K8 Unsolved: Stella Patterson

Published: Nov. 5, 2023 at 7:20 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 5, 2023 at 7:22 PM CST
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POINSETT COUNTY, Ark. (KAIT) - For 36 years, Poinsett County sheriff’s investigators have been trying to find 20-year-old Stella Patterson’s killer.

A Trumann fisherman was fishing on the St. Francis River on June 13, 1987, and reeled in a mystery that remains to this day.

As Kenny Whitaker was fishing, his line was stuck. He reeled the line out of the river, thinking that a log was caught on it.

Instead, he reeled in something much worse.

Attached to his line was a young woman with a bra tied around her neck.

Within minutes of being called, investigators and former Sheriff Jimmy Carter arrived at the scene. They had no idea who the woman was.

“With no clothing, no identification, and like I said, we searched the banks of the ditch and then ran the ditch back and forth to see if any of her clothing might have drifted away,” Carter said during a recent interview with K8 News.

The body was sent to the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory in Little Rock for an autopsy and positive identification.

Within several days, the sheriff’s office received the autopsy results. The results indicated that the woman died of ligature strangulation. The manner of death: homicide.

“Just the simple fact that the way she was found, you know. Thrown away like of no value. Just put in a ditch. And then, you know, what kind of person would do this? This wasn’t an accident. She was killed on purpose,” Carter said.

It took two more weeks before officers learned her identity through fingerprint analysis.

The victim was identified as 20-year-old Stella Patterson of Illinois.

According to the sheriff’s office, Patterson had lived in Poinsett County for about five months prior to her murder.

Former K8 News Reporter Kate Shannon, now Kate Boyle, covered the case and remembered speaking with Patterson’s family.

“They said, ‘You know, we hadn’t heard from her in years and seen her in years,’ and I thought, ‘Seen her in years, 20 years old,’ but I do remember there was very little interest in them pursuing anything and, as I recall, a great deal of emotions surrounding this young woman’s death,” Boyle said.

Initially, investigators believed Patterson’s killer was from out of town since she traveled the countryside, hitching rides with truck drivers.

But they later changed their minds.

“I believe it was somebody local. I’m not going to say, but there is somebody who is going to be revisited,” said Lieutenant Brad Felkins of the Poinsett County Sheriff’s Office, who is now investigating the case. “Somebody who may still live in Poinsett County today.”

Felkins and Captain Ryan Price were just kids when Patterson was murdered.

“I was a junior in high school in 1987,” Felkner said.

“I was born in April of ‘87, so I was just a few months old when this case happened,” Price added.

Felkner and Price are as committed to finding Patterson’s killer as their predecessors, who never forgot the victim.

“We put the picture up there, and each car had a picture of her,” said Carter. “I had a picture of her in the office and jail, so you walked in and if a person didn’t know who that is, you say, ‘Hey that’s Stella Patterson. Did you know her, or do you have any information, and why did you ask.’ It was always on everybody’s mind.”

“There’s people who know what happened. There’s absolutely no way that after 36 years, people don’t know what happened,” Price said.

Now, 36 years later investigators have new tools to help collect new evidence.

Using DNA samples collected from the crime scene, Detective Felkins said they have now found a few interesting things.

“It involves biological evidence that testing DNA was unavailable back in ‘87,” Felkins said.

Felkins and Price are confident they will get new leads.

”I would hope that if somebody out there knows factual information about this case that would help solve it, call us. Because we can’t solve crimes without the citizens’ help. One hundred percent we can’t without their help,” Felkins said.

”There’s somebody out there that knows this whole story from the mouth of the killer,” Price said. “We need that person to contact us.”

Although this might be a cold case, Patterson’s murder is not a closed case.

”This is not something you forget about. You felt it. It was real. This is not just another crime; this is not just another body,” Boyle said.

Even though Carter is no longer on the force, he says that he would like to be there when the murderer is finally taken into custody.

”I’d like to say, ‘Gotcha sucker!’”

If you have any information that can help solve the murder of Stella Patterson, call the Poinsett County Sheriff’s Office at 870-578-5411, or leave an anonymous tip on the Poinsett County’s website.