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"It Was an Execution": 10-Year-Old Witness Helps Crack Murder of a Michigan Mom
Investigators had their young eyewitness hypnotized to come up with clues in the mysterious case.
On May 10, 1985, the discovery of Linda Van Buskirk’s body in a shallow grave sent residents of St. Joseph County, Michigan reeling.
“We could tell she had been shot three times,” investigators told Buried in the Backyard, airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen. “The body was exhumed and we took it to Lansing for an autopsy.”
Mother Linda Van Buskirk Goes Missing
The disturbing finding was made about six weeks after Linda, 26, a self-employed divorced mother of two working hard to make a life for herself and her daughters, went missing.
On March 26, Linda left home for her routine daily walk while her parents temporarily looked after her children. Linda never returned.
The devoted mother’s disappearance immediately sent up red flags. “Linda led an exemplary life,” said Jeff Middleton, former chief assistant prosecutor for St. Joseph County.
A 10-Year-Old Witness Comes Forward
Officials learned that a local resident, 10-year-old Todd Terrell had heard gunshots the day Linda went missing.
The young witness told police that he’d seen a man dragging something out of a ditch and putting something in the trunk of his car. He thought it may have been a deer, but officials noted that it wasn’t hunting season.
Investigators asked Todd to bring them to the spot where he saw the vehicle and the deer. It was an intersection that was on Linda’s daily walking route.
Officers turned up blood at the location. It was collected for analysis to determine if it was animal or human blood. Hollow point shell casings, commonly used by law enforcement, were also found at the scene.
Todd had told police that the man he’d seen was driving a dark-colored hatchback. An alert on the car was distributed to local and state police.
Officials knew that Todd “was probably our only witness at that point. He was critical to this case,” said Robert Cares, former prosecuting attorney for St. Joseph County.
The Key Witness Is Hypnotized
“We had to do everything we could to find out what he knew,” Cares added. “There was nobody else.”
Authorities decided to hypnotize Todd to see if that could stir memories useful for the case. Under hypnosis, Todd was asked what he saw the man dragging. His chilling answer was, “a girl.”
At this point, investigators didn’t know if Linda was missing or dead. Nonetheless, the search for the dark hatchback expanded as neighboring counties were notified and more people stepped in to help.
The Michigan State Police, the St. Joseph County Sheriff's Department, the Three Rivers Police Department, and more agencies united their efforts for the case.
Possible Suspects Interviewed
Detectives pursued every possible avenue. They began by interviewing Linda’s ex-husband, Bruce Van Buskirk, a police officer for the community of Three Rivers.
The Van Buskirk divorce wasn’t amicable. There were issues involving custody of the children. What's more, because he was a police officer, Bruce had access to hollow point bullets. The factors all raised suspicions.
Officer Van Buskirk claimed he was on patrol at the time Linda vanished but had no concrete way to back up that assertion. He remained on the list of possible suspects.
“We just waited to see how he was going to react,” investigators told producers.
Three days after Linda went missing the test results of the blood found at the possible crime scene came back. The blood was human. Police knew they were now chasing a homicide case.
A sweeping search of local law enforcement guns was conducted, said Det. Sgt. Robin Baker, now retired from St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Department.
That search started with Bruce Van Buskirk’s firearm, which eventually helped clear him from suspicion.
Sheriffs also interviewed Jim Briney, who had made his home available to Linda and her two children. Briney had an airtight alibi that cleared him as a suspect.
At the same time, investigators continued to seek the assistance from their lone eyewitness, Todd, who worked with a sketch artist to create a composite drawing to help in the investigation. The sketch was circulated to the media to help to rustle up tips but about six weeks passed with no tips.
Then, on May 10, Linda’s body was found by a workman in a remote area outside of the village of Three Rivers. Her identity was confirmed through dental records, while an autopsy ruled out sexual assault and revealed she’d been shot three times — in her arm, shoulder, and head.
“This was not something that was done in a fit of rage or self-defense or anything else. It was a terrible murder. It was an execution,” investigators said.
For Linda’s loved ones, the report of Linda’s violent end “was profoundly devastating,” Briney told producers.
Ricky Moore Emerges as a Suspect
Investigators focused on the remote burial site, which suggested the crime was committed by someone familiar with the area. Police continued to canvas the community for witnesses.
During one of these interviews, a local gas station attendant recalled seeing 25-year-old Ricky Moore, an auxiliary police officer from Mendon, on the day Linda disappeared. His father, Larry Moore, was also law enforcement.
When he was interviewed by police, Ricky admitted that he knew Bruce Van Buskirk and had sold him his car. He claimed he’d never met Linda.
Ricky’s car didn’t match the description of the vehicle seen by Todd Terrell. Ricky agreed to let police search his car, which turned up no evidence for blood.
Despite that result, Ricky’s access to firearms and knowledge of the area kept him on the list of suspects. Officials next step was to go to Ricky’s house and get his gun. Ricky initially protested but eventually handed over the firearm.
The gun was sent out for testing immediately. Police obtained a search warrant for Ricky’s residence, where they found hollow point bullets. On May 17, 1985, Ricky appeared in a line-up but Todd Terrell was unable to pick him out of the group.
It was a disappointing blow for investigators. But on June 6, Ricky’s gun was found to be the one used to kill Linda.
Ricky was charged with her murder but claimed he was innocent. To back that up he agreed to take a polygraph test. The results showed that he was untruthful when asked if he had murder Linda.
Investigators could only speculate about Ricky's motive for killing Linda. They theorized that she might have rejected his romantic or sexual advances.
Ricky Moore waived his right to a trial by jury and is tried in front of a judge. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
Where is Ricky Moore today?
On May 13, 1986, the judge delivered a guilty verdict of murder in the first degree. He was sentenced to life without the chance of parole, the Battle Creek Enquirer reported at the time.
Ricky Moore is serving his time at Muskegon Correctional Facility in Muskegon, Michigan.
To learn more about the case, watch Buried in the Backyard, airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.