The Unsolved Murders of Kerry Graham and Francine Trimble

Updated on February 6, 2018
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Kym L. Pasqualini is a freelance writer and founder of Nation's Missing Children Organization and National Center for Missing Adults.

Best friends Kerry Graham and Francine Trimble who went missing in 1978.
Best friends Kerry Graham and Francine Trimble who went missing in 1978.

Residents of Forestville, Calif., Kerry Ann Graham, age 15, and Francine Marie Trimble, age 14, were next-door neighbors and inseparable as children.

In December 1978, the two girls left their homes to go to Coddingtown Mall in Santa Rosa, telling their families they were going to buy Christmas gifts. They were never seen alive again.

According to family members, Trimble's mother made a missing child report to Sonoma County Sheriff's Office in mid-December 1978, though the exact date was not known. Graham was reportedly reported missing on Christmas Eve that year. The dates of disappearance would be a discrepancy that would haunt the investigation for years to come.

Sonoma County Sheriff responded by conducting a dual investigation but found neither girl had taken anything with them. Their makeup was found still arranged on a dresser in Trimble’s room like they were getting ready to go somewhere and planned to return.

Also, Trimble had recently undergone surgery to remove her appendix and her prescription medication was still in her room.

Investigators speculated Graham had gone next door to Trimble’s home the day they disappeared and eventually concluded they were runaways. Meaning, the investigation into their disappearances basically stopped, a terrible miscalculation but one that is made more common and still happens to this day.

Both families feared the girls had been hitchhiking and possibly kidnapped but also couldn’t totally rule out the possibility they both ran away.

A Gruesome Discovery

On the afternoon of July 8, 1979, two men from Sacramento were taking a drive to the Mendocino Coast and stopped at a turnout along Highway 20, approximately 12 miles west of Willits.

The area where the men pulled off the road in a private land area, near the Jackson Demonstration State Forest is more than 100 miles northwest of where Trimble and Graham vanished. One of the men ventured down a steep embankment near James Creek and made a gruesome discovery.

Route to Coddingtown Mall, and location where bodies were found more than 100 miles northwest.
Route to Coddingtown Mall, and location where bodies were found more than 100 miles northwest.

He discovered a human skull slightly visible in what appeared to be a shallow grave half-way down the embankment. The individuals left a soda can on the side of the road to mark the area and went to notify authorities.

Mendocino County Sheriff responded to the scene, they conducted an extensive ground search and found numerous skeletal remains scattered in the area, later revealing the remains were of two individuals.

Mendocino County Sheriff responding to shallow grave along Highway 20.
Mendocino County Sheriff responding to shallow grave along Highway 20.

No clothing was found. Both victims had been bound with duct tape and hidden inside plastic bags and shallowly buried. Due to animal scavenging, police found pieces of duct tape, hair, and bones dispersed around embankment and creek.

As for personal effects, only a small shell earring of a “bird” was found at the location. It was later determined to be Trimble’s.

Police determined both victims had been murdered at another location and bodies buried in the location, most certainly after sundown.

Mendocino County Sheriff and FBI conducting two-day ground search of area.
Mendocino County Sheriff and FBI conducting two-day ground search of area.

The FBI joined the sheriff’s department in an extensive two-day search and were able to recover an estimated 90 percent of the skeletal remains.

Autopsies

Autopsies concluded the recovered remains were Caucasian. The estimated time of death to be approximately December 8, 1978. At first, the coroner could not make a determination if the remains were male or female. Later, a forensic pathologist made the determination one victim was male and one female.

In 1978, the technology available today did not exist and the attempt to make an identification of unidentified bodies was in its infancy during the 1970s.

A report was issued that contained the following:

Victim 1 - Estimated to be between 5 feet 3 inches and 6 feet 0 inches but possibly no taller than 5 feet. Age was thought to be between 10-20 years old but possibly no older than 14-years old. The handmade shell earring was found with this victim and was popular with Native American and hippies. This body would later be identified as Francine Trimble.

Victim 2 – Estimated to be between 5 feet 2 inches and 5 feet 11 inches tall but possibly no taller than 5 feet 5 inches. Age was thought to between 10-20 years old but possibly no older than 13. It was determined the victim had light brown hair and excellent dental work. This victim would later be identified as Karry Graham who was on 4 feet 9 inches.

Single carved shell earring of a bird found at scene.
Single carved shell earring of a bird found at scene.

With the victim’s gender, ethnicity and actual height in question added to the difficulties to properly identify the victims, and an erroneous report that the victims may have been related, possibly a brother and sister surfaced, further baffling authorities. With no missing person reports involving siblings received within the timeframe the girl went missing or in following years, the two unidentified bodies were never connected to the missing girls.

The victims became informally known as “John Doe” and “Jane Doe.”

Facial reconstruction of identified bodies known as Jane Doe and John Doe and thought to be siblings.
Facial reconstruction of identified bodies known as Jane Doe and John Doe and thought to be siblings.

Both unidentified victims were entombed in a cement crypt at the Russian River Cemetery in Ukiah, Calif.

Evidence transferred to FBI

Both victims were listed in the National Crime Information Center at the FBI. NCIC was launched in 1967 and described as a law enforcement “lifeline” and electronic clearinghouse of data that can be accessed by law enforcement 24-hours a day, 365 days per year.

According to the NCIC website, it helps criminal justice professionals apprehend fugitives, locate missing persons, recover stolen property, and identify terrorists. It also assists law enforcement officers in performing their duties more safely and provides information necessary to protect the public. NCIC has multiple purposes but one of the most crucial is the cross-referencing of missing person reports and unidentified reports for descriptive matches.

When law enforcement takes a missing person report, they enter descriptive data into the NCIC system such as age, race, height, weight, hair color, eye color, scars, marks, and tattoos. The date and place of disappearance are also entered, along with a brief summary of the circumstances of the missing person’s disappearance.

When an unidentified body is located, the descriptive data of the individual based upon autopsies performed are entered into the NCIC system. Based on the accuracy of the data entered, the system can cross-reference descriptive and other relevant data, to include the date of disappearance, with missing person files to produce a report of potential matches.

Initially started with only five files and 356,784 records. By the end of 2015, NCIC contained 12 million active records in 21 files. During 2015, NCIC averaged 12.6 million transactions per day.

As of December 31, 2017, there were 88,242 active missing person cases listed in NCIC, with 19,699 missing from California. In addition, there were 8,648 unidentified person cases in NCIC, with 3,233 of those unidentified bodies in California.

The FBI can also cross-reference DNA between from missing persons, family members of missing persons and unidentified victims utilizing the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) to be cross-referenced. The advances in technology astounding and finally give families of missing persons hope to at least know what happened to their loved one rather than spending years “not knowing” and living in ambiguity.

Regardless of NCIC’s amazing capabilities, it is only as good as the data that is input into the system to help solve cases.

Too many discrepencies

The first discrepancy that occurred to hinder identification of Trimble and Graham was the dates of disappearance.

Police had mistakenly entered Trimble and Graham’s as occurring December 24, 1979. Actually, Graham’s mother confirmed she had made the report December 24, 1978. Trimble’s family corroborated the reports were made to the Sonoma County Sheriff during December 1978.

In a Press Democrat article “Remains found in Mendocino County in 1979 belonged to two missing Forestville teens” it states forensic odontologist Jim Wood, now a state assemblyman, was first to question the familial relationship between the victims after examining both sets of teeth in 2000, following the first of two re-examinations of the skeletal remains. Wood said he believed the jaw were too dissimilar to be related.

The second inconsistency was Graham’s remains being listed as male.

Yet another discrepancy was the familial relationship that would later be proven wrong.

These major inconsistencies would hinder the FBI NCIC system from making a positive cross-reference match, that is, until 2014 the bodies were exhumed again, and a DNA test revealed a female victim instead of a male.

In 2011, BBC teamed up with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), along with a forensic artist who created a facial reconstruction.

Facial reconstructions made with assistance of BBC and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Facial reconstructions made with assistance of BBC and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

The girls were also entered into the National Unidentified and Missing Person System and family members were contacted to submit DNA family reference samples into the FBI CODIS system. DNA samples from the were processed at the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. Thirty-six years after the two best friends were found along the roadside, they were officially identified. After decades, they could finally be returned to their families.

Forensic reconstruction of Graham and Trimble made by National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Forensic reconstruction of Graham and Trimble made by National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

Sadly, Trimble’s parents are now deceased, but several other family members attended the official press conference. Graham’s parents still live in Forestville but were not able to attend. Trimble’s brother, however, flew in from Utah to attend and hear authorities announce John and Jane Doe finally had names, Kerry Graham and Francine Trimble.

Another investigation begins

Mendocino Sheriff Tom Allman said, “We’re hoping somebody out there knows something,” telling the girl’s family members and media who attended the press conference.

“I hope you never believed we’d forgotten this case,” said Allman.

Never a case without challenges, unfortunately, investigators are now fighting time. Fading memories, and many witnesses gone, lost with the many years that have passed.

Mendocino Sheriff Tom Allman speaking to media and the families of Graham and Trimble.
Mendocino Sheriff Tom Allman speaking to media and the families of Graham and Trimble.

Allman is hoping someone out there remembers seeing something. A vehicle parked along Highway 20 that may have stood out in their memory, someone picking up two young girls in the town of Forestville or Santa Rosa.

Clues to their disappearance might shed light on the current investigation moving forward.

Their families describe the girls as sweet, happy, bright and innocent.

“They were always together,” said Ron Graham, Graham’s brother now 58. Now knowing the girls are deceased, “It’s a shock,” said Graham.

Trimble’s uncle Will Walsh told reporters, “We miss Francine and regret deeply she never had a chance in life,” he said. “It would be really wonderful to solve this case.”

Trimble’s aunt said, “they just vanished into thin air.” My mother called all over the place, even call a psychic out of desperation at one point.”

Over the years, police have investigated a number of leads and interviewed several potential suspects including several serial killers who operated in that area during the 1970s.

In Santa Rosa, the bodies of another seven girls, mostly hitchhikers, were found dumped in ravines and creek beds, all similar, during 1972 and mid-1979.

The hours leading up to their disappearance

Police want to know more about the hours leading up to the Graham and Trimble’s disappearance. They still don’t know if the girls hitchhiked to Coddingtown Mall, or if they ever made it.

Eileen Goetz, a friend of the girls as teenagers, she saw the girls at El Molino High School on the date they vanished. They smoked cigarettes with Goetz near the tennis courts at the school. According to Goetz the girls did not attend the school that day and told her they were going to hitchhike to a party in Santa Cruz and asked her if she wanted to go with them. Another friend also stated they saw the two girls hitchhiking near a local Chevron station.

At this time, police have not officially stated the murders of Trimble and Graham are connected to other victims found in or near Santa Rosa throughout the same time, but it is not out of the realm of possibility, nor too hard to speculate there is a strong chance they are.

Anyone with information can call the sheriff’s tip line at 707-234-2100

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