2. The Town

Highland Heights is a town in northern Kentucky that was blanketed in a dense fog the morning of the disappearance. In 1971, the city was a typical American small-town, containing middle-class, working families. The main thoroughfare through town was Highway U.S. 27 which was dotted with homes, a grocery store, a post office, a gas station or two, a couple of churches, a few small restaurants, and a roadside motel. Off of that winding four lane highway were neighborhood streets, branching off like small vines. These streets were narrow and when parked with cars, would become even more narrow–there were no sidewalks– and the homes were modest–2-3 bedrooms with one or one-and-a-half baths, and small yards. It was from one of these homes, found halfway down a street of about forty other homes, that a ten-year-old girl left for school early one fall morning and disappeared into a fog on the way to her bus stop, never to be seen alive again.

A girl’s disappearance under these circumstances would have been big news in town, right? The answer to that question depends on who you talk to. And this is how my investigation began–by talking to local people.

Some locals I’ve spoken to said that at the time, they did not know much about the girl from Highland Heights who disappeared or the circumstances of it. Maybe it’s because news just didn’t travel as fast. Maybe people were more slowly alarmed than they are today. Maybe people held tight to their own street and the people living on it and didn’t concern themselves with the goings-on of the neighboring town. Maybe this girl wasn’t from a prominent family. Maybe it’s because tragedy wasn’t screamed across the evening news to people having a fascination with true crime like it is now. Maybe children going missing didn’t set off immediate alarm bells with people. Whatever the reason, some people didn’t know much about the story besides what was sprinkled through the newspapers and shared in social circles.

My parents have lived in a town close to Highland Heights since 1977, but I was met with blank stares when I started talking about the case a couple of years ago. I’m intrigued by this fact. How does a girl go missing only to be found murdered later and people don’t know much about it? Was the case cold from the start? There wasn’t much to report so the story was forgotten?The summer day in 1996 when I found myself staring at the man on the porch…we were slowly driving down a road that I had driven down many, many times in my life–hundreds of times. I was only a few minutes from my home in a nearby-town and I still had never known. If you can’t tell, it bothered me and honestly, it still does.

But of course–and this is important– there are other Highland Heights residents who lived on the same street as the missing girl or near it, some attended the same school, others knew people involved in the search parties, and these people have very vivid memories of that time when the adults were frantically searching for a missing child. I’ve heard accounts of the terror and panic that were inflicted on the residents of the street and neighboring street. For those people living in the immediate area, they DO have stories to tell. Their thoughts and recollections are important to this case. They are the living history. More from them later….

Highland Heights has flourished over time. It is home to Northern Kentucky University which was a constructed in the early 70s. Over the last forty plus years, the university has developed into a substantial institution and thus brought with it more people which has, in turn, increased the demand for more restaurants, shops, and housing. And, slowly over time, the houses, small businesses, and quaint shops that were found along the highway have been torn down and newer restaurants, office buildings, and small strip malls stand in their place. For me, I feel like some of the charm has eroded. I think fondly back to some of the places I went to in Highland Heights as a child like Thriftway, the video rental store, the neighborhood banks where I sold Girl Scout cookies, and the pizza joint. They’re all gone now, lost to bigger developments and highway expansions. I know forward progress is supposed to be a good thing, but I’m nostalgic. I have thought a few times about whether a 10-year-old girl who was lost in a fog in 1971 would even recognize her town today if she were to suddenly reappear. And then I remember, that’s not how this story ends.

****

The Police Officer

Tom Rowland was a young cop when he moved his family to Highland Heights, Kentucky in 1976. At the time, he and my mother-in-law had a year-old son and were expecting a newborn daughter. Tom worked part-time for the Highland Heights Police Department from 1976-1979. During his three years with the department, he became familiar with the unsolved homicide case of a local 10-year-old girl. He was not an official investigator of the case–he was a young patrolman, but because the department was small he was privy to information about the case. And based on what he heard and what had been investigated, Tom felt strongly about keeping an eye on the man who lived not only in viewing distance of the missing girl’s street, but just around the corner from the Rowland family house. And as his young family grew (which also came to include my husband in 1979) and he went on to be a full-time police officer in a nearby town, he made sure his children knew they were to avoid “the man on the porch” at all costs.

The fact that Tom lived, worked, and for some time raised his family in the very town from which the girl went missing (and the man on the porch lived), was just one example of how his life and child victim’s life would intersect without them even knowing each other. As this story has unfolded before me over the past year, I have watched it grow tentacles and begin twisting and weaving in many different directions, all the while connecting my father-in-law with Cheryll.

Cheryll? Yes. She’s the person for whom this whole endeavor is dedicated– the girl at the center of the mystery. Her story will break your heart. Stay tuned.

Cheryll, to whom this blog is dedicated

28 thoughts on “2. The Town

  1. I remember this very well. I lived on Frank Dr and my mom met me at the top of the street that day. There were search people everywhere.
    My mom then told me a little girl was missing from Rose Dr. We rode the same bus!
    My mom never let me out of her sight again.
    In 1973 we moved. My mom still walked me to the bus stop. Yes, it was embarrassing at the time, but as an adult now , I understand. That could have been any of us kids waiting at the top of the street for the bus.
    I have thought about her often through the years.

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  2. I was in 3rd grade at highland heights elementary, I remember this story well, we were all scared. I think about her & this story every time I pass Rose Ave. such a sad story, it scary that no one was every caught, charged for doing this horrendous time.

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  3. I lived on Rose Ave right across the street from her. We hadn’t lived there long but I remember walking up the street to catch the bus and the police were already there. This has always haunted me. And no one was ever held accountable.

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  4. Cheryll’s body was found about a mile from my elementary school. I was in 4th grade, and this just terrified me. That a little girl about my age was found dead, obviously murdered, convinced me that it could very well happen to me, too. I had nightmares about it. Another girl I was friends with actually lived on the road where she was found. We couldn’t stop talking about it. After several days, we 9- and 10-year olds went on to other things, but I have never forgotten her. How afraid she must have been.

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  5. I would love to hear more about this girl that went missing. I grew up in Newport, however we had family and friends in that area and went to the doctors out that way and we were always at LaRue Lanes bowling. We lived in Highland Heights for about 6 months back in the Knowelwood Subdivision. Moved back to Newport after that. Hopefully by you sharing this story, you can get more information and this case can be at rest.

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  6. Cheryl was one of my best friends in grade school, we lived on the same road, Deitrich Road in Highland Heights, before her family moved to the street where she disappeared from. I think of her when I see shows on other children who have been abducted and murdered for no reason at all, and it is heartbreaking to know that whoever done this to Cheryl has never been found. I will never get over what happened to her.

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    1. I remember this well. We were actually supposed to go to her house for a birthday party. We were all told by the principal to get on our bus and go home has Cheryl was missing. I remember being so scared walking the streets thinking the same was going to happen to me.

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    2. Cheryl was one of my best friends in grade school, we lived on the same road, Deitrich Road in Highland Heights, before her family moved to the street where she disappeared from. I think of her when I see shows on other children who have been abducted and murdered for no reason at all, and it is heartbreaking to know that whoever done this to Cheryl has never been found. I will never get over what happened to her.

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  7. I went to School with Cheryl , all who know me well will tell you,this care has haunted me. I research it often, a long with Randy Sellers, who also went missing, he has never been found. That case remains cold. I have however come upon new information in the Cheryl Spegal case. Two weeks before Cheryl’s disappearance,there was another girl that went missing, her name was Sheryl, with an S. and was later found in the same manner as Cheryl. This happened right across the river in a town in Cincinnati.

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    1. Yes, my mom was freaked out about this whole thing. We lived in Alexandria and had to walk to US 27 to catch the school bus at 6:00 am.
      My mom made my older brother walk with me because of these missing Cheryl girls. I have often thought of her while growing up and growing older.

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  8. I very vividly remember this story as I lived in Alexandria and was 11 year old girl whom walked to the bus stop alone alot. After that day my brothers had to walk me daily. I remember being so scared and worried about her. I don’t remember hearing she was murdered until this moment I assumed she was still missing. Rose street always scared me

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  9. I was in her class in the 5th grade at Highland Heights Elementary. She lived on Rose St. I think. I grew up in the city and lived on Crestwood Ave a street down from the Kwik Shoppe. About a 5 minute walk where she lived. A few of us in her class thought she had run away. I remember her skipping her lunch and saving her lunch money around the time this happened. The heartbreaking news when Mrs Painter broke the news to us and her tears. I do recall the suspect they had in mind actually lived on U.S. 27 in a home close to the old Blue Grass Carry Out. I still think about it every time I pass through there now. Sad no one was ever charged with her murder.

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  10. I lived across the street 2 doors away from her family, we were playmates with her and her brothers. I can still remember playing in her yard the day before she was abducted. The next morning i walked up the same street in that fog, met my friend at his house then we walked to the end of the street to wait for the bus, we heard her scream, i remember some older boys ran over from the next street to see what was going on but the fog was thick you could not see the area the scream came from, the same area me and my friend had just walked through, whom ever grabbed her had to be there watching as we all walked through that fog to the end of our street where it met US 27. It could have been anyone of us

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    1. Oh my goodness! This is chilling! Did any of you realize at the time that someone wasn’t accounted for at the bus stop or did you put two and two together later when Cheryll was reported missing?

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  11. I grew up about 30 miles south of there and graduated HS in ‘76..then joined the military . I remember the search from the news,,,,,,, but do not even recall if her body had been found, and I never did hear about what happened?

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  12. i remember this very vividly,it shook each student that she went to school with, but we never heard of who murdered her,though we were young kids then, i still wanted to know what had happened to her

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  13. I grew up in Highland Heights, and this happened 2 years before I was born. I never heard about this murder until I was in high school in the early ’90s. The school bus was driving through that area, and we drove past a man who was standing along the highway. The bus monitor said to the bus driver that the man standing along the road had killed a little girl years earlier.

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  14. I remember this time very vividly. I grew up in Highland Heights and was eight when she disappeared. I was frightened beyond belief when I heard my parents talking. They had lived on Rose Avenue when they first moved to Northern Ky. From that day forward I was driven by my father to school-I never rode the bus again

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