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cold case

Three girls hitched a ride to a teen hangout. They never got there.

Note to readers: This story contains graphic descriptions of violence.

The man was given many names, none of them his own.

Slasher. Hunter. Predator.

For nearly half a century, he played a starring role in Kathie Rottler’s nightmares. He turned the darkness into something she, her little sister and her childhood friend would forever fear.

The women could picture the man’s face and the clothes he was wearing on Aug. 19, 1975, when he brutalized them. But they never knew who he was or who else he was hurting.

Kathie’s quest for answers to those questions would span decades – past her marriage, past the births of her children and grandchildren, past the loss of loved ones.

But the Indianapolis woman couldn’t let go.

The man had stolen her peace of mind, her voice and her little sister’s innocence.

Theirs is a story of pain, yes. Of guilt. Of trauma. But it is also the story of a deep bond between sisters.

A summertime adventure

In 1975, the cellphone was barely a gleam in the world’s eye, with none of today’s advanced capabilities. Google did not exist. It was the year Jimmy Hoffa disappeared, and the year Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft. “Jaws,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” hit theaters.

Kathie was 14 years old. And on Aug. 19, 1975, all the Indianapolis teen wanted to do was make the most of the last days of summer.

Sisters Kathie (top) and Sheri Rottler

A friend of the family offered to teach Kathie how to play pool at a teen hangout called The Barn. She asked her dad if she could go.

Yes, he told her, as long as you bring your sister. Sheri, 11, loved tagging along.

Ugh, fine.

Kathie pulled on a navy-and-white-striped tube top, blue jeans and sandals. She borrowed her older sister’s new white Western-style shirt and buttoned it over the tube top, rolling up the sleeves and tying the ends at her waist.

She ran a brush through her wavy brown hair, streaked by the sun with lighter, almost blonde strands.

Kathie invited her good friend Kandice Smith to join them.

By the time the trio left the house, the sun had already slipped below the horizon. It was dark, but none of the girls was nervous about walking at night. Back then, the only thing Kathie feared was getting grounded for not doing her chores.

It was a clear, warm night. Perfect for a short walk.

Kandice Smith

The girls headed south to East Washington Street, also known as U.S. 40, and stopped at a gas station. They liked the attendant there, in part because he sold them cigarettes. Smoking made the girls feel cool.

As they left the gas station with their smokes, Kathie offered another idea: Let’s hitchhike to The Barn.

Kandice and Sheri didn’t want to. The Barn was less than a mile away. They could walk there in 15 minutes. But Kathie, who had hitchhiked before, persuaded them to give it a try. They crossed the street so cars would be heading in the direction they wanted to go, and Kathie stuck out her thumb.

Almost immediately, a man driving a light-colored station wagon pulled up alongside them.

No way out

One of the girls tugged open the rear passenger door, but the back seat was folded down. There was nowhere to sit.

Sit up front with me, the driver told them.

Kathie scooted in first, noticing a faint odor of oil and grease that reminded her of a mechanic.

The driver wore a pink-and-white striped shirt and brown work pants, with a gold Pulsar watch glinting on his left wrist. He was clean-shaven, and his short, wavy, reddish-brown hair was streaked with gray and curled at the ends. To the girls, he was an indiscriminate age – old, like their parents.

Sheri slid into the car next, then Kandice.

Kathie asked the man to take them to The Barn. He agreed, pulling away from the curb and heading east on Washington Street.

Kathie pointed out their turn, but the man acted as though he hadn’t heard her. He drove past the intersection, his foot pressed firmly on the gas pedal.

The girls started to panic.

Kathie tried reasoning with the man first, asking him to turn around. Then she told him her parents would ground her if she didn’t get home. He seemed indifferent to her pleas.

Kathie screamed at Kandice and Sheri to open the door or the window and jump out.

Kandice fumbled for the handle, but there wasn’t one. The window crank was gone, too. The paneling on the inside of the passenger door had been completely removed.

Kathie stretched her foot toward the gas pedal, hoping she could make the car go fast enough that police would pull them over. But she couldn’t reach, so she grabbed the steering wheel instead.

The man’s patience ended. He pulled a gun and pressed it to Kathie’s temple.

Shut up and move over, he told her, or I will blow your head off.

There was no way out.

‘You’re first’

The man continued driving east on U.S. 40 for more than five miles, leaving Indianapolis for rural Hancock County. Just past County Road 700 West, he looped around and turned right. Then he turned left onto a narrow dirt lane bordered by towering cornstalks.

He stopped the station wagon and climbed out, his eyes scanning the area. When the man noticed another car passing by on the main road, he moved the station wagon deeper into the cornfield.

Shaking, the girls huddled together in the front seat.

The cornfield where Kathie, 14, Sheri, 11 and Kandice, 13, were taken by the man who picked them up.

The man circled the front of the car to open the passenger-side door. He blocked the opening and then wound rope around the girls’ hands and through the wing window so they couldn’t escape.

He asked their names and ages. Kathie: 14; Kandice: 13; Sheri: 11.

You’re first, he told Sheri.

Kathie warned her sister to do what the man said because he had a gun.

He led Sheri to the front of the car. He ripped her shirt and lifted her up on the hood.

This is your first time, isn’t it? the man asked.

He spit on his hands and ran them up and down Sheri’s body. The older girls watched in horror as he raped her.

They frantically searched the inside of the car for another gun, a knife – anything they could use to defend themselves.

The rope around Kathie’s right hand was loose. She thought she might be able to get free. But where could she go? She was in a cornfield. The man had a gun. And Kathie couldn’t leave her little sister with him.

Within minutes, the man returned. Without Sheri.

Playing dead

The man opened the passenger door and slammed his gun against the side of Kandice’s face so hard she saw stars.

You smart-ass, he said.

He ordered the 13-year-old out of the car and, after checking whether she had any money, forced her to lie in the path of the front right tire. Trembling, Kandice lowered herself to the ground.

Pieces of evidence are scattered among the cornstalks in this police photo from 1975.

A knife flashed, and the man began stabbing Kandice in the neck. She tried to fight him off, hitting him once in the face. But he continued stabbing, slashing her arm when she raised it to defend herself. The knife entered her body a dozen times.

When the man paused, Kandice pretended she was dead. She held her breath and laid really still.

He grabbed her by the hair, dragged her deeper into the cornfield and dropped her body in the dirt.

Then he returned for Kathie.

He untied the teen and brought her out of the station wagon. Kathie turned toward the front, where she’d seen him take her sister and friend.

No, he said. Go back there.

He told her to stop at the rear tire and sit down. She sat cross-legged on the ground, then looked up at him.

Now what, she asked.

He stabbed her in the neck. She thinks it was five times.

He walked back toward the front of the station wagon and stabbed the other two girls again.

When the man returned, Kathie also held her breath. He picked up her wrist. Dropped it. Then he grabbed her feet and tossed her into the cornfield.

Seeking help

Kathie kept still. She heard a car door click open, then shut. An engine roared to life.

Weak from blood loss, Kathie struggled to her feet and tried to see which way he was heading. She watched him pause at a stop sign.

Suddenly she felt a hand wrap around her leg.

Startled, Kathie fell back in the dirt before realizing the hand belonged to Kandice, who was lying next to her.

“Where’s Sheri?” Kathie asked.

Kandice said she thought the man had taken Sheri with him. They looked but didn't see her. They needed to get help.

Kathie and Kandice stood and shuffled toward the highway. Kandice saw a house near the cornfield, but Kathie didn’t want to go near it. What if the man who attacked them lived there?

At one point, Kandice looked over and saw a drive-in movie theater lit up, with people streaming into the lot and a man in the box office. When the girls got closer, there was no one there. She was hallucinating.

Kandice and Kathie stumbled toward the road.

Part 2 quicklink:Manhunt begins with a plea: ‘Please find my sister.’

Read the entire series:Slasher: A vicious abduction and assault of three teens that stayed unsolved for decades

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