On the afternoon of Nov. 18, 1993, 9-year-old Angie Housman stepped off the school bus and began walking the half-block to her parents’ duplex in St. Ann, Mo. It was the last time that anyone would see her alive.
A deer hunter found her nude body tied to a tree in a wildlife refuge in St. Charles County, Mo., more than a week later, partially covered with snow. The fourth-grader had been violently sexually assaulted, gagged with her own torn underwear, then left in the woods in below-freezing temperatures, where she eventually died of exposure. Investigators determined that her captor had kept her alive for nine days while denying her food and water, and she had died just hours before her body was found.
The crime shook the community, leading schools in the St. Louis suburbs to institute buddy systems so that no children walked home alone. And for more than 25 years, the case stumped police. Thousands of tips came in, but none ever panned out. Somehow, no one had seen the girl disappear. A woman who typically watched schoolchildren get off the bus every day hadn’t been standing at her window on the day that Angie vanished, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, and another neighbor who usually monitored from her porch was taking care of a sick relative.
“We’ve had the best investigators, the best technical help, the best forensics, and we still haven’t cracked it,” St. Ann Police Chief Bob Schrader told the Post-Dispatch in 1998. “On every case, you need a tiny bit of luck, and the luck hasn’t come our way yet.”
Now, authorities say they finally have a suspect — Earl W. Cox, a disgraced Air Force veteran and convicted child molester. The 61-year-old has been charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping and sodomy, St. Charles County Prosecutor Timothy Lohmar announced at a Wednesday news conference.
Cox was living in the St. Louis area at the time when Angie was abducted, and he had relatives who lived just blocks from her house and school, Lohmar said. Four years after the murder, his name appeared on a list of known sex offenders in the area that was compiled by the FBI. But he was never questioned.
“He did not appear on anyone’s radar,” Lohmar told reporters on Wednesday, adding that Cox had been one of hundreds of sex offenders whose name was included on the FBI’s list. “It’s a manpower issue. Even if they had followed up with him or anybody on that list, without scientific evidence to pin him down, without other circumstantial evidence, without other eyewitness evidence, it would be very, very difficult to form a suspect out of a simple name on a list.”
That scientific evidence came many years later, thanks to advances in genetic testing. Forensic scientists detected a DNA sample on a tiny scrap of fabric taken from the pink trim of Angie’s Barbie underwear, which matched Cox’s profile in a national database. It was one of the last pieces they had left to check. Testing the tiny scrap of fabric wouldn’t have been possible years earlier, Lohmar said, because until 2017, clothing dye made it difficult to get an accurate DNA sample.
It’s possible that more arrests could be forthcoming, Lohmar said. Though he declined to go in detail, he indicated that the fact that Angie was held captive for nine days and shuttled between different locations suggested that Cox might not have acted alone.
“We have reason to believe that Earl W. Cox was not the only suspect involved in this case,” he said.
Before forensic scientists’ breakthrough, Cox had been accused of numerous other sex crimes. In the early 1980s, he was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force and convicted of sexually abusing four young girls he was babysitting while stationed in Germany, according to court records. After being released on parole, he returned to the St. Louis area, where he grew up. In 1988, he reported that he was living on Wismer Road in St. Ann, Mo., just a quarter-mile from the bus stop where Angie disappeared, Lohmar said.
In 1989 and 1991, Cox was questioned by police in the St. Louis area about inappropriate contact with children on two separate occasions, the Riverfront Times reported. Though neither instance led to a conviction, officials determined that he had violated his parole, and he was sent back to prison for another year. He was released in December 1992, 11 months before Angie was abducted.
At the time the fourth-grader disappeared, Cox was officially living in Ferguson, Mo., Lohmar said. But he had relatives in St. Ann, which is less than eight miles away. His sister lived three houses away from Angie’s elementary school and less than a mile from the bus stop where she was last seen.
Over the course of 25 years, the investigation hit numerous dead ends. When a man from Texas was arrested in the attempted abduction of a young girl in another nearby suburb, police thought they might have found their suspect, the Post-Dispatch reported. Same with the arrest of a Florida man who had confessed to child molestation and collected newspaper clippings about Angie’s murder. Another man who lived in St. Ann confessed to killing Angie, but investigators found no evidence to back up his claim and eventually determined that he was looking for attention. In 2016, Angie’s mother, Diane Bone, died of cancer without ever seeing an arrest in the case.
It’s unclear exactly when Cox left the St. Louis area, but he was living in Colorado when he was arrested in a sting operation in 2003. According to court records, he had swapped emails with an undercover federal agent who was pretending to be a 14-year-old girl, asking her to be his sex slave and sending her money for a bus ticket so that she could come live with him. Authorities seized his computer, which had more than 45,000 images of child pornography on it, and discovered that he had been running an online child pornography ring.
Cox was scheduled to be released in 2011 but was deemed a “sexually dangerous person” by a federal judge after psychologists determined there was a high chance that he would offend again.
He is being held in a medium-security federal prison in North Carolina. His attorney has not yet commented on the new allegations. On Wednesday, Lohmar said that it was too early to say whether prosecutors would seek the death penalty.
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