It was the early afternoon of September 29, 1971 and 11-year old Barbara Ann Ripley should’ve been getting off the bus at home in North Yarmouth, Maine like she did every Wednesday. When she didn’t walk through the front door on schedule, her mother went looking for Barbara in what she thought was the most likely of places. But Barbara wasn’t there, and not even an extensive days-long search effort would uncover any trace of the little girl.
Over a decade passed before the community and the Ripley family got answers, but it seemed a self-proclaimed psychic had tried to tip investigators off years before she was finally discovered. Despite the status of her case, one critical question still lingers: What really happened to Barbara?
April 22, 1981
Paul Hodgetts walked into the big old barn on his parent’s property, swatting at cobwebs as he squinted into the dimly lit space. The barn was practically falling down, but it was good enough storage for all the stuff that didn’t fit anywhere else. And that’s what brought Paul inside on April 22, 1981.
If you drive through small farming towns in Maine, you could play a game of dilapidated barn bingo with all the half-falling down structures dotting the countryside. They’re a common sight, and though the hundred-plus year old buildings are caving in on themselves and the wall boards have gaps big enough for any number of furry woodland creatures to sneak through, it costs more to tear them down than it’s worth. So they sit, used as storage or a place to stash junk and debris that owners aren’t quite sure what to do with.
In the 10 years that the Hodgetts family owned the Fairview Farm property, they made use of portions of the barn, but they weren’t farmers themselves. A few years back, one of the Hodgetts’ daughters raised sheep as part of the 4-H youth development program and kept them in a stall towards the back corner, and at one point they parked their car in the half-falling down barn until it became unsafe. But other than that, it was just a catch-all and it even still had some things kicking around from the people who owned it before the Hodgetts moved in.
The only occasion anyone was in the barn was to rifle through some of the random junk that had piled up over the years or to turn on the spigot for the water hose. That Wednesday, Paul Hodgetts was in the barn looking for a spray gun. He thought he’d seen it around the barn somewhere, and so he went about his search, scanning the piles and shelves and stalls, until he reached the back corner.
In one of the pens next to where his sister used to keep her sheep, there was a large cardboard box. It was about 40 inches long and 30 inches deep, but it was laying on its side and only 15 inches tall with the opening pointed towards the corner of the stall. Nothing about an empty cardboard box tossed into the corner of the barn was unusual, until Paul got a little closer and saw what looked like a foot sticking out of the bottom of the box. At first he thought it might be an animal, so Paul pulled down the top corner of the cardboard for a better look. That’s when he saw a skull.
Paul thought his eyes might be deceiving him, so he called his sister in to take a look. Paul had stumbled across a human body. By the looks of it, it had been there a very long time. They picked up the phone to call the police, and soon, the Fairview Farm property was swarming with investigators.
Both Maine State Police and the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office responded to the scene on Route 231 in North Yarmouth. Together, authorities secured the area and began photographing the box, the stall, and the body, which appeared to be that of a child. According to a timestamped summary of that day in the case file, the remains were mummified with mostly just bones remaining, though some soft tissue was visible in certain areas of the legs and skull.
The victim’s body was laying in a curled up fetal position, with their hands near their head. The body had on a light faded corduroy dress and a white sweater with a green pattern on it. Based on clothing, investigators assumed this was the body of a young girl. She didn’t have any shoes on, but her dark colored stockings were mostly intact, save for a few holes.
All around the body and the box were signs of a once-active livestock barn. Old shavings and manure were still present on the floor and there was a dog’s choker collar, along with some open and empty cans of Dinty Moore Beef Stew and Campbells Chicken and Dumplings. The summary, prepared by Detective Peter Herring of the Maine State Police, notes that it was hard to determine what was important at the scene. The stall was apparently a dumping ground for rubbish and it wasn’t clear the last time it was cleaned up, if ever.
The box containing the body was clearly relevant to the investigation though. The box was for a 32’ Snow Thrower Attachment, Model #89-1383A, purchased at Maxims Little Engine Shop in nearby Westbrook, Maine. Det. Herring made a note to visit the shop to see if they could learn more about when the part was purchased, and by who.
Just two hours into the investigation at the Hodgetts farm, the investigators from the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office had a gut feeling about who was laying in that cardboard box. They tipped off the Maine State Police, sparking a revelation that shifted the very ground beneath them. It appeared they might have cracked a chilling puzzle. A decade earlier, just a stone’s throw away from Hodgetts’ barn, an 11-year-old girl had mysteriously vanished after stepping off her school bus in North Yarmouth.
So Detective Herring requested reports from the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office to compare the description of the missing girl to the clothing on the remains. The description published in local papers at the time was as follows: “She is a slender, blue-eyed blond, weighing about 85 pounds. She is about 4-foot-10 and was wearing a pale pink corduroy dress with white collar, white sweater and black knee socks.”
This matching description gave police a name to check, and dental records confirmed it: They’d just found Barbara Ann Ripley.
Barbara Ann Ripley’s story continues on Dark Downeast. Press play to hear the full episode and find it wherever you get your podcasts.
Mentioned in this Episode
The Fort Fairfield Murders: Cyrus Everett and Donna Mauch on Dark Downeast
Episode Source Material
- CID 81-65: Barbara Ann Ripley – Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office
- FBI called in to probe girl’s disappearance, Evening Express, 02 Oct 1971
- North Yarmouth girl is missing, Kennebec Journal, 04 Oct 1971
- Helicopter aids search for child, UPI/Bangor Daily News, 05 Oct 1971
- Search for Ripley girl called off, Evening Express, 06 Oct 1971
- Search for missing girl resumes, AP/Biddeford-Saco Journal, 06 Oct 1971
- Schools tighten pickup policy by Bettie Sturtevant, Evening Express, 12 Nov 1971
- Clothing matches missing girl’s by Bob Niss, Evening Express, 23 Apr 1981
- An eerie mystery in a barn, Boston Globe, 29 Apr 1981
- Psychic sketches match site where body found, UPI/The Town Talk, 04 May 1981
- A young girl’s decomposed body was found last month…, UPI, 03 May 1981
- Psychic was close, police discover, AP/Kennebec Journal, 04 May 1981
- Man had a ‘vision’ about where Barbara Ripley would be found, UPI/Times Record, 04 May 1981
- Local driver appeals fine for leaving accident scene, Evening Express, 15 Jun 1955
- He walked away from it (photo), Evening Express, 14 Aug 1959
- Municipal court, Evening Express, 17 Jan 1961
- Municipal court, Evening Express, 21 Jan 1961
- Police Blotter, Portland Press Herald, 07 Jan 1963
- Traffic cases heard in Saco, Biddeford-Saco Journal, 24 Jul 1964
- Off the local Police Blotter, Portland Press Herald, 07 Oct 1964
- Kitten Korner, Bangor Daily News, 27 Aug 1970
- Elmer Dougherty Obituary, Bangor Daily News, 12 Sep 1973
- Harry B. Ripley Obituary
- Ruth C. Ripley Obituary
- Odd Fellows Have Skeletons in Their Closets–and Their Walls and Attics by Maria Gold, Los Angeles Times, 01 Apr 2001
- Barbara’s Find a Grave info with photo
- What could have happened to Barbara Ann Ripley by Richard Fallon, Maine Sunday Telegram, 13 Aug 1972
- Two other psychics consulted, suggestions didn’t work out, Maine Sunday Telegram, 03 May 1981
- Skeleton could be lost girl by Ted Cohen, Portland Press Herald, 23 Apr 1981
- Police hunt in vain for missing girls by Kimberly Clifford, Telegram, 10 Oct 1971
- Mother’s hopes sink for daughter missing five days by John Lovell, Maine Sunday Telegram, 03 Oct 1971
- Missing girl may have been taken at Fair, Kennebec Journal, 16 Oct 1971
- Autopsy reveals no foul play, AP/Nashua Telegraph, 24 Apr 1981
- Asks FBI aid in missing girl case, Lowell Sun, 03 Oct 1971
- A troubling vision by David Himmelstein, Maine Sunday Telegram, 03 May 1981