In the early hours of the 30th of December, 1989, Karen was driving with her sister-in-law Christy. Karen was extremely angry at Christy, so angry that Karen decided to pull the car over on the I-275 in Clermont County, Ohio, and get out of the car.
Karen, who was 17 years old, had been staying with her brother, Curtiss, and his wife Christy in their apartment in Milford, Ohio. Despite only being 17, Karen already had developed a bad relationship with alcohol and was going through a rebellious stage. Richard, Karen’s father, was so concerned with her relationship with alcohol that he enrolled her in an alcohol treatment programme, but Karen refused to go.
She told her dad that she didn’t want to live at home anymore, and as a compromise he eventually let her live with Curtiss and Christy in Milford. Richard remained living at Karen’s family home in Reading, Ohio.
Curtiss and Christy had made plans to move to Florida the next month, and Karen was going to make the move with them.
Earlier that night, on the 30th of December 1989, Karen had been helping Christy pack some boxes when Christy broke the news to Karen that she had been having some relationship problems with Curtiss and was planning on ending the relationship, and wouldn’t be moving to Florida.
Karen did not take the news well, and she started to argue with Christy. It is thought that Karen was mostly upset that the breakdown of her brother’s marriage would mean that she would no longer be able to move to Florida.
It was during this argument and teenage-rage-filled mind that Karen made the decision to get out of Christy’s car and walk away.
Christy tried to convince Karen to get back in the car, but she just kept walking. Christy then got into the driver’s seat of her car and just waited for a few minutes, deciding what to do next. During this time Christy was approached by a man in a red sports car, asking if she needed any help, but she waved him off.
When Karen still did not return to the car, Christy decided to drive slowly down the highway looking for her. Christy drove around 3 miles to the nearest interchange, before turning around and heading back down the I-275. There was still no sign of Karen, so Christy decided to return to Richard’s house.
Richard and his wife, Diane, had been looking after Christy’s infant son. Richard did say that when Christy arrived at around 3:30am to pick him up, she was crying hysterically and wouldn’t explain what was wrong. When he asked where Karen was, she seemed to panic and did not know what to say, but she eventually told him that Karen was back at her apartment before leaving with her son.
As soon as Karen’s family had been told the truth about what had happened, they immediately contacted the Miami Township Police Department and reported her as missing. Detectives initially believed that they were dealing with a runaway, but after realising that Karen only had $7 on her, and all her personal belongings were still at Christy’s home, they quickly realised that she had not run away.
Karen also had two uncashed cheques from her job as a waitress, and she had no prior history of running away from home.
After Karen’s disappearance started being shown on TV, the man in the red car who approached Christy that night came forward and said that he might have seen Karen. However, the version of events that he told the police was very different to what Christy had said.
The man, who has not been named, said that he saw a car that he believed had broken down and that he saw a woman walking away from the car. He then claimed Christy got out of her car and walked to his car, and told him that she had been in an argument with her sister-in-law and asked him if he would give her a ride home. The man then went to look for Karen, but after driving around for 10 minutes, he gave up and continued on his way.
Due to the conflicting versions of events, detectives made both Christy and the man in the red car take polygraph tests. Both Christy and the man passed the polygraph tests about the night Karen went missing.
Police will not reveal the name of the man, but they have said that he was living in Harrison County, Ohio, at the time of Karen’s disappearance.
One woman contacted police saying that she was outside with her dog at around the time Karen went missing and that she heard a woman screaming. This woman lived close to the Loveland-Indian Hill exit off I-275, which is close to where Karen was last seen. The woman wasn’t sure if this scream was related to Karen’s disappearance or not.
Karen’s family were holding out hope that she was still alive, and conducted several searches around both sides of the I-275, and even walked from Milford to the I-71 interchange several times. Sadly, their intense search efforts found no evidence of what happened to Karen that night.
The police made several public appeals for information, but no one came forward with information. The police were open to any possibilities, but privately they thought that Karen was most likely dead even though they had no evidence to support foul play had taken place.
Karen’s family eventually stopped talking to Christy due to tensions becoming so high. Christy was also the last person to see Karen alive, and although there hadn’t been any evidence to suggest that Christy was involved in Karen’s disappearance, there were too many unknowns and Karen’s family were unsure of what to believe.
In 1993, Richard and Diane moved from Reading, Ohio to West Chester, Pennsylvania. Even though it had been 4 years since Karen went missing, they set up a call-forwarding from their old phone number to their new one, just in case Karen decided to call them. Richard and Diane desperately wanted to believe that Karen was still alive, and had just started a new life for herself.
In 1993, a truck driver told police that he saw a man in a pickup truck near Lake Isabella in the late December of 1989 digging a grave and burying a woman’s body that was wrapped in a blanket. He said that after he saw Karen’s missing poster, he recognised her as the woman who was being buried. The truck driver took the police to where he saw the man dig the grave but after an extensive search of that area, they found no evidence to suggest that anyone had ever been buried in that location.
The police did keep the truck driver on their radar for several years as possibly being involved in Karen’s disappearance, but they found nothing that linked him to Karen’s case.
In 2000, Richard and Diane received a call from a man who told them that their daughter was buried in Renfro Valley, Kentucky. However, it was later revealed that this caller was 54-year-old Larry Mullins who lived in Hamilton County with his grandmother. It turned out that Larry liked to amuse himself by writing journal entries about car accidents, missing people etc and then years later call the families and taunt them. He had over 230 journals.
Larry was charged with several misdemeanours. In Karen’s case, he was given a fine of $500 and sentenced to 45 days in jail.
However, the new publicity of Karen’s case evoked a call from Kate Harner. Kate had actually called the police in 1990 with her tip, but the police never returned her call. So Kate called them again and told them the same tip she had told them in 1990.
Kate said that sometime in the late December of 1989, she had offered a ride to a young woman who was walking along the I-275 highway. Whilst Kate was talking with the woman, a red pickup truck with Kentucky license plates pulled up next to her. There was a man who was driving the truck, and when he rolled down the window the woman smiled at him as if she knew him. The woman then waved off Kate, and Kate assumed that she was going to get a ride with the man in the pickup truck. It was when Kate saw the missing posters of Karen that she realised the woman she had seen that night was actually Karen.
Karen’s case went quiet for a few years until 2009 when the police announced that they had a suspect in the case and that they hoped an arrest in the case would be imminent. The suspect has not been named publicly, but he is the man who was driving the red car on the night that Karen went missing.
Police ruled him out at the time as he had passed the polygraph exam, but over the years the man started to change his story, whilst Christy’s version of events stayed exactly the same. This made detectives suspicious, so they asked the FBI to go over his polygraph test results. The FBI’s behavioural scientists determined that the man had actually been manipulating the test, and had actually failed.
At the time of Karen’s disappearance, the man was in his twenties and he was driving a red Datsun B310 on the night of Karen’s disappearance. He admitted that he approached Christy’s car because he thought it had broken down, but Christy never approached him, so the only way he would have known about the fight they had was if Karen had told him. The man also admitted that he did see Karen that night, something that he denied during his polygraph test, but that she had refused his offer of a ride.
This makes him the last person to see Karen alive.
Richard, Karen’s father, has said that the man had his car cleaned twice on the day that Karen went missing and then his car disappeared. The title was never transferred so it was never sold, but the insurance was cancelled and the car was never seen again.
The suspect also knew things about the case that were never made public, and according to one of his friends, he referred to “the girl missing from I-275” before Karen had even been reported missing.
The Clermont County prosecutor has said that it is likely they would get a conviction based on circumstance evidence, but they still asked Karen’s family if they would be willing to accept a lower sentence in return for the location of Karen’s body. Karen’s family accepted this, as they just want to bring her home, but no charges have been filed.
The FBI is also convinced that the man is the murderer after hearing his interview tapes, but they believe that if the police were able to have a little more convincing evidence against him, they would be able to arrest him.
The police are urging anyone with information about Karen’s disappearance to come forward, as even the tiniest bit of evidence could be the one thing needed to arrest the suspect.
Do you know what happened to Karen?
Unsolved, Unsolved Case, Missing, Missing Person, Missing Female, Unsolved Mystery, 1989, Karen Ann Spencer, Clermont County, Ohio, True Crime, Mystery, Disappearance, Disappeared, Strange