In the spring of 1991, Jessica Keen, an honors student from Columbus, Ohio, was 15 years old. She liked animals and cheered at the high school in her neighborhood. She really wanted to be a naturalist.
But while she was waiting for the bus one day, she was attacked by a cruel predator. Her brutal murder went unsolved for more than 20 years, but police who worked hard and used DNA found her killer by accident.
Putting on a display of defiance
In March 1991, Jessica Keen and her mother Rebecca Smitley clashed over the teen’s romantic relationships. Because Jessica had feelings for Shawn, Rebecca, like most overprotective parents, thought he was too old for her. Shawn is 18 years old.
This growing attraction was having negative effects on Jessica’s academic performance as well. She dropped out of cheerleading to spend more time with her crush, and her grades suffered as a result.
Her parents made a bold move when they realized their daughter’s slipping grades could prevent her from enrolling in college and took her to a free teen counselling service. With the hope of getting her life back on track, Jessica was sentenced to two weeks in the residential Huckleberry House facility.
Jessica did everything she was supposed to, but on March 15, 1991, just a few days before the end of her live-in period, things began to go horribly wrong. Jessica tried to get in touch with Shawn the day before she was set to fly back to the states, but she may not have gotten a reply.
According to Special Agent Gregg Costas of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, who spoke with Unsolved Mysteries, the two instead got into a physical altercation.
A disagreement over the phone between Jessica and Shawn ended their relationship that day. It was reported by others who overheard the call that Jessica sounded very upset during it.
After telling her friends she was going to the mall, Jessica, who was devastated by the news, walked to the bus stop near Huckleberry House to wait for the next bus. After that, no one would ever again encounter her in a living state.
A horrifying finding
The youngster was reported missing and a search was conducted when she did not return to her lodging that night. Two days later, it concluded at Foster Chapel Cemetery, approximately 20 miles from Huckleberry House, where Jessica’s body was discovered.
She was naked, save for a bra and one sock, with the exception of duct tape wrapped around her hands and lips. Prior to being fatally struck in the head by a nearby gravestone, the young woman had been brutally assaulted and raped.
Strangely, Jessica was still wearing her watch and ring, but her beloved “taken” necklace had vanished. After beginning their investigation, the police determined that it was likely that Jessica had been sexually abused between two and four hours prior to her death.
After investigating the cemetery’s clues, Special Agent Costas came to the horrifying conclusion that Jessica had been abducted in a car and had only narrowly escaped her captor. She fled for her life across a rural road and into a cemetery, where, based on a knee print behind a headstone and a missing sock, she may have attempted to hide.
Jessica, however, collided with a fencepost in the dead of night while fleeing and attempting to reach a nearby farmhouse to sound the alarm. As she lay there dazed, her assailant discovered and murdered her.
According to special agent Costas, he was determined to use all of his resources to identify and apprehend the murderer of the promising teenager.
“Never in my life have I worked on anything with such a strong sense of passion. In an interview with Unsolved Mysteries, he stated that you cannot help but want to do everything in your power to discover who committed the heinous murder of this 15-year-old girl with such a bright future.
Rebecca, Jessica’s mother, was understandably traumatized by the terrible incident and disturbed by the fear Jessica must have felt while seeking refuge in the dark cemetery.
In 1991, she made a moving statement to the Dayton Daily News, stating, “Everything I wanted to prevent — her life being ruined — occurred regardless.”
Several dead ends before a good break
Shawn was the first person to attract the attention of the police because he was Jessica’s ex-boyfriend. They collected his DNA and conducted in-depth interviews with him and his associates. However, it was quickly determined that Shawn was not involved.
In addition to being in Florida, as he claimed to be at the time of the abduction, his DNA did not match that found at the crime scene.
The investigation gradually became fruitless. However, investigators were unable to ignore the gruesome murder that had occurred on their doorstep, and they continued to review the evidence in the hope that new information would emerge.
And it finally did so in 2008. Madison County Sheriff Jim Sabin and Special Agent Gregg Costas discovered the desired CODIS hit after rerunning the sperm sample through the system.
It belonged to Marvin Lee Smith Jr., who was quickly apprehended and sent to Ohio to face sexual misconduct allegations. After serving nine years in prison for abusing two women in Columbus, Smith was out on bail when he met Jessica Keen.
Smith was required to provide his DNA as a formality when he was released from prison in 2000 after serving yet another sentence. Unfortunately, it was never noted as part of the Keen investigation, and Sheriff Sabin and Special Agent Costas were unable to establish a link to Jessica’s murderer until they had a stroke of luck.
Jessica finally receives justice
Smith admitted in court in 2009 that he had abducted Jessica after accidentally spotting her at the bus stop in March 1991. This verified the police’s initial suspicions. To the jury’s astonishment and horror, he described how he had chased her around the cemetery before killing her with a gravestone with such force that it had split in half.
In exchange for avoiding the death penalty, Smith admitted to first-degree murder as part of a plea bargain. After receiving a sentence of 30 years to life in prison, he will be incarcerated at Lebanon Correctional Institution in Warren County, Ohio, until at least March 2038.
After the disclosure of the heinous murder he committed, however, many residents of Columbus and beyond will undoubtedly hope that this dangerous individual remains exactly where he is – for good.