On August 27, 1992, 13-year-old Leigh Marine Occhi disappeared from her home in Tupelo, Mississippi during Hurricane Andrew under mysterious circumstances. Her mom, Vickie Felton, arrived home the morning of August 27 to find her daughter missing with blood in the home.
Searches immediately began around Tupelo, but no signs of Leigh came up. On September 9, a few weeks after her disappearance, her glasses were mailed to her home, addressed to her ex-stepfather. Law enforcement believed it to be a ruse to distract detectives from their search. In November of 1993, a skull was found that was attributed to Leigh, but later it was identified as the skull of another missing woman.
Numerous searches have taken place over the years, but in the 28 years since Leigh mysteriously disappeared, her whereabouts have remained unknown. TV shows such as 20/20 and podcasts have dove deep into the case and interest remains high, but so far, no new information has come to light.
BACKGROUND AND DISAPPEARANCE
Leigh Marine Occhi was born in Honolulu, Hawaii on August 21, 1979 to parents Donald Occhi and Vickie Felton, who were both members of the U.S. Army. They had met while serving in California, marrying in 1977. In 1981, they divorced, and Donald relocated to Germany while retaining a relationship with his daughter. Leigh stayed in the states, settling in Tupelo, Mississippi with her mother.
Leigh had just recently turned 13 and was getting ready to start 8th grade at Tupelo Middle School.
On August 27, 1992, Vickie left for work at 7:35 AM and said goodbye to her daughter. Leigh was planning to attend an open house at her school that day and was waiting for her grandmother to come pick her up and take her. It was, allegedly, the first time Vickie had ever left Leigh home alone.
Heavy storms were hitting Tupelo that day as Hurricane Andrew moved through the area. Leigh was worried for her daughter and called the house at 8:30 AM, but there was no answer. She wasn't too concerned, though, as Leigh had plans for the day. But when she called once again a little later and still no one answered, she became a little more concerned.
The concern turned into full-blown worry when she came home to check on her daughter and found the garage open and the house unlocked. There was no sign of Leigh. At 9 AM, her mom called the police and reported her daughter missing.
Police determined there was no sign of forced entry, but there were still some indicators that a struggle had taken place in the home. There was blood on the walls, doorframe, carpet, and bathroom countertop, as well as a trail of blood from the hallway to the living room and out the back door. Blood and hair was stuck to the doorframe.
Leigh's nightgown and bra, both bloodstained, were left in her bedroom. It was clear someone had made an attempt to clean up the blood, but no rag or towel was found. Her glasses, shoes, some clothes, and a sleeping bag were missing. Bloodhounds were sent around the area to try and find her scent, but the poor weather conditions made it impossible.
SEARCHES AND FURTHER ADVANCEMENTS
Organized searches were immediately organized in the area, mainly through the surrounding areas, but they would turn up nothing. Donald believed that as soon as Vickie called him to deliver the news, that his daughter was dead. "My theory is that some bastard beat that child to death in that house," he said. He had come from Germany to help search, and was told my locals to "look at her mother". He replied that he was already skeptical of her, and didn't know if she was involved.
A rumor circulated that Vickie's second husband, Barney Yarborough, was abusive toward Leigh. Vickie and Barney had recently separated, so it seemed like he could have been involved, but a substantiated alibi and polygraph exam ruled him out as a suspect.
On September 9, 1992, a package containing Leigh's eyeglasses was mailed to her home, addressed to Barney. The package was postmarked from Booneville. After this, the FBI became involved, performing DNA tests on the stamps, envelope and glasses, but ultimately, nothing came of it. Police believed the glasses were sent as a distraction.
On November 9, 1993, it was reported in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that a coroner had positively identified a skull found in a soybean field as Leigh. However, this was retracted a few days later when it was determined that the skull belonged to Pollyanna Sue Keith, a 27-year-old woman from a neighboring town who had gone missing in March of 1993.
Once Barney passed his polygraph exam, suspicion turned to Vickie, who was administered 3 different tests, one with local police and 2 with the FBI. Independent examiners stated she "showed deception on all of them". In 2017, Police Chief Bart Aguirre stated that Vickie was still considered a person of interest and could not be eliminated. "There are still too many unanswered questions for Vickie, and I don't know if that is unusual for somebody to go off to work and say, well I just left Leigh but I'm going to call and check on her. Why check on her that soon after she just left?"
To be fair, I also originally thought that was strange, but less so when I realized that the severity of the storm coming through may have been news to her that she wanted to relay to Leigh. She may have just called to let her know the storm was coming, perhaps tell her to close some windows or something, but became a little concerned when she didn't answer her phone call. It is hard to judge a mother based on how quickly they call to check in on their child. My mom would call to remind me of things while she was still driving down the driveway when I was home alone as a kid.
Vickie disputes any involvement in her daughter's disappearance, and believes that a man named Oscar McKinley Kearns was responsible for her daughter's abduction. He would go on to be convicted in 1999 for kidnapping and raping a couple, and, 9 months after Leigh disappeared, kidnapped and raped a 9th grade girl he met through church.
Donald Occhi doesn't know who did it, but is, rightfully, enraged about what happened to his little girl. "This coward must have really felt like a touch man or woman to beat a little girl to death. Often, I cannot help but think of how horrified Leigh must have been while this piece of garbage beat her to death and watched her bleed out in the hall."
While I'm not quite convinced that the mother was the killer, I am also not entirely convinced she wasn't involved in some way. I am always skeptical of children who go missing or are killed on the "first time they did X thing alone". The first time a child walks to school alone, he's abducted. The first time a teen is left home alone, she is killed. To me, this always indicates some level of insider knowledge. Criminals often scout out their crimes beforehand to get an idea of the routine. What are the chances that a killer decided he wanted to abduct or kill a 13-year-old and just happened to stumble upon Leigh the first time she was ever home by herself?
The mother is the connection. Like one Reddit user states,"I've always thought the mom was guilty, just based on the extremely short timeframe that someone would have had to break into the house, subdue/kill Leigh, attempt to clean up the crime scene, and leave with her." Though I think calling her fairly soon after leaving is totally explainable, this isn't. Again - what are the chances that the killer arrives on the one day she's left home alone, within the hour timespan that she is there?
Additionally, Vickie moved out of state only months after. Now, I don't think it is super strange to want to get out of an area where a terrible, traumatic crime occurred to your family, but many parents of missing children remain in the same home, hoping their child would return. To move so quickly insinuates that she believes her child is dead.
I think what may have happened is the stepfather did it, and Vickie covered it up. I don't put a lot of stock into passed and failed polygraph tests, and the idea that Barney had been abusive before, and was potentially angry at the separation, makes me believe he could have done it. If Vickie caught him in the act, she may have tried to help cover it up as to not lose her daughter and her lover.
Another layer to the story is the allegation that Leigh was not home alone for the first time that morning. According to neighbors, Leigh was often left home alone and to her own devices. Additionally, teachers had claimed that they wouldn't call home when she got in trouble at school because she was often seen with bruising and black eyes, indicating abuse at home.
This abuse, and her being routinely left alone, would make her an excellent, vulnerable victim to someone who might have been trying to groom her. Her attacker may have been someone who knew her and was watching her home, waiting for Vickie to leave. He knocks on the door, is allowed inside because she knows him. An attack ensues, and she is injured.
Some people who believe in this theory, that there was an adult in Leigh's life who was grooming her, still believe that there may have been abuse at the hands of Vickie and Barney, but that they weren't the perpetrators. Vicki was at work that day, so she would have had a very limited time frame to kill her daughter and dispose of her body, of course, unless the timeline started before the police were aware (i.e., she was killed the night before).
Regardless of what happened to Leigh, I do believe it was someone close to her. I am not quite convinced her mother straight up murdered her daughter, but do believe she may have been involved. Leigh was reportedly terrified of thunder and lightening. It breaks my heart to think of this child, home alone during a storm she was very scared of, opening the door to let someone she knew inside: an adult from church, her stepfather, her mother, and being beaten to death. The horror that she must have felt at the end of her life is heartbreaking.
Leigh was reportedly kind of a troubled kid. She spent more time around adults, many say, than other kids. One user who claims to be friends with Leigh's former best friend said that she didn't have a lot of friends because she was such a strange kid... She had trouble in school and was "annoying", according to one report. She wasn't a bad child, just a hyperactive one, who was likely facing abuse in her home. And either she became a fatal victim of the abuse she was receiving at home, or that abuse opened her up to the vulnerability of another adult in her life.
Though it was never confirmed that Leigh Marine Occhi was killed, it is widely speculated that she died in the home and the missing sleeping bag was used to bury her. Not many theories exist in which Leigh is still alive.
Without a confession, it is unlikely the perpetrator of this terrible crime will ever be brought to justice, though I hope the digging of podcasters and true crime writers everywhere eventually stumble upon something that can be used to solve this case. Until then, rest in peace, Leigh.