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Investigators Return To 1970 Crime Scene Of Decapitated University Students Popularized By True Crime Podcast

Officials continue combing through an area in West Virginia where the headless bodies of Karen Ferrell and Mared Malarik were found more than half a century ago.

By Jax Miller
Headshots of Karen Ferrell and Mared Malarik

Investigators in West Virginia hope the use of high-tech equipment will bring them closer to learning exactly what happened to two women who were gruesomely murdered in 1970.

The double homicide of West Virginia University freshmen Karen Ferrell and Mared Malarik has haunted locals for more than half a century. Now, forensic investigators with the West Virginia State Police are returning to where the women were found in a wooded area near Morgantown in hopes of gleaning new information, according to the Cumberland Times-News.

Interest in the case was reignited in 2017 when the “Appalachian Mysteria” podcast devoted a season to the case titled “Mared & Karen: The WVU Coed Murders” by producers Kendall Perkinson and Sarah James McLaughlin.

A 2021 book in association with the podcast was written by McLaughlin and guest host Geoff Fuller.

On Jan. 18, 1970, Ferrell and Malarik had left a screening for “Oliver!” at a local theater in downtown Morgantown, according to the podcast’s creators. They were last seen getting into a cream-colored sedan – apparently seeking a ride back to their university dormitories.

In April that year, the women’s decapitated bodies were located in two “makeshift graves” in a wooded area about 10 miles from town.

Their heads have never been found.

Both podcast and book breathed new life into the decades-old case, including discussion surrounding a series of letters allegedly written by the killer, according to the Times-News.

The letters helped lead authorities to the bodies, where investigators are now resuming their searches, according to the Times-News. In May, six cadaver dogs hit on a specific spot.

Investigators revisited the area on Monday, with even more dogs alerting to the site.

“That’s what keeps me going,” said retired contractor Albert "Rod" Everly, one of the first investigators in the initial probe. “The dogs are all hitting the same scent at the same two places.”

Podcast producer and author Sarah James McLaughlin spoke with Oxygen.com about how the murders affected the community.

“We lost two bright, kind young women in the most horrifying way, but still, the community wants answers and won’t allow their names to be forgotten,” said McLaughlin. “For me, there’s a powerful message in the many people that still want to get involved and help.” 

Forensic investigator Michael Kief, a retired State Police lieutenant who works with the West Virginia State Police, said they plan to use ground-penetrating radar later this month in hopes of finding something at the scene, according to the Times-News.

“It’s basically an X-ray machine,” Kief stated. “We can get a 3-D picture of an area. We can grid everything out.”

In recent weeks, state authorities have been working hard on the scene, using garden trowels and toothbrushes to comb through the area.

Geoff Fuller, who co-wrote "The WVU Coed Murders" and lived in Morgantown at the time, believes ongoing interest in the case stems from the fear inflicted on the region as a result of the murders, he told Oxygen.com.

"Nothing like that had ever happened here," Fuller stated. "That fear is not so palpable now, but it certainly commanded the attention back in the day."

But podcaster Kendall Perkinson fears the searches may not have the desired results.

“The renewed searches are a testament to how deeply the stories have affected the community here,” Perkinson told Oxygen.com. “While we cannot give details at this very moment, we also believe they may be a red herring.”

In 1976, 36-year-old Eugene Paul Clawson was found guilty of kidnapping, raping, and beheading Ferrell and Malarik, according to an archived article by the New York Times. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Per contemporaneous reports, prosecutors alleged Clawson kidnapped the women at gunpoint and forced them to perform “unnatural sexual acts” on one another as Clawson watched. Clawson was accused of raping each woman one at a time in the backseat of his car, with the other handcuffed in the front seat.

He shot one in the head before decapitating the other, according to the Charleston Daily Mail. The machete believed to have been used in the grisly murders was later found at the home of one of Clawson’s relatives, prosecutors stated.

Clawson later recanted his confession, according to the New York Times.

Court records show Clawson had his murder convictions overturned in 1977 on the grounds of not having an attorney present for one of his confessions and the court’s admission of crime scene photos that were “extremely gruesome, highly inflammatory, and lacking in probative value.” Fuller said Clawson was convicted in a second trial in 1981, according to NBC Clarksburg affiliate WBOY-TV,

Not everyone believed Clawson was the actual killer.

“Mared’s and Karen’s story lives on as a cautionary tale about accepting rides from strangers for most, but for anyone who felt connected to the case in 1970, there’s still hope that the real killer will be found,” McLaughlin told Oxygen.com.

Several theories have been floated as to who else could have committed the heinous murders, as highlighted in the podcast and book. According to the Times West Virginian, other candidates included a man known as the “Vampire Rapist” and another convicted murderer. The latter beheaded one of his victims before burying them in the woods.

Others claimed a Maryland-based religious cult was responsible for the double-murder.

Perkinson told Oxygen.com that he and his team may have discovered the killer (or killers) responsible for Ferrell and Malarik’s murders.

“After more than 50 years, the conversations and debates that the book and podcast have generated may have finally led us to the people responsible for these murders,” said Perkinson. “We plan to share that with the public in the near future in a final episode of the show we started in 2017.”

Ferrell’s cousin, Steve McGuffin, was only 2 years old at the time of the murders, according to the Times-News. He told reporters he hoped closure could be found for his aunt and uncle, Ferrell’s adopted parents.

“They lost everything, but they didn’t draw in on themselves,” said McGuffin. “Instead, they did for others.”

Requests to the West Virginia State Police were not immediately returned to Oxygen.com.