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Man charged in 1986 Franklin County cold case murder of woman

For 34 years, Kristen Edwards' family has waited for justice. No one was in custody. That changed this week thanks to a new cold case unit in Missouri

FRANKLIN COUNTY, Mo. — On Saturday, July 5, 1986, Kristen Edwards’ husband came home to an unsettling scene. His wife was missing from their house in Sullivan, Missouri.

She seemingly disappeared in the middle of a normal day. A meal was left half eaten. The TV was on. Her purse was in the couple’s truck, which was parked on the driveway.

But Edwards was gone.

Her body was found in a field three days later about a half-mile from her home. She was nude and partially covered by sticks. A medical examiner determined she was strangled to death.

For 34 years, Edwards' family has waited for justice. No one was in custody charged with her murder. That changed this week.

Kenneth Avery was charged with second-degree murder. He’s now in custody, the Missouri Attorney General’s office announced Thursday.

Avery’s arrest was part of the work of a newly formed cold case unit in the state, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt said. Schmitt said forming a cold case squad was a priority for him and his mission to prosecute the state’s most violent criminals.

“There are cases across Missouri that have remained unsolved for years, often decades. Those victims cannot and will not be forgotten, which is why I launched the Cold Case Unit - to obtain justice on behalf of those victims,” said Schmitt said in a news release Thursday.

Schmitt said the cold case unit will give a fresh look at cold case homicides, investigate the cases and work to bring charges.

The Edwards case is the first one they were able to bring charges.

According to a probable cause statement, a woman who witnessed Edwards’ murder was a key part of their investigation and eventual arrest of Avery. The woman told investigators that back in 1986 she was told she would be killed if she talked to police about what she saw.

The woman told investigators Edwards was last seen alive with Kenneth Avery Jr. at a cabin in Leslie, Missouri. The woman said she saw Avery sexual assault and strangle Edwards. She later saw the victim lying motionless on a bed.

The witness said several hours later she was taken to the area where Edwards’ body was later found. She said she was with Avery and several other people.

Credit: KSDK

The probable cause statement did not indicate a motive in Edwards’ death.

Schmitt said Avery was previously considered a suspect in the case, but new evidence led to the charges.

The new cold case unit is led by Tom Dittmeier and Dean Hoag, who have a combined 90 years of combined experience in prosecuting violent crime in Missouri.

Dittmeier was a prosecutor in St. Louis and St. Louis County before becoming the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri in the 1980s. Schmitt said Dittmeier prosecuted several high-profile cases, including the infamous St. Louis mob bombing crimes.

Hoag was a state prosecutor before joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office as an assistant U.S. attorney. One of his cases includes the high-profile Ed Post murder case at St. Louis Union Station.

“With experienced and respected prosecutors Tom Dittmeier and Dean Hoag at the helm, I’m confident that the Cold Case Unit will successfully investigate and prosecute the cases they take on, and will bring long-awaited peace and closure to the loved ones of those victims, while bringing justice to the perpetrators of these horrific crimes,” Schmitt said.

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