STEWART COUNTY, Tenn. (WZTV) — A 43-year-old cold case is still on the minds of family and friends. It happened in 1980 when two teenage girls were murdered in Stewart County, and still, no killer was found.
Dover, Tennessee is a small town in Stewart County in northwest Middle Tennessee with a population of less than 2,000.
Investigators say 14-year-old Carla Atkins and her 16-year-old half-sister Vickie Stout went to a store called "The Furnace" on September 17, 1980, where witnesses say they saw the girls talking to someone in a blue pickup truck, and the truck circled the highway by that store.
That’s the last time anyone has seen the sisters, and their mother reported something wrong to juvenile officers that same day.
The missing girls’ 22-year-old sister Patricia Gordon received a call from her brother saying the girls hadn’t come home, but she didn’t worry, yet.
“The next day, I think I called and they said they hadn’t come back, and that’s when we kinda started to panic,” says Gordon.
A few days later, Gordon says her family started to think the worst.
“Then you realize something really bad has happened, but what’s happened? And you start envisioning they’ve been kidnapped, somebody has them” says Gordon.
For Gordon, she gets emotional thinking about the last time she saw the girls.
“We were down here riding around and Carla, the day we were leaving, she came out to the car and said, ‘Can I come and live with you guys for a while?’ and we were just getting started in our jobs. We didn’t have a lot of money. My husband’s like ‘Carla, I really wish we could,’ you know?"
"Is that a conversation you play back a lot?" asks FOX17 News’ Amanda Chin.
Gordon nodded her head, with tears in her eyes.
A few weeks later, on October 5, 1980, hikers smelt an odor in this area called Land Between the Lakes. That’s when they contacted the sheriff’s department, where deputies saw the girls’ bodies.
Deputies found the teens about 75 feet apart and believe someone attempted to cover their bodies.
“The phone rang and I answered it and it was my Aunt May, and she was just crying, and she said they found the girls and I knew when she was crying, it wasn’t a good find,” says Gordon.
Stewart County Sheriff David Hicks told the local newspaper at the time, “We can safely say that it was a murder.”
Because of the three-week period that passed before deputies discovered the girls’ bodies, it’s wondered if there’s missing evidence at the crime scene.
“We did find shotgun shells and we did find her flip flops, and it was my belief that she was running to try and get away,” says Jerry Kitchen, one of the crime scene investigators at the time.
Kitchen also found this piece of evidence, which had been submitted to the TBI.
“I found a light blue stain off of a tree where it appeared at the height that it was a truck,” says Kitchen.
The autopsy revealed a shotgun killed the girls, but their bodies were too decomposed to reveal if they’d been sexually assaulted.
An artist’s sketch with age progressions shows the man described by witnesses seen driving that blue pickup truck when the girls were last seen.
“Do you think that the same person who did this was the same person in the blue pickup truck that day that the girls were seen with?” asks Chin.
“I do, I do,” says Gordon.
The TBI agent heading the investigation at that time, Jack Charlton, believed the sketch could be the girls’ abductor, murderer, or witness.
“I’m like well this won’t take any time at all. They’re gonna find who did this, wrap it up, and it’s done with, and then it continued to drag on and on,” says Gordon.
Years passed without an arrest.
“There was a point where we just kinda like gave up,” says Gordon.
In 2011, more efforts began again in this case when Stewart County Sheriff Deryk Wyatt came on board, and in 2015, District Attorney Ray Crouch asked the FBI to help in this case and says they are still involved to this day.
That following year, D.A. Crouch says he eliminated some false information and leads.
“It’s very frustrating. It’s scary because you don’t know who did it and you don’t know why, so you gotta wonder about the rest of your family,” says Gordon.
Four years later, Crouch said they have about three or four people that they are highly interested in, and narrowed down a pool of suspects. That same year, Crouch traveled to Florida to bring evidence to a special DNA lab.
Gordon says the DNA tests did yield some findings but was not told about specifics, but the evidence being tested at that private lab in Florida has temporarily stopped.
Gordon says the evidence is still in the process of being tested, but it’s very expensive but remains optimistic her sisters’ killer will be found.
Gordon thanks a podcast started by Amelia Courtney and Lainie called "Murder at Land Between the Lakes," for bringing more attention to this case.
"I've dedicated the last three years of my life to being a voice for them. We've done everything we can to make sure it is heard," says Courtney.
To hear more about the girls' story, listen to the podcast here.
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