Little Jennifer Barden Was Never Found Alive (1982)

Even pastoral communities like Gallatin cannot escape the most hideous of crimes. In 1982 an escapee from the Louisiana State Penitentiary abducted 9-year-old Jennifer Barden as she played on her family’s lawn just two blocks west of the public square. The criminal was fatally shot just a few days later while attempting a burglary. Little Jennifer was never found …alive.

Even pastoral communities like Gallatin cannot escape the most hideous of crimes. In 1982 an escapee from the Louisiana State Penitentiary abducted 9-year-old Jennifer Barden as she played on her family’s lawn just two blocks west of the public square. The criminal was fatally shot just a few days later while attempting a burglary. Little Jennifer was never found …alive.

Hundreds of volunteers, organized in groups of five, departed from the Daviess County courthouse to comb areas surrounding Gallatin to search for Jennifer. Student volunteers were released from school to help in the search as efforts fanned out to include Caldwell County. Law authorities used river boats and employed three airplanes from the Missouri Highway Patrol as search efforts continued; conservation department agents, ham radio operators, even liquor control agents worked the search. The FBI was notified. But Jennifer remained missing.

The kidnapping occurred on a Saturday. Jennifer, a brown-eyed, brown-haired youngster, was one of  four children of the Ron Nelson family who lived in a stucco house west on West Jackson Street. Jennifer had a younger brother and a half-brother and a half-sister; she was playing frisbee with a brother when she ran into the street to retrieve the toy. It was about 3:40pm.

Her brother later described a dark green pickup and the driver, first to his mother and then to law officers. No force or weapon is believed to have been used in the abduction. The truck headed north from the Nelson residence, turning on Route MM.

"We immediately put it out over the radio," Daviess County Sheriff Keny Calvin said. "Cass County picked it up, since they had a four-wheel drive pickup with the description reported stolen. Through their investigations, they connected the pickup to two escape prinsoners from Louisiana."

The suspects were Billy D. Wilson, 24, of Carson, Miss., and Roy James Hill, 35. A witness who encountered a man fitting the description of Wilson at the Submarine Tavern (west side of the business square in Gallatin) helped link the escapees here. The same man was also seen to have purchased a toy at a local store.

Wilson and Hill escaped from the Washington Parish Jail in Bogalusa, La. Wilson had been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole or pardon. He was awaiting an appeal. The off-shore oil-rig worker was charged with aggravated rape of an 8-year-old girl he encountered on his way home in Carson, Miss., in the summer of 1980. The other suspect, Hill, was facing buglary charges.

Wilson and Hill cut away bars on a small window in their cell in the back of the Washington Parish Jail. Soon afterward, a pickup camper was reported stolen there. This vehicle turned up in mid-Missouri on April 26. A deputy city marshal at Urich, Mo., pursued the speeding truck until it wrecked on a gravel road and the two occupants fled into the woods.

A dark green pickup containing two guns, a deer rifle and a shotgun, was stolen from Garden City, Mo. This vehicle was the dark green, four-wheel drive pickup described in Gallatin.

The two suspects checked into the Rosehaven Motel in Hamilton, Mo., about 11am on April 30. Wilson has relatives from that area and so was familiar to that area. The men gave ficticious names and wrote a phoney license plate number on the motel register. Motel managers say the men came and went frequently while staying there.

Law officers believe only Wilson came to Gallatin. Sheriff Calvin reports that a 30-year-old women was approached by Wilson near Barlow Oil Company on Gallatin’s north side prior to Jennifer’s abduction. The women told authorities, however, that no mention of sex was made. Since the tavern witness encountered the man fitting Wilson’s description just after noon, it is believed that Wilson was probably in Gallatin for three hours if not longer.

On Wednesday following the abduction which occurred on Saturday, Billy Wilson was fatally shot while attempting a burglary in Mira, La. Shreveport (La.) police notified Gallatin authorities that Wilson was shot at 2am by a woman residing in the home where Wilson was attempting burglary. He was killed with a .357 handgun. The FBI provided positive fingerprint identification. Wilson had stolen a 1980 Dodge pickup in Bonham, Texas, the place where fellow escapee, James Hill, was captured. At the time of his death, Wilson was driving a 1980 Monte Carlo stolen from Sulpher Springs, Texas.

Reprinted in part from the Gallatin North Missourian, May 5, 1982