BUTLER COUNTY, MO (KFVS) - More than 40 years ago, someone stabbed a young Butler County, Missouri mother to death.
Authorities thought they had a prime suspect—a member of her own family.
But now, a fresh look at the case of Geneva Phelps Hastings shows there could be a much more sinister family tie.
"I don't know how they could do anything like that to her," Shirley Phelps said, her voice shaky and emotional.
It's clear the pain she feels hasn't diminished in the four decades since she lost her oldest child, Geneva.
"It hurts. Nobody knows," Shirley said, her voice trailing off.
"She was just so kind and sweethearted", her brother Floyd Phelps said.
Geneva wasn't just a big sister.
With both parents working in the early 70's, she spent a lot of time helping raise her brother Floyd and sister Carol.
"And she took good care of us" Carol said.
"We became best friends in 6th grade", Kathy Swift Perkins said of her friend.
The girls liked to dress alike and did everything together.
But at 17, Geneva had news that surprised even her best friend.
She was pregnant
"It was a little bit of a shock", Swift Perkins recalls. "But, she was a very smart girl and she knew exactly what her plan was."
"I remember going to the hospital", her brother Floyd said. "And we just thought man, look what we have in the family."
The family rallied around Geneva and her newborn son, Tommy.
The new mom got her own apartment, although she often stayed with her parents.
About three weeks after Tommy's birth, Geneva was ready to get back out and see her friends. Her mom agreed to watch Tommy.
June 27, 1975
Dozens of teens gathered out at Wolf Creek, outside of Poplar Bluff.
Kathy Swift said she saw her best friend among the familiar faces.
"I didn't talk to her much," she said. "I was with my boyfriend and there was a big crowd of people there."
Kathy would catch another glimpse of Geneva as they both headed home.
"I saw her and waved," she said. "And she waved back. When we got to 67 north where my boyfriend turned off to take me to my house, I waved bye to her. And that was the last time I saw her. I guess I was the last one that saw her besides who did what they did to her. That picture is burnt in my mind."
June 28, 1 a.m.
Geneva's step-dad, Tom Phelps, was driving home after having a few beers with buddies in Bluff.
He's nearly home when he noticed her blue car on the side of the road--lights on, engine running, the driver's side door wide open.
He pulled up alongside it and called for her.
He wondered if maybe she had car trouble and had walked the rest of the way home.
"I remember dad coming through the door and waking mom up and ask if Sissy was home," Floyd recalls.
She wasn't, so Tom and Shirley drive back out to Geneva's car.
Tom got out of the vehicle this time, only to find her brown leather purse left behind on the seat.
There was no sign of Geneva.
"I knew something wasn't right," Kathy said. "I knew she would have never gotten out of her car."
It took five days before a neighbor noticed buzzards circling above a gravel stretch known as a "lover's lane" off Pine Valley Road.
A Butler County deputy found Geneva's body, dragged off the path and deep into the woods.
She had been stabbed twice with what authorities believed to be a small pocket knife.
"I couldn't envision anyone doing anything like that to her," Swift Perkins said. "She was a good person."
Officers questioned Tom Phelps. He had found her car, and opted to drive it home that night.
"They focused on him, not a few days not a week not two weeks, probably a month or so," Floyd said. "And I think they let the case get away from them."
"There's no way he could have done that," Shirley said. "No way."
Shirley described how hard it was on her and her family to have another family member be a suspect.
"Yeah, it was hard," she said. "And him too, I think he grieved a lot about it, you know."
"Sometimes reports are written kind of slanted, and in this case I think that's kind of what it was," Butler County Sheriff Mark Dobbs said.
Dobbs said it is clear officers back in '75 zeroed in on Tom Phelps from the very beginning.
Dobbs quickly took Phelps off of his suspect list.
"And we really just came to the conclusion that there's no way physically that that could have happened where Tom Phelps could have done all that."
But, if Tom Phelps had nothing to do with Geneva's death, who did?
"You show me an unsolved homicide and I'll show you an investigation where one person was focused on completely."
Sheriff Mark Dobbs has no doubt the murder of Geneva Phelps Hastings could have been solved years ago if investigators would have spent more time combing through this list of names from the case file.
"There's a couple that jump right out at me", he tells me as we look through the case file," he said. "And to be honest with you as I sit here and look at it I hate to be critical of people. You know, hindsight is 20/20. But, there's just names that just make the hair on the back of your neck stand up."
"She had no enemies that I could think of," Swift Perkins said.
So, Dobbs said he's focused on why Geneva would have been targeted.
"For some reason there was something that we believe was upsetting about her having that child and matters surrounding that," Dobbs said.
Geneva did not have a serious boyfriend, and didn't really talk about who Tommy's dad was.
"It seems to me and it seems to the other investigators that there was some kind of master plan there that night that got put into play."
The sheriff believes that plan involved several teens at the big outdoor party Geneva attended. He said thinks they watched Geneva leave, then signaled others.
They knew she'd be traveling the gravel road to her parent's house, and they ambushed her.
"And my dad said all along it had to be someone she knew because Geneva wasn't no fool," Diane Davis, a family friend whose dad was in law enforcement, said. "She would have never stopped her car and got out of it."
Investigators feel it took more than one person to force Geneva out of her car so close to home.
It would have taken at least two people to get her out to the secluded scene of her murder off Pine Valley Road.
"We believe there were several individuals involved and that most likely there was one or two people that probably held her or wrestled her to the ground while the other person stabbed her," Dobbs said.
And then, he reveals a new clue.
He believes one of Geneva's attackers suffered a knife wound during the assault.
He's recently tracked down 40 year old evidence, including blood-covered gravel recovered from the crime scene.
Carol Phelps believes Geneva was specifically targeted because of the baby.
The evidence shows that more than one person dragged Geneva's lifeless body by her arms back off the gravel path.
As they pulled her deeper into the woods, she lost her left sandal.
They finally leave her body deep in the woods, but not covered or buried.
With the focus off step-dad Tom Phelps, Sheriff Dobbs hopes this new look at Geneva's case will bring back old memories.
"We're hoping that someone who knows something who thought it was irrelevant or might have been scared, intimidated, whatever back in the day that they'll come forward and give us the things we need to make this thing come together," he said.
"41 years is a long time," Floyd Phelps told Heartland News.
Geneva's family and friends feel thankful her story is being told now, and remain hopeful it will finally have an ending.
Shirley Phelps hopes she doesn't have to wait much longer.
"I'm almost 80 and I'd like to see it closed up before I go," she said. "So I know who done that to her. If they would just come forward."
Geneva's son, Tommy Hastings is now a lawyer living in Texas.
He's aware of our story and supports our efforts to help seek justice in his mother's case.
Now, we want to hear from you.
Do you remember this case? Maybe you know something that will bring Geneva's killer or killers to justice.
If you think you do, please contact the Butler County Sheriff's Office at (573)-686-8070.
You can also reach out to Kathy Sweeney on her KFVS Facebook page and she will share any information she receives with authorities.
Heartland News would like to thank the following people for helping with "Family Ties":
- Brittany Myers, one of my co-workers. Brittany not only agreed to take on the role of Geneva Phelps Hastings, but committed to everything asked of her without hesitation. She is the reason why we are able to tell Geneva’s story using every detail from the police reports.
- Shirley, Floyd and Carol Phelps for sharing Geneva’s story and their pain—along with their hope that her killer or killers can finally be brought to justice.A special thanks for all the family photos and trusting us to use Geneva’s actual purse in our reenactments
- Tommy Hastings for his support and trust in our handling of his mother’s case
- Kathy Swift Perkins, Geneva’s Best Friend
- Diane Davis, Carol’s Best Friend
- Butler County Sheriff Mark Dobbs, who brought Geneva’s case to my attention and whose assistance and guidance made our reenactments as accurate as possible
- Randy and Kim Schultz for the use of their 1964 Red Chevy Truck
- Randy and Kim’s daughter and son-in-law, Nikki and Brandon Craig, for help driving the truck and being involved in the reenactment of Geneva’s abandoned car being found
- Leslie and Brandon Biele for the use of their 1974 Blue Chevelle and their help in the reenactment of Geneva’s abandoned car being found
- Dallas Welling, Derek Slayton, Heather Cornelius and Meagan Hurlebusch for their assistance in the reenactment of the attack on Geneva and the effort to hide her body
- Maddie Siefert, Travis Meadows, Ryan Fort, Ivy Cornellier, Elizabeth Orr, Aminah Saffold, Mallory Echelmeyer, Elizabeth Cassoutt, Tiffany Cassoutt and Dustin Fitzwater for their assistance in the reenactment of the party Geneva attended the night she was killed (and special shout out to Kim Schultz for bringing Elizabeth, Tiffany and Dustin in from Perryville on a stormy night!)
- Laurie Everett from Annie Laurie’s Antiques in Cape Girardeau for allowing us to use at room at the shop for Geneva’s apartment. Special thanks to Gail and Adam for choosing her outfit and staging the room for us!
- Bryan and Rachel McCormick for allowing us to use their handsome son Bennett to play the role of Geneva’s son Tommy
- Cape Girardeau County Sheriff John Jordan and Captain David James for their willingness to help us secure property to use for two of our reenactments
- Southeast Missouri Modelers Association and Phil Hagler for the use of property for the party and road reenactments