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The Tinsley Case

22 years later, missing teen’s parents get new hope

By Ken Raymond
Staff Writer

Pamela Tinsley is dead.

Her parents accept that, even though her body has never been found. Her friends realize it, too; they talk about her in the past tense.

Finding her remains — finding some ending after 22 years of waiting — is important to those who cared about her.

It seems to be important to someone else, too: someone who knows what happened when Tinsley, 19, vanished from Lake Overholser on April 13, 1986.

Someone who knows where she’s been all this time.

Several weeks ago, an anonymous caller phoned the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, passing on information about Tinsley’s disappearance.

The caller, or one much the same, called the center again with more details. Police received three or four phone inquiries about the case.

“They’re coming from a restaurant in the Tulsa area,” said Oklahoma City police Inspector Kyle Eastridge, a cold case detective. “It sounds like it’s the same caller, but it sounds like it’s someone who is being fed information from a person standing nearby.”

Among the details are a suspect’s name and a general location where Tinsley’s body was dumped.

Police are getting close — far closer to the truth about Tinsley than they have ever been.

But they still need your help.

Marijuana and freeloaders

On April 13, Tinsley went to the lake with friends to relax. Bad things had been happening around her, said friend Neressa Radford, and she needed some time to think.

A couple weeks earlier, Tinsley had come home from her job delivering newspapers for The Oklahoman and slipped into bed, only to be awakened when a police officer began knocking on the door of her Edmond apartment, Radford said. The officer followed Tinsley into her bedroom and found marijuana hanging in the closet.

It’s not clear whether Tinsley was arrested or not. Radford said her friend was questioned by Edmond police, then released. Eastridge said Tinsley was arrested on a complaint of cultivating marijuana. And Edmond police have no record of the incident.

Radford said Tinsley was adamant that the marijuana didn’t belong to her — but if not, whose was it?

At the time, Tinsley had at least three people staying with her at the one-bedroom apartment: two men and a woman, none of whom apparently had jobs or paid rent. One of the men — the tattoo-covered boyfriend of the other woman at the apartment — gave Radford the creeps, and Tinsley told her that he was an ex-convict from California.

Was he responsible for bringing the marijuana into Tinsley’s home? Or was it someone else?

The day before Tinsley vanished, Radford urged her to kick the hangers-on out of her apartment. “Just get rid of them,” she said. “Get them out of there.”

Tinsley said she would, but she wanted to relax first. She needed to go to the lake.

The mysterious stranger

Even as a child, Tinsley’s hair was so ghostly blonde that it seemed white.

Pale-skinned, with that delicate hair framing her face like a spiderweb, Tinsley looked striking and unusual — and in a world that values conformity, she felt as if she didn’t belong.

Other children picked on her. She had an auditory learning disability that made school difficult, and once, when she was in third grade, she came home crying because someone called her an albino, which she was not.

By junior high, her confidence had been so badly eroded that she scribbled out her picture in the yearbook. Not everyone found her as unappealing as she apparently saw herself. One boy, whom she labeled a “jock,” scrawled a message that read, in part: “You have a good body.”

At some point, she must have come to agree with him. In a fading Polaroid, she smiles at the camera, sucking in her tummy a bit and holding a cigarette at her side. She looks older than 18, posing there in the same polka-dotted bikini she was wearing when she disappeared.

That day, Tinsley had driven her Volkswagen pickup to an area on the west side of Lake Overholser known as The Flats, Eastridge said. The area was a popular drinking spot and hangout for young people.

At least two of her friends also were at The Flats: Brad Simpson and Terri Parsons, neither of whom could be located for this story.

In their account — or at least, the account that made its way to Tinsley’s parents and to police — a stranger pulled up on a motorcycle about 2 p.m. He was no taller than 6 feet and weighed 180 to 200 pounds. He had brown hair and maybe a brown mustache, and he seemed to be between 25 and 30 years old.

“He either offers her a ride or she requests one,” Eastridge said. “She’s seen getting on the motorcycle by her friends. She’s heard saying, ‘You’re going to bring me right back, right?’”

The motorcycle roared off, and Tinsley was never seen again.

Atypical behavior

That account has never made much sense to Radford or Tinsley’s parents, Margie and Howard Tinsley of Edmond. Police don’t think it adds up, either.

“I believe that she probably did get on a motorcycle and leave the group,” Eastridge said, “but I think there was probably more to it than that.”

Did her friends from the lake tell the whole story? Was the motorcyclist really a stranger? And where was she taken?

Tinsley wasn’t the type to ride off with someone she didn’t know, Radford said. She wouldn’t have left wearing nothing but a bikini and a pair of shorts, and she wouldn’t have gone without her purse and cigarettes. There had to be more to it.

Besides, her parents said, she was engaged to a military man serving out of state. No way she would’ve just taken up with someone new.

“From day one, I was really not about the stranger thing,” Radford said. “I really suspected people around her.”

Tinsley hadn’t just run away. Her credit cards and bank accounts were never accessed after April 13. She didn’t have her Volkswagen or her clothes. All the evidence suggested she’d met with foul play.

The question was why.

The most popular theory centered on the marijuana found in her apartment. Maybe someone was afraid she’d tell police who it really belonged to. Maybe she already had.

Then again, perhaps her death was an accident — the result of a drug overdose or a crash. Perhaps her killer didn’t really intend to hurt her but panicked when things went south.

For 22 years, law enforcement didn’t have a clue. Now they do.

Witnesses and suspects

Eastridge isn’t ready to share much of what the telephone tipster has reported, but he will say this:

“We’ve got some ideas of the people who may have been involved in her death, and we’re going to give them the opportunity to come forward and be treated like witnesses. If we have to go find them, then they’re going to be suspects.”

Before, he said, the operating assumption was that Tinsley was killed by one person. Now, it seems more likely that accomplices were involved, either in the slaying or in transporting and hiding the body, which is thought to be in a pond in far northwest Oklahoma City.

Giving Tinsley a proper burial is important to her parents and Radford, who live each day wondering if there was anything they could’ve done to save her.

“She was just awesome. ... She was going to be a lifelong friend,” Radford said.

As it turns out, she was. Her life just wasn’t long enough.

Anyone with information is asked to call the Oklahoma City police cold case unit at 297-1127 or Crime Stoppers at 235-7300. Tips also may be sent to coldcase@oklahoman.com.