I-Team Unsolved: What happened to teen girl who vanished on I-275 in 1989?

Posted at 6:00 AM, May 12, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-13 00:45:28-04

In our I-Team Unsolved series, WCPO will examine homicide cold cases in Greater Cincinnati.

FLORENCE, Ky. -- Karen Spencer disappeared two weeks before her 18th birthday in 1989. Her body was never found, but the lead detective on the case said he's interviewed Karen's killer multiple times.

And authorities know where he is.

So why hasn't he been charged? That's the question Karen's family has asked for 28 years.

"The former prosecutor told us they could get an indictment for the guy and probably a conviction, but they didn't want to press it (without more evidence) because there's no statute of limitations on murder," Karen's dad, Richard Spencer, said. "And now the years have gone by and it seems like nobody cares anymore.

"It feels just as fresh as in '89 when it happened."

Richard and Diana Spencer couldn't hold back tears when they spoke about Karen.

"She was spunky, she was stubborn as the day is long," said Diana, Karen's stepmother who raised her since age 4. "But she's a good kid. She didn't deserve whatever happened to her. She just did a stupid, stupid thing."

That stupid thing, Diana said, was getting out of a car on the side of the interstate at 3 a.m. one Saturday morning in 1989.

RELATED: A look at famous missing children cases in the Tri-State

Karen was helping her brother and sister-in-law move from an apartment in Milford on Dec. 29, 1989.

At some point, Karen began arguing with her sister-in-law, Kristy Spencer, police said. The argument was about Karen's brother, Kristy's husband.

"She could be a real sweetheart, but she's also stubborn," Richard said. "She was hardheaded."

At about 3 a.m. on Dec. 30, the two were in a car heading west on I-275, someplace between the Montgomery Road and State Route 28 exits. Kristy was driving the car.

Kristy pulled over to the shoulder, stopped the car and Karen got out.

"She got out of the car on 275, angry," Richard said.

As Kristy began to pull away, a man in a red car pulled up. Some reports said the car was a Nissan B-310, others said a Datsun sports car and a few said it was a minivan.

Retired detective Bill Paul said he believes the car was a Datsun -- a car that disappeared when Karen did.

Kristy said she pulled away from the scene before she saw what Karen did next. Paul said he knows Kristy felt guilty and frightened, but she remained truthful about what she saw (and didn't see) that night.

"At first, she was being blamed," Paul said. "There was a lot of guilt. I think she felt that if she made Karen stay in the car, she would have lived."

Neither detectives nor the Spencers know where Karen's body ended up.

One witness told police he saw a man in a red car burying a body at Lake Isabella in Loveland just after Karen's disappearance. Paul said he thinks the witness was lying.

"He wanted to be part of the investigation," Paul said.

The witness lied about his occupation, Paul said, and gave inconsistent accounts.

However, the Lake Isabella tip was all the Spencers had to go on. They searched the woods surrounding the lake and got approval to dig and search for a body.

Below: Watch archive video of the lake search


The family even hired a psychic to search Lake Isabella.

"The plea I make is for someone to come forward," Diana said. "We beg -- we've been begging for 27-and-a-half years. All we want to know is where she is so we can bring her home."

Lt. Greg Jenkins is in charge of the investigations division in Clermont County. While the case is open, it has an inactive status, Jenkins said.

"We have a suspect. We had this suspect back then, but we need assistance to help break the case," Jenkins said. "We've asked the public to provide us with any tips in the case."

The suspect was interviewed multiple times, Jenkins said, but the evidence was never strong enough to ensure a conviction or confession. The suspect admitted to speaking to Karen, which would make him the last person to see her alive. However, he never said Karen got in his car -- the red sports car.

Paul and Jenkins wouldn't identify the suspect or give details they said could jeopardize the investigation. They did, however, tell the I-Team the suspect is a man who was in his early 20s at the time of the murder. In 1989, he was recently discharged from the military, Jenkins said.

The suspect isn't in jail and has a clean criminal record, Jenkins said.

"We could reach out to him immediately," Jenkins said. "But because the case is inactive, there’s no reason to."

Paul said he knows "without a doubt" who killed Karen.

"He knew information only the killer would know," he said. "There were certain points of the case that were never released, and he had knowledge of them."

Paul said he's sifted through every detail in the case of the past two decades. He showed interview tapes to the FBI. He said they all agreed he found Karen's killer.

He said the evidence was mostly circumstantial, which resulted in a "hearsay case."

"If you knew what I know, you'd have no doubt," Paul said.

Karen's stepbrother Jim Campbell said the family would like justice, but they need closure.

"We forgive (her killer) for what he's done," Campbell said. "We don't forgive him for not giving us closure.

"Sometimes when people get older, they find religion. You're supposed to do the right thing. You're never going to get the forgiveness you're looking for unless you do what's right."

Karen's family members said a prosecutor asked them at one point if they would accept a lesser charge against the suspect if he told police where Karen's body is. They replied "absolutely."

"I just want them to care enough about it to do something," Richard said. "We want closure."

Authorities ask anyone with information about Karen Spencer's case to call 513-248-3721.