Cold Case Explorations

Researching Cold and Unsolved Cases from the US and Beyond

The Unsolved Murder of Jane Prichard

This case has remained unsolved for 37 years, 2 months, and 17 days.

Jane Prichard was a 28-year-old botany student studying to earn her Master’s degree from the University of Maryland. Her studies often brought her to Blackbird State Forest, an area spanning over 6,000 acres with tons of trees including oaks, yellow-poplar, maples, gums, and hickories. Prichard was in the process of studying the little-known hog peanut and how their leaves turned toward the sun.

It was September 20, 1986 when Prichard was carrying out some more experiments in Blackbird State Forest. Her equipment had been set up and she’d been making entries in her research up until 10 AM. Then, the entries abruptly stopped. Hikers came across Prichard’s seminude body later that day.

Authorities quickly ruled Prichard’s death as a homicide, and although someone was arrested and charged, those charges were eventually dropped. Now, almost four decades later, her murder remains unsolved and there are few updates on the case. Who murdered Jane Prichard?

Trees in Blackbird State Forest.
Trees in Blackbird State Forest (VisitDelawareVillages).

Table of Contents

About Jane Prichard

Jane Prichard was born to parents Audrey and Walter Prichard, who still live in the same house where she grew up. They had four children total, with Jane being the second-youngest. She’d always loved the outdoors, according to her older brother Keith Prichard: “[She] was always an outdoor person.” As a child, she had a deep love for horses and nature.

A photograph of Jane Prichard.
A photograph of Jane Prichard (New Castle).

At the time of her murder, Prichard was 28 years old and a student at the University of Maryland and was studying to get her Master’s degree in botany. She was also working for Brookside Gardens, a botanical garden located in Montgomery County, Maryland (MD). 

Prichard loved plants so much that she once brought home a presentation about a recent discovery she’d made to show her family. It seemed that furthering her studies in botany was going to get her where she wanted to go in life — until it was tragically cut short in the fall of 1986.

The Day of the Murder

Prichard was conducting some botany experiments in Blackbird State Forest, located in Smyrna, Delaware (DE). Although she lived in Clarksburg, MD, she often made the roughly 2 hour, 15 minute drive to Blackbird State Forest to conduct experiments and research. Specifically, she was studying a summer vine known as hog peanut or ground bean.

Some hog peanut, the plant Jane Prichard was studying.
Some hog peanut, the plant Jane Prichard was studying (TC Permaculture).

As she sometimes did, Prichard made the drive from Clarksburg to Smyrna the night before she was to conduct her studies. It was September 19, 1986 and she stayed the night with one of her friends before leaving early the next morning for Blackbird State Forest.

Blackbird State Forest

The next morning around 7 AM, Prichard left her friend’s place and arrived at Blackbird State Forest a little while later. She parked along Blackbird State Forest Road and then set up her research equipment that extended into the surrounding woods by about 30 yards. 

Namely, Prichard was interested in how plant leaves manage to turn toward the sun. Her research was very thorough, compiling minute-by-minute date for several hours. However, the readings and recordings stopped abruptly right before 10 AM that morning. She was never seen alive again.

Body Discovered

On the evening of September 20, 1986, a couple from New Jersey had arrived in Blackbird State Forest for a camping vacation. After they set up their tents, they went for a stroll around the nearby area and stumbled upon a grisly scene: a woman’s body. They immediately contacted authorities who came out to investigate.

The Investigation

Authorities came out to investigate the scene and quickly learned that this was most likely a murder scene. Upon investigation, it seemed that Prichard had been shot in the back with a shotgun. This was not an accidental death or an animal attack based on the evidence that authorities found. Her body was also partially clothed, perhaps suggesting a sexual motivation. Prichard’s death was soon ruled a homicide, and a murder investigation began.

Area Searched

The area surrounding Prichard’s body was roped off and thoroughly searched by authorities. They used metal detectors and sifted through the surrounding soil, searching for any clues like shell casings that might point to a specific murder weapon. Ultimately, they did find some undisclosed pieces of evidence that were went to the FBI for analysis. It’s unclear what that evidence was or if it pointed toward any one suspect or weapon.

One piece of evidence that was disclosed to the public was a recovered piece of hair. In the mid-80s, DNA testing was in its infancy, but the hair was shipped off to a DNA lab in California for analysis.

A sign for Blackbird State Forest.
A sign for Blackbird State Forest (Reserve America).

People Interviewed

Authorities started asking around for anyone who might’ve seen or witnessed anything that morning. They ended up interviewing almost 300 people during the course of the investigation. Police also submitted the shotgun pellets to DuPont Company technicians, trying to see if they could learn any additional information about the murder weapon.

Hunter Saw Prichard

A hunter came forward, saying he’d last seen Prichard alive around 10 AM on the morning she was murdered. The hunter was able to describe Prichard’s clothing, vehicle, and the scientific equipment she was carrying to conduct her experiments, making him a good witness. 

The hunter stated that he’d been hunting squirrels in the area near Prichard, and he’d seen another hunter nearby. This other man was supposedly the last person that was seen near Prichard before she was murdered.

Jane Prichard’s blue and white 1980 Chevy Blazer.
Jane Prichard’s blue and white 1980 Chevy Blazer (Delaware Online).

Suspect Identified

The unknown hunter that the witness described was seen as a prime suspect in Prichard’s murder. He was described as a Caucasian male, had a beard, and was about 5’9 or 5’10 with a medium build. He was wearing a brown jacket and blue jeans. A composite sketch was made of the supposed hunter and distributed to the public, hoping to find out who he was.

A composite drawing of a suspect seen near Jane Prichard before she was murdered.
A composite drawing of a suspect seen near Jane Prichard before she was murdered (New Castle).

Police Suspicious of Witness

Despite the story that the witness had told authorities, police were suspicious of the man and ended up charging him with first-degree murder and possession of a deadly weapon in the commission of a felony. He was held without bail. 

However, when the DNA testing results came back from the California lab, they showed no match to the witness. For that reason, he was released and the charges against him were dropped

I would never make that mistake again. My advice is, ‘don’t get involved,’” the witness told a news outlet regarding the whole situation. He reportedly lost everything due to his arrest, including his job and his apartment at the time.

That’s All, Folks

After the case against the squirrel hunter was dropped, the case of Jane Prichard’s murder went cold. There have been few updates, although authorities have been submitting what DNA evidence they were able to recover at the time to modern DNA laboratories. So far, none of them have yielded any results or pointed toward who might’ve murdered Prichard. 

Theories on What Happened

In this case, there are really only two plausible theories about who murdered Jane Prichard: either the witness who came forward did or another, unknown hunter did. An accidental shooting has been ruled out by authorities.

The Witness Killed Prichard

Many have suggested that the witness that came forward with information was the one who killed Prichard. Indeed, he was arrested and charged at one point with the crime, but he was eventually released and the charges were dropped due to a lack of evidence. Despite this, some still believe that he was somehow involved.

Information kiosk in Blackbird State Forest.
Information kiosk in Blackbird State Forest (VisitDelawareVillages).

Another Hunter Killed Prichard

The other main theory is that another hunter came across Prichard doing her botany studies and either attempted to sexually assault her or did so and then murdered her. If there was any DNA left behind that indicated a sexual assault — like semen found on Prichard’s body — the police have not made that information public.

What Do I Think Happened?

The murder of Jane Prichard is an unfortunate case that proves how hard it is to solve murders when the victim is more or less a random one. Authorities indicate that the murderer was a hunter who happened to be in the Blackbird State Forest that morning, and not someone who had a personal vendetta against Prichard. Because there were apparently no personal connections or ties between the victim and assailant, this case is a very tough one to solve.

Witness Unlikely to be Murderer

To me, it doesn’t seem like the hunter who witnessed the other hunter in the area was involved. If he was indeed hunting squirrels, he probably wouldn’t have been using a shotgun to do it (unless he didn’t want any squirrel left to harvest). Most people who hunt squirrels use something like a .22 rifle and, since Prichard was murdered with a shotgun, I doubt that this squirrel hunter had anything to do with her death. 

Of course, it’s possible that the witness was lying, but then why would he have come forward to police in the first place? He would have already gotten away with the murder so there would have been no reason to reach out to authorities.

More Likely to be Stranger

Ultimately, I believe this was a crime of opportunity. Some hunter saw Prichard and decided that he was going to try to sexually assault her at gunpoint. He either did assault her or was unable to complete the assault and then killed her anyway to ensure that she wouldn’t be able to report the crime to police. The reason the case hasn’t been solved yet is most likely because there was no connection between victim and perpetrator — some of the hardest crimes to solve. 

Case Outlook

In order for this case to be solved, I think either more DNA evidence has to be recovered and tested or someone needs to come forward with more information. As New Castle County Police Chief Elmer Setting said:

“The victims and their families are never forgotten. We will forever keep working to bring those to justice who have committed these crimes and devastated so many lives.”

New Castle County Police Chief Elmer Setting (Source: Delaware Online)

It’s been over 30 years since Prichard’s murder, and someone out there knows something. It’s time to come forward with that information, and bring justice to the Prichard family. 

Case Updates

Unfortunately, despite the decades-long span of this case, there have been few updates.

2014: New Cold Case Unit Established

In 2014, a new cold case unit was established in New Castle County. One of the cases they planned on re-examining was the murder of Jane Prichard. New Castle County Police Chief Elmer Setting said, “It is our hope that the re-examination of the evidence obtained from this case can help identify and arrest the person responsible for her murder.”

Do You Have Information?

There is a $20,000 reward leading to an arrest and/or conviction regarding any violent crime through Delaware Crime Stoppers. If you have any information about the murder of Jane Prichard, please contact the Cold Case Homicide Squad at (302) 395–2781 or submit a tip to Crime Stoppers at (800) TIP-3333.

A Criminal Investigations Unit poster for Jane Prichard.
A Criminal Investigations Unit poster for Jane Prichard (New Castle).

Cold Case Questions

  • Who do you think killed Jane Prichard?
  • Do you think Prichard’s killing was targeted or a random attack?
  • Will this case ever be solved?

Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below!

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