Teen-ager accused of hanging classmate

The Associated Press | January 17, 1999



CLEARFIELD, Pa. – She was a 15-year-old doing what all teens do: trying hard to fit in.

The afternoon of May 10, Kimberly Jo Dotts found herself in the woods with a knot of kids she barely knew who were planning to run away to Florida that night.

But as suddenly as she’d met them, they turned on her. Someone complained that Kimberly – short, overweight and learning-disabled – might “snitch” on them, and teen-age cruelty grew deadly.

Prosecutors say a noose was pulled over Kimberly’s head, the other end slung over a maple branch; then two teens, Jessica Holtmeyer, 16, and Aaron Straw, 19, yanked on the rope with all their strength.

Kimberly’s body shook and convulsed, then went limp. On the ground, as she gasped for breath, the prosecutors say, Jessica smashed her face with a rock the size of a basketball.

“It was fun to hang someone,” one of her friends quoted her saying after they covered Kimberly’s body with branches and leaves. “It would be fun to do that again.”

Seven people were there – some standing around, some egging others on, some helping with the lynching or hiding the body – but Jessica will be the first to be tried for murder. Straw awaits trial, and the five others pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

Jury selection for Jessica begins Monday in Bloomsburg, 105 miles to the east because of heavy news coverage here. Opening arguments are scheduled for Jan. 25. Prosecutors say they will ask for the death penalty.

The crime, and the arrest of seven locals aged 14 to 24, has shaken Clearfield, a working-class coal and lumber town of 7,500 that lies about 125 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

Testimony and police affidavits reveal some of what apparently happened:

Kimberly’s search for friends put her with a group of kids who had hung out together just long enough to give themselves a name: the Runaway Gang. Her introduction came from a schoolmate, 14-year-old Dawn Lanager, who’d asked Kimberly to sleep over May 8, a Friday night.

The Dottses had encouraged their daughter to reach out socially, and they could hear the excitement in her voice when she told them of the invitation.

The next day, Kimberly returned home briefly and, leaving, ordered her 7-year-old sister not to follow. “I’m running away,” she said.

But on Sunday, the group was still in Clearfield. They’d found a driver who would take them south, but he wasn’t leaving until later that night. To pass the time, they hitchhiked up to Shiloh, 15 minutes away, to break into hunting campers and look for money.

They also stole liquor – and a rope.

The trouble seemed to begin when Tracy Lynn Lewis, 24, a distant cousin of Kimberly’s, called the girl a snitch for getting her in trouble over a drinking party she’d given for a group of kids. Aloud, she worried her cousin might snitch again.

Talk turned to “dumping” Kimberly from their adventure.

But no one seemed to take the talk as seriously as Jessica, and schoolmates said that wasn’t surprising. Jessica was known as a bully at school, and people told stories of her setting cats on fire and strangling a poodle. She’d told her friends earlier that day that she didn’t like Kimberly, but nobody seemed to know why – they had never met before.

The group ended up at a clearing in Shiloh known as Gallows Harbor for a 19th century hanging.

Jessica said she wanted to test Kimberly’s loyalty to the group. A noose was fashioned from the stolen rope. Jessica and Ms. Lewis looped it around Kimberly’s neck, and Jessica dragged her around like a dog until one of the teens stopped her.

Then Straw grabbed the rope and tossed the noose over a branch. An initiation began.

One by one, three teens briefly put the noose over their heads. Then it was Kimberly’s turn.

“Yank it!” Ms. Lewis screamed.

Jessica and Straw lifted the 5-foot-1, 165-pound Kimberly off the ground long enough for her to go into convulsions, but they dropped her, hearing trucks nearby.

At that point, Ms. Lewis and three of the teens walked away.

But three others lingered, and again, the noose was tightened. Jessica and Straw pulled again, this time until Kimberly became colorless and limp. When her body dropped to the dirt, Jessica dropped the rock on her head.

“That’s what happens to snitches,” she was quoted as saying.

“I didn’t mean for Kim to get hurt, just to scare her,” Straw told police. “But Jessie would not listen to anybody and she had to kill her because she didn’t like her.”

Six in the group headed for Lakeland, Fla., that night. Jessica decided to stay home. Searchers looking for the missing Kimberly found the body nine days later, and state police questioned Jessica just hours afterward.

She nodded when asked if she was involved. While smoking a cigarette outside a few minutes later, she told a trooper, “When I get nervous and excited, I black out and people tell me things I did. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life in jail.”

State police arrested Jessica minutes later.