Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Today I have another case of a Jane Doe who went unidentified for decades before finally getting her name back, so to speak. Let’s talk about the woman only known as “The Belle in the Well” before being identified almost 40 years later.
The body of the “Belle in the Well” was found on April 22, 1981 in a rural part of Lawrence County in southern Ohio, close to the West Virginia and Kentucky borders. Her body was found in a cistern, which is pretty similar to a well — hence the nickname. She’s also been called Chesapeake Jane Doe; one source I found said the cistern was in Chesapeake, another said it was in Windsor Township.
The body was found by children playing near the well; most sources made it sound like they were younger girls, but others listed them as teenagers. Regardless, one of the girls lifted the lid and saw the body, but didn’t know what it was. I believe one of the girls’ fathers ended up contacting the police.
The body belonged to a white female, thought to be between 30 and 60 years old, 5 feet 4 and about 140 pounds. She was fully clothed other than shoes, dressed in gray flannel pants, a light shirt under a gray pullover sweater, another red cardigan sweater on top and red socks. She also wore rubber bands around her wrists.
Found with the body were: The key to a locker at a Greyhound station in Huntington, West Virginia, a bus ticket, pay stub and a commemorative coin featuring famous evangelist Jerry Falwell.
The Belle had a rope around her neck, and the rope was tied to a cinder block. An autopsy the following month confirmed she had been strangled to death.
Unfortunately, it seems like investigators were facing an uphill battle. The woman could have been in the well for up to two years by this point, and she was rapidly decomposing. She was so decomposed already that it was impossible to determine her hair or eye color or to get fingerprints.
At some point, investigators opened the locker that went with the key found on the Belle’s body. From here, there are two versions of events: Either the locker had clothes, bus tickets and photos in it, or it had already been emptied out. It’s not clear which one is true.
At first, there was speculation that the Belle’s death was connected to a local motorcycle gang. This largely came from the rubber bands around her wrists, since some motorcycle riders wear them to keep their clothes from flapping around in the wind. The cistern where she was found was also a popular hangout for motorcyclists. I’ve also seen speculation online that the Belle pulled socks over her hands for warmth and held them in place with rubber bands — which might have been useful if she was a transient, as has also been speculated.
The case eventually went cold, but was reopened in 2009 and the Belle’s information was put into NamUs, a database of missing and unidentified people across the United States. In June 2011, her body was exhumed to make a facial reconstruction and for further testing. It was during this testing that they discovered the Belle had an overbite.
In online forum comments before the Belle was identified, I saw Denise Beaudin’s name come up a few times. I talked more about Denise Beaudin in my video on the Bear Brook murders, which you can watch here. The Belle turned out not to be Denise, who is still missing.
Another reconstruction was done in 2018. Samantha Molnar, the criminal intelligence analyst who did the reconstruction, said at the time that the Belle’s age was probably closer to the 60 than it was to 30.
In 2017, the Lawrence County Coroner’s Office and the DNA Doe Project teamed up to help identify the Belle. This team up was sparked when Elizabeth Murray and Colleen Fitzpatrick met at a conference. Elizabeth Murray worked with Bill Nenni, an investigator with the Lawrence County Coroner’s Office who had previously attempted to identify the Belle using mitochondrial DNA. Colleen Fitzpatrick is a forensic genealogist and co-founder of the DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit that strives to identify Does using genetic genealogy.
But, much like the early investigators, this new team had their work cut out for them. Not only was the Belle’s DNA was low quality and degraded, but a huge amount of intermarriage in her family made the family tree hard to untangle. As DNA Doe project volunteer Lee Bingham Redgrave put it: “Instead of a family tree with branches, you have a bowl of spaghetti.” According to a 2019 article in The Atlantic, the volunteers “could not figure out which strand of spaghetti to disentangle.” Altogether, the Belle’s family tree contained over 40,000 names. By 2018, they team had ruled out 241 women.
Someone on Websleuths pointed out that a lot of families also use the same names over and over. I assume they’re referring to children being named after their parents, grandparents or other relatives, giving them the same first and last names. I know I have instances of this in my own family, and there’s a good chance you do too. This probably would have made the family tree even more difficult to make sense of.
But these investigators, from everything I’ve read, seemed pretty tenacious. In January 2019, they found the Belle’s youngest daughter and contacted her for a DNA sample. At first, the woman thought she was being scammed and was reluctant to help, but agreed to it when she saw how much Bill Nenni cared about the case. Her DNA sample was obtained on March 15 of that year and sent to the University of North Texas.
On July 3, 2019, after 30 volunteers had spent thousands of hours and over $3,000 on identification, a match was made. In a press conference on July 29, the Lawrence County Coroner’s Office announced that the Belle in the Well had been identified as Louise Virginia Flesher.
Louise Flesher was born Louise Virginia Peterson on June 16, 1915 in Fairview, West Virginia. She lived in Wyoming during high school, where she might have been on her school’s swim team. The only known photo of her circulating publicly -- the one you should see above -- is from a high school yearbook investigators bought on eBay.
During high school, Louise met Donald Benjamin Flesher. The two eventually married and had three daughters: One born in 1936, the next in 1939 and the youngest in 1940. Sadly, one of their daughters died in 1959.
Flesher moved back to West Virginia in 1944 and lived there until at least 1956. She also lived in Las Vegas and Ohio at other points in her life. Her husband died in 1992. One person on Websleuths found what appears to be her husband’s grave, but he’s listed as having married someone else in 1967. I’m not sure if it’s the wrong grave or if he and Louise were divorced at some point.
The couple’s surviving daughters live in Wyoming; one is in her later 70’s, the other her early 80’s. Their mother was apparently estranged from the family, and investigators believe this may be why she was never reported missing.
Depending on the year she was actually killed, Louise Flesher was about 65 when she died. In fact, investigators first came across her name in 2018, but thought she was too old to be the Belle.
As of 2019, Flesher’s body is buried in an undisclosed location on private land. Her death is still considered an open homicide investigation. After she was identified and found to be in her 60’s, skepticism arose about the earlier motorcycle theory. I have also seen speculation that her husband (or ex husband), Donald Flesher, was involved in her death. It’s not too shocking that someone might think this, since many people are killed by their spouses; however, as of December 2020, there is no evidence linking him to her death.
So that’s all I have for you today on The Belle in the Well, or Louise Flesher. Investigators don’t seem to be too optimistic about this case being solved, but it apparently was an uphill battle to get her identified and that happened. Cases that seem impossible to close are solved all the time, and hopefully that will be the case here.