Four years later - Mother still grieves without answers in daugther's murder

COQUILLE - When Cory Courtright walks down the street, citizens of Coquille see an average, middle-aged woman. But more than that, an unspoken thought comes immediately to many people's minds: "That's Leah Freeman's mom."

The quiet community hasn't been the same since Courtright's 15-year-old daughter was murdered. The case remains unsolved nearly four years later.

Leah's body was found in a forest about nine miles east of Coquille in August 2000, the result of what police said was "homicidal violence." But the investigation into her death is largely inactive.

"I often think of moving away, but I can't," Courtright said. "There's unfinished business here."

Courtright contends the Coquille Police Department botched the investigation when officers failed to collect evidence from a party scene on the morning of June 29, 2000. Courtright said her daughter had been at the Fir Street home the night prior, when she disappeared.

Police were there. They said they saw beer cans and a white sleeveless T-shirt on the house's deck that morning. The T-shirt matched the description of what Leah was wearing that night, but since it was a man's shirt, police did not seize it. According to court documents, when police returned an hour later after they realized those articles could be of potential significance, the mess had been cleaned and the T-shirt was gone.

Courtright still is angry police labeled her daughter as a possible runaway for close to a week until blood-splotched shoes were found and later shown by DNA tests to be Leah's. Kathy Wilcox, then an Oregon State Police forensic examiner, said in reports that the blood splatter was indicative of a high-impact wound.

One of the shoes was found July 3, 2000, in a cemetery across the street from Coquille High School. A day later, its mate turned up 13 miles northwest of town at Hudson Ridge.

It was to be 37 days before a search by police and citizens turned up Leah's body. Investigators determined it was clear she did not run away, but to this day no information has been released about how she died because the case still is open.

But that's only a technicality, according to Courtright, who believes police are powerless, leaving her fearful that Leah's killer still walks free through the quiet neighborhoods and shop-lined streets of Coquille.

"I will never take any information to any police agency again," Courtright said. "I am sick of the attitude they give and I am sick of being ignored."

Courtright said she believes police already have identified a suspect, but cannot prosecute because of too many missed opportunities to gather evidence. She also believes fear surrounding the case has prevented people with first-hand information from coming forward. From the investigation's outset, it was apparent police were struggling when Coquille Police Chief Mike Reaves said "authority figures, " as he referred to them, in the area were advising potential witnesses not to talk to police.

Dennis Freeman, Leah's father, said he too believes police made wrong assumptions at the time of his daughter's disappearance.

"They made a lot of assumptions for one reason or another. Cory was trying to tell them (Leah) had no reason not to come home and she would never spend the night away without permission," Freeman said, adding he doesn't believe the town's police has adequate resources to deal with a murder case.

"Even if they find who did it, I don't think that would change the loss that we've had," he added.

Without closure and consumed by intense anger, Courtright has taken matters into her own hands, spearheading the creation of a Web site containing all available public information about the case, a Web log for comments and an anonymous e-mail address for tips.

James Murphy, a shoestring relative of Courtright, and John Miles, both of Eugene, are building the site and expect to have it up and running soon on the Web at http://www.leahfreeman.com.

"It's something that needs to be done," Murphy said, "so there's no more rumor mill, so everyone has the public information."

Meanwhile, despite years of pain and confusion, Courtright is trying to focus on good memories of her daughter's short, happy life. She was a bright and bubbly petite girl, braces on her teeth and without a care in the world, waiting for her life to begin, her father said.

"Leah was definitely fun, loving, athletic, beautiful, sweet. I suppose anything good you could say about a person, you could say about her," Courtright said.

And she has not been forgotten.

Courtright recently gave away the fourth $500 scholarship in Leah's name to a Coquille High School student. Monday night, a candlelight vigil will be held in Coquille at Sanford Heights Park where Leah liked to play basketball. A plaque will be placed on a bench and dedicated to the much-loved teenager's memory.

Courtright said the community has been extremely supportive through the family's ordeal.

"Leah's no longer my child. She's Coquille's kid," Courtright said. "And I don't mind sharing her."

Courtright has taken to collecting angel figurines which she places near framed photographs of Leah taken when she was a freshman in high school, the last year of her life. Mementos line the walls of Courtright's bedroom, neatly placed around her daughter's cremated remains.

"I have my own angel now," she said.

In unresolved grief, Courtright's only comfort comes in Leah's last words to her.

"She was so short, you know, so she jumped up and pecked me on the cheek and said 'I love you Mommy' and I said 'I love you, too.' I'm glad it ended like that."

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