Solved: The murder of Marlene Major
Updated: Mar 12, 2022
One of the first videos I did on this blog's corresponding YouTube channel that really took off was about cases that went cold but were solved years, sometimes decades later. I’ve always found these cases interesting and, apparently, I’m not alone. As sad as it is to see a case go unsolved for so long, it’s always nice to see justice served.
Today’s case certainly falls into that category. I heard about it a few weeks ago and wanted to share it. This is the story of Marlene Major.
(Just a note about Marlene’s name: A few sources that discuss this case, including her Wikipedia page, refer to her by her maiden name, Oakes. The name ‘Marlene Oakes’ is also on her tombstone. I decided to refer to her as Marlene Major because that was her name when she died and I wanted to minimize confusion. But if you come across a source that calls her ‘Marlene Oakes,’ they are the same person.)
Helen Marlene Major was 25 years old when she disappeared from her home in the small town of Verona, Kentucky in 1980. At the time, Marlene was married to a Rhode Island native named Bill Major. The couple had been married for nine years and had two children: Son Donald was eight and daughter LaLana was four.
On the night of October 11, Bill Major dropped off the couple’s two children at a neighbor’s house. He told the neighbor that Marlene had left him for a man named Glen St. Hillaire, a friend of the couples who lived on their property. Glen also worked with Bill occasionally, though I’m not sure what kind of work they did.
But around 3 am, Glen saw Bill at his trailer and apparently had no idea what was going on. He asked Bill where Marlene and the kids were, and Bill told him that Marlene had left and taken the kids with her. The kid’s clothes had even been removed from their closets.
Glen immediately knew something was wrong. Bill and Marlene had been having trouble in their marriage, but he knew she never would have left without her kids. Over the next few days, Bill sold and gave away a lot of his things, including his guns. There are contradicting reports on who actually reported Marlene missing. Some sources said it was Bill, but most said it was actually Glen. Once she was reported missing, Bill also told police that she had left him.
Once Marlene was reported missing, investigators began searching the house. They noticed Marlene’s car missing, and I assume they noticed the kids’ clothes missing, even though the kids were very much accounted for. But almost everything else seemed in place. All of Marlene’s personal items were still there, including prescription medicine she’d picked up just a week earlier. There was no evidence of a struggle, no evidence of foul play at all.
In the days after Marlene’s disappearance, both Glen and Bill were questioned. As it turns out, Glen and Marlene’s friendship was…well, more than just a friendship. Bill had not only condoned this relationship, but actually encouraged them to be together. It’s not clear why he did this, but there has been speculation that he let Marlene have an affair to keep her happy so she wouldn’t leave. Bill was rumored to be having affairs as well.
Glen showed police Marlene’s diaries. She’d given them to him before she disappeared in order to keep them safe, and I believe she’d given him permission to show them to police if anything happened to her. Glen also showed police at least one of the weapons Bill had given him after Marlene’s disappearance.
According to Marlene’s diaries, she had witnessed Bill molesting their son, Donald, and threatened to go to the police. The day she disappeared, Marlene told her sister she had “proof” of the molestation (I assume referring to the diaries), and that if anything happened to her, the information would go to police (I assume via Glen St. Hillaire). She also told her sister she wanted a divorce from Bill.
Bill also reportedly told Glen St. Hillaire that if Marlene ever tried to leave him, he would shoot her, decapitate her and knock her teeth out so it would be harder to identify her. At some point in the investigation — I believe it was mentioned in her diaries — police learned Bill had been convicted in of child molestation in 1975.
All the circumstantial evidence against Bill was stacking up. But with no body and no physical evidence, there wasn’t much police could do. Bill was offered a polygraph after Marlene’s disappearance, but refused to take one. A week after the disappearance, he moved back to Rhode Island with his kids. He remarried either 1981 or 1982.
On November 29, 1981, hunters on a farm near the Majors’ old home found a human skull. The skull was “severed and toothless,” but the jaw had been removed entirely. There was also a bullet hole in the top.
Although investigators couldn’t perform a DNA test at the time, they believed this was the skull of Marlene Major. They searched lakes and the countryside of the area, but never found any more remains or evidence.
more child molestation charges
Meanwhile, life in the Major house wasn’t going well. Donald and LaLana suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their father. Bill would tell LaLana that he would hurt Donald if she misbehaved, and vice versa. The kids feared for their lives. Finally, they told their stepmother about the abuse. Bill continued to threaten his kids to keep them from telling anyone else, but their stepmother did eventually go to police. In 1984, Bill was convicted of first degree sexual assault and sentenced to 15 years in prison. His children were taken in by Marlene’s parents — their grandparents.
Bill’s second wife divorced him at some point, but he remarried while he was in prison. He served 11 years of his sentence. After he was released, he was extradited back to Kentucky to face more child molestation charges for molesting his children when the family lived there.
Investigators hoped these charges would put Bill back in prison; they couldn’t prove he killed Marlene, but highly suspected it. But the statute of limitations had expired for the child molestation charges, so he was let go. He ended up moving to Fairhaven, Massachusetts with his third wife in 1996.
(Note: The only source I could find on this just listed the town as ‘Fairhaven.’ The only Fairhaven I could find nearby was in Massachusetts, so I’m making an educated guess when I say Massachusetts.)
Like I mentioned before, while all this was going on, Donald and LaLana lived with their grandparents. They also believed their mother had abandoned them.
One day, a teenaged LaLana asked her grandmother, Lorraine Oakes — Marlene’s mother — where her mom was. Lorraine shocked her when she said Marlene was dead, had been for awhile, and that Bill was the one who had killed her. She didn’t have proof of this but, like investigators, she strongly suspected it. After this, LaLana grew curious about her mother’s case.
She talked to her father first. She promised she wouldn’t go to police and would leave him alone about the subject if he just told her where Marlene’s body was. Bill replied by telling her, “If you ever think I will tell you what I did with her body, you’re crazy.”
But far from being discouraged, LaLana seemed to take this as a challenge. In 2000, she started to look into the case files herself. She found Marlene’s diary and learned about the molestation, Marlene witnessing it and the talk of divorce. She also found out about the skull, something she’d never been told. In January 2001, police started reinvestigating Marlene’s case.
After the case was reopened — or at least revived — the skull was looked at again by a forensic anthropologist. The skull was that of a white female in her 20’s or early 30’s (though this may have been information police already knew). In addition to the bullet hole, there was evidence that someone had removed the head from the rest of the body with a sharp object. The jaw had also been removed with a sharp object — possibly the same one as the head. The forensic anthropologist said the death was a homicide.
At first, investigators believed the skull was too degraded for DNA testing. But advances in technology gave them one more option — mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria are structures within cells that convert energy from food into something that the rest of the cells can use. They also have their own DNA in them, called mitochondrial DNA.
Mitochondrial DNA is passed to children from their mothers. This test would allow DNA from LaLana to be matched with DNA from the skull to see if it was Marlene’s skull. Kentucky officials eventually agreed to pay for this test, and it was carried out. The results were a match — LaLana and the person the skull belonged to were mother and daughter. This was Marlene Major’s skull.
the phone call
So now it was confirmed that Marlene Major wasn’t just missing, but dead. But now investigators had to find out who killed her. They suspected Bill, of course, but needed evidence. At some point in the investigation, they got in contact with James Major — Bill’s father. According to James, Bill had confessed to murdering Marlene in a phone call back in 1996.
According to James Major, Bill said he’d killed Marlene by shooting her six times — four times in the torso and twice in the face. They were in Marlene’s car at the time, so he drove her car into the woods and dumped it into a sinkhole. Then he dumped the car in the nearby Ohio River.
At the time of this phone confession, Bill had still been in prison, though he would have been released shortly after. When he made this confession, James pointed out that the call was probably being recorded. As it turned out, it actually wasn’t. Because there was no solid evidence of this call, and because there was hostility between Bill and James Major, this couldn’t be used against Bill. But police had another idea.
James Major agreed to have his phone tapped and call Bill again so their conversation could be recorded — a conversation that would hopefully end in a a taped confession. At first Bill was evasive, wondering out loud if he was being set up. But eventually he started to talk.
I could only find portions of the audio, but I’ll put a recording below that I cut together. I got them from different sources, so there will be some cuts and things will probably be out of order. I just wanted you to hear what I could find of this conversation.
the audio recording: https://static.wixstatic.com/mp3/ffd90f_7b4304ce691a41c29e58bd085b6c0e48.mp3
James: Christ, Bill, at least you could be decent enough to say where you dumped her. I’ll tip her [LaLana] where the body is if you let me know.
Bill: And then she’s gonna bounce it right back on me again. Then I’ll have them Kentucky cops coming up here to arrest me and take me back down there again.
James: They didn’t get you (yet?). It’s been too long.
Bill: There’s no such thing as too long.
James: She pulled a gun on you, you took it off her, and shot her, right?
Bill: Yeah, that’s one story.
James: That, that was your story. That’s what you told me. You told me you killed her.
Bill: Well at the time I was in jail and I was pretty well upset.
James: I keep getting calls from LaLana, and she wants to know where her mother is so that she can get the bones and put them in the casket and have closure.
Bill: Yeah, and put me in jail for life.
James: You have pulled off the perfect crime, haven’t you?
Bill: No, I wouldn’t call it perfect.
Bill: ‘Cause if the crime was perfect, nobody would ever know about it.
James: Don’t you even feel bad for killing her?
Bill: I don’t have any kind of conscience about anything.
James: Well, you are one tough bastard. To think that a son I raised could do such a thing.
In the summer of 2001, 57-year-old Bill Major was arrested and charged with first degree murder. He faced the death penalty.
While being questioned by police, Bill gave the following version of events: On the night of October 11, Bill and Marlene were arguing in Marlene’s car because she wanted to leave and take the kids with her. The argument escalated and, Marlene pulled a gun on Bill. He took the gun away from her and, of course, she got upset and started screaming. So he “fired the gun until it was empty.” He left her body in her car and took the kids to the neighbor’s. Then he drove her car to a nearby farm, dumped the body in a sinkhole and threw the gun in a pond. He also told police he’d dumped Marlene’s car in the Ohio River. He drew them a map to help them find the rest of her remains but, to this day, neither the rest of her body or any evidence other than her skull has been found.
In August 2003, Bill was convicted of murder and tampering with physical evidence. He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after eight years. As far as I know, he’s still in prison and has never been granted parole. His conviction was reversed in 2005 and he was granted a retrial, but the jury in the retrial once again convicted him.
So, that’s all I have for you on the murder of Marlene Major. There’s usually more aftermath in these cases, but there doesn’t really seem to be much here. There’s still plenty we don’t know, but overall, this is a pretty straightforward, open and shut case — even if it did take awhile to be solved.