Home True Crime The Box Lady of Benton County

The Box Lady of Benton County

by Jennifer Jones

October 8th, 1976, had started like any other normal day for the Skoog family who lives near the small town of Otterbein, Indiana. The Skoogs were a farming family, and Norman Skoog had acres of corn ready to be harvested. While his 16-year-old son, Curtis, was busy mowing the grass, Norman had his combine out in the cornfields. Around 5:30 pm, he saw a cardboard box lying squarely in the rows of corn, about nine rows deep into the field. At first, he figured one of his kids had left it there and paid little attention to it. But as it was now in his way, his interest was piqued when he realized the box was too heavy for him to lift. He returned to his house and asked his father-in-law for some help in lifting the box onto the bed of his truck.

When they got it back to the house, they noticed a strange odor wafting from the box, the sickly sweet scent of cheap woman’s perfume. It was as if the box had been drenched in the perfume. Police described the box as one that was typically used by moving or storage companies. It was approximately 3’x2’x1′ with “wardrobe bottom” stamped at one end and written on another part of the box was “hall closet.” The box was sealed shut with what was described as gray furnace tape and tied with a clothesline. Curious as to what was inside, Norman cut a piece of the tape and opened up a small corner of the box. All he could see was an almost empty perfume bottle and something wrapped in heavy plastic. He told Curtis to put the bottle back in the box, and realizing that something was not right, Norman Skoog alerted the sheriff’s office.

When the authorities arrived and opened the box, they were confronted with an object wrapped in layers of heavy plastic—the type of plastic used to preserve carpeting in heavily-trafficked areas. The plastic was kept in place by what appeared to be masking tape. Upon unwrapping the plastic, it quickly became clear that the killer had used perfume to try and mask the unmistakable smell of decomposition. As they unwrapped the gruesome package, they found a woman’s body, placed in the fetal position and bound by more rope. The woman wore light green pants with a matching light green and tan knit shirt. The clothing was in relatively good condition with no rips or worn areas and surprisingly few stains, considering the pathologist would later determine the woman had been dead for approximately 7 to 10 days. She was not wearing shoes and had no jewelry on her body.

The killer wrapped the woman’s head in paper towels, a “smaller than average white cloth towel,” and two small light-colored trashcan liners. She wore no makeup, her nails were trimmed and neatly kept, and it was noted she had callouses on her hands. She appeared to be in her late 50s or early 60s with light brown or brownish-gray hair and brown eyes. Although there was very little for the police to go off of in the hopes of making an identification, the woman’s body did offer a couple of specific clues. She had recently undergone a mastectomy on her right side. She had dental work done but needed a considerable amount of more work, and she had a vertical scar on her torso that extended from her sternum to her stomach. She was fingerprinted, and the prints were sent to the FBI lab but produced no matches. Whoever this woman was, she had never been arrested, served in the military, held a position in the civil service, or immigrated to the U.S. The cause of death was determined to be a single gunshot wound to the back of the head.

Another sad fact would soon become clear to investigators; no one was apparently missing this woman.

Investigators surely expected someone to come forward looking for their missing mother, sister, wife, or aunt. They got a couple of calls from the surrounding area, but the woman in the box didn’t match the description given. The newspapers published a sketch of the woman’s face taken from police photos hoping it would cause someone to recognize her and come forward but to no avail. Police believed that perhaps she was a cleaning lady due to the callouses on her hands. The theory was that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time or walked into a situation she was not supposed to be aware of. Perhaps there was even Mafia involvement.

Source: Journal and Courier Lafayette, Indiana Sunday, October 2, 1977

Investigators turned their focus to the box that contained the woman’s body. Manufactured by a company based in Melrose, Illinois, and distributed to moving and storage companies in parts of Indiana (Gary & Hammond), the Chicago area, southern Michigan, and parts of Wisconsin. Not exactly a small area of distribution. Police, however, believed the woman was most likely from Chicago. This wasn’t the type of crime to happen in this rural section of Benton County, Indiana.

They next focused on just how the box ended up in the “back 40” of Norman Skoog’s farm. The Skoog farm was not close to any major roads. Located six miles north of U.S. 52, this area of Benton County was only reached by a series of twists and turns down small rural roads.

Red circle indicates approximate area of the Skoog Farm

Norman didn’t believe that someone could have gotten the box nine rows into the cornfield without him noticing broken stalks. Additionally, police were certain the box had been left in the cornfield within hours of Norman finding it. When found, the box was dry although the area had seen rain the evening before. After talking to people who lived near the Skoog farm they concluded that no one saw or heard a car in the area, but they did report hearing and seeing something unusual.

Three different witnesses reported hearing and seeing a helicopter in the area of the Skoog farm the morning the box was found. Not only was seeing a helicopter highly unusual for the area, but this was also a costly type of helicopter: a white and gold Bell JetRanger.

1976 Bell JetRanger

In 1976 the average cost of a JetRanger was $160,000, which is equivalent to approximately $760,000 today. Not exactly a common thing to see in the rural farmland of Benton County, Indiana. Police at the time said that a helicopter of that type would’ve been limited to major corporations or the very wealthy. According to the witnesses, the helicopter approached from the northeast, swung towards the southwest, and lowered, hovering over the Skoog crops, lifted back up, heading west, quickly disappearing into the northwest.

On October 9th, 1976, the Unknown Woman was given a pauper’s burial in Fowler Cemetery. With no headstone marking her grave, the woman’s body would lie there, mostly forgotten for the next 43 years. With all leads exhausted and no new information coming in, her murder case was about as cold as one could get.

Source: Journal and Courier Lafayette, Indiana Sunday, October 2, 1977

At the end of June 2019, the Benton County Coroner received a search warrant and order to exhume the Unknown Woman’s body. A team from the Human Identification Center at the University of Indianapolis carefully excavated the grave, finding the simple wooden coffin had almost entirely disintegrated. Still, her remains were quickly found inside a body bag. After first being taken to the Tippecanoe County morgue, her body was then brought to the University of Indiana, where the investigation would begin. Unfortunately, this was not a high-profile case, and it appears that any new information they might have gleaned from the research has not been made public as of yet.

What is known for sure is that it took more than one person to leave her body at that location. Whether it was transported by car or helicopter, it was too heavy for one person to lift on their own. I fully believe there are those still out there that have the answers to this mystery. Let’s hope that, at the least, the mystery of who this woman was is solved, and she can be buried under her proper name. And maybe, with increased awareness and technology, police will be able to determine who was responsible for her murder.

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