Editor's Note: Since this story's initial publication at 5 p.m. Dec. 2, The Missourian has learned from the attorney general's office that Avery Jr. is in custody in a facility in St. Louis County, but custody has not yet been transferred to the Franklin County Sheriff's Office. This change has been reflected in the story below.
A Villa Ridge man was charged with second-degree homicide Tuesday in connection with the 1986 murder of a rural Franklin County woman, Kristen Edwards.
According to the attorney general's office, Kenneth T. Avery Jr., 59, is in custody in a St. Louis County facility. Custody will later be transferred to the Franklin County Sheriff's Office. A $500,000 cash-only bond has been set for Avery Jr.
A press conference, which will feature Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, Assistant Attorney General Tom Dittmeier and Franklin County Sheriff Steve Pelton, has been scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 3 in St. Louis. The press conference is expected to include an announcement for Schmitt’s new cold case unit, which was involved in bringing about these charges.
The charges stem from the July 8, 1986, discovery of Edwards’ nude body in a heavily wooded area near Stanton and the intersection of Lollar Branch Road and Highway JJ, which was about a mile from the horse farm where she lived with her family. Two searchers on horseback discovered the body shortly after noon that day.
She had been strangled with a pair of tube socks tied together and her body covered with dried brush and branches. All of her clothes, except for her shirt, were found nearby. The shirt had not been recovered, according to previous reporting by The Missourian.
In court documents filed Wednesday, an eyewitness told investigators that Avery Jr., killed Edwards at a cabin located in the 3000 block of Pea Ridge Road near Leslie. The eyewitness said they watched Edwards being “sexually assaulted” and “strangled.” The eyewitness also told authorities they were later taken by Avery Jr. and others to the area where Edwards’ body was later found. Court documents do not identify who else was with Avery Jr. and the eyewitness.
At the time, the eyewitness said they were threatened with death to not discuss what they had witnessed.
Lt. B.J. Nelson, then-deputy commander of the Major Case Squad, said at the time that an autopsy did not reveal evidence of sexual assault “due to the advanced state of decomposition of the body.”
An early lead in the investigation, according to previous reporting by The Missourian, was a T-shirt used to bind the victims’ hands. The shirt was white with a multi-colored “Surf USA” logo on it.
Authorities previously believed that Edwards was last seen alive at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, July 5, by a relative. Evidence at the home — a grocery store receipt and check ledger entry — indicated she had gone shopping at a store in Sullivan about 1:30 p.m. She was last seen wearing a blue tank top, jeans and cowboy boots.
Edwards was reported missing by her husband, Mark, at approximately 8:30 a.m. on July 6. He had been gone at a church camp in Lebanon and returned home to find his wife gone. Upon entering the family home, Edwards found a partially eaten meal, the television on and unfinished chores around the farm.
The couple’s 2-year-old son, Dustin, had gone with family to Ohio to visit relatives so that his mother could attend a religious seminar in Chicago, according to previous reporting by The Missourian.
Mark Edwards began searching the area and contacting relatives and friends, before contacting law enforcement the following morning.
At the time, deputies had found the late woman’s purse inside a truck at the family’s residence and no vehicles or horses were missing from the property. No clothes or personal belongings of the deceased were taken from the home, according to reports.
Authorities launched a “massive search” of the couple’s 250-acre farm on July 6. Her body was recovered two days later.
As part of the investigation into her killing, authorities administered a lie detector test to Mark Edwards, who passed. Other tests were administered for the five to six other men who were bailing hay on the farm property around the time of Kristen Edwards’ disappearance. It is not known if Avery was one of those men or if those men passed the lie detector tests.
Witnesses at the time also reported seeing a white pickup truck near the farm where the Edwardses lived. A truck matching that description was found abandoned near Highway JJ and Spring Creek Road, near where Edwards' body was found. The truck was identified as being stolen from Florissant.
In 2009, former Franklin County Sheriff Gary Toelke announced the case had been reopened in part due to new information and new developments in forensic science that might provide new clues to the identity of Kristen Edwards’ murder. At the time, law enforcement officials said they were able to locate and interview most of the people they talked to in 1986.
Toelke said law enforcement had identified Stanley Smith as a “person of interest.” Toelke stressed at the time that Smith was not a suspect in the murder but someone who had “information important to the investigation.”
The probable cause statement filed this week states that the cabin where Edwards was killed was owned by the Stanley Smith family. Smith himself was a resident of the Stanton area when the murder occurred, police said in 2009. However, since that time, neither police nor Smith’s family had known of his whereabouts until 2009.
The Missourian's Ethan Colbert, Laura Miserez, Kristen Dragotto, Julia Hansen and Elena K. Cruz contributed to this report.