The mother of a woman who was found dead behind a Franklin home 10 years ago regrets she didn’t sense something was wrong that night.
Sheila Bridges was the first to find her 29-year-old daughter in September 2003. Stephanie Moffett was lying in the back yard of the house on Oliver Avenue where she was staying, partially undressed with a folded shirt covering her chest.
The backs of her new boots were scuffed, and she had small scrapes and cuts like she was dragged outside, family members said. The doctor who performed the autopsy declared the death was a homicide by manual asphyxiation, or loss of oxygen.
Moffett’s mother and siblings waited for police to find and arrest the person who killed her.
Nearly 11 years have passed, and the family is still waiting to get that justice.
Police gathered evidence, conducted interviews and sent information to the prosecutor. The prosecutor at the time, Lance Hamner, reviewed the case but had too many questions about how Moffett died. Even if she was killed, there wasn’t enough information pointing to any particular person, he said. He sent it back to police to look for more information.
Since then, after interviewing family, neighbors and other people from the house and reviewing lab tests, investigators haven’t been able to find better answers to those questions. Police need to hear from a witness who saw what happened or was told by someone who did, investigators said.
“It’s going to take some type of eyewitness, somebody who has held back information, who, for whatever reason, is now willing to talk,” Franklin Police Department Lt. Pete Ketchum said.
Moffett’s mother and her siblings Bev Canter and Marty Bridges have continued to look for answers, too. They’ve contacted homicide investigators to review the details of the case. They’ve tried to make contact with the people who were at the house the night of Moffett’s death. They’ve spoken with investigators every time the case changed hands in the Franklin Police Department and tried to persuade current Prosecutor Brad Cooper to reconsider the case.
“Mom was a wonderful person,” Moffett’s son Zach Moffett, 21, said. “She’s got a grandkid she won’t get to see because someone took her life for no reason.”
‘Not going to give up’
Family members are frustrated that an arrest was never made, Canter said. If anyone has been holding back information for the past nearly 11 years, they need to finally tell police, she said.
“The biggest thing is to keep fighting, and we’re not going to give up until we get justice,” Marty Bridges said.
Moffett was living in Kentucky and had come to Franklin for her son’s 11th birthday party. On Sept. 28, she was partying with family, a childhood friend and the friend’s boyfriend. They had been drinking earlier in the night and went bowling. Sheila Bridges had to carry her daughter into the house of Moffett’s friends at 145 Oliver Ave., where she planned to stay the night. Moffett and the other women who were staying there were all highly intoxicated, Sheila Bridges said.
Moffett couldn’t keep her eyes open or hold up her head, Sheila Bridges said. When Sheila Bridges last saw her daughter alive, she was sitting in a chair in the kitchen. Moffett’s head was tilted back, and her friend’s boyfriend was stroking her hair, she said.
“I should have got the vibe then, but I didn’t,” Sheila Bridges said.
She came back at 8:30 a.m. the next day to pick up Moffett, but the other people in the house said she wasn’t there and they didn’t know where she went. Sheila Bridges looked around the house and found Moffett in the backyard, lying on her back, dead. She was wearing a bra, with her shirt folded and placed over her chest. Her pants were unzipped, and her underwear was on backwards.
Franklin police immediately began investigating Moffett’s death as a homicide because of the suspicious circumstances of her death. They gathered evidence from the house and talked with people, and the people who lived there were allowed to return home later that night.
Family members question how police cleared the house so quickly and wonder whether they missed a key clue in the case.
Franklin police got help from Indiana State Police and other agencies to search the house and collect evidence, and police didn’t let residents back until they were sure they had gotten all the evidence, Ketchum said.
“I think the house was processed thoroughly, and we may have done things further; but I don’t think the case was hurt,” Ketchum said.
The autopsy showed Moffett had a high amount of alcohol in her body as well as traces of an anxiety medication and painkiller, but not at levels high enough to be fatal, the report said.
The pathologist also ordered additional testing on hair and fluids found on Moffett’s body that suggested she might have had sex before her death. If she did, it couldn’t have been consensual because she was so intoxicated, family members said.
The autopsy found she had several small scrapes, dirt and grass clippings on her face and chest. Combined with the scuffs on her new boots, family members think she was likely dragged outside.
Moffett died of asphyxiation, but the autopsy didn’t show any bruises or bleeding in her neck, which later raised questions for prosecutors.
Hamner said he wasn’t sure the death was deliberate and also had no way to prove who was responsible for it or even how Moffett ended up in the backyard. A friend told police she woke up in the middle of the night and the front door of the home was wide open. No one in the home said they saw or heard Moffett and didn’t know where she was the next morning.
All of those doubts made the case impossible to prosecute, Hamner said. He contacted homicide prosecutors in Marion County to review the case, and they agreed that there wasn’t enough information, he said.
“We took it to the Marion County people and the people that screen their homicide cases to see if we were missing something, and one of them said they were shaking (the file) to see if more evidence fell out,” Hamner said.
Franklin police received tips when the case was new and followed up, but none led to any breakthroughs, Ketchum said. As technology improved over the years, investigators have sent pieces of evidence for additional DNA testing, but none of the results pointed to a suspect. Detectives last spoke with Moffett’s friend and the other man who was at the home about three years ago, and no new information has come up since, Ketchum said.
Cooper met with Moffett’s family shortly after he took over as prosecutor when Hamner became judge. But the same questions Hamner had still haven’t been answered, and Cooper said he won’t file charges unless something drastic changed in the investigation.
“I’m happy to look at cold cases. I’m happy to look at other things but only if there is new evidence,” said Cooper, who was a deputy prosecutor under Hamner when Moffett died. “I have the highest respect for Lance and worked for him. To me there is no new evidence.”
The family has requested additional pieces of information from the Franklin Police Department, including statements taken by police, photographs of the scene and autopsy and results of DNA tests, but never gotten them. Those haven’t been released because they are part of an ongoing investigation, Ketchum said.
Marty Bridges said he has been considering hiring an attorney to try to either get the police department to release more to the family or get the case transferred to some other investigator.
“We see it as a job left undone that we will continue to work on it as new leads come in,” Ketchum said. “All of us would like to see justice done in that case, and it bothers every one of us that it’s not solved.”