Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles reviewing and analyzing the facts and evidence related to the death of Judy Petty. Read the first article to learn about the facts and timeline surrounding Judy’s death. Read the second article for information on the initial investigation conducted by police and the fire department.
In October 2022, I accompanied our partner team to Parkersburg, W.Va., to conduct some on-the-ground investigation into the suspicious death of Judy Petty. Judy disappeared on Feb. 6, 2008 and her remains–burnt beyond recognition–were found in the cellar of an outbuilding on her family’s farm.
We Spent 4 Days in Town Where Judy Petty’s Remains Were Found
Justin Rimmel, Melissa Sandberg, and I spent four days in Parkersburg during which we accomplished many tasks and were able to examine the scene where Judy was found. We spent a great deal of time with Judy’s parents, her siblings and other family members. They provided us a lot of insight into the immediate hours after Judy disappeared, the devastating fire at their family farm, the discovery of Judy’s remains, and their continued frustration at having no answers about Judy’s death.
Visiting the Crime Scene
Judy’s family accompanied us to their family farm, located on Route 31 in the town of Waverly, West Virginia. It’s located approximately 12 miles from where Judy was living in Parkersburg at the time she disappeared.
Upon arriving at the gate to the family farm, we parked and walked the one-third mile up the dirt driveway to the main part of the property where the house had once stood and where Judy’s remains were discovered in a nearby outbuilding. We wanted to experience the walk as Judy might have if she’d made it out to the property on foot. The driveway is muddy, uphill and uneven. It would have been difficult to navigate safely during hours of darkness.
There were two buildings (the main house and outbuilding), a motorcycle, a truck, and a large tree that had all been severely burned in the fire. We learned from Judy’s family that the main house and outbuilding where Judy’s remains were found had been constructed primarily of wood. Both had had metal roofs.
The outbuilding consisted of two levels, one at ground level and one below ground. The interior floor separating the two was constructed of wood. The outbuilding also contained a wooden work bench and other wood materials including bundles of wood flooring. Thus, both of these structures were very susceptible to a fire.
The Cause of the Fire was Ruled Undetermined
The former house, the contents contained within and other items burned in the fire remain where they were found in 2008. The family has not removed them, which was beneficial for our investigation. Two fire department officials met us at the property to provide their insight on the potential cause and origin of the fire.
According to the original fire investigation report, Judy’s remains were found in the southeast portion of the bottom floor (cellar) of the outbuilding. Investigators stated that Judy’s upper body appeared to be in an easterly direction and her feet to the south. Investigators checked the weather report for the night of February 6 and found that the low temperature was 44, no precipitation, and winds were sustained with gusts up to 33 mph.
We wanted to know if the arsonist set multiple fires or whether one location had been lit and the fire spread to nearby areas. Originally, investigators noted the ground vegetation was intact between the main house and outbuilding and they felt that fires had been set in more than one location.
When we consulted with the fire department officials who met us at the property recently, they surmised that due to a fire burning up and out coupled with the intense heat and winds, one fire could have spread to the other areas. The severity of the heat and intensity of the fire had also made it impossible for them to determine if an accelerant had been used to start the fire.
Officials explained that the block walls of the cellar essentially created an oven which would result in a fire burning hotter than in an above-ground open area. The oven-like condition led to an unofficial cremation of Judy’s body.
The fire officials opined that the fire had burned for several hours. At approximately 9:30am on February 7, when members of the fire department arrived, the fire was smoldering and the buildings had been fully consumed. Therefore, the fire was likely set in the middle of the night.
The cause of the fire was ultimately ruled as undetermined. The fire department was unable to conclude whether the fire had been a result of purposeful arson or an accident.
When investigating any case, we always consult maps and satellite imagery in order to ascertain distances, probable routes, and terrain that may be important to tracking a person’s last known whereabouts.
In Judy’s case, many believed she walked from the library out to her family’s property in Waverly. Taking the most direct route, the distance between the two is approximately 12 miles long. We examined current and historical satellite imagery to obtain insight on the local area and the terrain Judy would have encountered.
Our next step was to put ourselves in Judy’s shoes and walk the routes ourselves.
Examining Judy Petty’s Last Reported Locations on Foot and by Car
At mid-afternoon, on February 6, 2008, the day Judy disappeared, she reportedly walked from her residence at 36th Street and Plum Street to the nearby Parkersburg & Wood County Library. The books she had checked out were confirmed to have been returned to the library that day.
We made the walk from her house to the library to obtain a first-hand look at the neighborhood and path Judy likely took. The majority of the route took us through Judy’s neighborhood, past an elementary school, across Dudley Avenue which is a fairly busy road, and past a retirement community located in a high-rise building. The distance was approximately three quarters of a mile and it took us about 12 minutes at a slow pace.
A video of the route can be viewed here.
If Judy Petty did, in fact, walk to the library that Wednesday afternoon, local residents and/or drivers surely would have seen her. The area is congested in the mid-afternoon due to the local schools letting out and parents arriving to pick up their children. Many of the roads do not have a sidewalk so persons are forced to walk on the side of the road, but there is ample room to do so.
It is unknown where Judy went after returning her items to the library. No sightings of her in town were called into the police department. Reportedly, someone reported that they’d seen a woman matching Judy’s description walking in the middle of St. Mary’s Pike later that day. But that sighting was never confirmed.
Knowing Judy’s remains were found at her family farm, we drove the route from the library to the farm several times to try and gain insight on Judy’s last known whereabouts and the feasibility of her making the 12-mile walk. We debated walking the entire way, but due to safety reasons described below, we felt it was too dangerous.
The quickest route between the two locations is along St. Mary’s Pike to Route 31. The majority of the route is incredibly narrow, windy, and dangerous. There are countless blind corners and no shoulder along the side of most of the roads. Anyone walking would be forced to walk on the pavement and risk being hit by a car. If Judy were walking during hours of darkness, the risk level would be drastically higher. Aside from a convenience store located on 36th Street, east of Judy’s residence, we found no gas stations or other stores located along the 12-mile route.
Judy reportedly took her purse with her to the library but had no other belongings and did not take a cell phone. It’s possible she had water and food in her purse but, if not, there was nowhere for her to buy any along the way.
In my next article, I will discuss the additional investigation we conducted while in Parkersburg. We met with media and law enforcement officials, took steps to raise awareness for Judy’s case, and made important contacts in the area.
Get Involved in Seeking Justice for Judy Petty
If you want to follow the progress of Judy Petty’s case, please join the Facebook group dedicated to finding Judy’s killer. The Facebook group administrators regularly post updates and topics for discussion; they welcome any input and ideas from readers. In addition, you can also listen to Season 1 of Safe Haven, an investigative podcast that covers current events occurring in the investigation of Judy’s murder.
Anyone with information about Judy’s death can email our tip line at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 224-225-5208. All tipsters are guaranteed confidentiality and anonymity if they wish. Tips can also be reported directly to the Wood County Office of the Sheriff’s tip line at 304-834-3909.
On-The-Ground Research on the Judy Petty Murder – Part III is written by Jennifer Bucholtz for amuedge.com