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Ottawa Co. detectives name victim in 1994 cold case

Posted at 6:36 PM, Jan 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-20 19:47:33-05

OTTAWA COUNTY, Mich. — Back in 1994, a few hunters were out rabbit hunting in Coopersville, around 32nd Avenue and Arthur Street, when they came across skeletal remains. Immediately, police were called, said Capt. Jake Sparks with the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office investigative team.

“That case was ruled to be a homicide at that point after the autopsy was conducted and unfortunately the victim had never been identified,” Captain Sparks said during a media briefing on Thursday. “The case grew cold because we didn’t even have the victim identified, thus couldn’t make a real legitimate identification of any suspect.”

So, they called her Matilda, kind of like Jane Doe.

That was until last year when they teamed up with the DNA Doe Project, which led them to Minneapolis, MN, he said. Later, detectives were able to identify the victim as Shelly Rae Kephart.

“Shelly’s timeline of when she went missing in Minnesota matched up with the timeline that we had for the recovered body, the skeletal remains that we had back from November of 1994 near Coopersville area,” Captain Sparks said. “So, after meeting with family down there, doing quite a bit more investigation, we were able to get DNA samples from family down there in Minnesota.”

Captain Sparks said her given name is Kephart. However, she went by Shelly Rae Christian as well. They’re hoping the public will help them to determine why she went by both.

Detective Sara Fillman said having a name gives the investigation a much-needed boost.

“In an investigation I think the main challenge in not having a name is not being able to trace back her steps, find out where she was last known to be and kind of what her path was from there,” said Detective Fillman. “I think additionally it’s difficult to go out and question people about someone that has no name. But just using generic terms such as an unidentified person or an unidentified female... it’s very vague.”

Detectives said Shelly leaves behind her mom, siblings and children, and they’re working on getting them her remains.

However, now, because detectives have a name, they can begin to investigate what happened the night Shelly died.

“I’ve looked at this case kind of my whole career, seeing it in other detectives' offices and seeing Matilda’s picture around,” said Detective Fillman. “It’s been quite surreal, I would say, going out and talking to the family and providing some closure for them as well.

***Detectives ask if anyone has tips or information please call the Silent Observer at 1-877-88SILENT or reach out to***

RELATED: Ottawa County deputies highlight pair of cold cases: 'Jenny' and 'Matilda'

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