Donna Emmel was a tiny little thing, but she was a spitfire.
The bubbly, blonde-haired 15-year-old from Newport, North Carolina was outgoing and fun-loving, but didn’t care much for makeup or dresses. Instead she preferred to wear cutoff shorts and wasn’t afraid to get dirty.
Donna and her cousin Beverly Boston were only 11 months apart and had a close bond, spending many summers in Newport together. Beverly even lived at Donna’s house for a short time and the two attended school together.
“She was a tiny little thing, but she was a spitfire,” Beverly told Dateline. “If you made her mad, watch out. I call her a spitfire.”
The term “tomboy” comes to mind for Beverly when she thinks of her cousin. She told Dateline that the only time she remembered seeing Donna in a dress was for a school dance. It was burgundy and velvet - and Donna never wore it again while she was alive.
“The next time she wore that dress, she was being buried in it,” Beverly said.
Donna’s short life ended when she was murdered on June 16, 1975. Her body was found the next day in a drainage ditch across the road from her home in Newport.
That summer day began like any other for the 15-year-old who had spent a lot of her time at the America Service Station and Grill, also known as Grice’s Grill, on U.S. 70 in Newport. The store, located on a stretch of highway between the Marine bases and the beaches, had an arcade and pool tables, and was a popular hangout for teenagers at the time.
Beverly told Dateline she had never been to the store. When she was with Donna, the two spent their time at home watching movies, or shopping at the local mall. But when Beverly went back home, she said Donna spent most of her time hanging out with her boyfriend and a new crowd which Beverly referred to as the “wrong crowd.”
It was around 8:30 p.m. that evening when Donna’s mother Emily called the store and told her daughter to come home. Beverly told Dateline there were witnesses at the store who said they saw Donna leave just after the call and walk to a path that was a shortcut through the woods.
Beverly added that the shortcut was a normal route for Donna to take home and something she had done many times, alone and in the dark.
But on the evening of Monday, June 16, 1975, Donna didn’t make it home.
“She wasn’t one to stay out all night,” Beverly said. “And Aunt Emily would have never let her stay out. She knew something was wrong when Donna didn’t show up.”
Beverly wasn’t at the house that night, but went the next morning when she got word of her cousin’s disappearance. She said her Aunt Emily - Donna’s mother - had already started a frantic search for Donna Monday night and had reported her missing to the Newport Police.
Beverly said Donna’s younger brother told their mother that he had seen his sister enter the path that led through the woods that night and that an unidentified man followed her. This report prompted police to set up roadblocks and begin a search for Donna.
By the next afternoon, the search came to an end when a local discovered the teen’s body in a drainage ditch on Easy Street, across from her own home. At the time, police told the family they believed she had been killed in a different location and placed in the ditch.
She had been strangled but not sexually assaulted, former Newport Police Chief Charles R. Tomlinson told the Carteret County News-Times.
“I never saw her, of course, but my Aunt Emily did,” Beverly told Dateline. “I’ll never forget what she said - that it looked like Donna had been carefully placed in the ditch, like she was being put to bed.”
In the weeks after Donna’s murder, police questioned more than a hundred people, including her mother, who Beverly said passed the polygraph test, but no arrests were made.
According to previous news coverage, police focused on Gregory Allen, a U.S. Marine who was stationed at Cherry Point in the 1970s, and frequented Grice’s Grill on U.S. 70, a stretch of highway that connected the Marine base to the beaches along the North Carolina coast. He was questioned by police in 1975 but then released, returning to his home in Wisconsin.
In the 1990s, Allen was back on investigators’ radar when he was arrested and convicted of sexual assault on a woman in Green Bay, Wisconsin. DNA would later link Allen to a separate 1985 rape and attack on a jogger that had put Steven Avery in prison for 18 years. Avery was exonerated in 2003. His imprisonment, exoneration and subsequent arrest for the murder of Teresa Halbach was the subject of two Dateline episodes and the Netflix documentary, "Making a Murderer."
According to records provided to Dateline by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office in Wisconsin, detectives received information that led them to believe that Allen was involved in the killing of a teenage girl in Newport, North Carolina in 1975. The records indicated that Allen was questioned again about his potential involvement with Donna’s murder, but that he was uncooperative.
Allen is currently serving a prison sentence for a 1995 sexual assault and kidnapping case in Brown County. He will be eligible for parole in October 2021, according to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
Donna’s case is now being handled by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation.
Public Information Director Anjanette Grube told Dateline that Donna’s case is an active investigation and anyone with information should call the SBI.
“Of course when it comes to any evidence, we are always looking at and exploring new technology and/or science that may be available to us today in hopes of solving each case,” she added.
She would not release any further information on updates or potential suspects due to the case being an active investigation.
This week marked 46 years since Donna was murdered and her cousin Beverly told Dateline their family was forever changed by the tragedy. For years, Donna’s mother isolated herself, keeping her other children close in an effort to protect them. She died in 1995 from cancer which no one knew she was battling.
Beverly is still hoping to one day get answers - and justice for her cousin Donna. And with the help of her daughter Stephanie, she hasn’t given up.
Stephanie Fesperman Bryant wouldn’t be born until after Donna’s murder. But she grew up hearing about it. It was part of her life. Every year, they visit Donna’s grave on her birthday in October and on the date of her death in June.
“I feel like I know her... Donna,” Stephanie told Dateline. “I feel like she’s part of my life. I want to help find out who did this to her.”
Recently, they’ve requested a copy of Donna’s autopsy report from the North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Raleigh, North Carolina. But have not yet received anything.
Beverly, who told Dateline she believes more than one person was involved in her cousin’s murder, is certain there is DNA from her fingernails that will lead to answers.
“She was a fighter - a spitfire,” Beverly said. “Whoever did this would’ve been all scratched up. She wouldn’t go down without a fight.”
As for the motive for the killing, Beverly thinks her cousin saw something or knew something she shouldn’t have among the group of people she hung out with at the arcade. She told Dateline she recalls a story Donna told her about drugs that were buried by some of the people in her crowd. The location of the drugs was right near the ditch where Donna’s body was found.
Beverly told Dateline they have given all the information they know to police, but feel they have hit a dead end. The family considered paying for a private investigator or having Donna’s body exhumed, but never had the money to do so.
As another year marks the anniversary of the 15-year-old girl’s murder, her remaining family members are hopeful that the NC SBI will do all they can to solve Donna’s case.
“I wanna know why her? Why Donna?” Beverly said. “She had her whole life ahead of her. She didn’t deserve this. It’s past time for her to get justice.”
Anyone with information that may help solve Donna’s case is asked to call the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation at (919) 662-4500.