In the unusual cold case, the prosecution will have to prove that Rothganger is dead without having recovered her body and that Priest is responsible.
More than 34 years after the disappearance of an Eldon teenager, the Miller County Prosecuting Attorney team will try to prove to a jury this week that Martin Dean Priest was Tammy Sue Rothganger’s killer.
In the unusual cold case, the prosecution will have to prove that Rothganger is dead without having recovered her body and that Priest is responsible. Four days of trial have been scheduled in Laclede County Circuit for the Miller County case beginning with jury selection Tuesday, October 9, 2018.
Now 61 years old, Priest was charged in 2016 with the 15-year-old’s murder in 1984. Under the jurisdiction of laws of 1984, he is charged with capital murder. That does not mean the death penalty though; it was waived in the case in a hearing held earlier this year.
A speedy trial request filed in Miller County prior to the change of venue to Laclede County sped up the typically slower process in murder cases.
Rothganger was last seen in Eldon on May 16, 1984. She disappeared after being seen getting into Priest’s car on her way to school. Priest was the live-in boyfriend of Rothganger’s mother.
Priest is currently being held in Laclede County Jail, transferred from Miller County after being turned over to local authorities by the state of Kansas where he is serving a life sentence for the death of a man killed on Christmas Day in 1984.
Priest was a suspect in five deaths in Missouri and Kansas in the early to 1980s, but prosecutors were only able to obtain a conviction in the one Kansas case. He was also a suspect in two other cases involving young girls, one in Nevada, Missouri in June 1980 and one in Kansas the same year that Rothganger disappeared.
After decades as a cold case, charges in the Rothganger case were finally brought after a key witness came forward with information.
According to court documents, a man who was allegedly a third person in the car the day Priest picked Rothganger up told investigators that Priest struck Rothganger in the back of the head with a wrench, knocking her unconscious. Priest then allegedly raped and strangled her, leaving her body at a local residence. According to the witness, Priest later retrieved Rothganger’s body and buried her in an unmarked location.
Rothganger’s mother reported her daughter missing the same day she was last seen. Questioned in the early stages of the investigation, Priest denied any involvement in her disappearance.
Without recovering her body and no eye witnesses at the time, investigators in 1984 were unable to come up with enough evidence to charge Priest.