NEWPORT — Ron Benson is investigating the 1992 murders of Melissa Sanders and Sheila Swanson, and his goal is to get enough evidence to tell prosecutors that they could file an indictment in the case — even if the suspect isn’t alive anymore.
Family members also could get some closure from finding out who killed the teenage best friends, Benson said.
“They want to know what happened,” added Benson, an investigator with the Lincoln County District Attorney’s Office.
On Tuesday, Bobby Jack Fowler, who died in prison in 2006, was named as a person of interest in the murders of Sanders and Swanson.
Sanders was 17 and from Sweet Home. Swanson was 19 and from Lebanon. Their bodies were found in the woods off Highway 20 near Eddyville in 1992.
Fowler also has been named either a suspect or person of interest in 11 other unsolved homicides in Canada and Oregon.
“Of course, for Sanders and Swanson, Bobby Jack Fowler may not have done it,” Benson said. “There might be another person out there.”
Still, there are similarities between the Linn County girls’ deaths and the other murders, he added.
Here’s one of the holes in the case: Investigation has revealed that Fowler was not in Oregon a month before Sanders and Swanson disappeared from a family camping trip at Beverly Beach State Park. And investigators know he was out of the state a month after the teens vanished.
Between those dates, though, investigators aren’t sure of Fowler’s whereabouts: “We are trying to close that gap,” Benson said. He added that he was working on a lead that might provide an answer.
There isn’t usable DNA from the Sanders and Swanson case, Benson said, because the teens had been dead for months when they were found.
The murders of two other teenagers in the Newport area from 1995 are a stronger fit for Fowler, who has been named a suspect in that case.
On Jan. 28, 1995, Jennifer Esson and Kara Leas, both 16, were last seen walking toward Highway 101 in Newport. Their bodies were found about two weeks later in the woods north of Newport.
Benson said that case closely parallels murders that Canadian authorities are investigating.
And in 1995, Fowler had been working on construction sites in the Newport area, Benson said.