CATEGORY: Crime

AUTHOR: GIBSON

Hed: Where is Leigh Occhi? Investigators still hoping to solve Tupelo teen's disappearance

By Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

Five years after the stormy day she disappeared, a Tupelo teen's fate remains a mystery.

Wednesday will mark the fifth anniversary of Leigh Occhi's disappearance from her Tupelo home. No body or sign of her whereabouts has ever been found.

In August 1992, she had just celebrated her 13th birthday. She was a thin, blonde teen-age girl due to begin eighth grade at the new Tupelo Middle School.

If she had not disappeared, Leigh Occhi might have graduated from Tupelo High School last spring and might be starting her first year of college this fall. Her 18th birthday fell on Thursday.

Tupelo Police and FBI investigators believe it's unlikely that Leigh Occhi is still alive.

"We won't be sure (Leigh is dead) until we find a body," Lt. Ronnie Thomas said. "After this period of time, the likelihood of her being alive is not great."

Leigh's father, Donald Occhi, who now lives in Phoenix, feels certain his daughter is dead.

"Most people (reported) missing that are not recovered within 72 hours are dead," said Occhi, who was stationed at a U.S. Army Base in Virginia when his daughter disappeared.

Leigh's mother, Vickie Felton of Tupelo, who reported her daughter missing, still holds out hope her daughter is alive.

"I'm not going to believe anything other than that unless there's proof," said Felton, who was separated from her husband Barney Yarborough at the time of her daughter's disappearance. She went back to her maiden name after the divorce was final about three years ago.

Although no arrests have been made in the Leigh Occhi case, for kidnapping or murder, investigators feel they know who is responsible.

"We have a suspect in this case," said Thomas, who is the investigator assigned to the case.

Without the discovery of Leigh's body, a murder prosecution would be extremely difficult.

"In the state of Mississippi, it is almost impossible to get a murder conviction without a body," Thomas said.

The most important piece of evidence a body would give investigators is its existence, said Will Booth, spokesman for the FBI field office. After five years, forensic evidence gathered from a body could be limited.

"What you do have with a body is a murder, not just a disappearance," Booth said.

Investigation continues

After five years, the Tupelo police and FBI investigations continue, but fresh leads are few and far between.

The case file is where Thomas can see it every day. It sits in a large cardboard box, having outgrown the accordion files Thomas uses for other big cases, on top of a file cabinet in his office.

Whenever information turns up about the Occhi case, it is given top priority, Tupelo Chief of Detectives Harold Chaffin said.

"Our expectations are a good deal less than they were five years ago, but we still have hope," Chaffin said. "We badly want to solve this case."

In cases where children are missing, parents are often suspected of playing a role in their disappearance. Because no suspects have been named publicly, some community suspicion has settled on Leigh's mother. Felton said she brushes it off as malicious gossip.

"I pay no attention to it," Felton said. "People talk about anything."

Felton, who recently returned to Tupelo after spending a year-and-a-half in Texas, said she has faith that the case of her daughter's disappearance will eventually be solved.

"We need to know," Felton said. "It's the only way this is going to have any peace. The uncertainty is unbelievable."

Donald Occhi is not optimistic the case will ever be solved or a suspect prosecuted. But he doesn't rule those possibilities out.

"Stranger things have happened," he said. "I think they could have solved it in the first three weeks."

Even though five years have elapsed, that doesn't mean the Occhi case will never be solved, Booth said.

"The passage of time doesn't mean we're not going to be able to solve the case," Booth said. "Sometimes, the passage of time can help."

The person responsible for Leigh's disappearance could begin to feel the prick of conscience, Booth said. When that happens, sometimes the person feels a need to confess their actions to someone else.

Another reason investigators keep cases like Leigh's open is that the perpetrator could strike again, Booth said.

A dark, stormy morning

The story of Leigh Occhi's disappearance begins on a dark and stormy morning. The remnants of Hurricane Andrew had brought heavy storms to Tupelo on Aug. 27, 1992.

Leigh's mother told police she became suspicious when she called home from work about 9 a.m. and no one answered the phone.

She rushed to the Honey Locust Drive residence and told police that the garage door was open.

Police found blood stains on carpet, on a bathroom counter top and some blood stains and hair on a door frame. Tests show all the blood was human, came from the same person and could match Leigh's blood type. The blood found was type O, and Leigh's type is either A or O.

Evidence gathered at the scene shows an attempt was made to get rid of the blood stains, Thomas said.

"Someone had tried to clean up some of the blood," Thomas said.

Evidence from the house was tested at the Mississippi State Crime Lab and the FBI Crime Lab in Quantico, Va. The police department also hired a forensic specialist from Hattiesburg to assist them in the investigation.

Leigh's disappearance touched off a series of searches by law enforcement officers and hundreds of volunteers who combed Tupelo and the surrounding areas looking for signs of the blonde teen.

As the hunt for Leigh continued into the fall, it became clear searchers expected to find a body, not a living child.

Donald Occhi traveled from Virginia and spent most of September 1992 searching with volunteers around the area for any sign of his daughter.

"I will always be grateful to the people of Tupelo for their support," he said.

On Sept. 11, Leigh's glasses were mailed to her family. The plain envelope had a Booneville postmark.

Investigators hoped it would provide a big break in the case, providing a fingerprint or DNA sample that would lead directly to the perpetrator.

Tests were performed on the stamp to determine if there was any genetic evidence left by someone licking the stamp, Thomas said. Investigators found that water had been used to attach it to the envelope, and no fingerprints were uncovered.

As months passed and the investigation uncovered no new evidence, some began looking for alternative ways to search for Leigh Occhi.

Vickie Felton hired a private investigator to follow up on the police investigation.

Donald Occhi worked with at least three psychics, hoping to find some clues to where his daughter's body could be found.

"Anybody who's had someone missing would do the same thing," Donald Occhi said. "You've got nothing to lose."

In addition to foot searches with psychics in March of 1993, aerial photos of Lee County were taken in August that year for a psychic to determine where Leigh's body was hidden.

"Anything they came up with, I chased without much success," Donald Occhi said.

False starts

Throughout the search for Leigh Occhi, several false leads gave investigators momentary hope that they had found the missing girl.

A week after Leigh disappeared, a Northeast Mississippi Community College student reported he saw Leigh Occhi at the Booneville McDonald's in a vehicle with a black man. Detectives tracked down the truck and driver and determined the girl was not Leigh Occhi.

Thomas theorizes the person responsible for Leigh's disappearance sent Leigh's glasses from Booneville because of the sighting.

Around Tupelo, rumors surfaced that Leigh's body had been found in a barn near her home. They were unfounded. Thomas said there is no evidence her body was ever in the barn.

In November 1993, investigators believed they might have found Leigh's body in a soybean field in northwest Monroe County. Although the body was initially identified as Leigh Occhi, further investigation revealed it was the body of Pollyanna Sue Keith, who had been missing since March of 1993.

Several teeth had been pulled out of the Keith body's skull, making identification difficult, Thomas said.

Grieving parents

The pain of losing a child is still fresh for Leigh's parents.

Donald Occhi said he wishes he could have spent more time with his oldest daughter.

"I had no place to send the flowers," said Donald Occhi of Leigh's 18th birthday on Thursday.

Felton said she still looks at dresses and imagines how Leigh would look in them.

"I think about all the things we've done together," Felton said.

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