April 28, 2020 | By Zoe Smolios

When it came to Fame Cooper, her fourth-grade best friend, Bobbie Proto, said that her sweet-yet-shy personality is what made the two gravitate towards each other.

“When you were her friend, you were her friend for life,” said Proto.

Sunshine Hornick, Cooper’s older sister, said that Fame was her protector.

“Even though she was the younger sister, she was always looking out for me,” Hornick said.  “We would confide in each other and she would tell me things that I will never tell another living soul.”

Born on September 19, 1975, Cooper grew up in Fairmont, West Virginia. Her mother was a late-night dancer who came and went and the man who was thought to be her father was in jail for murder, so Cooper lived with different family members. Coming from different fathers, Hornick remembers the time she and her sister spent living with her own father and his wife. During that time, Cooper was her rock.

“[His second wife] treated us horribly and there are things I still don’t remember, and maybe it’s good that I don’t, but that experience bonded us,” said Hornick.

“We both came from dysfunctional families,” Proto said. “I think that’s really what helped grow our bond.”

Proto and Hornick said that Cooper was your typical 80s girl with the teased-out hair and band posters hanging everywhere, with her favorite bands being New Kids on the Block and KISS. Hornick remembers that her sister liked taking “glamour shots.”

Even though Cooper came off shy to most people, she would be her full self in front of her best friend, putting on shows for her teddy bears and other stuffed animals.

“With me, she came out of her shell,” said Proto.

As the two friends entered their teens, though, they grew apart. Proto recalls seeing Cooper at a lock-in with the local church’s youth group hanging with a crowd that seemed to be up to no good. She didn’t know that would be the last time she would see Cooper.

In July of 1990, at 14 years of age, Fame Cooper went missing. Four months later, on November 10, 1990, her remains were found by two hunters in the woods of Barrackville, West Virginia. Four men were questioned, with one held in prison for suspicion of murder and then later released two years later, the case has since gone cold and so many questions have been left unanswered.

Kevin Moore, now retired, worked for the sheriff’s office in Fairville at the time of the murder and had previously become close with Cooper, trying to get her on the right track after she ran away from home for the seventh time. After her last time running away, her family decided to send her off to a juvenile delinquency center in another city. When her great-aunt couldn’t drive her or pick her up from the center, Moore took on the task. That was the first time he met Cooper.

“She couldn’t grow up fast enough,” Moore said. He also says that her family struggled to care for her and that she was a habitual runaway.

Moore remembers the day he heard the news that Cooper’s body had been found, and the detective telling him, “We think we’ve found this girl’s body.”

“You get the hair up on the back of your neck when you know something is wrong,” said Moore.

Since retiring, Moore has made it his mission to make sure Cooper’s case gets solved. He has been talking to and comparing information with Proto to try to make all of the pieces fit together.

“It was just something that never went away,” said Proto.

She remembers the day, just last year, that she felt gave her a sign that she needed to help solve her friend’s case. Sitting on her couch, Proto had just found the FBI files for Cooper’s case. At that moment, she heard the word “fame” uttered in the “48 Hour” special.

Since that day, Proto has been pushing to have the case solved. In January, Proto traveled back to Fairmont from Houston to meet with Hornick and the sheriff to discuss having the case looked at again. Upon arrival, the two women learned that the sheriff was not going to make it to the meeting, but detectives have maintained contact.

Proto said that she feels getting the answers to what happened to her friend is something that the entire community needs. Hornick’s wish is to get the person who killed her sister to be in prison so that they cannot harm anyone else.

“There’s a lot of bad things that have gone on in this town,” said Proto. “Fame’s murder was one of the first really bad things and we didn’t know why it happened. I just think, maybe it’s time. They need it to be solved.”

As for what Cooper would be doing now if her life hadn’t been taken so early, Hornick believes she would be a mother, maybe even a grandmother, working in a field that gave back to people.

“I could have seen her being a doctor, she liked to help people,” said Hornick.

If you have any information on the unsolved murder of Fame Cooper, please call the Marion County Sheriff’s Department at (304) 367-5300.

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Research and Impact

Far too often are a child’s cause of death listed as “undetermined.” The lack of official classification can often hinder the investigator’s ability to prove, without a shadow of a doubt, who is responsible for the murder.

An “undetermined” death classification equates to longer investigations, which delays judicial processes and the identification of a suspect. One reason for this is due to the delay in autopsy results, as medical examiners must often work through a backlog of cases. Adult autopsies take a while, but it was discovered that the Massachusetts medical examiner was taking an average of 242 days to determine a cause in children’s death cases.

Ryan Backmann, founder and executive director for Project: Cold Case, spoke of the systemic failures to protect the youngest, most vulnerable lives. Despite the ongoing investigation, “these people are going to have other children,” Backmann said. Those children are now at risk because their dangerous caregivers were not held responsible.

Per the studies of criminologist James Fox of Northeastern University, Massachusetts investigators have solved 90% of homicides involving children under the age of 11 between the years 2000 and 2013. The clearance rate for older children and adults is considerably lower. However, there were no regional or national recordings for how many of these cleared lead to homicide charges or judicial process.

When a child is murdered, their body can often tell a story. However, it’s the job of the medical examiner to determine if any injuries were accidental, or cause by homicidal or suicidal actions. Furthermore, there is often a need for more investigation, including the assistance of a forensic specialist and a review of preexisting health and wellness.

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If you have a loved one that is the victim of an unsolved homicide, please submit their case here for consideration in a future Cold Case Spotlight post.

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