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Crime News Cold Cases

Arrest Made In 1980 Murder Of College Student Who Was Last Seen Pleading For Help Along Road

Witnesses saw 19-year-old Barbara Mae Tucker emerge from the woods before a man pull her back into the trees.

By Jax Miller
DNA Leads To Arrest In Student's 1980 Murder

After more than four decades, an arrest has been made in the murder of a 19-year-old Oregon woman. A detective assigned to the case back in 2015 credits modern advancements in DNA testing and DNA ancestry databases for helping him solve the cold case.

On the night of Jan. 15, 1980, passersby in Gresham, Oregon swerved their cars around a woman waving her arms out of desperation in the middle of the street, according to local news outlet Teh Outlook. Witnesses reported seeing Barbara Mae Tucker escaping a wooded area; some even reported her face was dirty and bleeding. No one stopped, but some watched as a man emerged from the trees and pulled Tucker back into the woods from where he came. The following morning, a student found her body in the bushes. The medical examiner determined that Tucker had been sexually assaulted and beaten to death.  

“With a case like this, there is a large wound to the family,” Gresham Police interim Chief Claudio Grandjean told Oxygen.com. “Secondary, there’s a wound to the community and a wound to the police department. We get a chance to heal all of those.”

Det. Aaron Turnage, who was assigned to the cold case in 2015, provided DNA collected from the original crime scene to Parabon NanoLabs LLC to create a DNA profile, according to a Gresham Police press release. A match led authorities to identify Robert Plympton, 58, of Troutdale, as a suspect.

“It took several years, but finally, a strong enough match was made to point us in the direction of the Plympton family,” Turnage told Oxygen.com. When asked which person the DNA led back to, Turnage stated, “It was a direct hit from our evidentiary standard to Robert Plympton.”

According to Grandjean, there was no apparent connection between Tucker and Plympton.

Robert Plympton Pd

At an arraignment that took place last Wednesday, Plympton, now a husband and father of two, pleaded not guilty to charges of rape, sex abuse, and murder. Despite being 16 at the time of Tucker's murder, the District Attorney’s Office is charging him as an adult.

On the night of Jan. 15, 1980, Tucker was walking to the local Mt. Hood Community College, where she attended night classes for business as a sophomore. Earlier that day, she called her mother and told her she intended to visit a friend’s apartment to have ice cream if class was dismissed early enough, according to local Bend outlet The Bulletin.

This isn’t the first time Plympton has been the suspect in a violent crime. In 1997, a woman accused him of driving her to a secluded area and attacking her, according to local news outlet The Outlook, citing court documents. Police arrested Plympton for attempted sodomy and assault, but charges were later dismissed due to lack of evidence. 

Now, Tucker's family is sharing a sigh of relief.

“I’m just really happy there’s some closure,” said Tucker’s sister, Susan Prater, to local news station KGW 8. “I wish it could've happened when my folks were alive. That would have been wonderful.”

Tucker’s father and mother died in 1989 and 1995, respectively.

“The outreach of the community, after the arrest, has been significant,” Turnage told Oxygen.com, adding there’d been an outpouring of support, as well as tips, in recent days. “It’s gripped them. It’s haunted them over the years. 

Anyone with information about this case is asked to call Det. Aaron Turnage at 503-618-3136.

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