Forty years after sending her 8-year-old daughter off to the overnight Girl Scout camp where she was brutally killed, Sheri Farmer is still searching for answers — and still remembers her last words to her little girl, Lori.
“We hugged and I told her I loved her,” Farmer recalls to PEOPLE. Then she watched Lori get on the bus that would take her to Camp Scott for a two-week stay 45 minutes outside their home in suburban Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Farmer never saw her daughter alive again.
“I wish I had not let her go,” Farmer says. “It was her first time to ever go to camp anywhere.”
On June 13, 1977, the very night she left her family, Lori and two other scouts, Michele Guse, 9, and 10-year-old Denise Milner, were raped and murdered.
“She had just finished the fourth grade,” Farmer tells PEOPLE of Lori. “Being the oldest of five, she was very mature, smart, so really, really pretty. She was just a really good oldest sister.”
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The prime suspect in the triple slayings was 33-year-old Gene Leroy Hart, a convicted rapist who had escaped from jail four years earlier. After a 10-month manhunt, Hart was captured and charged with the girls’ murders.
Though there were no weapons or fingerprints, analysis found that a hair uncovered in the investigation could have belonged to a Native American, like Hart. Police also said possibly stolen items from the camp were found in a nearby cave they believed was linked to him.
Still, a jury was unconvinced and acquitted Hart. “They tried to frame him,” says his attorney, noting that a bloody footprint did not match his client’s foot size.
Sent back to prison to finish his earlier sentence, Hart died of a heart attack two months later, in 1979.
No one has since been arrested and the case remains open, haunting Farmer through the decades. Though she believes Hart may be guilty, she isn’t sure he was the only one involved in the killings.
At last, answers may be coming. Last year, Mayes County, Oklahoma, Sheriff Mike Reed raised $30,000 locally so that surviving evidence from the crime scene could undergo DNA testing that may reveal the identity of the killer. After all these years, Reed said, the victims’ families, particular Farmer, had kept the case alive.
What Reed isn’t saying is if he hopes to use the test results to prove a definitive link between the crime and Hart or to lead investigators to another suspect.
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“I would like to know who did this,” Farmer says.
While she waits, she continues to spread word of the case. And she says there isn’t a day that goes by that she doesn’t think of Lori.
“Just on an ordinary day and one of [my daughters] calls and we talk, and I think, ‘I wish Lori could just call me and talk.’ I wonder what the everyday thing would look like,” Farmer says.
“Would she be a doctor like her dad, too? What would her husband be doing? What children would there be?”