On April 30, 1997, a teenage girl from Hammond, Indiana was brutally murdered, and her death unveiled a disturbing trail of secrets that no one expected.
That morning, parents Melvin and Patty Carothers dropped their 15-year-old daughter, Peggy, off at Morton High School, but when Melvin returned that day to pick up his daughter, she was nowhere to be found, nor was she already at home. Her five siblings asked her friends if they knew where she was, but no one had seen her since school earlier that day. It was unusual behavior for Peggy, whose parents were known to be strict.
“I knew something was wrong,” Mary Stiles Sisk, Peggy’s best friend, told Oxygen’s “Buried in the Backyard,” airing Thursdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
At the suggestion of school officials, Peggy’s parents filed a missing person’s report with police, who launched an investigation. Authorities questioned Peggy’s family and friends, searching for any clues on what could have happened to her. Everyone agreed that she was unlikely to run away or have any enemies who would want to do harm to her.
Upon further inspection, police discovered that Peggy was absent during her sixth and seventh period class on the day that she went missing, which were her last classes of the day. Speaking to her best friend Sisk, police learned that Peggy had confided in her that she believed she was nearly three months pregnant with a baby fathered by another student, Collin Merrill, and that she planned to run away to Florida — a secret she’d made her friend promise not to share with anyone.
“I had to tell the detectives that I thought she ran away because she was pregnant,” Sisk told producers. “She told me she was falling in love with this guy. She wanted to marry him and she thought they would have a life together.”
Detectives learned that Peggy was smitten with Merrill as soon as she met him. They dated for a while, but their young love didn’t last; Merrill ended the relationship in February 1997, leaving Peggy absolutely heartbroken.
Police rushed to interview Merrill, who told them he had no idea where Peggy was and that he’d broken up with her months ago because her parents were so strict that it was hard for them to spend time together. He also said that he knew that Peggy was pregnant, but claimed that they weren’t dating at the time.
However, detectives continued to be suspicious of Merrill, because he’d also been absent for his sixth period class on the day that Peggy disappeared, although he attended his seventh period class. However, Merrill told police that he had an alibi: He was smoking in the boys’ bathroom with another student named Corey. When questioned by police, Corey backed up Merill's alibi, leaving investigators at square one with no clue what had happened to Peggy.
“Teenagers run away, but usually they come home or get in touched with a loved one,” Brian Miller, Public Information Officer for the Hammond Police Department, told producers. “Nobody just falls off the grid, and this child fell off the grid. Peggy Carothers vanished.”
But soon, two teens playing in the woods made a gruesome discovery. On April 30, 17-year-old Jason Branick headed into a wooded area known to be a hangout spot for local students, but he and a friend noticed a rectangular area of raised dirt, sparking their curiosity. They began digging and were shocked at what they found: a piece of cloth and what looked like skin. Afraid, they ran, and didn’t tell anyone — but a month later, however, they returned to the spot and found the hole had been filled in and the area smelled horrible. Finally, the two kids, thoroughly disturbed, called police to report their findings.
Investigators wasted no time responding to the scene and uncovering what was buried there: the body of a young woman, with a steel pipe laid against her. She was wearing a pink and white dress shirt, gray corduroy pants, and sandals — the same clothes that Peggy was wearing when she disappeared. Peggy’s school identification card was also in the pants pocket.
It was clear to investigators that the search for Peggy Carothers had come to a tragic end. Her loved ones were devastated by the news.
“I just couldn’t wrap my head around it, that she was gone,” Sisk said, adding later, “She was just so caring, happy. She would give her shirt off her back for someone.”
The next day, an autopsy confirmed it: the body found in the woods was Peggy. She’d died from head trauma caused by the pipe that was found in the grave with her, with the coroner concluding that she was hit in the back of the head multiple times. There was also dirt found in her windpipe, suggesting that she was alive, if unconscious, when she was buried.
An autopsy also showed a surprising detail: Peggy was not actually pregnant.
Police interviewed the teens who found the dead body, who insisted that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and hadn’t come forward sooner because they were afraid. Without any evidence, police were forced to release the teens and move on with their investigation.
A break in the case came days after Peggy’s funeral, when some teens called the police and said they wanted to report something strange that had happened around the time of Peggy’s death. On April 28, a group of students were in a current events class where the topic of discussion was the mafia. When asked how they would kill a woman, Peggy’s ex-boyfriend Merrill had said that he’d lure her to the woods, hit her with a pipe, and bury her in a shallow grave — a disturbing description that matched the same way that Peggy would die mere days after that conversation.
After receiving that tip, police spoke to Sisk again and asked to read her notes from Peggy. They learned Peggy and Merrill were still in a physical relationship at the time of her death, despite their breakup months ago. Peggy had also told Sisk on the day she disappeared she’d told Merrill about her pregnancy and he’d been upset.
“It was pretty incriminating, but we didn’t know if that was motive enough for him to kill Peggy,” Tracy Maple, a reporter with The Times of NW Indiana, told producers.
Around that time, police also learned Merrill's alibi actually didn’t pan out. The classmate he claimed to have been smoking in the bathroom with, Corey, told police Merrill hadn’t been there that day and that he’d said he so before because he was scared.
It was enough that police were able to arrest Merrill at his home. During the arrest, he was emotionless, detectives said; he soon got a lawyer and refused to talk to police. Eight months later, he stood trial as an adult for Peggy’s murder. Prosecutors claimed that after he learned of Peggy’s pregnancy, he began leading her on, even taking her to shop for her wedding dress, all the while planning to murder her. On the day that he killed her, he lured out to the woods under the guise of talking about getting back together, but once there, he attacked her with a pipe and buried her.
“She was young and in love, and he betrayed her,” Sisk said.
Although Merrill denied killing Peggy, the circumstantial evidence was enough for the jury to find Merrill guilty. He was sentenced to 55 years in prison, and will be eligible for parole in 2022.
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