For over forty years, Laurel, Indiana, has been at the center of an unsolved mystery over the disappearance of a young woman named Lula Ann Gillespie-Miller. Back in 1974, she left Laurel and vanished, and no one in her family knew her whereabouts. At least not until Thursday, when Indiana State Police found her in Texas living under an alias.
The facts behind the mystery of what happened to Lula may have been solved, but even as the story goes viral with accusations of Lula being “selfish” or a “deadbeat parent,” all of the outsiders reading about this case don’t know the whole story — not by a long shot.
Back in 1974, the widowed Gillespie-Miller was 28 years old and had just given birth to her fourth child. While news outlets report she signed over her children to her parents before she left, the backstory behind why she left has been left out, although locals can tell you why.
Just a few days before her disappearance, Gillespie-Miller was allegedly raped by four men in Laurel. Then she was beaten and thrown over the Laurel bridge to die. But Lula managed to drag herself to her mother’s house and survived, filing a police report on the incident that has since disappeared. A few days later, Lula was gone as well, so she was rumored to have been killed by her attackers to keep her silent.
Forty years later, Indiana State Police Detective Sgt. Scott Jarvis took over the cold case at the request of the Doe Network, a website that helps people seeking missing family members. According to her family, the last contact with Lula was a letter postmarked from nearby Richmond, Indiana, in 1975.
After reviewing the case, Jarvis noted the similarity in her appearance to a Jane Doe found in Richmond in 1975, who was buried in an unmarked grave there. In December 2014, Jarvis obtained a search warrant to exhume the body for DNA analysis, using a sample from Gillespie-Miller’s daughter, Tammy Miller.
In a phone call with Jarvis on March 17 to get an update on the status of the DNA testing, he reported that results of the DNA were still pending on the exhumed body, but he gave no indication that the case had taken a different turn and that evidence had been found indicating Lula may still be alive.
According to the Indiana State Police press release, Jarvis noticed similarities between Gillespie-Miller and a woman who lived in Tennessee in the 80s and later moved to Texas, where she might still be living under an alias. Thursday, Jarvis contacted Texas Rangers to make a visit to the home of the woman he suspected might actually be Lula Gillespie-Miller. The Rangers reported that she admitted her true identity as the woman — now 69 years old — who disappeared from Laurel, Indiana, back in 1974.
The press release also reported that Lula gave permission for Jarvis to pass on her contact information to her daughter, Tammy, who was too young to remember her mother when she left.
As the story spread across social media, many were posting about what a horrible mother she was to abandon her children, without knowing the context of why she left. Some may still wonder why Lula Gillespie-Miller felt she had to leave instead of fighting for justice against her attackers.
If you ask locals, they know the answer, but they probably won’t tell you.
When the story of the Laurel Five murders broke over four years ago, the crime was painted as having occurred in a quaint small town that never sees violence or murder. Laurel, with a population as of 2010 of 512 people, lies just south of the Fayette county line in Franklin County. While the Franklin and Fayette County areas certainly don’t see the crime rates of large cities, the rural farming communities have seen a fair number of unsolved disappearances and murders over the years.
- Darlene Russell left her home at 4:30 in the morning on September 20, 1981, telling her family she was hitchhiking to Kentucky. She was found by the side of a county road near the Wayne and Fayette county line two days later with her throat slit. No one has even been charged with her murder.
- In 1983, Mark Ariens was found shot in the head three times in Laurel, and his murder remains unsolved.
- Rumors circulate that the drowning in 1984 of recent Brookville High School graduate Johnny Trammel may not have been accidental, and he knew information about the Ariens case.
- On March 28, 1986, 18-year-old Denise Pflum left her home in Fayette county to retrieve her purse left at a party the night before, and disappeared. Her car was found abandoned in a cornfield near the farm where the party occurred. The case remains unsolved.
- In August of 1991, teenager Jason Bolton died under suspicious circumstances when witnesses claim he was passed out on a road after a party, and was run over by accident. Yet the family believes there was nothing accidental about the case, and the castration and genital mutilation occurred before he was run over, rather than as a result of the vehicle injuries. No autopsy was conducted and the death was ruled accidental.
- In 1999, Bolton’s uncle, Donnie Rader, returned from making inquiries about the death with one of the people present that night and was later burned alive when his car caught fire on his mother’s lawn with him inside. The death was ruled accidental.
While many years separate these cold cases spanning decades, and while the people associated with the individual crimes may have different names, a lot of those names trace back to an outlaw biker gang that formed in Laurel back in the 70s, and has since disbanded. While one could argue that, in such a small town as Laurel, pretty much everyone is connected to everyone else by blood or marriage — from petty criminal to police chief — suffice to say locals know when it comes to the people associated with this particular gang, it’s best not to say anything. And if you are raped by people associated with that gang, it might be a good idea to get out of town and change your name.
While her family now knows what happened to Lula Ann Gillespie-Miller, the context behind her disappearance is an important part of the story, as well. Likewise for all the other cases around Laurel, Indiana, that remain unsolved. If anyone has any information on any of these outstanding cold cases, they can contact Detective Sgt. Scott Jarvis at (765) 778-2121.
[Photo courtesy of the Justice for Jason Bolton website/Tomi Bolton Schmid]