This story is part of a collaborative project between Project: Cold Case and a University of North Florida Journalism class.
Ruthie Jean Hays was the only girl in her family of three brothers. But that didn’t stop her from pulling her weight.
Ruthie was “a doer,” her cousin Owen Lunn said. “She could go in and get things done.”
Ruthie was born on December 29, 1948, in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Her family then moved to West Plains, Missouri, where she spent most of her life.
It was a simpler time – a time before the internet – and a simpler place, one in which the resident chopped their own firewood.
The Hays family lived in Missouri alongside the Lunns. The Lunns had eight children – four boys and four girls. Owen and Ruthie were close in age – Owen being just two years older – and the two were close growing up. They could always relate to each other and Owen could understand what Ruthie was going through as a teenager.
Ruthie and her family would often spend time at their grandmother’s farm in the nearby town of Caulfield. There they would host large family get-togethers, with well over 50 family members being in attendance.
“We were one big happy family,” Owen recalled.
Grandma’s farm was their safe place.
During the Great Depression, she had raised eight children on her own. She considered it her mission to make sure every child and grandchild of hers were never without food for the rest of their lives.
Owen compared their family outings “like the Waltons,” the 1970s television series showcasing the life of a Great Depression-era family.
“We didn’t have a lot, but we swung on the grapevines and climbed the hills,” Owen recalled.
From playing in the spring to gathering food, Ruthie and her family always worked together.
“When it came hay-hauling time, Ruthie did her part,” Owen said. “She could buck hay just as well as anyone of her brothers.”
Owen recalls one of his favorite memories with Ruthie. The Hays and Lunn kids spent the entire night watching movies at a local drive-in theater. They made sure to stay up to see the sunrise.
Ruthie was always taking care of the rest of the family. She thought ahead and brought enough popcorn for everyone.
As their all-nighter continued, Ruthie made sure to make breakfast for the group in the morning before their big day fishing.
Owen said it was a great day for the teenagers, “it felt like we were experiencing freedom for the first time.”
Ruthie married her husband Robert in 1966 when she was 17 years old. Two years later, she gave birth to her only child, Elizabeth.
Robert was stationed in Vietnam during the war, so Ruthie and Elizabeth lived with her mother in West Plains.
On June 17, 1969, Ruthie and her mother got into an argument. Ruthie quickly packed her bags and left the house.
This wasn’t out of the ordinary – Ruthie would often spend a few days at her brother’s house before returning home. But she never made it back this time.
On June 20, 1969, Ruthie’s body was discovered on the side of U.S. Highway 63 in Brandsville, Missouri, a neighboring city to West Plains.
Ruthie Jean Hays was 20 years old.
Reports from the time indicate that Ruthie died from severe skull fractures and a broken neck. According to police, she was last seen walking alongside the highway at 8:30 the night before. Police at the time believed that Ruthie was pushed from a vehicle.
Tragedy was never far from the Hays family growing up. One uncle died in 1957 from a car accident. Another died in his early 20s after getting into a fight over a poker game. That murder has also gone unsolved.
Owen often thought that there was a curse on the family growing up. “You never know when you’re going to lose a loved one,” he said.
Robert Hays came home to Missouri for his wife’s funeral, but then returned to Vietnam. He never returned to Brandsville, instead remarrying, and starting a new family.
Elizabeth was only a year old when her mother died. She never got to meet her mother. Elizabeth was left in the care of her grandparents who would raise her. Her contact with Robert has reportedly been spare and infrequent.
Elizabeth still lives in Brandsville, Missouri, today. She still drives down Highway 63, the same route her mother was discovered over fifty years ago.
If you have any information on the unsolved murder of Ruthie Jean Hays, please call the Howell County Sheriff’s Office at (417) 256-2544.
Research & Impact
Advocating for a loved one’s unsolved murder is always a priority for a survivor, but often, there are some challenges and pushback that come from other family members. It’s important for all to understand that everyone faces their grief and trauma in a way that is unique to them. Not all people navigate their grief journey in the same way.
There is no “blueprint” in how to handle the loss of a loved one, the unsolved nature of the case, and managing the feelings of other family members. It’s important to know the limits and best approaches for each grieving loved one.
Project: Cold Case hosts a monthly Survivor Support Group in which these topics are discussed often. For more information and how to be included in future meetings, click here.
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