Jessica Lyn Keen, an honours student from Columbus, Ohio, was 15 years old in the spring of 1991. She liked animals and was a cheerleader at her neighbourhood high school. She had big dreams of becoming a naturalist.
But one day as she waited for the bus, she was attacked by a ruthless and merciless predator. Her brutal murder would go unsolved for over two decades, but diligent police were able to catch her attacker by chance using DNA.
Showing off her rebellious side
Jessica Keen and her mother Rebecca Smitley were at odds in March 1991 over the adolescent’s romantic life. Like most protective parents, Rebecca believed Shawn, who was 18 years old, was too old for Jessica because she had developed feelings for him.
Not only that, but Jessica’s academic life was suffering as a result of the developing connection. Her grades were declining, and she even left the cheerleading squad in an effort to spend more time with her crush.
Her parents took a major step: they turned to a free counselling service for teenagers out of concern that their daughter’s dropping GPA would prohibit her from attending college. Jessica was required to spend two weeks at the Huckleberry House residential facility, where she would attend treatment sessions in an effort to get her back on the right track.
Jessica complied as required, and on March 15, 1991, her live-in stay was almost over when things started to go very wrong. Jessica called Shawn the day before she was scheduled to return home, but she may not have gotten the response she had hoped for.
Instead, the pair got into a heated argument, according to Special Agent Gregg Costas of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, who spoke to Unsolved Mysteries.
“That day, Jessica and Shawn ended up having a telephone disagreement, which led to their breakup. Several others heard this call and reported that Jessica was clearly agitated,” he added.
Jessica, who was devastated by the situation, informed her pals she was heading to the mall and then made her way to the bus stop next to Huckleberry House to wait for the next bus. Nobody would ever again see her alive after that.
A horrifying finding
The youngster was reported missing, and a search was conducted after she failed to return to her lodging that evening. At Foster Chapel Cemetery, about 20 miles from Huckleberry House, where Jessica’s body was discovered, it came to an end two days later.
She had duct tape wrapped around her hands and lips and was otherwise naked, save for a bra and one sock. Before being fatally struck in the head by a gravestone that was discovered nearby, the young woman had been brutally assaulted and raped.
Strangely, Jessica was still sporting her watch and ring, but her beloved necklace with the word “taken” on it was gone. After starting their investigation, the police concluded that Jessica had likely been sexually abused between two and four hours before she passed away.
The terrible conclusion Special Agent Costas reached after investigating the cemetery’s hints was that Jessica had been taken captive in a car and had only just managed to elude her abductor. She ran for her life over a rural road and into a cemetery where, based on a knee print in the ground behind a headstone and a misplaced sock, she may have attempted to conceal herself.
Jessica, however, drove into a fencepost in the dead of night as she attempted to flee and reach a nearby farmhouse to sound the alarm. She was discovered and killed by her assailant while lying there dazed.
According to special agent Costas, he was adamantly resolved to use all of his resources to identify the killer of the promising teenager and solve the murder.
“I’ve never worked on anything in my life with such a strong sense of passion. You can’t help but want to do everything in your power to find out who committed this horrific murder of this young girl, 15, who had such a promising future, according to him in an interview with Unsolved Mysteries.
Rebecca, Jessica’s mother, was understandably traumatized by the awful incident and disturbed by the fear Jessica must have experienced while attempting to find safety in the shadowy graveyard.
She made a moving statement to the Dayton Daily News in 1991, saying, “Everything I wanted to prevent—her life being ruined—happened anyhow.”
Several dead ends before a good break
Shawn was the first to come under police attention because he was Jessica’s ex-boyfriend. They collected his DNA and interrogated him and his friends in great detail. But it was quickly determined that Shawn couldn’t have been involved.
In addition to being in Florida, as he had stated at the time of the kidnapping, his DNA did not match that found at the location of the crime.
The investigation became unproductive gradually. Investigators, however, were unable to ignore the grisly murder that had occurred on their doorstep and they continued to occasionally review the evidence in the hope that fresh information could become available.
And it did so in 2008, at last. After re-running the semen sample through the system, Madison County Sheriff Jim Sabin and Special Agent Gregg Costas discovered the hit on CODIS that they were looking for.
It belonged to Marvin Lee Smith Jr., who was quickly apprehended and sent to Ohio to face allegations of impermissible sexual activity. Smith was on bail when he met Jessica Keen, having served nine years in prison for abusing two women in Columbus.
Smith was compelled to contribute his DNA as a formality when he was released from jail after serving time yet again in 2000. Unfortunately, it was never noted as a component of the Keen investigation, and it wasn’t until a lucky break by Sheriff Sabin and Special Agent Costas that a connection to Jessica’s killer could be established.
Jessica finally receives justice
Smith acknowledged in court in 2009 that he had abducted Jessica after sighting her by chance at the bus stop on that March day in 1991. This corroborated the police’s first suspicions. He described how he had chased her around the cemetery before coming up with her and killing her with a gravestone, with such power that it had split in two, to the astonished horror of the jury.
As part of a plea agreement, Smith admitted guilt to first-degree murder while escaping the death penalty. He will be held at the Lebanon Correctional Institution in Warren County, Ohio, until at least March 2038 after receiving a sentence of 30 years to life in prison.
However, many who reside in Columbus and beyond will undoubtedly be hoping this dangerous person stays exactly where he is – for good — after the disclosure of the nightmare murder that he committed.