not add up. Several timelines were published. In follow up posts, different timelines will be discussed and the differences between them will be analyzed. Keep checking back for updates in this case.
While reading up on this case, Miriam asked herself these questions:
The purple car may have looked black in the dark to a witness. Did the press and police point this out at the time?
Where was Karen actually killed? I don’t believe that it was the place where her body was discovered.
Why didn’t Karen go into her friend’s house?
Why did they hide her coat and shoes under some twigs and branches and take her purse? Why did they wait 7 days to get rid of Karen’s purse? Her purse was also found in the area and not in the next state. What or if anything was missing from her purse?
Who was the boy that found her purse? He could have been one of the perpetrators. Is it possible that police discounted his DNA from the purse because they presumed it was from him finding the purse and not from him actually being a suspect?
Is there forensic evidence regarding fibers from the suspect vehicle’s upholstery found on her clothing? This would be helpful in matching the interior upholstery with a make of car.
The suspects would have dirt/mud on their shoes/clothes and there should be some evidence of this on Karen’s shoes. Depending on the materials the shoes were made of (plastic, leather, etc) could there be fingerprint evidence?
The suspect who folded her coat and put it with her shoes under the brush should have left forensic evidence, i.e., fibers from his clothing or his hair. Why did he fold her coat and place the items under the bush? It seems very personal, as if he knew Karen.
I wonder if Mr. Kells, who turned on his porch light, told the police how many people he thought got into the vehicle before it drove away. How many car doors did he hear closing if any?
Karen was 5 ft 5 tall (167cm) and weighed approximately 106 lbs (46kgs). She had long (mid-back) dark-brown hair and hazel eyes.
Description of the clothing Karen Caughlin was wearing on the night she died:
Karen’s coat was a short bomber type jacket of tan suede with sheep white wool inside. The sheep skin wool extended to the collar of the jacket.
She was wearing a pair of GWG blue jeans that belonged to her older sister Lou combined with an off-white sweater which belonged to the cousin of the friend with whom she went to the roller rink.
Karen wore a Mickey Mouse watch that belonged to the same friend. The watch was found broken. The time stopped at 5 o’clock. Karen’s family suspects that to be 5:00 am in the morning of March 16, 1974.
Karen also wore a high school ring from SCITS that also belonged to that friend.
Her shoes were platform type shoes that were popular back in the 70’s colour unknown.
What is the family missing from the recovered items?
“The only thing we know that is missing is her earrings. Karen never went anywhere without wearing her earrings. She always wore gold big round type ear rings. We called them saucer earrings in the 70’s.
There was a sweater in Karen’s purse that we never saw before and we still do not know who it belongs to.
We don’t know for a fact if anything was actually missing out of her purse.”
The cold case officers have given Karen’s family new hope in solving this case due to modern advances in forensic testing and evidence gathering but, they need more information. Can you help? If you have any information or know the identity of the perpetrators of this crime, please contact the OPP at 1-888-310-1122 or, go to the OPP website.
This website includes a tip area where information can be sent directly to investigators. You can also call your nearest police department or Crimestoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) were anonymous information can be left. There is currently a $50,000 dollar reward for finding Karen’s murderers and for bringing them to justice.
To be continued.