Judy Petty’s Death: Official Examinations and Findings | Rare Techy
Entrance to the farm owned by Judy Petty’s family. Image courtesy of the author.
By Jennifer Bucholtz
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice And Forensic Science
(This is the second in a series of articles reviewing and analyzing the facts and evidence surrounding Judy Petty’s death. Read First article (To learn about the facts and timeline surrounding Judy’s death.)
On February 7, 2008, Judy Petty’s body was found burned beyond recognition in the basement of an outbuilding on her family’s farm property near Parkersburg, West Virginia.
Judy was last seen the day before, when she came from her grandmother’s house at noon to walk to the nearest library and return some books. After returning her books, Judy disappeared.
Father discovers Judy Petty’s charred remains
Judy’s father, Marvin, drove around Parkersburg most of the night on February 6, looking for any sign of his daughter. The next morning, Judy somehow sneaks out at night to a large property her family owns.
The family farm is located about 12 miles from the town where Judy was last seen walking the streets of Parkersburg, so the chances of her being there are slim. However, Marvin Petty was desperate and determined.
He arrived to find the family home and a nearby outbuilding engulfed in flames. The outbuilding is situated about 25 yards north of the main house. It consists of two levels: a ground level with a common door for entry, and a lower basement accessible by an exterior staircase. The house and outbuildings are primarily made of wood.
Not having a cell phone, Marvin ran to a nearby neighbor’s house and called 911. Firefighters and law enforcement were dispatched to the scene and arrived around 9:30 a.m. on February 7.
After the fire broke out, firefighters and family members began searching for any sign of Judy Petty. Ultimately, her remains were found by her father in an outbuilding on the southeast side of the 12-foot by 15-foot vault. The cellar floor lay about six and a half feet below ground level.
Responding to a fire at Petty Farm
The first officers on the scene were members of the Man Walk Volunteer Fire Department. They struggled to adequately fight the fire as the muddy uphill driveway made it difficult for trucks to pass near the engulfed buildings.
By the time the fire was extinguished, the main house and outbuildings of the property were completely gutted. A motorcycle, a truck and a nearby tree were destroyed in the fire.
The fire department’s investigation report stated: “The structure was so badly damaged that no burn patterns were present.” They were unable to determine the starting point of the fire, its direction of spread or whether an accelerant was used to start the fire.
The initial theory from officials is that Judy Petty left for the family farm. She arrived at night, freezing, and lit a fire for warmth. The fire then got out of control and Judy was unable to escape. Despite this theory on behalf of the authorities, they were unable to confirm or deny this scenario.
During a preliminary investigation, fire officials found vegetation intact between the main house and outbuildings. This evidence led fire investigators to believe that the fire did not spread from one structure to another, but they could not rule out the possibility that a fire could spread from one structure to another.
Ultimately, the cause of the fire was marked “undetermined” on official paperwork. Firefighters were unable to determine whether the fire was accidental or arson.
In later years, at least one law enforcement official announced that he believed Judy’s death was self-inflicted and that she committed suicide.
An examination of Judy Petty’s remains
Judy Petty’s remains were mostly destroyed in the fire, but the recovered remains were sent to the Wood County Medical Examiner for an autopsy. Judy was positively identified through her dental records. Also, her skull was fractured into several pieces, but the cause of the skull fracture could not be determined.
Although Judy’s body was nearly consumed in the fire, her liver was recovered and tissue was extracted for toxicology analysis. The results showed the presence of sertraline at a level of 9.88 mg.
Sertraline is a drug commonly prescribed as an anti-depressant. However, it is also used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and various anxiety disorders. Judy’s sertraline levels were normal and non-lethal.
No alcohol or illegal drugs were found in Judy’s liver tissue. Her liver was tested for the presence of carboxyhemoglobin (COHb), which was found at a level of 3.7%.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the fatal rate in healthy adults is 50% or higher. Any level below 20% indicates that the decedent’s death was not the result of carbon monoxide inhalation (carbon monoxide is a common byproduct of a fire) and other causes of death should be pursued.
Because there was insufficient information to determine whether Judy’s death was the result of murder, suicide, or an accident, the medical examiner ruled it “uncertain.” To help the Wood County Medical Examiner determine Judy’s manner of death, her remains were sent to the Smithsonian Institution for examination by a forensic anthropologist. The results of postmortems and examinations of Smithsonian employees will be discussed and analyzed in the future.
Current status of the Judy Petty case
Judy’s manner of death is uncertain. Authorities have yet to determine whether she was killed, died in a fire that got out of control, or took her own life.
Although much could be gleaned from sources such as investigative files, newspaper articles, and autopsy reports, the team investigating Judy’s death decided to visit key sites in and around Parkersburg. I went with them to West Virginia. In my next article, I will discuss our findings from our time spent in the area and what we learned from discussions with Judy’s family and investigators.
Help us get justice for Judy Petty
If you would like to follow the progress of Judy’s case, consider joining the Facebook group dedicated to solving this case. Facebook group administrators regularly post updates and topics for discussion; They welcome any input from readers. Additionally, you can listen to Season 1 of Safe Haven, an investigative podcast that covers current events in the investigation of Judy’s murder.
Anyone with information about Judy Petty’s death can email our tip line at email@example.com or call 224-225-5208. All tipsters are guaranteed confidentiality and anonymity if they so desire. Tips can also be reported directly to the Wood County Office of the Sheriff’s Tip Line at 304-834-3909.