Did a Serial Killer Murder Best Friends Diana Shawcroft and Jennifer Lueth?
It has been 21-years since two best friends left their apartment in Glendale, Ariz., and never returned. On May 26, 1996, the young women walked to the corner market and were never seen alive again.
Twenty-year-old Diana Shawcroft and 19-year-old Jennifer Lueth had recently moved to the Phoenix/Glendale area of Arizona-from Loveland, Colo., and were living with Diana's older sister Tina Frigo. The girls had been inseparable growing up.
Shortly after moving to Arizona, Diana began working at Discover Card and Jenny at Burger King. Things were off to a good start. Jenny called her parents, Bob and Deb Leuth, in Loveland nearly every day.
The evening of their disappearance, Diana told Tina, that she and Jenny were taking a quick walk up to the local convenience store in the vicinity of the 5900 block of Camelback in Glendale. She said they planned to buy cigarettes and a soda and would return soon. It was the last time Tina saw her little sister Diana, or her best friend Jenny.
Initially, there wasn't cause for real concern when the two girls did not arrive back home that evening. Life was an adventure and, being new to the area, they looked forward to making new friends. However, by the following morning, Tina began to worry when she noticed the two had not taken anything with them. When Tina realized their makeup was left in the apartment (which they never left home without), she contacted her father, Rodger Shawcroft, who lives locally, and her mother, Kathy Shawcroft, who still resided in Colorado at the time. Word the girls were missing then quickly made its way to Jenny's parents Robert and Deborah Lueth, who were also Colorado residents. Panic set in.
The police report
A police report was made to Glendale Police Department who dispatched two officers to the location the girls were last seen.
According to the convenience store clerk, Diana and Jenny were last seen outside of the convenience store at approximately 7 p.m., smoking the cigarettes and drinking the soda they had purchased. The clerk indicated they were there for some length of time when a man pulled up in a truck, believed to be a Chevrolet model with faded blue paint The girls talked to the man for a while, got into vehicle with the stranger and drove away. This is where the mystery begins.
The clerk described the man as a white male in his 30-s, with a blonde mullet hair style - and wearing a blue denim jacket. Detectives made a composite sketch.
After contacting police, the family then contacted me. At the time, I was the Chief Executive Officer and founder of the Nation's Missing Children Organization, Inc. (NMCO), in Phoenix. Shortly after founding the agency in 1994, we discovered few resources for families existed who had an adult loved one missing. Diana and Jennifer's disappearance was a pivotal point in time that would determine the future of my agency.
When a child goes missing it pulls at America's heartstrings, but these were, legally, young adult women.
Missing Children vs. Missing Adults
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed May 25th, National Missing Children and appropriated funding to create the first national clearinghouse for missing children. In the aftermath of the 1979 disappearance of Etan Patz from New York, and the 1981 murder of Adam Walsh, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children was created to address the many disappearances of children in the United States. The center was congressionally mandated to assist law enforcement and families of missing children, birth to 17 years-old.
Having opened NMCO in 1994, I knew individuals who were 18 or older when they disappeared did not receive the same national resources or attention as missing children. After Diana and Jenny disappeared, I quickly found out how much these families needed the same services. Accordingly, I formally expanded the charter of my agency to accept cases of missing adults. That decision eventually would eventually lead to a law being passed by Congress, though it would take years.
The Physical Search
The Shawcroft family immediately began searching places the girls frequented locally and even followed a lead suggesting they may have gone to Mexico as the beach is a popular Memorial Day weekend getaway for teens and young adults.
The team at NMCO began making thousands of fliers, enlisting the community's help to distribute them throughout the Valley. Ground searches focused on popular spots like the Lakes Bartlett and Pleasant, the Salt River, and watering holes, and the Dunes in nearby California.
We began a monumental media campaign and engaged the help of KTVK, KNXV, KPHO, KSAZ and local Hispanic news stations. Local companies like Sterling Meat Company, Alliant Food Company, and Metropolitan Mattress offered to place large full-color vinyl posters on their trucks providing increased public awareness throughout Arizona.
Rodger Shawcroft worked night and day searching for his daughter Diana. We teamed up with volunteers to pass out fliers, apply vinyl posters to vehicles, and conducted ground searches.
The police followed leads called in by concerned citizens, people offering help, and even psychics who were adamant they knew where the girls were located.
Diana's mother, Kathy Shawcroft, relocated from Colorado to Arizona to search for her youngest daughter. The family was consumed with finding Diana and Jenny, spending hours searching the desert for any sign of the two girls.
Bob and Deb Leuth moved to Phoenix and stayed in a motel room to search for their daughter. For the next three months, both families maintained an exhaustive search for their missing daughters.
Days and nights passed, then weeks, and then months. So many people who refused to give up their search for two beautiful young women who vanished without trace. Two families who refused to give up hope.
Three months after Diana and Jenny's disappearance, two hunters in Yavapai County made a grotesque discovery in an isolated desert location, approximately 100 miles north of Phoenix on Dugas Rd., nearly 20 miles east of I-17. The bodies of Diana and Jenny had been hidden on a small rock ridge, out of sight from the dirt road, overlooking the vast Verde Valley below.
Yavapai County Sheriff's Office had now joined the Glendale Police Department in a murder investigation. The cause of Diana and Jenny's deaths was homicide, though police never released the details of how they were killed - other than to say the killer had placed Diana's body on top of Jenny's.
Above the area where the girls' bodies had been dumped, there was a clearing. One has a clear 360-degree clear view of the surrounding area. From here, one could spot a car approaching a mile away, especially at night.
Hunting is popular off Dugas Road (Forest Road 68), as the road is the only way into the isolated area of high desert from the west, off I-17.
Police were confident the killer knew the area and possibly even hunted in the vicinity. The rock ledge where the bodies had been placed was a perfect perch for a hunter who might have glassed for elk, antelope or mule deer that seek shade during the day and emerge in early evening. The buttes and hills offer clear vantage points to see game. The months between April and July are not big game hunting months, so during this time, in this rugged desert, it is quite possible to never see a passer-by, let alone hear someone scream.
Police were certain the killer was very strong or more than one person was involved because it would have been very difficult to subdue them both. Jenny was known as very protective and a scrapper. Her family knew she would have fought for her life aggressively. One can only speculate how Diana and Jenny were lured to such a secluded area, but they may have been told they were meeting up with others at a desert party.
The evening of the discovery of Diana and Jenny's badly decomposed bodies, news stations reported the grisly find. Law enforcement made a public plea to anyone who may know about the deaths to please come forward.
Homicide Detective Bruce Foremny at Glendale Police Department secured a $1,000 reward, and we further enlisted help from local media to encourage the public to anonymously call SILENT WITNESS.
Dell Webb offered a $25,000 reward. The thousands of missing-persons fliers were transformed into "Unsolved Homicide" fliers with red print across each.
Both families, devastated by their unimaginable loss, remained dedicated to finding out who murdered the two friends. Their public pleas for help continued, although the focus had now changed to seeking justice for Diana and Jenny and helping police get a killer off the street.
The Dumping Site
In December 1996, we planned a memorial to be held at the site where Diana and Jenny's bodies were found.
My brother Scott Turnidge had made two, hand-engraved, 3' ft redwood crosses to hopefully bring a little comfort to two families whose entire lives had been shattered. As representatives of NMCO, we would present these crosses to the Shawcroft family, each cross engraved with Diana and Jenny's name and the message "We love you."
I also bought a sturdy light wood, double-photo frame at Target to place the pictures of Diana and Jenny, along with two small white bears to place at the foot of the crosses once placed. This picture frame would later become the focus of the investigation and continued search for the killer.
The day of the memorial, four news stations sent their SUV-s to meet us at the 1-17 and Dugas Road exit 268. I happened to get a flat on I-17 approximately 40 miles north of Phoenix; and, since I had the crosses in the rear of my SUV, the memorial plans were delayed. Thankfully, a good-citizen trucker helped me change the tire and we were on our way about 45 minutes late.
At the forest road, a sign warns "No Services Available." We organized into a caravan of eight vehicles and, with the Shawcroft family leading the way, began our traipse on the long and windy road. Surrounded by miles of desert, it seemed to "bring home" the fact that this area was not only isolated, but insulated. Somberly, I realized it would be hard for screams to be heard out there and even harder to survive in the night desert if they were injured, scared, and running for their lives.
We traveled about 19 miles east, crossing a beautiful creek, passing an abandoned homestead, maneuvering deep ruts, and climbing toward the Verde Rim. When we got to about 6,000 feet elevation there was a beautiful view of Ponderosa Pines and Alligator Juniper overlooking the basin of the Verde Valley. It was a beautiful place, but an overwhelming sense of dread began to surface as we pulled off the small dirt road and parked. We had arrived. It had taken more than an hour to get there.
We parked around an existing handmade rock fire pit. It was the only sign that humans had visited the area. My brother and I took a shovel, cement and water, along with crosses out of the SUV. The bright redwood seemed to shine against the background of the high desert. Kathy, Diana's mother, caught the first glimpse of her daughter's cross and her eyes began to tear. Her daughter Tina, sons Tim and Doug Shawcroft, along with her grandchildren surrounded her and hugged each other. Meanwhile, the news reporters and cameramen began setting up their equipment so they could capture the very personal family moment. The news media were also there so the family could send a public message to the evil predator who had snuffed out the lives of two young women.
As we walked toward the side of the mountain we had to begin climbing down large rocks to get to the area of the ledge where Diana and Jenny were found together. As these best friends were together in life, they now were in death. The area still smelled like human decay but Kathy said, "This place is beautiful," somehow finding the strength to find beauty in a place where she knew her daughter had taken her last breath. She would later say she felt Diana's spirit there that day and it provided her comfort.
My brother Scott began to dig the hard desert earth to prepare the area for cement to permanently erect the two crosses, while the news media began interviewing Diana's family members sitting on the surrounding rocks. The Leuth family was not able to travel to Arizona to attend the memorial but we knew they were there in heart.
Once the crosses were erected, the family closed in around them and placed numerous Poinsettia plants and Christmas wreaths around the base. I then presented the small white Teddy bears and picture frame with the same photographs that we had used for the missing and unsolved homicide posters inside. We set the picture frame between the crosses and followed with a prayer. I remember asking God to please provide the families with comfort and asking for justice. I wondered how they could muster such strength and survive such loss.
Their story aired on our five local news stations later that evening. A message to the killer was clear.
None of us would stop searching for answers and forever he would have to look over his shoulder because justice could come knocking at any time.
In the months following, Kathy and I became closer, even taking another ride out to the memorial site together. In February, we drove out to the location on a sunny day and arrived about noon. We had planned to spread desert flowers around the area, hoping the side of the mountain would someday be covered in small orange daisy-type flowers.
As soon as we arrived, we exited the vehicle and I turned around to get the seeds out of the truck. To my shock, I had locked the keys inside. Here we were, 20 miles away from the nearest highway, and we had not seen another person the entire drive in. We tried the passenger door, which was locked too and began to panic. No way could we become stuck in the desert, not to mention people would begin to worry if we did not return.
The truck had a small rear window. This was our chance, and one of us had to try to crawl through. Kathy offered to try, and climbed into the bed of the truck. To our excitement, the window opened; but, to our disappointment, it was quite small. Kathy was able to crawl though with her legs dangling out and stretch to open the passenger side door. Success! At this point, we broke into loud laughter. In reality, becoming stuck out there at night was downright terrifying and I know this crossed both of our minds.
We proceeded to ledge where the girls had been found. Kathy then confided to me that she wanted
to search for a silver ring that Diana had been wearing that had never been found by police.
We cleaned the site of debris and planters from the Christmas memorial several months before. She held the picture frame staring at her beautiful daughter's face. I could see she just wanted something more, something tangible, that Diana left behind for her. Finding Diana's missing ring would have been that sign she needed. For over an hour we sat in the dirt and dug with sticks. Despite the smell that still lingered, we had a mission.
We found nothing. We would later find out that Glendale Police had searched a large area of the ridge and overlook with a metal detector. If there was a ring there, the police would have surely found it.
Disappointed, Kathy and I sat on the large rocks overlooking the crosses and looked out into the valley below while taking a deep breath.
While sitting, it was hard not to notice the beauty surrounding us, the cool breeze in our hair. Kathy looked over to me and said, "I really love this place. It is beautiful here and I get a sense of peace knowing Diana's spirit is here" Then suddenly she said, "if I die, I want my ashes spread here." Of course, that wasn't going to happen, and we went on in conversation, never knowing how prophetic that statement would become.
In the months following, Kathy and I began working together. It became important to Kathy to connect with other parents of missing persons. She knew the importance of creating public awareness and it was then we began discussing how important it was to pass a law to create the same resources families of missing children had available to them. Kathy knew firsthand of the lack of appropriate national resources for her daughter when she had been missing.
We hosted a meeting for the group FOCUS (Finding Our Children Under Stress), founded by Susan Wilmer, the mother of Jennifer Wilmer who vanished September 13, 1993, from Willow Creek, Calif. Family members of both missing children and adults flew into Phoenix to have a two-day meeting and discuss strategies to address the plight of missing persons and how best to address the lack of resources for missing adults. We had several speakers, to include NYPD Det. Sgt. Steven Blase, one of my agency's Board of Directors.
We discussed the need for legislation to create a clearinghouse of information for missing adults, modeled after the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and legislation to improve state law enforcement's ability to cross-reference data from unidentified bodies and missing persons. With that, Kathy and I scheduled a trip to Washington, DC., to plead our case to Congress.
Despite such tragedy, an advocate had been born. Kathy was now committed to helping other families of the missing and murdered, in the name of her daughter Diana.
Psychics and Chaos
Since Diana and Jenny had first gone missing, psychics had called both my agency and the police department with leads and descriptions of the suspects(s).
When a person experiences such tragic loss, they will go to any lengths to find answers, and Kathy had been thinking of consulting with a local psychic. Throughout the years, working with hundreds of families of missing children, I had witnessed the roller coaster ride when they have hope and when they feel none. The loss of hope is a natural response to the ambiguity related to one of the most traumatic experiences a family of a missing person can endure, and often hope is key to survival. When a psychic tells a parent her child may be alive and held against their will, somewhere in the country inside a small run-down house near a railroad crossing . . . that can become a source of hope and motivation.
When a person is missing or murdered, law enforcement must follow every lead. Concerned citizens calling in with a lead that may seem inconsequential can often help detectives move forward in their investigation. Even psychic leads must be investigated to confirm or disprove the information they are provided, while also ruling the caller in or out as a potential witness or suspect. Also, it is not uncommon for killers to interject themselves into an investigation. Hundreds of leads had to be waded through.
Prior to Kathy's meeting with a psychic, I tried to prepare Kathy for potential disappointment but had to respect her decision. I was afraid