The 1983 murder of 14-year-old Rashell Ward in Red Bluff, California, has been resolved, with a significant clue being a single strand of hair discovered on the victim.
On March 3, 1983, Ward went missing during her regular five-block journey to school. A rancher later discovered her body on Pine Creek Road, a few miles west of Red Bluff in Tehama County. She had been taped, assaulted, and fatally shot in the back of the head.
At the time, Ward was one of two eighth-grade girls attending the Seventh Day Adventist school in Red Bluff. Sheriff Dave Kain of Tehama County informed the media on Wednesday that the tragic incident garnered substantial media attention, resulting in numerous tips and potential suspects. Notably, Henry Lee Lucas, labeled the “Confession Killer” due to his multiple false murder confessions, falsely admitted to killing Ward. However, inconsistencies in Lucas’s account led to his exoneration, although his claim diverted valuable resources from the investigation.
This week, the Tehama County Sheriff’s Office identified the perpetrator as Johnny Lee Coy, a Red Bluff resident during Ward’s murder. In 1989, Coy was found guilty of abducting a mother and her 21-year-old daughter, committing sexual assault against the daughter, and then seizing their car. He was serving two life sentences for these offenses when he passed away in prison in June 2019. Coy had not been previously linked to Ward’s murder.
Modern advancements in DNA analysis and forensic genealogy have played pivotal roles in solving cold cases like Ward’s. “The original 1983 detectives had the foresight to collect evidence samples that became vital later on in solving this case,” stated Sheriff Kain. In particular, a strand of hair found on Ward’s body was preserved. In 2022, DNA extracted from this strand by a private lab was utilized by the FBI to trace familial connections and identify Coy as the murderer. Authorities are confident that they could have convicted Coy based on this evidence if he were alive.
Sheriff Kain expressed relief at providing closure to Ward’s family. Additionally, the department was glad to absolve Ron Koenig, the Tehama County sheriff at the time of the incident, from longstanding suspicions related to the case.