Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

July 24, 2011

‘Open and unsolved’ — Disappearance and murder of McDowell County woman remains a mystery to police

CHARLES OWENS
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

ANAWALT — Barbara Jean Flake wasn’t known to leave her house on the old No. 6 Mine Road in the small Jenkinjones community without telling her family and friends.

That’s why her son grew concerned about his mother’s well-being after not hearing from her in more than a week. Billy Flake searched for his mother on Tuesday, April 9, 2002, only to find an empty and undisturbed house. His mother’s pocketbook was still in the house, but she was nowhere to be found.

“The son stated that her purse was still at the residence, and that was unusual for her,” Cpl. C.K. Morton, of the West Virginia State Police Welch Detachment, said. “Trooper A.S. Cooper was the original investigating officer. They responded to the residence. The son had told the troopers she lived by herself. The troopers checked the residence and she wasn’t there. They searched the area and didn’t find anything. No evidence or trace evidence was found at her residence. The (Anawalt) Fire Department also was called out to assist”

Flake’s home wasn’t disturbed, and there was no indication of a robbery.

Morton said Flake, 54, was officially listed as a missing person. Troopers with the state police detachment in Welch returned to the Jenkinjones community on April 10, 2002, where they began the process of interviewing neighbors, friends and others in the community regarding Flake’s whereabouts.

Flake’s home was searched again by troopers with the Welch detachment on Thursday, April 11, 2002. At that time, the officers photographed both the interior and exterior of the home as part of their expanding investigation. While officially listed as a missing person, her disappearance was considered suspicious by investigators

“The purse was still there — that was the thing they were most concerned about,” Morton said. “The son indicated she didn’t go anywhere without her purse. On that day, they met with the Wyoming County Fire Department, and they helped to dredge local run-off sludge ponds. We had called in the other fire department (in neighboring Wyoming County) because they had the equipment to do that. For several hours they had dredged  local run-off ponds.”

Once again nothing was found.

Morton said the woman was distinctive with red hair and blue eyes. She weighed about 125 pounds and was about 5’5 feet tall.

The officers also searched by air on the same day over a three-mile radius that took in both the Jenkinjones and Anawalt communities. Morton said nothing was located of interest by air.

In the days that followed Flake’s disappearance, troopers received a number of calls regarding possible sightings of the woman. In one instance, Morton said an individual claimed to have seen Flake on the West Virginia Turnpike. All of the sightings were investigated, and all proved to be false.

On Thursday, April 18, 2002, a regional search and rescue team with K-9 units were called to the area to resume the search for Flake. The dogs found nothing following another extensive search.

For all practical purposes, Barbara Flake had essentially disappeared without a trace.

Two long years passed with no additional leads in the search for Flake, who was still considered a missing  person. However, on the morning of March 3, 2004, troopers with the Welch detachment were contacted by a woman who said her son had stumbled upon a human skull in the woods near her home on Trussell Hollow, also in the Jenkinjones community. The human remains were located approximately 310 feet away from the western roadway edge.

“There were some additional bones collected, and they actually found the skull,” Morton said. “I know they were initially sent to the chief medical examiner’s office in Beckley. “

The remains were later sent to the National Museum of Natural History in hopes of securing a positive identification. Morton said officers received a response from the national museum on April 7, 2004. A forensic anthropologic analysis determined the human remains were that of Barbara Flake.

The case that had went cold was reopened — this time as a homicide investigation.

Morton said the forensic investigation from the National Museum of Natural History determined the woman died as a result of blunt force trauma.

“That’s why it is considered a homicide,” Morton said. “Up to that point, it was essentially considered a missing person case.”

After declaring the missing person case an active homicide investigation, troopers once again assembled in the Jenkinjones community, and once again interviewed neighbors, acquaintances, friends and family members. And once again, they came up short in their search for answers.

“It was pretty extensive interviews at that time,” Morton said. “That’s a really small area — and the neighbors and friends — nobody had any pertinent information.”

Once again, the case went cold. Today, more than seven years later, Flake’s disappearance remains a mystery.

Morton said investigators are hopeful that someone who may know something about her  death may now come forward. He is hoping to also jar the memories of neighbors and friends in the community who may have seen anything unusual at the Flake residence on the week of April 9, 2002.

“Sometimes people will remember things later that they think are insignificant but may in fact by very important — something that could really help us,” Morton said. “And also as time passes on, people who may have information, and who may not have wanted to get involved initially, may now want to submit the information to us.”

Morton said anyone with any information regarding the Flake’s disappearance and subsequent murder is asked to contact the state police barracks in Welch at (304) 436-2101.

“It remains open and it remains unsolved,” Morton said. “That’s why we are revisiting it.”

— Contact Charles Owens at cowens@bdtonline.com