The Disappearance of Leigh Occhi

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EARLY LIFE:

Leigh Occhi was born on August 21, 1979 in Honolulu, Hawaii. Her parents, Vickie Felton and Donald Occhi, were military members who met while stationed in California. In 1977, after a year of dating, they married and were transferred to the military base in Honolulu. Sadly, their marriage came to an end in 1981, with the pair citing “irreconcilable” differences, and they went their separate ways – Donald relocated to Germany, while Vickie left the armed forces and moved with Leigh to Tupelo, Mississippi, in order to be closer to her parents.

Despite being overseas, Donald maintained a close relationship with his daughter. During one summer, Leigh visited him in Germany, where the pair explored the country, and when he eventually relocated to Fort Myer in Arlington County, Virginia after a tour in Iraq’s Desert Storm, the pair spent more time together, shooting guns and driving Donald’s 4WD vehicle.

Leigh and Vickie lived in a ranch-style home at 105 Honey Locust Drive, which was located at the end of a cul-de-sac. For a while, Vickie was married to a man named Barney Yarborough. However, the pair separated just a few weeks before Leigh’s disappearance, with Barney moving into an apartment elsewhere in Tupelo.

Growing up, Leigh was known for being kind, outgoing and smart, a sweet girl who was known for her love of animals and pizza. She was particularly fond on horses and had shown interest in horseback riding. She was also known as a good student – particularly when it came to math – but was said to exhibit what others called “disruptive” behaviours, such as fidgeting, which resulted in other kids avoiding her.

In the summer of 1992, she was 13 years old and about to start eighth grade at Tupelo Middle School. Her boyfriend, 11-year-old Jordan Morse, attended a different school and had started classes early, and the pair looked forward to their daily calls every afternoon.

LEAD UP TO DISAPPEARANCE:

At around 8:00pm on August 26, 1992, Leigh had returned home after an event with friends to find the front door to the house unlocked. As this signalled that her mother had not yet returned home, she ventured around the neighbourhood, asking neighbours if it would be okay if she waited in their homes for Vickie. She stayed with one until 8:45pm and left upon her mother returning home. According to the neighbour, nothing had seemed amiss, with Leigh appearing to be happy and talkative.

That night, the remnants of Hurricane Andrew were beginning to cross over Mississippi. Having been downgraded to a tropical storm, the forecast called for severe thunderstorms throughout the night and into the next day. As Leigh was scared of such storms, she opted to sleep with Vickie that night.

Vickie awoke at 6:45am the next morning to find Leigh still sound asleep. After taking a shower, she exited the bathroom and saw Leigh awake, but still in bed. This was around 7:00am, as Vickie recalls walking outside to grab the morning newspaper. After this, the pair ate breakfast together and discussed their plans for the evening. The two were to eat dinner at Taco Bell after Leigh and her grandmother attended an open house at the middle school.

Between 7:35am and 7:45am, Vickie left for work at the nearby manufacturing company, Leggett and Platt, at which she arrived at 7:50am. This would be the first time she was leaving her daughter home alone.

DISAPPEARNCE:

Upon arriving at work, Vickie borrowed her boss’ weather radio, in order to keep on top of the worsening weather. At around 8:30am, she called Leigh, as the weather was forecasted to get worse. The pair had developed a special ring, which would inform Leigh that her mother was calling. Vickie was to let the phone ring twice, before hanging up and calling immediately after. However, Leigh never picked up the phone.

There are differing reports regarding what happened after. Some sources state that Vickie left work immediately and returned home to check on Leigh, while others state she called her mother to ask if she’d be able to drive to the house and check that everything was okay. Regardless of what happened, it is known that Vickie left Leggett and Platt at 8:45am and returned home to find the garage door open and the light still on, meaning it had been activated just a few minutes prior. When she approached the house, she found the front door unlocked, and a search of the home revealed blood smeared on the walls and no sign of Leigh.

After checking the backyard and the pool area, Vickie called the Tupelo Police Department to report her daughter as missing. The time was 9:00am, 15 minutes after Vickie had returned home. Barney, Leigh’s grandmother and a local reporter who had overheard the call on police radio arrived just minutes after the call was placed, along with patrolmen from the police department.

SEARCH:

When investigators arrived on scene, they found no signs of forced entry into the home on Honey Locust Drive. However, there were signs that a struggled had occurred. There were fresh pools of Type-O blood found in Leigh’s upstairs bathroom, as well as some smeared in the hallway, bathroom and on her bedroom door. There was a blood trail found leading from the hallway to the living room, as well as blood and hair stuck to the door frame, indicating Leigh had hit her head during the struggle. One of her nightgowns and her bra were also found, bloodstained, in her laundry hamper, which suggested she’d incurred an injury above the neck, something that was further corroborated by a fist-sized pool of blood on the carpet. According to investigators, this was consistent with someone of Leigh’s height having received an injury to the head and suggested that she may have lay on the carpet for a short time before being moved.

As Leigh was known to have either Type-A or -O blood, they worked on the assumption that the pools found belonged to her.

In the master bathroom, police found blood in the sink and a pink haze covering the countertop, which indicated that someone – likely Leigh’s attacker and abductor – had made an effort to clean up some of the blood.

According to Vickie, all that was missing were Leigh’s reading glasses, a pair of shoes, some of her clothing and an old sleeping bag. She told investigators that Leigh had still been wearing her nightgown when she’d left for work, but she was able to surmise what she’d been wearing when she went missing, given what was removed from her closet. It’s believed some of the clothes missing were items she’d received for her birthday a few days prior.

Given the front door was unlocked, it’s believed Leigh opened the door to her attacker, signalling to Vickie and the rest of the family that she likely knew her attacker, as she didn’t speak to strangers. Police were unable to determine if the missing girl had left the house on foot or if she’d been placed in a vehicle, due to a lack of evidence, but they were certain the attacker had had an hour to an hour and a half to commit the crime, given the timeline Vickie had provided. This meant they couldn’t have gotten far.

That same day, 12 patrolman used bloodhounds to search a 1/2 mile area around the house, but due to the worsening weather conditions, the dogs were unable to pick up Leigh’s scent. They scoured a 10′ ditch running along the property and then turned their attention to an 80 acre area of brush and trees. Along with this initial search, investigators spoke with locals, walked through vacant lots and overgrown land, searched through the Knox Landfill in Chicksaw County and used bloodhounds to search the family vehicles.

On August 28, 1992, local residents joined the search across west Tupelo, with arial searches being conducted just a day later. There was a focus on areas where Leigh could have hidden if she were lost or injured, but it soon became clear to all involved that they were looking for a body and not a live individual.

Jordan has revealed that he did not learn about Leigh’s disappearance until he rang her residence on the day she went missing. According to him, Vickie had answered the phone, but offered little in the way of details. It wasn’t until he watched the evening news with his family that he learnt more. He shares that the police never spoke to him, which he says is strange, considering how often he called and spoke to Leigh.

One week after the disappearance, a $1,000 reward was offered in the hopes it would prompt anyone with information to come forward. Just two weeks later, it was doubled, which coincided with the home being sealed off. During this time, Vickie hired a private investigator and ran ads in the local newspaper, in an aim to garner new leads.

On September 1, 1992, a task force of four investigators was established, and a day later blood samples taken from the home were sent to the Mississippi State Crime Lab. However, given the limited technology available, only the blood type could be determined.

Donald Occhi was able to obtain an emergency one-month leave on September 6, 1992, after which he temporarily moved to Tupelo to help aid in the search for his daughter. According to Donald, Vickie had initially played down Leigh’s disappearance, having given him the impression she’d simply run away, but upon arriving in Tupelo, he was given the impression that Vickie had potentially been involved. This was further fuelled by local residents, who told him to “look at her mother”.

From the get go, Donald shared that he felt Leigh was deceased and that someone had entered the home and beat her to death.

Police interviewed Leigh’s friends, family, teachers and neighbours during the first part of the investigation. Vickie, in particular, was subjected to three polygraph tests and is said to have failed them all, leading police to classify her as a person of interest. The tests were given by officials with both local law enforcement and the FBI. Barney and Donald also agreed to take polygraphs, but passed and were ruled out as suspects. Barney was able to provide a substantial alibi during his days of interrogation, and is said to have been forthcoming and cooperative throughout the course of the investigation.

According to Vickie, a local man named Oscar “Mike” Kearns is responsible for Leigh’s disappearance. He was a Vacation Bible School and Sunday School teacher who worked at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, which the family attended. He had shared Leigh’s love of horses and horseback riding, and had asked Leigh if she’d wanted to go riding sometime.

In May 1993, nine months after Leigh went missing, Kearns abducted a 15-year-old girl whom he’d met through church, under the guise of driving her to school. Instead, he took her to Memphis, Tennessee, where he sexually assaulted her, before dropping her off at school. Upon arriving, she contacted the police, and he later plead guilty to rape. He was sentenced to 24 years, with 16 suspended, but served less than four, and was released in October 1997.

Not long after his release, Kearns kidnapped a married couple and raped the wife. For this, he was sent back to prison and was scheduled for release in 2019. In regards to Leigh’s disappearance, he has refused to be interviewed or take a polygraph test.

On September 4, 1992, a college student at Northeast Mississippi Community College was working at a McDonald’s in Booneville, Mississippi, a town located 30 miles north of Tupelo. During his shift, he’d seen a girl resembling Leigh sitting in a blue truck in the restaurant’s drive-thru. According to him, the truck had been driven by a Black male. Police were later able to determine that the child in question was not Leigh.

On September 9, 1992, an 8″ envelope addressed to a “B Yarbrough” living on “Hony Locust” Drive was delivered to Leigh and Vickie’s home. It had on it six stamps, twice the amount needed, and was postmarked Booneville, Mississippi. Within it were her reading glasses and nothing more. The FBI and the Mississippi State Crime Lab performed handwriting and forensic tests on the envelope, but neither yielded any results, as the stamps had been wet with water. The person who mailed the glasses has never been identified, but police believe they were sent in order to throw off the investigation.

As the weeks and months passed, rumours began to circulate across Tupelo regarding Leigh’s disappearance. One stated that Barney had been abusive toward his step-daughter, while another said that a local doctor had abducted her and buried her in a local barn. The latter resulted in investigators instating a gag order, as they found the rumours were influencing the case too much, and those found breaching it were threatened with a two-week suspension from the force.

Donald took great lengths to ensure people didn’t forget about his daughter’s case. He printed out numerous flyers, which were distributed to inter-state bus services, local businesses and truck drivers, and he ensured her information was sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Child Quest. He also turned to psychics for help, who all claimed that a body of water was somehow related to the case.

On November 9, 1993, a farmer in Monroe County, Mississippi discovered a human skull and assorted bones in a ditch along his soybean field. Only four teeth were intact. In order to identify who the skull belonged to, the State Medical Examiner used the help of a contract dentist, who reported to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that dental records concluded the bones belonged to Leigh Occhi. This finding was later retraced, after Leigh’s dentist contacted the Medical Examiner to ensure up-to-date records were being used – which they weren’t. This would later lead to the skull being correctly identified as belonging to 27-year-old Pollyanna Sue Keith, who had gone missing from Shannon, Mississippi in March 1993.

Investigators announced in August 1997 that they’d had a suspect in the case, but declined to publicly name them. Years later, a new search of Leigh’s former backyard was conducted, as it was revealed that the Public Works Office had been installing rocks as a form of drainage control at the time of her disappearance. This led to the belief that she could have accidentally been buried by those working on the site, which was later disproven by the use of cadaver dogs who failed to pick up on her scent.

In an interview with the Open: The Case of Leigh Occhi podcast, a garden centre owner revealed that she’d seen something strange on the morning Leigh went missing. According to her, she’d been driving by Honey Locust Drive when she saw a male and a female walking alongside the road in the torrential rain. As she neared them, the man pulled up his hood and wrapped his arm around the female’s shoulders, pulling her close to him. When the female looked up, she didn’t appear injured, but gave off the sense she was frightened. The woman was going to offer the pair the ride, but decided against it, citing the feeling that something was off. She continued to look at the pair in her rearview mirror until she arrived at the next stop sign, after which they were gone.

Upon learning about Leigh’s disappearance, the woman called the non-emergency police line and was told someone would contact her. However, no one did. When questioned by the host of the podcast, she shared that the man had been shorter in stature, with a thick build, grey hair and a scruffy beard. He had been wearing an army-type green jacket.

It wasn’t until September 2016 that investigators took down her testimony.

Police have shared that they have very little evidence regarding who committed the crime. While several persons of interest have been interviewed, no one has been charged in connection to the case. However, Donald has publicly shared that he believes someone within the family was involved. Despite the lack of evidence, the case is still active, with the most recent development being that Leigh’s mitochondrial DNA profile has been uploaded to a national database.

THEORIES:

1) The theory provided by Vickie Felton is that Oscar “Mike” Kearns was involved in Leigh’s disappearance. Along with the aforementioned information regarding his criminal past, Kearns lived just a mile from Honey Locust Drive and was someone Leigh would have possibly felt comfortable opening the door to. According to Vickie, he began to act strangely toward her after her daughter’s disappearance. Not only would he avoid eye contact with her, he also began to stop by the house at random, something he never did before Leigh went missing.

Tupelo police and the FBI tried on numerous occasions to speak with Kearns, but he quickly obtained a lawyer and refused to talk. He had at one point teased investigators by agreeing to take a polygraph test, but his attorney shot the idea down.

It’s been noted that investigators do not have evidence to connect Kearns to Leigh’s disappearance.

2) A popular theory amongst the residents of Tupelo is that Vickie was involved in her daughter’s disappearance. Rumours were abound regarding her alleged abuse toward Leigh, with classmates saying the young girl would sometimes arrive at school in a sombre mood and with bruises and a black eye. She would shrug the injuries off, saying they’d occurred as a result of her being hit in the face with a horse apple. As Leigh was known to love horses, no one questioned this explanation at the time. Another classmate later shared that she’d seen Leigh eating berries in the schoolyard. When she warned her about the potential of them being poisonous, Leigh had said that she didn’t care and that she may have wanted to die. She spoke with a counsellor after this, but insisted to everyone she was fine and that the comment about her wanting to die had simply been a joke.

Some questioned Vickie’s behaviour both before and after Leigh’s disappearance. It was seen as strange that she’d left to check on Leigh so soon after arriving at work, and some say she appeared aloof throughout the course of the investigation. There were also factors in her story that struck investigators as strange, including the fact it took her 15 minutes to call for help, when it would have only taken her a few minutes to search the house, and that she knew what Leigh had been wearing when she went missing, despite her having been in a nightgown when Vickie left the house that morning.

Donald has shared that he felt something was off about Vickie’s behaviour from the get-go, when she failed to explain the gravity of the situation to him over the phone. He also says that she didn’t cry or appear forthcoming with information, and that she failed to aid in the efforts to find Leigh, something detectives working the case have agreed with.

Despite what’s been said, Vickie maintains her innocence, saying that she doesn’t care what people think about her and that she only wants to find her daughter. Investigators have shared she’s been cooperative with their investigation.

3) A third theory in the case is that Barney is responsible for Leigh’s disappearance, with rumours spread regarding his alleged violent behaviour toward the missing girl. A friend of the family had claimed they’d heard that Barney had whipped and hit Leigh, and Jordan had said that Leigh once told him that Barney had locked her out of the house as punishment. He also claimed she’d told him that she was scared of her stepfather and that he would yell at her.

Donald once said that police told him that Barney had confessed to abusing Leigh, but the detective working the case said they never found any evidence that any abuse occurred, so many have questioned who Donald had spoken to. Vickie has also added that Leigh never expressed an alleged fear of Barney to her.

AFTERMATH:

Leigh’s case has been featured on the Geraldo Rivera Show, Nancy Grace and 20/20, and has been covered by numerous podcasts over the years.

Vickie and Barney eventually divorced a couple of years after Leigh went missing. Barney passed away in December 1996, and Vickie moved to Tecumseh, Michigan, as her parents had relocated there. She hopes her daughter is still alive and copes by remembering the good times they had together.

Donald has since remarried and started a family. He hopes she died the same day she disappeared, so that she didn’t suffer, and he wants the perpetrator to be found and prosecuted for what they did. He’s shared that he’d written a book of advice for Leigh, which he had planned to give to her on one of her birthdays, and is sad about never having been able to give it to her.

Jordan Morse shares that he still thinks about Leigh, whom he really cared about.

CASE CONTACT INFORMATION:

Leigh Marine Occhi went missing from the 100 block of Honey Locust Drive in Tupelo, Lee County, Mississippi on August 27, 1992. She was 13 years old, and was last believed to be wearing a nightshirt and green/yellow silk boxer shorts. At the time of her disappearance, she stood at 4’10” and weighed 95 pounds. She has blonde hair and hazel eyes, and has a strawberry birthmark at the base of her skull. She has small scratch scars on one of her legs, and both of her knees have bumps on the skin. Her ears were pierced and she wears eyeglasses, on account of a lazy left eye.

Currently, her case is classified as endangered missing and foul play is strongly suspected. If alive, she would be 40 years old.

Those with information regarding the case can contact the Tupelo Police Department at 662-841-6491 or the FBI at 202-324-3000. Tips can also be submitted anonymously through Crime Stoppers of Northeast Mississippi at 1-800-773-8477.

Image Credit: CNN

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