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Police hunt for possible serial killer in 1980s 'redhead murders'

More than 30 years after the bodies of multiple young, red-haired women were discovered dumped near U.S. highways in Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas, police say the killings may be the work of an unknown serial killer.

"The cases are probably connected," said Detective Aaron Frederick of the Kentucky State Police. "There's a lot of similarities."

There is still too little evidence to officially connect the cases, he said. But the parallels are striking. The six women were found mostly naked beside major roadways between 1984 and 1985. They all had red hair, and most had been strangled.

Police at the time did not connect the cases. The women were found hundreds of miles apart, so the investigations were handled by different agencies. What's more, only one of the six women was identified. With little evidence, and no family members demanding justice, the cases went cold -- and were soon forgotten.

That's how they stayed until about a year ago, when police stumbled across new evidence, reviving the hunt for a suspect in the decades-old killings.

The first break came in the summer of 2017. The FBI had re-examined evidence from a 1985 homicide in which a Jane Doe with red hair was found inside a refrigerator near a Kentucky highway.

"The FBI called," Frederick said. "They said they found a match for a fingerprint found on the refrigerator."

The print turned out to be unrelated to the case, Frederick said. But it spurred him to re-examine the old files.

"I had never heard of the case," he said. "I came back and looked it over. We'd had no leads since 1992. So, we decided to put a press release out and try to get her identified."

The release went out in July 2017. The following October, a woman from North Carolina called saying she thought the woman could be her mother, Espy Regina Black-Pilgrim.

Frederick went to North Carolina to gather DNA evidence. While they were awaiting the results, movement began in other cases.

In the spring of this year, a high school sociology class in Elizabethton, Tenn., began researching the "redhead murders" for a class project. The students and their teacher, Alex Campbell, gathered information from multiple police agencies and solicited advice from an FBI profiler.

By the end of the semester, Campbell was convinced the killings were the work of a serial killer.

"We determined there were six murders linked together," Campbell said. "It's ridiculous to assume that six different killers in the same area, at the same time, killing in the same way for the same reason."

The killer, they said, was probably a truck driver based in Knoxville, Tenn. He lured hitchhikers or prostitutes into his truck, then killed them with his bare hands before dumping their bodies beside the road, the students' profile alleges.

The students sent their eight-page profile to each agency investigating the killings, including Frederick, who -- still waiting for the DNA results for his victim -- immediately recognized that the children's analysis could be right.

A few months after the students released their findings, investigators with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation came across a blog post about a red-haired woman missing from Indiana. The woman matched the description of a Jane Doe found more than 30 years earlier beside Interstate 75 in Tennessee. Fingerprints confirmed the woman was 21-year-old Tina Farmer.

"Since this investigation is ongoing and remains very active, we can't confirm any connection this case may have to another," Leslie Earhart, a spokeswoman for TBI, said in an email. "It's too premature in the investigation to discuss such specifics."

A month later, the Kentucky victim's DNA came back as a match for Espy Pilgrim.

Knowing the victim's identity has enabled Kentucky police to reopen the decades-old investigation. Frederick now knows that Pilgrim was last seen in the middle of the night at a truck stop in Kentucky seeking a ride to North Carolina. A witness remembers someone calling across the CB radio, offering her a ride.

"The students are probably right," Frederick said. "It's very likely the killer was a truck driver. They went everywhere."

The various police agencies investigating the six "redhead murders" are not working together, Frederick said. They have, however, agreed to share any relevant new information.

"If this doesn't get solved soon, a lot of the people who saw something and might be able to help will be dead," Campbell said. "If we don't do it soon, it's never going to get done. So we're just going to keep pushing. We're not giving up on these women."
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