On September 2nd, 1988, at around 8:40pm, Cortney Clayton was heading to the M System Food Store which was about a block away from her family’s home in Stamford, Texas. Cortney’s father, Stan Clayton, said that she could go to the store to get some cola, but she had to wait to cross the street until her older brother caught up with her.
Nick, Cortney’s brother, left the home not long after Cortney and headed towards the store. On the way there, Nick ran into a friend and chatted with him for a bit. When Nick reached the corner where Cortney was supposed to wait for him, she wasn’t there.
Thinking that she may have gotten impatient and gone to the store by herself, Nick headed to the shop.
At the store, Nick spoke to the cashier who knew Nick and Cortney because they were regular visitors. The cashier told Nick that Cortney had already brought some cola and had left. After hearing this, Nick then left the store and headed back home, thinking that Cortney would be there.
When Nick arrived home at around 9pm, Cortney was not there. When Nick told his parents that he couldn’t find his sister, they immediately knew something was wrong. Cortney was terrified of the dark, and whilst it wasn’t dark when she left for the store, it would have been dark by now.
After a brief search by family members, the police were called at 9:15pm.
Stamford Police officers, along with deputies from the Jones County Sheriff’s Office, immediately started to search for Cortney.
Stan told police that Cortney was a really friendly child who could talk to anyone and that he was certain that she would not have willingly gotten into a car or walked off with a stranger. He also told police that Cortney was very familiar with the route to the M System Store,s so there was no way she could have gotten lost.
Detectives interviewed the cashier who was working that night, and she confirmed that Cortney did come in and buy a soda. She remembered Cortney because she was 4 cents short of buying the soda that she wanted, so the cashier said that she could just bring in the 4 cents the next day.
Three separate witnesses also came forward and reported seeing Cortney walking in the direction of her home after leaving the convenience store. She was last seen at 8:53pm, but when Nick arrived at the store at 8:55pm, Cortney had vanished.
In the store parking lot, police found a full bottle of soda sitting on the bumper of a car. After checking it for fingerprints, they confirmed that it was Cortney’s bottle of soda. Because the soda bottle was found standing up, police think that Cortney stopped to talk to someone that she knew. It is suggested that if she had been abducted, the soda bottle would have been found thrown or tossed to the ground.
On Saturday morning, Cortney still hadn’t returned. Police were going door to door and even used a helicopter to search from the sky. But as the day went on, there was no sign of Cortney, which lead police to believe that Cortney is no longer in the Stamford area.
On the following Tuesday, the FBI and authorities received a tip regarding a potential sighting of Cortney which led them to a house around five miles outside of Stamford. However, police never found evidence that Cortney had ever been at the property.
The search for Cortney was massive. It included the Stamford Police Department officials, the Jones County Sheriff’s Office officials, the Haskell’s County Sheriff’s Department officials, the FBI, Texas Rangers, Texas Highway Department, Texas Game Wardens, and the hundreds of members of the public who helped to join in the search. The entire city of Stamford was searched, block by block, twice. A large pond was dragged, and all wooded areas within a 20-mile radius of Stamford were searched.
But despite this extensive search, no clues to Cortney’s disappearance came to light.
A few weeks after Cortney’s disappearance, investigators reported that the last sighting of Cortney was by a woman who was driving through the M System store parking lot at 8:53pm on the night Cortney vanished. The woman said that she saw Cortney near a car that had two male occupants inside, and was sitting in the parking lot.
The woman believes that the car was a light blue Ford Torino, and it had a darker coloured blue on the top. The driver had his door open, and the woman saw Cortney speaking with this man, but she never saw Cortney get into the car.
Working closely with FBI Agents and the woman, authorities were able to produce this composition sketch of the man who was seen talking to Cortney.
They released this sketch, along with the description of the car, to the public. Despite the hundreds of tips they received, they have never been able to identify the man.
On March 27th, 1989, a hunter found a child’s skull in a field in Shackelford County, which is about 50 miles away from the M System Store that Cortney was last seen at. The hunter immediately notified the police and searched the surrounding area to find a number of other bones just 100 yards away from where the skull was found. Although they had to wait for confirmation, authorities believed that they had found Cortney.
Confirmation appeared to be a difficult process, as Cortney had never been to a dentist – so they couldn’t use dental DNA. Cortney had also never broken a bone, and no clothing was found with the body. Luckily, some human hairs were found with the remains. These hairs were then compared to hair from Cortney’s hairbrush, and it appeared to be a match.
At the University of North Texas, a scientist used a computer programme to make a facial reconstruction of the skull that was found. When this reconstruction was compared to photos of Cortney, they were almost identical. Even Cortney’s parents agreed that she had been found.
The coroner ruled Cortney’s death as a homicide but was unable to determine the exact cause of death. He did believe, however, that Cortney had been murdered and then dumped in the field not long after she had been abducted.
Cortney’s parents were devastated by the news, but they were thankful to know that she wasn’t being held captive by someone who was abusing her.
Cortney’s case was changed from a missing person to homicide, and the investigation into her death quickly started. Unfortunately, there was no physical evidence that could link anyone to Cortney’s death, and no more tips were coming forward.
In September 1991, police questioned two Shackelford County men who were suspected of trying to lure boys into their car. Detectives initially thought that they may be responsible for Cortney’s death as they had once worked on the field where Cortney’s body was found.
But, they passed polygraph tests and were eventually ruled out as viable suspects in Cortney’s case.
No other suspects have ever been named.
The Jones County Sheriff’s Office released an age-progressed sketch of the man, in 2016, who was seen talking to Cortney in the M System Store parking lot on the evening she went missing. The Texas Department of Public Safety also issued a $3,000 reward for any information that leads to the arrest and conviction of Cortney’s killer(s).
Police are hopeful that someone will come forward with the information needed to find those responsible for Cortney’s murder.
Unsolved, Murder, Homicide, True Crime, Child, Abduction, FBI, Investigation