Searching for justice: New technology could help police solve 18-year-old mystery

2005-03-05T00:00:00Z Searching for justice: New technology could help police solve 18-year-old mysteryANDREA HAHN The Southern
March 05, 2005 12:00 am  • 


Kelli Bathon, now living in Fort Knox, Ky., wants to be certain her mother is not lost in a pile of paper.

It would be a second loss for Bathon, the daughter of LaDonna Cooper, a Marion woman kidnapped from what was then a Bonanza Restaurant in Marion and killed. The murder happened 18 years ago today.

Bathon was 10 when her mother was murdered and it changed her life and the lives of everyone in her family. What keeps the grief fresh and the fear alive is that the murderer or murderers are still out there, somewhere. There has never been an arrest or a formal charge.

"When you're 10, it's confusing," Bathon said, remembering the first days after her mother was found dead, two days after she was taken from the parking lot of the restaurant. "The next morning you wake up and you expect your mom to come get you for school, and it doesn't happen."

Bathon said her father, Bobby Cooper, was entrenched in his own grief. For him, remembering, grieving and wondering why took precedence in his life for awhile. Bathon soon found it was up to her if she wanted to make sure she had clean clothes to wear to school or breakfast to eat.

It all confused her classmates, too. She said they would repeat things to her they had heard, not necessarily intending to be mean, but sometimes causing pain by their misunderstanding.

Bathon said she saw the fear on the faces of her extended family members. House keys were missing. No one, including the police, knew if LaDonna had been an intended target, or if she had been in the wrong place during a robbery that went bad.

"I used to sleep with a steak knife under my pillow," Bathon said. "I only did for the first couple of weeks. I'd lose (my temper) quicker. If someone would say, 'Me and my mom did this,' I'd just get really mad. It was jealousy."

Even now, 20 years later, Bathon said she can't walk out to a dark parking lot without "freaking out." She said she finds herself looking over her shoulder all the time. She plans for her own death, so that her children won't be left "blind-sided" the way she was when her mother was so unexpectedly and violently taken from her.

An 18-year-old mystery

LaDonna Cooper was assistant manager at a Bonanza Restaurant, located off Illinois 13, where Tequilas in Marion is now. According to the police report, Cooper called her husband just before midnight on March 4, 1987, to say she would be home in about 10 minutes.

She never arrived.

When her husband and the restaurant manager went to look for her less than an hour later, they found evidence of a bloody struggle. LaDonna Cooper's car was gone.

Marion police found her car the next day in a residential Herrin neighborhood. A Department of Conservation employee working at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge found her body on March 6. Cooper had died of multiple stab wounds.

There is no new evidence in the case, said Marion Detective Jeff McCoskey. However, new technology may find new clues in evidence collected almost 20 years ago. The recent breakthrough in the 1981 murder of Susan Schumake in Carbondale, with a suspect developed with the help of new DNA technology, inspired McCoskey to re-examine the evidence.

McCoskey said he had asked to be assigned to the cold case. The frequent communication from Bathon to the police department seemed to have touched him and kept the unsolved murder alive for him.

More than 150 pieces of evidence have been collected in the Cooper case, he said. Some of it was taken at the scene, and some of it includes letters purporting to have tips or leads that had been sent to the department.

McCoskey called in Sgt. Paul Echols from the Carbondale Police Department for help in taking another look at the evidence. Echols was instrumental in the arrest of Daniel Woloson, a Michigan man, who will stand trial for Schumake's murder in April.

McCoskey said that with Echols' help, he was able to re-submit about 30 pieces of evidence. New technology, he hopes, may yield fingerprints, DNA evidence and new leads.

He hopes, and Bathon echoes his thoughts, that reminding the public about this case might, even at this late date, prompt someone to come forward and help the police apply the evidence.

"We've looked pretty hard at about 20 people," McCoskey said. "Some have been eliminated completely, some have been eliminated a little bit and some have not been eliminated at all."

"Somebody out there has got to know," Bathon said. "That's the most frustrating, for me. We can't go back and change what happened. We want to put it to rest and stop waking up every morning wondering. It's something we did as children, and we're still doing it now."

SUBHEAD: Searching for answers

Bathon said when she turned 16 and could drive, she went to the police station every six months or so to inquire about progress on the case. Now that she has married and moved away, her visits are less frequent and she has to make do with phone calls.

"I had a lot of questions my dad didn't want to answer," she said. "It was too upsetting for him."

The biggest questions of all - who and why - remain.

Jodi Tolbert, the youngest of LaDonna's three children, was 7 when her mother died. She lives now in Goreville, which is as close to Marion as she wants to be.

"It was a total 180 (degree turn) for us," she said. "One day you have your mom and your dad there, and the next day you are just lost."

Tolbert said she has faced the fact that her mother's murder may never be solved. She said she tries not to get her hopes up, but when there is a new development - such as the re-examination of evidence - it is hard.

"Who and why - those are the two main questions," she said. "It's all I really care about."

Family members of LaDonna Cooper say they believe the murderer or murderers might be local. They theorize LaDonna recognized the robbers and fought them until they decided to kill her. They say if the perpetrators were local, people may be too afraid, even 18 years later, to come forward and give information.

They believe the information that could lead to an arrest is out there somewhere.

If anyone does have information about the robbery or the murder, however insignificant it may seem, McCoskey and the family ask that they call the police department. Those who do not want to give their names can call the anonymous tip line at (800) 414-8177.

McCoskey said results from the re-examined evidence have already begun trickling in to the department. He hopes most of the results will be in his hands by June.



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