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The Unsolved Keddie Murders of California

In 1981, a cabin in the woods played host to a brutal family murder.

keddie murders
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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

On the night of April 11, 1981, three people—a mother, her adolescent son, and the son’s friend—were bludgeoned to death in a California cabin, all while children slept soundly in an adjacent room. A fourth victim, a 12-year-old daughter, vanished in the night–her remains found years later and miles away.

The slayings, which would soon become known as the Keddie Cabin Murders, were chilling enough. Yet the case is made all the more unsettling by the fact that it remains unsolved nearly four decades later, leading some to suspect a police cover-up.

Glenna Sharp, who went by the name Sue, had been renting Cabin 28 in the tiny community of Keddie, California since November of 1980. She lived there with her five children. The family had moved from Connecticut after Sue separated from her husband, James. Newly alone, and with five children to raise, Sue chose Keddie in part because her brother, Don, lived nearby. Finding a new support system would be important as she restarted her life, even if it meant renting a cabin in a rundown resort in a rural area.

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Five months later, the Sharps had found a semblance of community in their new home, with the children having made friends amongst the other residents of the Keddie cabins. On the night of the murders, Sue was at home while her two youngest sons, Rick and Greg, and their friend Justin Smartt played in an adjacent room. Tina, Sue’s youngest daughter, returned home around 10 o’clock, after an evening of watching television with the neighbors in Cabin 27.

Sue’s oldest son John had spent the day in the town of Quincy with his friend Dana Wingate. The pair was last seen walking along State Route 70. They returned home to Cabin 28 later that night, presumably retiring to John’s basement bedroom. Whether they entered the home with the murders actively in progress or became aware of intruders after hearing a disturbance upstairs is unknown. In either case, John and Dana would not survive the night.

Related: 8 Real-Life Cabin in the Woods Murders That Will Make You Lock Your Doors 

The following morning, Sue’s oldest daughter Sheila came home after a night spent with friends. Upon entering, she discovered three bodies on the living room floor of Cabin 28.

Sue, John, and Dana's bodies had been left, sprawled across the floor. A search of the premises revealed the trio of younger boys still in their room, alive and unharmed. With the help of neighbors, Sheila removed the three children. The final member of the Sharp family, 12-year-old daughter Tina, was nowhere to be found.

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  • Victims (clockwise): Sue Sharp, John Sharp, Dana Wingate, and Tina Sharp.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The three victims found in the cabin had met a violent end. Their bodies were bound with medical tape and appliance wire; they had been stabbed, bludgeoned, and strangled to death. Examinations revealed that the victims suffered blows from at least two different hammers of varying sizes, and Sue and John had been stabbed repeatedly. Sue had also been bludgeoned with a Daisy Powerline 880 rifle, while Dana Wingate was strangled to death by hand.

Sue was discovered lying on her side by the living room couch and was nude from the waist down. She had also been gagged with a blue bandana and her own panties—they had been secured on her face with medical tape. Her wrists and ankles were also bound with medical tape and two rounds of electrical wire. There was also wire that tied her ankles together—her ankles and wrists were tied so tightly that her legs and knees were drawn toward each other. She had been covered with a blanket and sheet that belonged to Tina.

Johnny’s hands were placed on his abdomen and taped tightly at the wrists with medical tape. His ankles were wrapped twice and tightly knotted with an extension cord. Dana had also been bound with medical tape. 

Related: 8 Strange, Unsolved Crimes That Are Sure to Haunt You 

Although the Sharps' cabin did not show any indication of forced entry, detectives were able to recover an unidentified fingerprint from a handrail that led to the cabin’s back door. Detectives also discovered that the telephone had been left off the hook and the lights had been shut off with all the drapes fully closed. 

Various weapons were found at the scene, including a table knife, a butcher knife, and a bloody hammer. Other weapons—including the Daisy rifle—were not recovered. Some evidence, such as a second bloody knife, turned up in a trash bin behind the Keddie general store.

In interviews, Justin Smartt told detectives that he had dreamt details of the murder only to later confirm that he had actually witnessed it. Under hypnosis, Justin claimed that he had seen Sue with two men: one with a mustache and long hair and one clean-shaven with short hair. John and Dana then entered the home and began arguing with the men. The argument became violent. The three were still alive when Tina entered the room. One of the men took her out the back door, before coming back to kill Sue, John, and Dana.

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  • Sketches of possible suspects in the Keddie murders.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Composite sketches (above) were made based on Justin's descriptions, but never led to any identification.

In April of 1984, three years after the slayings occurred, part of a skull was found 29 miles away near Camp Eighteen in neighboring Butte County. The discovery prompted a thorough examination of the area, revealing a jawbone and several other bones. The fragments were eventually determined to belong to young Tina.

The discovery of Tina’s remains compounded a case already steeped in mystery. Why was the body of Tina Sharp found so far away from Cabin 28? How could a murder with so much physical evidence remain unsolved? The abundance of loose threads, in conjunction with what appeared to be a substandard investigation, have prompted some to suspect a police cover-up.

Related: 9 Chilling Books About Unsolved Murders That Will Make You Lose Sleep 

In 2004, Cabin 28 was demolished along with several other condemned buildings on the grounds. Some theorists believe that mob, gang, or police connections were responsible for the bungling of the case and the destruction of the property–but without the complete facts, it's hard to know whether incompetence, conspiracy, or mere bad luck have left the Keddie murders unsolved.

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In 2008, Marilyn Smartt (mother of Justin) claimed in a documentary on the murders that she suspected her husband Martin Smartt and his friend Bo Boubede were responsible for the murders of Sue, John, Dana, and Tina. In the same documentary, Sheriff Doug Thomas stated that Martin had successfully passed a polygraph examination about the murders–of course, the use of polygraphs in criminal cases has become increasingly discounted in recent years.

It was later confirmed that Martin was close with the Sheriff of Plumas County despite the fact that both Martin and Bo had criminal records. 

Related: The Unsolved Mystery of Australia’s Grisly Gatton Murders 

In November 2016, the true crime show People Magazine Investigates released an episode dedicated to reexamining the Keddie cabin murders. Several new pieces of evidence and information came to light, which may finally help crack this cold case.

First, though the primary suspects in the slayings, Marty Smartt and Bo Boubede, are now deceased, new details continue to emerge that suggest their culpability. According to People magazine, Smartt's anger toward Sue Sharp for interfering in his marriage was a viable motive for the killings. After the murders, he wrote a letter to his wife Marilyn, which was only discovered after the case was reopened in 2013:

“I’ve paid the price of your love & now that I’ve bought it with four peoples lives, you tell me we are through … Great! What else do you want?”

Though Marilyn claims she never received the letter and was only made aware of it after the murders by the authorities, she confirmed that it was in Smartt’s handwriting. Even more potentially incriminating is a therapist in Reno, Nevada, to whom Smartt allegedly confessed the murders.

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  • Hammer and knife found at the crime scene.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Another important piece of new evidence is a hammer, discovered by a man with a metal detector, in a pond near the cabins. It matches the description of a hammer that Marty Smartt claimed to have misplaced: It is currently being tested for DNA evidence.

The final bizarre piece to the puzzle? A copy of a 911 recording, found at the bottom of a Keddie murder case file box. The call dates back to 1984, in the weeks after the skull fragments that would later be confirmed to belong to Tina Sharp were first discovered in Butte County. The anonymous caller identified the remains as Tina's, then hung up. Chillingly, records indicate that this caller knew the remains belonged to Tina before investigators confirmed the fact with dental records. 

Related: A Day That Began with Death: The Hoskins Family Murders of 1919 

In April 2018, Plumas County Special Investigator Mike Gamberg stated that DNA evidence recovered from a piece of tape at the crime scene matched that of a known living suspect. 

Mike Gamberg, who leads the current investigation, is baffled by these inconsistencies. “It’s not what was done,” he told the Sacramento Bee in reference to the many flaws of the original investigation. “It’s what wasn’t done.”

Though the original inquiry into the Keddie murders was sadly lacking, there is new hope that authorities today may be able to discover the truth once and for all.

[Via Reno Gazette-Journal]

Featured photo: Alchetron