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Who killed Jean Abla?

Victim's daughter looking for cold-case answers

SAN JON — It's been more than 35 years since Jean Simmons Abla's mysterious death.

With help from cold-case investigators, Abla's daughter has recently inspired renewed interest in trying to find out what happened to her.

Though technically never closed, the case was cleared soon after a convicted serial killer confessed to her slaying in June 1983. Henry Lee Lucas told authorities he picked her up from a San Jon truck stop. He allegedly even told them about a scar Abla had from a Caesarean section. An autopsy showed she probably died from a blow to the head.

But Lucas soon recanted his confession and authorities began to doubt many of the hundreds of murder confessions he gave.

Ultimately "The Confession Killer" was never charged for Abla's death. He died in prison in 2001, having been convicted of 11 killings.

Abla's daughter, Sam Thompson of Amarillo, said last week the Quay County investigation she believes Lucas "derailed" is finally getting back on track.

"My primary objective is and always has been to find out what happened to her," Thompson said. "If that could ever possibly lead to charges brought, that would be great. My hopes are not that high, but I would at least like to try to fill in some blanks."

Cold-case investigators explore site where woman found

The case came back into the open last month, when a pair of cadaver dogs were brought to the site north of San Jon where some rabbit-hunting children first discovered Abla's remains on May 3, 1983. That was almost seven months after her Oct. 6, 1982, disappearance. She was 35 at the time.

On scene last month were Thompson, Quay County Sheriff Rusty Shafer and agents from two Utah-based cold case organizations assisting in the search.

"We had a couple of areas of interest," said Kacy Robinson, a handler with "Fide Canem Cold Case," though she noted that strong winds and a nearby drainage ditch on the property of more than 200 acres might have complicated the findings. "We're grateful to be brought in on it; that's what we do."

The team from Fide Canem (Latin for "trust the dog,") assisted for free with some coordination from the Cold Case Foundation, a group composed of former law enforcement officers "dedicated to stopping the deadly compounding effect of cold cases and providing hope and resources to families affected by violent crime," according to their website.

The group's executive director said the team provides free support to agencies re-examining cold cases, especially in smaller jurisdictions that might be lacking in resources.

"There's a lot of agencies out there right now, smaller agencies, some of medium size, that typically have a difficult time budgeting for current cases, much less cold cases," said Greg Cooper, a former FBI profiler. As for this case itself, he said "the ultimate goal is to make a final determination as to whether or not Lucas was involved."

The foundation's Deputy Executive Director John Douglas said the team also hoped to eventually provide on-site training to local law enforcement, as well as any other support requested by the lead investigative agency, the Quay County Sheriff's Office.

Sheriff: 'Things like this shouldn't get left behind'

Sheriff Shafer said he was in the process of locating any remaining records on the case and interviewing officers and witnesses from the time. He said the case wasn't on his radar until Thompson contacted him.

"Things like this shouldn't get dropped and left behind ... Every time you get a new sheriff, you get a new vision," he said.

"The sheriff (Joel Garnett) at the time left it open because he didn't have enough evidence to link Henry Lee Lucas to her death, other than I guess what you would call circumstantial evidence."

Garnett could not be reached for comment last week.

Shafer said his office would look to guidance from and "keep in continuous contact" with the Cold Case Foundation, for "their investigatory skills on interviewing, bringing out and asking questions (that) hadn't been asked."

His hope from the renewed investigation is "to officially give Ms. Thompson closure as to what happened to her mother, in whatever form that may take."

On Monday, he said it was his "sole opinion" that Lucas was in fact the likely perpetrator, but he would let the facts and evidence go where they will.

"I've been in law enforcement long enough, I don't believe in coincidences," he said.

Daughter establishes Facebook page: 'Remember Jean'

Thompson is of a different opinion. She thinks Lucas "never came anywhere near (her) mother." She said she believes it is "highly probable" that the true killer is still alive somewhere, though she declined to name any suspects.

At the time of Abla's disappearance and the subsequent location of then-unidentified remains presumed to be hers, Thompson was herself a young mother in Dumas, Texas. She said she was too much in shock and denial then to question much of how the case was handled, but doubled down in the 1990s with efforts to conclusively identify the remains from San Jon as her mother's.

After finally succeeding with as much in the past two years through anthropological reconstruction and DNA analysis, Thompson achieved a bittersweet milestone.

"I think it helped aid in re-opening the investigation. It gives me more right to push for an investigation, because now I can prove that it was my mother," she said. "At the same time, it removes that little sliver of hope that she's still out there somewhere. That was hard to give up ... that maybe my mother wasn't hurt, maybe she didn't go through whatever horrendous thing she went through."

Thompson distributed fliers in Quay County last month soliciting information from anyone, even through anonymous tips, that might help with the investigation. She has also established a Facebook page, "Remember Jean," and an email account ([email protected]) for the same purpose.

Thompson recalled an anonymous call to her aunt in 1983 from a person claiming to have seen Abla being forced into a vehicle at gunpoint. The anonymous reporting tools were established with discretion in mind, she said, but those interested can also contact the sheriff.

"We're just starting over as best as can be done now," she said. "You've got memory's fading, and of course people that are no longer with us, so it's an uphill battle, but I'm already finding out so much more than I knew before, and there are a lot of people left to talk to, and so we're doing some of that."

Abla worked at a cafe in Endee at the time of her disappearance, and had moved recently to the area to be nearer to family. A witness reported her last seen at a bar in San Jon, where her car was found the next day with the keys and wallet inside and the engine in good condition, Thompson said.

Abla had fallen "into bad times" in the years preceding her disappearance, Thompson said, but more recently "was trying to get herself back together." She wrote poetry, she loved to sing, she was handy with both a wrench and a sewing needle. She was trying to be a good grandmother and mother.

"Mom being gone was like staring into the abyss," Thompson said. "She was all I had. She wasn't the greatest mom, but she loved me and she loved my kids, and she was all I had."

More broadly, Thompson hopes the case can be a reminder of the countless unsolved missing persons cases across the country. Her mother only officially joined the missing person registry in 2016.

"It just shouldn't be that easy for someone to be murdered and not something more done about it," she said. "I'm not trying to trash investigators or any of that, I just wish that it had been given more priority at the time, especially when she went missing."