The Unsolved 1988 Murder of Texas Girl Cortney Clayton

Published: Updated: 8 comments

Stamford, Texas, is a small community 40 miles north of Abilene. It epitomizes small-town America – mom-and-pop shops, a town square, and friendly people.

In the ’80s, the population was close to 4,000. Stamford was considered a safe community to live in and raise a family. It’s not the place you would expect to find evil lurking in its bushes.

Stan stood outside and watched his little girl cross the street and head toward the store. He sent Cortney’s older brother, Ryan, to follow her several minutes later. Cortney knew to wait for Ryan at the store before walking back home.

Cortney entered the store, grabbed a soda, and headed to the counter to pay for it. She did not have enough money, so a man behind her in line offered to pay for it. The clerk told him no and that Cortney would pay it later.

The little girl walked outside the store to wait for Ryan, but Cortney was gone when Ryan arrived. 

The only evidence left behind was the can of soda Cortney had purchased at the store just a few minutes before, sitting on the back of the store manager’s vehicle.

Cortney’s family searched all over town for her but could not find her, so Stan called the police, and the investigation began.

Police located a witness who, under hypnosis, described a man leaning against the store’s outside wall near the manager’s vehicle when Cortney was there. The man drove a car with a white interior. He was in his early 20s and dark-complected. Police were able to draw a composite sketch of the man from the witness’ description.

Cortney Clayton: sketch of suspect

This man has never been found.

Six months after Cortney disappeared, her body was found in a field 50 miles south of Stamford. Because so much time had passed, it was impossible to determine death’s cause or manner due to decomposition.

In 1991, Texas authorities briefly looked at child killer Doil Lane, who had been convicted of the murders of Bertha Martinez, 8, and Nancy Shoemaker, 9. Bertha was sexually assaulted and killed in 1980 in Texas. Nancy, of Wichita, Kansas, suffered the same fate ten years later. Lane had an accomplice in Nancy’s kidnapping. That man was granted parole and now lives in Kansas City, Kansas. As of July 2023, Lane was up for parole

The case remains unsolved. Anyone with information concerning Cortney’s case is asked to call the Jones County Sheriff’s Office at (325) 823-4604.

Sources

Weed, Alexis. 2015. “Cold Case: Girl Disappears A Half Block From Home | Hlntv.Com.” Hlntv.Com. Accessed December 30, 2015. http://www.hlntv.com/article/2013/07/29/cold-case-cortney-clayton-disappears-half-block-home.

True Crime Diva’s Thoughts

I have a picture of me that was taken in May 1988. It is my 18th birthday, and I am opening presents as my mom takes the picture. I was thinking about this picture when I came across Cortney’s case. I lived in a town not so different from Stamford, only larger. Even as young as five, I would walk or ride my bike around town all alone. It was never a thought that something bad could happen to me during those times. My parents didn’t even worry. It was a completely different time.

As I remembered that picture, I can’t help but think that Cortney was still alive as that picture was taken, running around playing with her friends and laughing with her family.  If only we could go back in time.

While researching this case, I felt that the man who took Cortney most likely had committed similar crimes before and after her abduction/murder. He knew exactly what he was doing that day. I don’t believe this was his first or last abduction/murder. He was confident as if he knew he wouldn’t get caught, and he wasn’t worried about anyone recognizing him either. He took Cortney before the sun went down that day.

Standing outside the building instead of going into the store tells me he was waiting for a girl to take. That was the only reason he was there.

I wonder why there are no witness statements from people at or outside the store other than the woman who gave hers under hypnosis. What about the man who offered to pay for Cortney’s soda? Who was he? Did he see this man or WAS he the abductor?

I think it’s possible the killer had been stalking Cortney before he abducted her. Yes, he could have just been hanging out at the store, hoping for a child to come along who was all alone. But honestly, most kids that young are not alone at a store. Their parents are usually with them, or they’re with friends. So, I think he was watching Clayton’s home. Maybe he had seen Cortney out and about in Stamford before September 2nd and followed her home. Then he started stalking her, trying to see what her daily routine was like. Maybe he knew that Cortney had gone to that store alone before, so he just waited until the timing was just right. Hell, maybe he knew Ryan always followed her a few minutes after she left. He would know about how much time he had to commit the actual abduction.

Being that Stamford is a tiny town, nobody seemed to recognize this man or his car, so maybe he wasn’t from the immediate area. Cortney’s body was found 50 miles south of Stamford, so I would guess he lived closer to the body’s location.

This was a Friday night, and most of the people in town were heading to a high school football game in Eastland, about 90 miles southeast of Stamford. I know how big high school football is in Texas, so I imagine Stamford was pretty quiet during this time. Maybe that’s why the killer chose this day to make his move. There would not be many witnesses to his crime. Cortney’s body’s location was in the same direction one would take to get to Eastland from Stamford.

I started researching killers who had killed in Texas in the 80s and 90s, and I came across Tommy Lynn Sells. I have read about him before. He is a serial killer who was finally executed in 2014. In 1999, he killed 13-year-old Kaylene Harris and attempted to kill her 10-year-old friend in Kaylene’s Del Rio, Texas home. The friend survived. Sells was arrested and convicted of capital murder and attempted murder in that case.  Del Rio is only about 280 miles southwest of Stamford. Sells is thought to have murdered up to 70 people.

Sells fits the age of Cortney’s killer, and if you compare his picture to the composite sketch, they are a bit similar. It’s the eyes where I see the most resemblance, but it could be him. He’s not dark-complected, but it was early September, so the killer could have had a tan. Tommy’s youngest victim was 13, so I don’t know if he liked them any younger than that or not, but age really wasn’t an issue with Sells as he had killed older girls, too. Sells was a drifter and committed murders in different states, including Texas. It might be a long shot that he is Cortney’s killer, but you never know. I know they still have his DNA on file, but I’m not sure any DNA was found in Cortney’s case.

Sells wasn’t the only drifter who murdered wherever he went, I’m sure. A drifter would be hard to find, especially back then.

SIMILAR CASES:

  • Jennifer Lee Martin: 11-year-old disappeared from Reno, NV, on June 28, 1987. Her case is very similar to Cortney’s, except Jennifer has never been found. Jennifer also disappeared after walking away from a convenience store.  Like with Cortney, Jennifer’s brother went looking for her at the store, but she was nowhere to be found. There have been suspects in this case, but no one has ever been arrested, and it remains unsolved.
  • Amber Jean Swartz-Garcia: seven-year-old abducted from Pinole, CA on June 3, 1988, while playing outside. Amber is similar to Cortney in appearance. Amber and her killer have never been found. Sells was actually born in Oakland, CA, which is about 20 miles south of Pinole.
  • Heidi Lynn Seeman: 11-year-old abducted on August 4, 1990, from San Antonio, TX and later found dead. She had been raped and strangled. Her body was shoved into two garbage bags that were sealed with duct tape. Her case remains unsolved, and her killer free. Air Force Major Robert Eric Duncan, Heidi’s father’s boss, is a suspect in this case, but no evidence tied him to Heidi’s murder. Another suspect is Jerry Nabor, who had been in prison on drug charges before her disappearance, but no evidence linked him to the murder. A white or Hispanic male with dark hair and a mustache was seen driving a small red vehicle when Heidi disappeared.
  • Erica Marie Botello: seven-year-old disappeared on August 23, 1990, from San Antonio, TX. She was found dead less than a mile from her home. Her case remains unsolved. Her murder is believed to be related to Heidi’s because they were both abducted around the same time from the same area. Oddly enough, Erica is NOT listed on the Texas Rangers Unsolved Homicides website.

I realize that the cases above may not be related to Cortney’s, but they’re worth mentioning, which is why I included them.

8 comments

Lilly January 2, 2021 - 5:59 PM

Most in Stamford seem to believe that a rancher killed her. The ranchers son is no better. I’ve also heard that the rancher was involved in the death of a black man at college lake as well. He is very well known and extremely creepy, as is his adult son.

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truecrimediva January 3, 2021 - 8:44 AM

That is interesting! Did the police ever look into the rancher?

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Misty Bigham March 4, 2017 - 11:22 PM

I still look around and wonder if the killer is living here around us it could be anyone.
You can get away with very little in Abilene with out getting caught- it’s hard to believe you could in Stamford- where everyone knows everybody’s business- it could be a stranger from the interstate- but I doubt she would go without fussing and someone would notice- I can’t remember her bro age- but I wonder if he’s been ckd out.
Football is huge here and there are many little towns around- so they could be from anywhere- I still think it was someone she was comfortable with- I wish they could solve the case- we never hear about it here so I’m afraid it’s been forgotten.

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Misty Bigham March 4, 2017 - 11:14 PM

I grew up in Abilene Tx and still live there now.
It has always haunted me- we were the same age and Abilene has about 140000 people or more with 3 colleges and an air force base- I am an only child and remember my parents watching me closer after this- my friends and I were more careful- because if it could happen in Stamford it could definitely happen in Abilene.
I 20 run through the area and there are truck stops everywhere.
I think it was someone she knew- the store owner or a high school student- seeing as how the body was dumped on the way to Eastland.

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marvin phillips March 3, 2017 - 9:56 PM

I grew up in Stamford and Cortney sat in front of me that year in Ms. Goodwins class well for what few days we were there. I used to walk home from school but after that I wouldnt even take the trash out after dark. I remember having a dream of sitting off to the side being there that night because I woke my mom up that night because I was scared. I dont know if I dreamed of it because we watched it on a show that used to come on called ” Unsolved Mysteries”. Ive dreamed of her from time to time and always wondered what really happened. Im 36 now and I still find myself thinking of her. I hope someday her family finds closer as well as the rest of us that think about her.

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truecrimediva March 4, 2017 - 10:12 AM

Wow, that must have been hard on you and other students in your class! 🙁 And being so young, it was only natural to be frightened during that time. I also hope her family finds closure one day. Justice needs to be served. Thank you for commenting!

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David September 21, 2016 - 7:06 PM

I think Sells looks a lot like the picture that was drawn from the hypnotized subject.
As far as getting to the east coast and back he must have had a car to be capable of abducting Cortney and driving her fifty miles away.

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DL22 September 9, 2016 - 9:54 AM

The only issue with Sells as a suspect is he is highly suspected as the murderer of Melissa Ann Tremblay just ten days later in Massachusetts:

http://www.southcoasttoday.com/article/20000310/News/303109968

I suppose it’s possible he got across the country in that amount of time but he was suspected of murdering a co-worker in Texas in 1989. It’s a bit of a stretch to think he went from Texas to the NE and back to Texas in such a short amount of time.

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True Crime Diva

True Crime Diva

I've blogged true crime since 2010, happily taking up only a tiny corner of the internet. I'm not here for attention; I'm here to tell you their stories.

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