For nearly 50 years, three women have sought the identity of a man who abducted them when they were young teenagers, bound and stabbed them, and left them for dead in an Indiana cornfield in August 1975.
Kandice Smith, Sheri Rottler Trick and Kathie Rottler all survived the horrific attack, and decades later, thanks to genetic genealogy technology, they finally got their answer.
The Indianapolis Metro Police Department, after combing through evidence and rigorous DNA testing, announced Thursday that the suspect was finally identified as Thomas Edward Williams.
Williams died in November 1983 while in prison in Galveston, Texas, at the age of 49.
The 1975 assault
On August 19, 1975, Smith, then 13, Rottler Trick, then 11, and Rottler, then 14, were leaving a gas station in eastern Indianapolis at 10:45 p.m. and decided to hitchhike home.
A white man driving a station wagon pulled over to give them a ride.
But he drove past their destination. The girls tried to escape the car and Kathie tried to hit the brakes, but her legs weren’t long enough.
The suspect then pulled out a handgun, put it to her head and threatened to shoot her, retired Indianapolis Metro Police Sgt. David Ellison told reporters Thursday.
The man ended up stopping the car near a cornfield in Greenfield, Indiana, forced the girls out of the car and bound two of them. He then sexually assaulted one of the girls and repeatedly stabbed her.
He proceeded to stab the other two girls numerous times.
“They actually played dead to avoid being stabbed anymore,” Ellison said. The suspect fled the area and the girls were left wounded in the cornfield.
Two of the girls were able to eventually make it back to the main road, where a passerby helped them and police were called.
Miraculously, all three girls survived the attack.
At the time, an investigation into the suspect led to a composite sketch, and several leads were followed and suspects ruled out. Eventually the case went cold.
Looking at the case again
In 2018, the survivors reached out to Ellison and he agreed to look at the case again. He worked with other agencies to obtain evidence from the case and have it analyzed and tested.
Evidence from the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office was obtained in 2019 and analyzed and tested, and in 2021 two other pieces of evidence from the case were recovered and tested by the Indianapolis-Marion County Forensic Services Agency.
All three tests produced an unknown male DNA profile that matched one another, and one of the items tested had Sheri Rottler Trick’s DNA on it, as well.
“It was at that point that we knew we had our suspect’s DNA,” Ellison said.
However, that profile had no match in CODIS — the FBI’s national databases of DNA profiles from convicted offenders.
In January 2023, Ellison reached out to DNA Labs International in Deerfield Beach, Florida, a private lab that uses investigative genetic genealogy technology. The testing was funded by Indianapolis-based media company Audiochuck, which produces multiple podcasts including “Crime Junkies,” which investigates cold cases.
Investigators approached the family, and the daughter and son shared DNA samples. Testing of those samples in December proved to be a match and led police to finally identify their suspect as Williams.
Originally from Indianapolis, Williams at one point was living close to the kidnapping site, Ellison said. It was not immediately clear what charges Williams was serving time for in Galveston.
“This was an act of evil that none of you deserved. I hope today brings you some sort of closure knowing that your attacker has been identified and is no longer in this world,” Ellison told Smith, Rottler Trick and Rottler, who were present for the news conference.
Kathie Rottler thanked the men who stopped to help her and Smith after the attack, crediting them with saving their lives, and thanked investigators for their diligent work.
“I stand here before you today as a survivor who has learned the true meaning of patience. I’ve learned that sometimes the answer you are waiting for can take decades to get. Nearly five decades in fact,” she said.
“There are times over the past 48 years that I felt no one was working on this case, but I kept hoping and praying and I’m so glad that I kept faith in myself and investigators,” Rottler continued. “My message is to other survivors out there is never give up and continue to fight to keep your case open. This is a day I never thought would come, but I told myself to keep going and never stop looking for answers. Today we got our answer and I’m so grateful for that.”