February 13, 2017 was at first shaping up to be a pretty nice day for 14-year-old Liberty “Libby” German and 13-year-old Abigail “Abby” Williams. Although it was a Monday and supposed to be a school day, they had the day off, and decided to spend it hiking up along the Delphi Historic Trails, in Delphi, Indiana, in the United States. It was a pleasantly warm and clear day for that time of year, and when they were dropped off at a trailhead west of the Hoosier Heartland Highway by German’s older sister, Kelsi, they did so in good spirits. At 1 PM they headed off on a trail along on County Road 300 North, which would take them through scenic woodlands in Deer Creek Township and up over Monon High Bridge over Deer Creek. It was an area very familiar to them, and along the way they giggled, chatted, and took pictures for their social media accounts, but as they headed off down that trail no one knew that this was to be the last time anyone would see them alive.
Libby’s father Derrick went to meet the girls at their pre-arranged meeting place at the end of the trail at 3:15 PM, and when 4 PM went by with no sign of them he became worried. He went off down the trail looking for them and trying to call his daughter’s cell phone, but no one answered. The Carroll County Sheriff’s Department was notified, but did not take it very seriously at first. After all, these were two teenage girls out exploring, so it was thought that they had just lost track of time, but the hours went by and darkness began to descend with still no sign of them, and the alarm bells began to go off. Police checked the social media accounts of the two girls and found that the last post they had made was at 2:07 PM, in a post to the popular site “Snapchat,” showing Libby walking alone over the abandoned Monon High Bridge. They did a sweep of the area but found no sign of the girls, and in the failing light they were forced to call off the search. At this point it was still not seen as a major emergency, but this would change.
The following day, a gruesome discovery was made near the bridge just 50 feet from the north bank of Deer Creek. There a volunteer who was out helping in the search stumbled across the bodies of the two missing girls, and they had obviously been murdered, although the exact state of the bodies was not released. When the girls’ phones were searched there would be some very disturbing clues that might shed some light on what had happened to them. It seems at some point that Libby had taken a picture of what looks to be a heavyset Caucasian man walking along behind them, wearing blue jacket, jeans, and a cap, and with his hands in his pockets. This might seem innocuous enough at first considering that many people use the trail, but why would she have taken the time to take that specific photo? Eerily, he can also be seen back in the distance in that last photo of Libby. It would only get more sinister from there, as on Libby’s phone was also an audio clip taken at around the same time as that photo. Although it is grainy and hard to make out, a man’s monotone voice can clearly be heard to say “Guys..Down the hill,” and most chilling of all is that this is the last piece of data to be taken on the device.
In light of this evidence, authorities came to the conclusion that this man was likely responsible for the murders. Not only that, but the two victims had likely been aware that they were being followed through the woods and were in danger. The Indiana State Police were so convinced that the man in that spooky photo was behind it that they cleared up the image and made sketches of the subject in order to release at a press conference, but there was not really enough evidence to name him as a suspect just yet. Police would also find evidence of another person of interest, a hiker who had been seen by other witnesses along the trail that day. However, after several days of deliberation the police came to the conclusion that the man in the photograph was the main suspect, and so began a search for the individual. Police would release more sketches and photos of the man, as well as a brief video clip that Libby had taken of him to the public, in the hopes that someone would know him, and during the course of their investigation there have been some ideas.
One of the people investigated in relation to the murders was a man named Paul Etter, who at the time was wanted in connection with an unconnected crime, the rape and kidnapping of a 26-year-old woman, but when police tracked him down, he killed himself after a tense standoff. Another suspect was a registered sex offender from Indiana named Daniel J. Nations, who in September of 2017 was originally arrested for having expired license plates but was also found to have a warrant for allegedly threatening people with a hatchet along a trail in Monument, Colorado, and was also a main suspect in the murder of a bicyclist along the same trail. He also had a long criminal record for indecency and child sex offenses and happened to greatly resemble the man in the composite sketch made of the suspect, however, he was eventually dropped as a person of interest in the Delphi murder case due to lack of evidence and inability to place him at the scene of the crime.
Another potential suspect in the case was a former pastor named Thomas Bruce, who had a history of sexual violence and a passing resemblance to the sketches, but again no evidence could pin the murders on him. Then there was a person of interest named Charles Eldridge, who was also suspected of child molestation and child solicitation and also bore a strong resemblance to the sketch of the killer. While in custody, Eldridge brazenly bragged about his sexual conquests with girls 13 years old or younger, and he also collected guns and knives and was considered deranged by most of his neighbors. This, plus his undeniable resemblance to the sketches, cemented him as the killer in the eye of the public. However, there was again no evidence to place him at the scene of the crime, and Indiana police even had to go so far as to warn the public not to jump to conclusions and make unfounded accusations. People were so convinced that Eldridge was the killer that the police department had to make a statement saying:
We know it’s hard for the public and media to resist posting side-by-side comparisons on social media of people who are alleged to have committed heinous crimes and also resemble the sketch of the Delphi murder suspect. Although we understand people are trying to help the investigation, by doing this with zero evidence other than a mere appearance, it can also hurt or hinder an investigation.
Eldridge was eventually dropped as a suspect, much to the chagrin of a public that was sure he had done it. In the meantime, there was much paranoia brewing, because police had made it clear that they believed the killer to be someone local, who knew the lay of the land and who was probably even “hiding in plain sight.” In the end, despite thousands and thousands of leads and constantly revised sketches, no one knows who the man in that photo is or even if he was really the killer or not. There have been no new suspects, no new pieces of hard evidence, and despite an ever-increasing reward there has been no more useful information. Throughout it all, the police have been frustratingly tight lipped on specifics of the case, including the exact method of murder or the state of the bodies, meaning we don’t even know if they were sexually assaulted or not, and they have only dropped vague hints at what is going on. They have also moved slowly, waiting a full two years after the deaths to give updated composite sketches, and although they claim to have DNA evidence nothing has come of this, all of which has been frustrating and drawn its fair share of criticism from the public.
We are left to wonder just what happened to those two doomed girls out on that lonely trail. What sort of fate found them there, and who was the person responsible? Is it actually the man in the chilling photo and audio clip? If so, why did he do what he did? Where is her now? How long did the victims knew he was tailing them through that wilderness before they took it into their own hands to capture video evidence of him? We are left to ponder such questions, with the only answers lost out in those trees and the only clues those haunting images taken out along that abandoned, desolate place.