35-year-old mystery: Questions still unanswered in the 1987 homicide of Ladonna Cooper | Local News


Thirty-five years after Marion resident Ladonna Cooper was murdered, her children still don’t know who killed their mother or why she was killed.

Cooper’s eldest daughter, Kelli Cooper-Bathon was 10 years old when her mother, then 32was killed in 1987. She said the question she’s been asked the most is “How does it feel to go on living without mommy?”

Ladonna Cooper is pictured in a family photo from 1986.

Provided by Jodi Cooper-Kelly

“My response has been different with each decade that has passed,” Cooper-Bathon said. “I rejoice that God has given me many ‘helpers’ along the way to bridge the gaps created by such an unimaginable loss. I can look back now and see how Hand carried me all this time so that, 35 years later, I’m still here.

Cooper, married with three children, was assistant manager of the Bonanza Family Restaurant, which was located on Illinois 13 just east of Interstate 57 in Marion. The same building that once housed Bonanza is currently the Mexican restaurant Tequilas.

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At around 8 p.m. on Wednesday, March 4, 1987, Cooper’s two daughters and her husband, Bobby, went to the restaurant to visit her while she was having dinner on her break. Little did they know it would be their last meal together.

“March always had a certain dark, heavy feeling to me,” said Jodi Cooper-Kelly, Cooper’s youngest daughter who was 7 when her mother was killed. “A part of me still looks like that 7-year-old whose life was turned upside down and whose childhood is gone. The 7-year-old whose head is spinning, still struggling to understand what happened. past and why, and trying to figure out where to go from here.


Ladonna Cooper is pictured with her youngest daughter Jodi.


Cooper was in charge of shutting down the business that night. His duties were to ensure that the receipts for the night were properly documented and to make a bank deposit.

The restaurant was busy that day and the evening shift employees had to stay later than usual. Cooper was the last of those employees to leave. She called her husband, Bobby, on 11:45 p.m. to tell her she would be leaving in about 10 minutes.

When Cooper didn’t come home by on 12:15 a.m. Thursday, her husband got worried and tried to call the restaurant. Nobody answered, so he drove from their home on Goodall Street to Marion in Bonanza. When he found no trace of his wife or his light blue 1986 Buick Century, he drove home thinking she would be there when he arrived. She still wasn’t home, so he called Bonanza management.

The managers found the business looking like it was closed for the night when they arrived. However, Cooper, his car, the night’s receipts, and the change used to open the restaurant the next day were all missing. These findings were later reported to the Marion Police Department.

Police found what was later determined to be blood and other signs of a struggle outside the restaurant near where Cooper’s Buick had been parked.


Ladonna Cooper was removed from what was the Bonanza Family Restaurant, currently Tequilas Mexican Restaurant on Route 13 off Interstate 57 in Marion.

Byron Hetzler

“There was blood found at the scene, but not in large quantities,” Detective Marion Mike Wiseman told the Southern in 1987. “We just think she was trying to free herself.”

Cooper’s purse was discovered on the morning of Thursday, March 5, 1987, in a dumpster behind The Hitchin’ Post, a western just store south of Bonanza located directly behind Dunn’s Sporting Goods.

Later that day, the Herrin Police Department received a call on 6 p.m. from a local who spotted Cooper’s Buick. It had been left derelict on South Sixth Street near its intersection with East Stotlar Street in Herrin.


Ladonna Cooper’s car was found near the intersection of South Sixth Street and East Stotlar Street in Herrin.

Byron Hetzler

Authorities arrived and found what was later determined to be blood inside and outside the vehicle. They also found mud in and around the wheel arches.

A local resident told police she believed the car had been parked there since early Thursday morning.

On Friday, March 6, 1987, the frantic search for Cooper came to an end. AT on 1:30 p.m. that afternoon, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee was surveying Illinois 148 near Observation Pond in the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. She noticed tire tracks off the trail and spotted something near the water’s edge. When she looked through her binoculars, she discovered it was a body.

The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office responded and found Cooper’s body about 150 yards west of the observation towers on Illinois 148 lying at the edge of the small body of water.


Ladonna Cooper’s body was found at Observation Pond in the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge off Illinois 148.

Byron Hetzler

Harry Spiller served as Williamson County Sheriff from 1982 to 1989. He said he still remembers Cooper’s case vividly 35 years later.

“Thinking about the case, I still remember the crime scene at the shelter,” Spiller said. “I was there when his body was found and I still remember that scene like it was five minutes ago. I’m sure someone knows something and I hope someone comes forward. .

“I will never give up hope and I hope that before I leave this matter will be resolved. As a sheriff at the time, I feel like I let her down, the family and the community.”

Bonanza receipts were discovered on March 8, 1987 at Petrolane Gas Company near the intersection of Samuel Road and old Route 13 after an eyewitness contacted authorities and reported seeing Cooper’s Buick near from this location around 12:45 a.m. on March 5.

“I can think of no logical explanation for the events of that night and no answer was ever given,” Cooper-Kelly said. “I think a part of me will forever be frozen in time. But, of course, I’ve grown and 35 years have passed. I’ve taken on tough challenges and accomplished a lot. All without the person more important to me.

On April 2, 1987, it took just eight minutes for the coroner’s inquest jury to return a verdict of homicide as Cooper’s cause of death. The inquest determined that Cooper died of “multiple serious wounds and stab wounds”.

Cooper-Kelly said she tried to be at peace with all the unanswered questions.

“It’s hard to keepp push forward just to get knocked down,” Cooper-Kelly said. “Many times our hope was dashed and I personally felt my faith was being tested. But I know we will never stop digging and never stop fighting for answers. And by the grace of God, maybe one day my family and I can finally have the answers and the peace we deserve.

The South reached out to the Cooper family in 2020 to investigate Cooper’s case for its “Chasing Closure” series, which takes an in-depth look at unsolved cases in the area.

“When The Southern contacted me, I was presented with an article about the unsolved murder of Ryan Livingston in Carbondale,” Cooper-Kelly said in 2020. “I was absolutely blown away by the narrative provided and the facts given without harm to Ryan. Cas. I wanted my mother’s story to be written and told in the same way. I wanted more to be said about her last moments on earth.

The Southern submitted multiple Freedom of Information Act requests to review public records of Cooper’s case in 2020.

The City of Marion, the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, the Illinois State Police and the Williamson County Coroner’s Office have denied The Southern access to any records relating to Cooper’s case. following these requests, claiming they were privileged due to an ongoing investigation.

On August 19, 2020, The Southern filed a lawsuit in Williamson County Circuit Court, claiming the four agencies improperly withheld public records sought under Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act. .

South files lawsuit after being denied access to all public records relating to Ladonna Cooper's homicide

On August 19, the Southern Illinoisan filed a lawsuit in Williamson County Circuit Court, alleging that four agencies improperly withheld public records sought under Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act.

Under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, everyone has the right to complete information about government business. The law states that access to public records promotes transparency and accountability of public bodies at all levels, adding that it is a fundamental obligation of government to operate openly.

Attorney Ian Russell of the law firm Davenport, Iowa Lane & Waterman LLP drafted and filed the complaint on behalf of The Southern.

The complaint seeks “a statement that the defendants violated the Illinois FOIA” and asks the court to order the agencies to produce the requested documents, redacting only the information actually exempted.

The South has since received some of the requested documents and is currently working with the agencies to resolve the issues in order to receive as many public documents as possible. The next scheduled hearing for the FOIA trial is March 29.

“I keep the memories I have and remember the love she made me feel and try to pass that love and warmth on to my own children,” Cooper-Kelly said. “She may not be there physically, but she has never left us. She lives through me, my siblings and all of her grandchildren. I feel that she continues to guide us from above.


Ladonna Cooper is pictured with her youngest daughter Jodi.


The next episode of “Chasing Closure” on Cooper’s case will feature exclusive interviews and in-depth coverage of the investigation.

“We may never be able to put a name to the person(s) who killed our mother, but we will always ensure that her name, Ladonna Lynn Cooper, is never forgotten,” Cooper-Bathon said.

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