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‘Everybody Got It Wrong’: ‘Cold Justice’ Investigates Death Of Texas Teen ‘Cremated’ In Her Car
Hours after Natasha Atchley left a party in Texas, her mother found her dead in her towed car.
There are some unsolved deaths investigators just can’t shake.
“I’ve always wanted to work one case: the 30-year-old brutal murder of Natasha Atchley,” said veteran prosecutor Kelly Siegler on a new episode of “Cold Justice,” airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen. Siegler was in East Texas with investigator Steve Spingola looking into the shocking 1992 death of 19-year-old Natasha.
Over the years, local law enforcement and Texas Rangers have all been involved in investigating the tragic case. Natasha’s death has received national attention and is the subject of books and podcasts. Still, her family has yet to get a definitive answer as to what really happened to her.
After attending a party on the night of May 2, 1992, Natasha, who was known to have a “wild” side, was found the next day in the trunk of her car. Her body was burned down to bones.
“Nothing destroys evidence quite like a fire,” said Spingola. “That unknown has created a mystery [around her death].”
Siegler and Spingola had unprecedented access to the victim’s entire case to aid their investigation alongside Sheriff Greg Capers, Sgt. Martin Montalvo and Lt. Charles Dougherty, who are from the San Jacinto County Sheriff’s Office.
On May 3, 1992, a deputy was dispatched to a car fire in a wooded area. At the time it was assumed to be a stolen vehicle and the car was taken to a tow yard.
It was Mother’s Day weekend, though, and Natasha’s mom was concerned because SHE didn’t show up for a family gathering. She was informed that her daughter’s car was at the tow yard. When her mother got to the vehicle, she found what appeared to be a skull and other bones in the trunk.
The remains were identified as Natasha’s.
Traces of an accelerant believed to be drip gas, an unrefined byproduct of fuel drilling, were also found in the car.
However, because the car had been towed, the rest of the crime scene had been disturbed.
“This has been a major obstacle in trying to figure out how this murder unfolded,” Spingola said.
The party Natasha attended was about a mile from where her torched car was located. At some point during the party, there was allegedly some sort of altercation, according to case reports. Natasha left the party with no explanation at about 3 a.m.
Forensic pathologist Kathryn Pinneri, M.D. reviewed the case for “Cold Justice.” Although a cause of death could not be determined, it was concluded that the fire started in the front passenger area of the car. Natasha was in the rear hatchback area during the blaze.
The blaze was so hot Natasha was “cremated,” Pinneri said.
Speculation has surrounded Natasha’s death, including a rumor that Natasha was pregnant and another about a tie to organized crime, according to Siegler.
“The strongest rumors that keep popping up revolve around the people that were at the party,” Siegler said.
Two of those people are James “Jim” Morton, who was 19 at the time, and Cindy Henning, Natasha’s ex-roommate, who had just turned 17.
Shortly after Natasha sped away from the party, Morton and Henning had left the party together with 17-year-old Kevin Malone, who, according to investigators, supplied LSD that was at the party. Morton and Henning were arrested when a witness claimed he saw them beat up Natasha. After the witness recanted, though, they were released.
Natasha also reportedly had a run-in with Chad McGregor, another party guest. Could an argument with one of these people have led to her death?
“The most logical explanation is that the killer or killers were at the party,” said Siegler. “But what’s rumor and what's fact?”
Investigators met with Natasha’s half-brother, Chad, to learn more about the victim and to assure him that they’re determined to get to the truth.
“Natasha loved going full speed,” Chad told them. “She loved to party because she was wild. There is no denying that.”
He added that his mother changed after finding Natasha’s remains: “It just broke her,” he said.
Investigators also reached out to numerous people at the party to corroborate or refute any rumors about Natasha having an altercation. The interviews yielded no concrete evidence of foul play between the possible suspects and Natasha.
Connecting one of the suspects to the drip gas accelerant used in this fire was another dead end for the team. Similarly, a jailhouse informant, who claimed 30 years ago that Morton had admitted to playing a role in Natasha’s death, completely changed his tune.
Henning declined to speak with investigators. But her friend Dena Birmingham told investigators that she recalled that Natasha had “sped off” from the party and hadn’t had run-ins with anyone that night. Birmingham also claimed that Morton and Henning left an hour after Natasha did simply to bring Malone home.
“That’s important because it shows they weren’t going after Natasha because somebody was pissed off,” said Siegler.
Investigators returned to the scene where Natasha’s car was found with San Jacinto DA Todd Dillon, ADA Robert Freyer, and other experts. They came with a Camaro similar to the car Natasha was driving that fateful night.
One of the theories that’s previously been floated was that Natasha got into a fight and then the killer threw her in the car and set it on fire, said Spingola. The fact that no footprints or tire tracks were found at the scene dispute that idea.
An alternative theory emerged: It had rained that night. What if Natasha’s car got stuck in the mud? Because of the design of the car, maybe she couldn’t open her door to get out. Siegler and the team reasoned that if she was intoxicated, she may have been unable to determine a way out of the car.
How the accelerant got in the car is still a mystery. But at this point, the “Cold Justice” team questioned whether Natasha’s death was truly a murder.
Interviews with Jim Morton, Kevin Malone, and Chad McGregor further supported the possibility that the death was not a homicide. Their stories matched what they said in the initial investigation 30 years ago, according to “Cold Justice.”
“Everybody in this town has been looking at these three guys for the last 30 years like they were killers,” said Siegler. “But after talking to them, I think everybody got it wrong.”
Siegler acknowledged that it was difficult to know for certain what happened in the car, what was going on in Natasha’s mind, and why the fire burned so intensely. Still, this theory holds weight, she explained.
“As crazy as it sounds that this fire was an accident, someone else being able to set it sounds impossible,” said Siegler. “We feel confident that we can eliminate all these suspects and all these rumors.”
Chad Atchley told investigators that “it’s going to take time to process” the findings.
“But I am glad that it's cleared a lot of people's names,” he said.