MANSFIELD - Shannon Matthews Stewart was only 8 years old when her mother was dumped on the berm of Interstate 71 near Ohio 97 on June 12, 1985.
Stewart's mother, Marcia K. Matthews, 25, who authorities said was a known prostitute, was still alive but badly beaten when a state highway patrol trooper found her. She died two and a half days later at Mansfield General Hospital from brain damage and a fractured skull.
Her case is one of several unsolved homicides in Richland County. Local authorities have investigated the case thoroughly over the years, but leads are few as the years have passed.
In June, it will be 31 years since her mother's death.
Stewart, 39, now living in Norfolk, Va., and a retired U.S. Navy veteran, said she believes it is her job as an only child to try and find out who murdered her mother.
Stewart actively has been searching for her mother's killer since about 1996, but has redoubled her efforts recently. Married with three small children, Stewart said there isn't a day that goes by that she doesn't think about her mother.
"The truth is my mother deserves to finally rest; her mother needs to rest. She (her grandmother) died broken, cremated, full of guilt and buried on top of my mother," Stewart said.
The two are laid to rest in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Newark, where Stewart and her mom lived at the time of her mother's death.
Stewart said her childhood was filled with frequent moves from place to place. At one point, she and her mom lived with her mom's pimp in Akron. At the time of her death, Matthews lived in Newark but she drove to Mansfield, where she frequented the truck stops. Matthews met Stewart's father in Newark, but they divorced when Stewart was young.
Stewart graduated from Newark High School in 1995 and left for the Navy two weeks later.
"The first year I joined the military, I bought my mother a headstone," said Stewart by telephone. "I still need to get my grandmother's name etched on the headstone."
'I grew up in a fast lifestyle'
Stewart said even though she was young, she knew her mother's line of work.
"It was a crazy life. I grew up in a fast lifestyle. My mother was trying to break away but was still a part of that life at the time of her death," she said.
Her mom's death attracted lots of attention.
In the early 1990s, Geraldo Rivera ran an episode on his TV show about prostitute murders "and he ran a picture of my mother," she said. She recalled how adults told kids her age about it.
The TV series "Unsolved Mysteries" also featured a story on her mother's death, she said.
Her mother's pimp, Donald Leathers, wrote a book about his life, "Hollywood: The True Story of Donald Leathers," in which Leathers refers to Matthews, although he spells her first name as Marsha.
"Truth is I was never really traumatized by much. Of course my mother loved me and showed it the best way she could, but many maternal things were missing. Chalk it to the lifestyle or whatever, I would say I grew up fast and was just protective of my feelings, because I had no choice but to defend and keep to myself. This of course made it difficult at times for people to truly get to know me, fully understand the depth of my pain and past.
"I longed for what many girls, and even now women, took and take for granted. Overall, I honestly am grateful for what time I was given with my mother and I will never stop looking for the person who felt it was necessary to end a life in such an evil manner, regardless of whatever life choice anyone decides to live."
After her mom died, Stewart lived with her dad and his new family for a year. She lived with her dad's mother from age 11 until she went into the Navy.
"It was rough," she said.
Seeking clues in Mansfield
Stewart recently contacted detectives at the Richland County Sheriff's Office and plans to make a trip to Mansfield in the summer to meet with them.
She recalled that about 2005, Scott Reinbolt, then a Richland County Prosecutor's Office investigator, came to interview her in Virginia when he was working with the unsolved homicides unit.
Stewart is searching for any information that could help find her mother's killer including other prostitutes her mother was friends with, including women Stewart only knows as "Peaches" and "Ivy."
Stewart has collected every newspaper article online she can get her hands on about her mother's murder.
Matthews' family took her off life support and then donated her eyes, liver and kidney "to make something good out of a bad thing," according to neurosurgeon Dr. Melvin Whitfield, who the News Journal interviewed for a June 18, 1985 article.
"The liver was sent to Cleveland where it was implanted immediately," Whitfield told the News Journal. "The kidneys went to Toledo and the eyes to Columbus; each are believed to have been implanted."
Then Sheriff's Sgt. John Napier told the News Journal in 1985 he had spoken with a truck driver who claimed to have seen Matthews at the truck stop about 2½ hours before a trooper found her along I-71. The trucker said Matthews awakened him at 2:30 a.m. as he had requested so he could get back on the road.
Napier said scrapes on her left arm and forehead seem into indicate she did not fracture her skull in a fall from a truck, but was beaten.
Retired Mansfield trooper Kevin Titler, of Ontario, found Matthews along the interstate and remembers the incident vividly.
"That was probably one of the most prominent things that ever happened in my career," he said this past week.
Titler said he recalled it was dark outside and he was making road checks in search of disabled vehicles along I-71.
"She was alive and breathing but unresponsive," he said. He gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Titler, who handled his fair share of fatal crashes during his career, said he believed she was probably pushed out of a stopped vehicle versus a moving vehicle.
He recalled Matthews' nickname was "Pepper."
Matthews had no identification on her when she was found and was identified by using mug shots and fingerprints from a previous prostitution arrest. Matthews had been arrested in December prior to her death for soliciting sex from an undercover sheriff's deputy at the same Union 76 Truck Plaza on Ohio 97, according to the sheriff's office.
At least nine prostitutes were killed and their bodies dumped along Ohio interstates in 1985 and 1986. But sheriff's Capt. Jimmy Sweat said this past week there is no evidence to link Matthews' case to any other cases.
Sheriff's investigators talked to several prostitutes in the vicinity of where Matthews was believed to have been that night, retired Richland County Sheriff's Capt. Larry Faith told the News Journal in 2002.
"One lady confirmed Marcia Matthews had been down at the plaza that night and they had been working together," Faith said.
At 3 a.m., the woman said Mathews got into a semi tractor trailer with a man, Faith said. The truck had a logo from Arkansas on the door.
"We don't have anybody that saw her after that, and the next time anyone saw her, she was lying on the interstate at mile marker 162 in the southbound lane," Faith said.
Case remains open
Richland County Sheriff's Maj. Joe Masi said numerous investigators have been assigned to the Matthews case several times since her death, the last time in 2007, and all leads have been exhausted. All evidence has been submitted to the Bureau of Criminal Investigation's labs, and as technology has progressed, items have been resubmitted, he said this past week.
"Everything that has been sent down to BCI has been tested (for DNA)," Masi said of the unsolved murder case.
"We are open to any other leads or any other information that is out there. Like any other cold case, we want to see it solved not just for justice but for the sake of the family as well," said Masi, who worked at the sheriff's office at the time of Matthews' death.
Anyone with information is encouraged to call the sheriff's office at 419-774-5610, Masi said.
Stewart recently talked by phone to Sgt. Mike Viars and Detective Pat Smith of the sheriff's office's detective's bureau. Viars told the News Journal a DNA profile has been worked up in the case.
"I do know when the Unsolved Homicide Unit was working it, they'd even collected some voluntary profiles that they've compared it with," Viars said. "It also showed that it had been submitted it to the CODIS database so that profile can be compared."
Viars showed the News Journal a large cardboard box with Marcia Matthews' name written in black marker. Additional information on Matthews' case remains at the Richland County Prosecutor's Office with the Unsolved Homicides Unit. The unit has since disbanded.
The case remains open, so no information about the evidence can be made public, Viars said.
Stewart said what drives her to find her mother's killer is that she never really got to know her mother, which is painful.
"I really feel like that was ripped from my life," she said. "I was robbed of everything maternal from me. I was closer to my grandmother as a young child. My dad's mother raised me to be a woman, and she loved my mom."