Mother, law enforcement hopes new technology will help solve the case

Aug. 25 – TUPELO – Thirty years ago, 13-year-old Leigh Occhi disappeared from the Honey Locust Drive home she shared with her mother.

Questions have abounded over the past three decades. Has she been abducted? Did she run away? Is she still alive? Who is responsible?

Authorities hope advances in forensic science will shed new light on the case. Over the years many people associated with the case have died, including a potential suspect last year.

This year, the Tupelo Police Department reviewed the limited physical evidence and again submitted items to various labs.

Open: The Case of Leigh Occhi

Originally recorded in 2017, our investigative podcast series on the 1992 disappearance of Leigh Occhi has unearthed new details surrounding the case.

Listen on Apple, Spotify, Google Play or wherever you get podcasts.

Old evidence meets new technology

Methods of collecting evidence from crime scenes in 1992 seem outdated compared to modern techniques. Blood evidence was seized to divide the suspects into large groups. The ABO system was useful in weeding out suspects, but it would take another eight years before the Mississippi State crime lab could perform DNA testing.

And once DNA testing was available to focus on a single person, early testing could use an entire sample, leaving nothing for future testing.

Using the limited evidence – which included a bloody nightgown – police in the past were able to develop a DNA profile of Occhi. But technicians at the time found no foreign blood, body fluids or skin cells in the home that could have come from a suspect.

Over the past two decades, advances in testing have allowed lab technicians to find tiny amounts of genetic material that may be invisible to the naked eye. And newly discovered DNA has used genetic genealogy in recent years to identify and trace suspects in long cold cases.

“We submitted some of the original evidence to hopefully find something they might have missed 30 years ago,” said Tupelo Police Detective Sgt. Cassidy Rider.

Police are still working on the case as tips roll in

Although the new technology is amazing, it is not fast. The Tupelo police can only sit back, wait and hope.

Maj. Jerry Davis, who heads the TPD’s Criminal Investigations Division, said taking a fresh look at the case and looking at things from a new perspective is another way the department is still working on the case.

How you can help

Anyone with information on Leigh Occhi’s whereabouts or details of her disappearance is asked to call the Tupelo Police Department at 841-6491 or Northeast Mississippi Crime Stoppers at 1-800- 773-TIPS (8477).

“There was no further physical evidence after the glasses (were sent to the family in September 1992),” Davis said. “We are always looking at things other than DNA.”

Police work with two national missing persons groups and continue to provide advice, which is rare these days.

“From time to time we get calls and follow them up,” Jumper said. “We get tips, but nothing that can break the deal.”

Mother believes prime suspect died last year

Occhi’s mother, Vickie Felton, has long named Oscar McKinley “Mike” Kearns as a suspect. He was a Sunday school teacher at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, where Felton and Occhi attended. He and Occhi also rode horses at the same stable near North Thomas Street.

Felton said Kearns’ death last year will make it more difficult to resolve the case.

“That certainly makes it less likely,” Felton told the Daily Journal. “I just hope maybe he spoke to someone in his family before he died or maybe he spoke to someone in prison. You always hear about prison confessions.”

Less than nine months after Occhi was last seen, Kearns traveled to Memphis in May 1993 and kidnapped a 9th grade girl he had met through the Tupelo church. Under the guise of driving her to school, Kearns took her to a remote location in DeSoto County and sexually assaulted her. He then drove the 15-year-old victim to her school, where she contacted the police.

He pleaded guilty to rape and served less than half of an eight-year sentence. Less than a year and a half after his release, Kearns kidnapped a Union County couple and raped his wife. After another guilty plea, he spent approximately two decades in Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

He was released in early 2019 and died in May 2021 without ever telling police what, if anything, he knew about Occhi’s disappearance.

During the initial investigation, he teased investigators by agreeing to take a polygraph test if his lawyer said everything was fine. Lawyer at the time, Joey Langston, rejected this plan. Kearns declined all subsequent interview requests.

“The last time we tried to talk to him, he gave us a two-word answer,” Davis said.

Felton still holds out hope that Occhi will be found alive one day.

“You hear about cases all the time where years later something finally happens or someone shows up and the case is solved,” Felton said. “Maybe she had amnesia or someone took her away.”

As the years pass without a word and with potential suspects aging and dying, she realizes that chance is becoming less likely.