On Valentine’s Day 1982, as people waited expectantly for the mail or for a florist delivery, a Arizona Department of Public Safety officer was looking for a blown out tyre shed by a motorist on Interstate 40 eleven miles outside of Williams, Arizona. It was a cold and frosty morning, the temperature just above freezing when, just 25 feet from the interstate, he came across a girl face down under a tree. He knew immediately she wasn’t just sleeping – not in the cold and wearing only jeans – and just one glance at the decomposition of the body and the damage wreaked by animals on her face and right ear was enough to send him scrambling for his radio. And so began a mystery which haunts the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office to this day.
The stretch of interstate where the body was found is a long incline and truck drivers would frequently pull over to cool their brakes. It was all too likely to investigating officers that the girl had been dumped from a passing truck; a belt loop on her jeans was broken indicating she had been dragged, while a stopped truck wouldn’t arouse any suspicion. She could have been killed anywhere across the USA.
Detectives nicknamed the girl Sally Valentine because of the day on which she was found.
A red and white striped jumper and a 36C bra was found near the body, but there was no way of identifying the girl from those.
But then Patty Wilkins, a waitress and the daughter of the owner of the Monte Carlo Truck Stop just outside Ash Fork, came forward. Following a description and sketch circulated by police, she said that a girl fitting that profile had come into the truck stop around 3am on the morning of 4th February 1982. She was accompanied by an older man and, while Patty was used to runaways and would notify the police, she saw no reason to so do, thinking the man was a relative while the pretty blonde girl was clean, well cared for and didn’t fit the look of the typical runaway. The girl was suffering from toothache and the man was concerned about her pain, the pair staying in the restaurant for an hour during which Patty gave the girl a junior aspirin that she tucked in her mouth. Other witnesses thought the girl was with two men, but Patty only saw her with a man in a two-tone, brown leather vest and a felt cowboy hat with a large peacock feather on the front.When they left, Patty thought no more about the pair until the news of the discovery of the body broke some ten days later. She told police that the girl who’d come into the truck stop was suffering from toothache and indeed an autopsy had discovered that the girl had gone through preparation for a root canal procedure a week before her death. Patty would then identify the jumper and jeans as those worn by the teenager. The girl was buried in Mountain View cemetery, Williams, in an unmarked grave until Patty raised the money – $187 – to give her a headstone. It said simply, Sally Valentine.
The case troubled Sgt Jack Judd who had been involved with it from the start. It concerned him that the young girl had no name, that no-one had come forward to claim her. So, over the next two years he would spend a thousand hours, much of it his spare time, poring over some 1632 FBI computer print outs of missing girls, sending out more than 1650 teletype messages to other law enforcement agencies. And, in July 1984, he found her.
Melody Eugenia Cutlip had been reported missing in 1980 by her mother, Edith L Gervais in Istachatta, Florida, when she was just fourteen. When she was found dead, she would have been just a few days past her sixteenth birthday. His initial identification was confirmed by Dr Homer Campbell, an Albuquerque orthodontist who claimed to be an expert in identifying people through their teeth and did so by comparing photos of the victim and Melody Cutlip. It was, even at the time, a controversial and unorthodox technique, and Campbell would subsequently be found to have misidentified other people. But, with the comparison of Melody’s height, weight and characteristics, it seemed to be a slamdunk.
Judd informed Mrs Gervais who refused to believe the news, even when Judd flew to Florida to speak to her directly. “What is out in Arizona, I don’t think is my daughter. I haven’t seen one ounce of proof,” said Mrs Gervais. She pointed out that Melody had never had any dental work of which she knew and that she’d been told the Arizona body had moles, which Melody didn’t. Judd put it down to denial, to not wanting to believe the worst. A stonemason added the name of Melody Cutlip to the Williams headstone.
And then, in 1986, Melody Cutlip came home.Whether through hope or mother’s intuition, Mrs Gervais was right. Now engaged to be married, the 18-year-old had been travelling the country as a crafts saleswoman, according to her employer, Mitch Kilgore of Franklinton, Louisiana. When she visited Florida for some shows, she decided to contact her relatives and they found her working at a crafts show in a Jacksonville mall. She had never been to Ash Fork, never had a root canal and was decidedly not dead.
In 1987, Sally Valentine’s body was exhumed to give investigators a chance to x-ray her skull. Her DNA was entered into the CODIS system, but it has so far failed to make a match with any relatives. No-one has ever come forward to report a teenager missing from their family. Although Melody Cutlip’s family asked to have her name removed from the stone, this was never done and the unknown girl last seen near Ash Fork lies under two names which do not belong to her.
Sadly, for Melody there was no happy ending. She had settled in Metairie, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, where she worked as a customer service representative for Budget Rent-a-Car and was engaged to Harold Buras. Coming home from work on 11th September 1998 in a storm, her car hit water on I-10 and crashed into an oncoming truck, killing her instantly. She was 32.
On the day the body was discovered in February 1982, Sgt Jack Judd said, “We don’t know who she is.” Almost forty years on, we still don’t know.
UPDATE! On 22 February 2021, the ‘lost girl of Ash Fork’ was positively identified by the Coconino Sheriff’s department as Carolyn Eaton, a 17-year-old runaway from St Louis, Missouri, who had disappeared around Christmas of 1981. Hopefully this will bring closure to her family.
Coconino County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Unit is still investigating this case as a homicide. Any details can be passed to them on 928-226-5033.