After years of rumors and mystery, investigators identify “Belle in the Well”

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IRONTON, Ohio — (WOWK) After 38 years, the “Belle in the Well” has been identified as Louise Virginia Peterson Flesher.  

Her identity was released during a news conference today in Ironton, Ohio.  

That identity had been a mystery since her remains were found in a well in Lawrence County, Ohio on April 22, 1981.  “It was almost an urban legend here in the Tri-State,” said Lawrence County Coroner Dr. Ben Mack. “I didn’t grow up here in the Tri-State and I knew about this case before I moved here as this urban legend of the ‘Belle in the Well.'”

Investigators believe she had been in the well for at least a year before her body was found. She was found about an hour away from where she lived as a child with her mother and grandparents in West Virginia. Investigators now say Flesher would have been around 65 years old when she was found back in 1981. Investigators also confirmed rumors that Flesher was found with a ligature around her neck, which was tied to a cement block to hold her down- rumors that dated back to when she was found. However, Despite extensive investigations at the time, police were never able to identify her until February of this year.

The case was reopened in 2009 after forensic anthropologist Elizabeth Murray, PhD a professor at Mount St. Joseph University reached out to Lawrence County Coroner Investigators Bill Nenni suggesting additional possibilities to identify the remains. 

The remains were exhumed in June of 2011 and a bone sample was tested.  Using dental x-rays they were able to put together a facial reconstruction but could not find a match with any missing person cases. 

In February of 2017 Murray and Nenni contacted Colleen Fitzpatrick, PhD, with the newly forming DNA Doe Project about using forensic genetic genealogy to possibly identify the “Belle in the Well”. Dr. Fitzpatrick’s team faced several challenges. “The DNA was degraded, it was low level, and it was contaminated with bacteria,” said Dr. Fitzpatrick.

Months later, information found using genetic genealogy showed Belle’s family was likely from Huntington, West Virginia but no immediate family members were located. 

A second facial reconstruction was released in May of 2018. 

In February of this year the DNA Doe Project made a tentative identification. “It’s like the whole group was on fire: Yes! Yes! We did it!” said Dr. Fitzpatrick.

They then contacted Nenni, to tell him they think they had identified the “Belle in the Well.” They also had a list of family members who could be tested to verify their discovery.

On July 3, using a DNA sample from Louise Virginia Peterson Flesher’s youngest daughter they were able to confirm the identity of the “Belle in the Well.”  

The DNA Doe Project has solved 12 cases since February 2017. This is its fifth case solved in Ohio and one of the longest cases they have worked on.

Dr. Fitzpatrick asks those that take genealogy tests to download their data, upload it to GED-Match, and “opt-in” so that the DNA Doe Project is able to use this DNA bank to help identify other people.

The Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office asks anyone with information related to this case to contact them at (740)-532-3525 or submit an anonymous tip by calling (740)-534-5830 or email helpthesheriff@lawcoso.com 

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