Lora Jean Dugan ran away from her Montana home in early April 1972. A rancher in North Dakota found her body weeks later, but her killer has never been caught.
About Lora Jean Dugan
Lora Jean Dugan was born on September 26, 1957, the third of four children. Her mother’s name is Betty, but her father’s name is unknown. Betty divorced him not long after Lora Jean’s birth. Betty and the children moved to Billings, Montana, and lived in a small home on Sugar Avenue. Betty got a job as a waitress at the airport cafe. There, she met Bill Dugan, a mechanic for Northwest Airlines.
Bill and Betty married in 1962, and the family moved to Milwaukee and later Minneapolis due to Bill’s job transfer. In 1964, Betty gave birth to another daughter named Ella. The family lived in Minnesota for a few years, but in 1969, they moved back to Montana. Bill and Betty bought a house with a few acres along the Yellowstone River in Huntley.
But like her first marriage, Betty’s second didn’t last, and her and Bill divorced in 1971.
Lora Jean was a tomboy, plain and simple.
“She was very adventurous, extremely so, and never afraid of anything,” Betty told Greg Tuttle from The Billings Gazette in 2006. “She caught butterflies. She chased boys with snakes and creepy crawlers. She caught bees in her hands and turned them loose on people.”
After their divorce, Lora Jean changed. She became more assertive, which wasn’t like her.
Lora Jean wasn’t happy living in Montana. She missed Minnesota and once ran away in an attempt to go back. Right before Christmas 1971, Lora Jean hitchhiked to Forsyth, about 90 miles northeast of Huntley, but called home from the sheriff’s office. Betty drove through a snowstorm to pick up her daughter. Unfortunately, it was not the last time Lora Jean ran away.
April 7, 1972
There are two versions of what went on in the Dugan household on April 7, 1972: Betty’s and Sherrie, Lora Jean’s older sister. Each remembers that morning differently.
Sherrie said that Betty and Lora Jean argued about a man Betty was dating. Lora Jean liked him and wanted her mother to marry him. However, Betty told Lora Jean she would never marry the man. Lora Jean left home in a huff. She walked Ella to the street corner where they got on the school bus. Sherrie watched her sisters from a window and then left home to catch her own bus to school. She never saw Lora Jean again.
Betty recalled in 2006 that Lora Jean asked to stay home from school that day because she wasn’t feeling well, but Betty made her go to school. The two argued over Betty’s decision before Lora Jean left the house.
Lora Jean rode the bus to school but never made it to class.
“Apparently, she handed her books to one of her friends and took off up to the freeway,” Betty said.
A school bus driver claimed to have seen Lora Jean walking toward the highway, but what happened after that is a mystery.
Betty wasn’t initially worried when Lora Jean did not return home that day because of her previous runaway attempt. But when Betty hadn’t heard from her daughter after two days, she called the police to report her missing.
April 30, 1972
On Sunday, April 30, 1972, a rancher checking his cattle on the land about a 1/4 mile from Interstate 94 west of the Badlands community of Medora, North Dakota, found the body of a young girl under an old cedar tree a few steps from a well-worn cattle path. A cross necklace was dangling in the tree. The girl was clad only in an open jacket.
Billings County Sheriff Ted Cornell had no idea who the victim was. There was no ID or personal belongings of the victim. So, he took pictures and sent them to law enforcement agencies in Montana and North Dakota.
Identification and Autopsy
On May 2, 1972, the body was identified as belonging to Lora Jean Dugan. Bill Dugan, Betty and a friend of Betty’s, flew to Bismarck to identify the body and made arrangements to return it to Montana.
The autopsy revealed that Lora Jean Dugan was stabbed once in the abdomen. That did not kill her. The cause of death was strangulation. Marks on her wrists suggested Lora Jean was tied up before death. While there was no evidence of sexual assault, police and her family believe she was raped.
Police never determined what exactly happened to Lora Jean Dugan between April 7 and April 30, 1972. It is unclear if Lora Jean was killed the day she ran away or kept alive for a period of time.
In 1987, Cornell said he believed he knew who killed Lora Jean, but he never gave the man’s name. The man, a trucker, had recently been convicted in a string of murders involving hitchhikers.
“Every time he found a hitchhiker, she was done,” said Cornell. “He fits the profile perfectly. I think we’ve got him.” At that time, the man was an inmate at the Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater.
Despite Cornell’s claim, there was never an official suspect in Lora Jean Dugan’s murder. Cold case detectives attempted unsuccessfully to crack the case in 2006. The case remains unsolved 47 years later.
Lora Jean Dugan’s memorial was held on May 5, 1972, at Smith’s Funeral Home. Many people attended, and Betty had said it was “standing room only.” Lora Jean is buried in Huntley Cemetery.
As far as I can tell, Betty is still alive. If so, she’d be around 83 years old. Sherrie now lives in California, according to her Facebook page, and Ella still lives in Montana. Bill Dugan passed away in 2014 at the age of 89.
Suggested reading: Cold-case team working to solve 1972 murder of Huntley girl
True Crime Diva’s Thoughts
Lora Jean looks so much like my sister at that age. And, like Lora Jean, my sister was a tom boy.
I would really like to know what happened between April 7 and April 30. Was she alive for a period of time after she ran away? What about the bus driver who saw her? This was daytime during a busy time of the morning, and yet nobody else saw Lora Jean? How long had her body been in the woods?
The location where Lora Jean’s body was found is roughly 270 miles northeast of Huntley. My guess is the killer was a trucker who gave her a ride and took advantage of the moment.
I tried finding the inmate Cornell was talking about but didn’t find anything, so I have no idea who the man was. I looked up other killers who were truck drivers but didn’t find any that could have been Lora Jean’s killer.
- “Authorities Circulate Pictures of Slain Girl. The Billings Gazette. May 3, 1972.
- Quanrud, Ted. “Getting Away With Murder”. The Bismarck Tribune. March 1, 1987.
- “Stabbed Victim Identified as Missing Montana Girl”. The Spokesman Review. May 3, 1972.
- Tuttle, Greg. “Cold-case team working to solve 1972 murder of Huntley girl”. The Billings Gazette. January 29, 2006.