Cold case: Howell’s murder still unsolved 43 years later; advocate, DCSO asking for community’s help

July 24, 2023 | 12:10 am

Updated July 24, 2023 | 12:57 am

July 25 marks the 43rd anniversary of the murder of Terri Marie Howell. With the case still unsolved, family members of Howell and the Daviess County Sheriff’s Office are reigniting their investigations with hopes to bring closure and Howell’s killer to justice.

In 1980, Howell’s body was found strangled and burned in an abandoned farmhouse by Free Silver Road and Lanham Road outside of Knottsville.

For many years, Howell’s mother Ava Merle Wortheam acted as the main spokesperson and advocate for Howell.

After Wortheam died in 2021, Penny Tomes has continued to bring awareness to Howell’s case. Tomes is the former spouse of Kenny Howell, Terri’s son, and the mother of Terri’s grandchildren.

“Even though it’s been 43 years, the family deserves closure, and (Terri) deserves having justice for what happened to her,” Tomes said. “Somebody needs to continue to speak up, speak out, and stay on top of it the way Grandma Merle did.”

Tomes said that she, other family members, and DCSO have worked on the case on and off for years, and she felt it was time for another big push.

“My own children (started) asking questions about it,” Tomes said. “I got all of my paperwork back out again and really started looking into it.”

Capt. Jeff Payne, criminal investigations commander for DCSO, said spoke about where the department is at with Terri’s case.

“(Terri’s case) is a banker’s box full of binders and paperwork,” Payne said. “I have not been able to go through all of it yet because crime hasn’t been put on hold. There’s other cases that I’m having to work that are active cases – I’m a working captain. I wish I knew everything about this case, but I’m still digesting all the information from previous investigators.” 

Terri’s case is also unique because many of the key witnesses and suspects have died, Payne said.

“It’s trying to put a puzzle together without a picture to go off of,” Payne said.

Last week, DCSO shared a report of the details of the case and encouraged members of the public to reach out if they have any helpful or new information.

According to the report, Howell, 24, was last seen alive on Thursday, July 25, 1980, at the Hasty Tasty – a local restaurant and bar at 1202 East 4th Street.

Howell and a friend left around 1 a.m. with an unidentified man, per the report. Witnesses said the vehicle was a light blue, 1960s, two-door Ford passenger car with round lights. 

Witnesses described the man as a white male with brown hair, approximately 5 feet 10 inches tall, and a slender build.

When Howell and her friend realized they were going in the opposite direction of their homes, the friend jumped out of the car while Howell remained in the vehicle, the report says.

Firefighters found Howell’s body at 4:45 p.m. on July 25, 1980.

According to a Messenger-Inquirer article from Tuesday, July 29, 1980, Wortheam filed a missing persons report Saturday, July 26 and was contacted by Sheriff Harold Taylor. 

According to the autopsy report, Coroner Mike Everly performed Howell’s autopsy at Haley-McGinnis funeral home on the 26th. Wortheam maintained in multiple interviews about the case that Howell was buried the same day.

Using dental records and Terri’s blouse, found 100 yards away from the body site, Terri was identified Sunday, July 27, 1980.

Howell’s obituary, published in the Messenger-Inquirer on Monday, July 28, 1980, said there was no visitation and a graveside service was hosted at Owensboro Memorial Gardens.

Tomes hopes DCSO’s efforts come to fruition and help move the case along.

“We just want to work with them,” Tomes said. “We want to be able to still be involved, and if they have questions, we want to be able to answer those in a positive light.”

In addition to her own investigation, Tomes started the “Justice For Terri Howell” Facebook page.

Tomes started the page to keep the memory of Howell alive and give community members a space to share any new or helpful information.

“After speaking with several people locally about Terri, I felt like that was a good way to get some information out there to keep her case relevant,” Tomes said. “That page, I’m hoping, will allow people to get some knowledge of her case and think, ‘Wait a minute, uncle so and so went to that bar or drove a car like that.’”

After 43 years, Tomes said that kind of community collaboration is crucial.

“It’s going to take somebody stepping forward with some targeted information about it,” Tomes said.

Daviess County Sheriff Brad Youngman said he is taking new measures to be proactive and ensure that cases like Terri’s do not sit on shelves unsolved. Like Tomes, Youngman said that community collaboration is a crucial component.

“We’re going to use our web page to keep these cases (in front of) the public, not just in a banker’s box down in the basement,” Youngman said. “We’re going to remind people on our social media. We’re going to ask things to try to get people to remember that this case exists.”

In addition, Youngman said that the investigation staff is scheduled to receive specialized “cold case” training in the coming months.

“That’s a specialized skill,” Youngman said. “You can be a very experienced, great detective, but it’s like any other type of specialty – you have to go to specialty training to be good at it.”

While the department is trying to be proactive, it is also important to remember that these measures will take time, Youngman said.

Tomes said that although her main goal is solving Terri’s case, some of the interaction she has seen on the “Justice for Terri Howell” Facebook page gives her hope that she can help more people whose case files are still sitting on shelves.

“I know in my heart what our family has dealt with through the years with Terri’s case,” Tomes said. “My heart goes out to these other families, and I want to elaborate some of their cases as well, hopefully down the road. I’m in no way, shape, or form a private investigator; this is just something that’s close to our hearts here in my family, and that’s why it’s so important to us.”

July 24, 2023 | 12:10 am

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