There are some crimes that just don’t make any sense. Mass shootings, serial killings, and senseless murders all tend to leave us a little bit stumped in the aftermath.
This is one of those cases.
In 1981, the quaint Keddie Resort in Keddie, California was hit with a massive shock; three people had been brutally murdered in Cabin 28, and another was missing.
Glenna Susan “Sue” Sharp had moved to Keddie with her five children to escape an abusive husband. Little did she know, there was danger awaiting her.
In the fall of 1980, Sue Sharp left her home in Connecticut after separating with her husband, James.
She relocated to northern California because her brother Don lived in the area, and began renting Cabin 28 at the Keddie Resort with her children, 15 year old John, 14 year old Sheila, 12 year old Tina, 10 year old Rick, and 5 year old Greg.
The family settled in quickly, and for a while, everything seemed like it was going to be ok.
On April 11, 1981, Sue and her daughter Sheila drove down to Gansner Park in Quincy, California at around 1:30 pm. They were picking up John and his friend, 16 year old Dana Hall Wingate, to bring them back to Keddie.
Hours later, John and Dana hitchhiked back to Quincy to visit friends and attend a party. Though little is known about their exact movements during this period, their hitchhiking does factor in to a lot of theories about the case.
Meanwhile, Sheila made plans to stay overnight with the family’s next-door neighbors, the Seabolts. Sue agreed, and she planned to spend the evening at home with her youngest children, Rick and Greg, and their friend Justin Smartt, whose family also lived nearby.
Sheila left Cabin 28 at around 8pm. Tina, who had been watching TV at the Seabolt residence, was sent home shortly after and returned to Cabin 28 at around 9:30pm. No one heard anything from the residents of Cabin 28 after that.
At 7am on April 12, Sheila returned home and promptly discovered the bodies of Sue, John, and Dana in the living room.
She ran back to the Seabolt’s cabin and returned with James Seabolt, the father of her friends. They soon noticed that Rick, Greg, and Justin Smartt were in the cabin’s back bedroom, alive and unharmed.
They got the boys out through the bedroom window to avoid exposing them to the horrifying scene in the main room. James Seabolt later on admitted to entering the cabin through the back door to check if anyone else was alive; this could have contaminated crucial evidence, but we’ll talk about that later.
Upon arrival, police determined that Tina Sharp was missing; her sister Sheila later noted that her jacket and shoes were missing, as well as a shoebox in which the family kept various tools. While initiating the search for Tina, investigators began processing the grisly scene inside Cabin 28.
Autopsies and Evidence
The murders of Sue, John, and Dana were incredibly brutal; blood spatter evidence indicated that it all had happened in the living room, and reports stated that the room was soaked in blood.
Two knives and a hammer were discovered at the scene, and one of these knives – a steak knife – was bent from the sheer force of the blows.
Sue was found on her side near the sofa. She was nude from the waist down and had been gagged with a blue bandana and her panties, which had been secured with tape.
She had been stabbed multiple times in the chest and her throat was slashed; a mark matching the butt of a Daisy 880 BB gun was found on the side of her head, as well as blunt force trauma that was determined to have been caused by blows with a hammer.
John had also been beaten with a hammer and had his throat slashed. Dana had been manually strangled in addition to having been beaten. All three of the victims had been bound with tape and wire, and each had died from multiple stab wounds and the blunt force trauma caused by the hammer attacks.
Investigators canvassed the neighborhood and discovered that no one in the Seabolt’s cabin had heard anything unusual during the hours that the crimes were thought to have occurred.
However, residents of another nearby cabin reported that they had been awoken at around 1:30am by what sounded to them like muffled screams. However, they couldn’t ascertain the direction the noise was coming from and fell back asleep.
The cabin showed no sign of forced entry, though an unidentified fingerprint was found on a handrail leading to the back door.
Inside, the phone had been left off the hook and the drapes had been closed; the light was left off.
Because Tina Sharp was considered a missing person that was abducted from the scene, her disappearance was initially investigated by the FBI. However, it was reported on April 28, 1981, that the federal detectives had backed off the case, believing it to be in good hands with the local police. A grid search was conducted off the 5-mile radius of the Sharp’s cabin with scent dogs, but it proved to be fruitless. Tina Sharp was missing for three years.
On April 22, 1984, a bottle collector discovered the top portion of a human cranium and a mandible at Camp Eighteen in the neighboring Butte County, about 100 miles from Keddie. Shortly afterward, the Butte County Sherriff’s Office received an anonymous call claiming that the remains were those of Tina Sharp, but this call was not discovered until a recording of it was discovered at the bottom of an evidence box by a deputy some time later.
The remains were confirmed to be those of Tina Sharp by a pathologist in June 1984. Nearby, the detectives also recovered a child’s blanket, a blue nylon jacket, a pair of jeans with a missing back pocket, and a surgical tape dispenser. It’s unclear what, if anything, these items have to do with the case.
Law enforcement had several suspects at the time, including a man who had disappeared from Keddie shortly after the crimes were discovered. He was tracked to Oregon, but was cleared after undergoing a polygraph examination.
But the most promising leads were given to the police by Justin Smartt.
Justin’s reports were conflicted. Initially, he said that he had slept through the murders and dreamt of their happenings, but he later claimed that he had witnessed them firsthand.
In the latter account, which was given under hypnosis with Dr. Jerry Dash at the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, he claimed to have heard some unusual noises coming from the cabin’s main room. When he investigated, he saw Sue with two men, whom he described to a police sketch artist.
The boy claimed that when John and Dana entered the home, they began an argument with the men that got physical. He also said that Tina entered the room sometime during the conflict and was rushed out the back door by one of the men.
The sketches provided by Justin were circulated widely by police; they depicted two men in their late 20s or early 30s, one with a mustache and black, greased hair, while the other was clean shaven with short blonde hair. Both were wearing gold-rimmed sunglasses. A search was mounted for men fitting this description, but no tangible leads came from the sketches.
A much more promising suspect was close to the case; Martin Smartt, Justin’s father, appeared to be very cooperative with police, but was repeatedly providing “endless clues” that seemed to “throw evidence away from him”, according to Sherriff Doug Thomas.
For example, Smartt told police that a claw hammer – a hammer that could have potentially matched one of the murder weapons – had inexplicably gone missing from his home shortly before the murders.
His wife Marilyn, on the other hand, seemed to be trying to draw investigators towards her husband as a suspect – she told police that she’d found a bloody jacket belonging to Tina in her basement. However, there are no records of this jacket in any police files, so its unclear why Marilyn made the claim at all.
In 2008, Marilyn claimed that she suspected her husband and his friend, John “Bo” Boubede of the murders in a documentary. She said that on the evening the crimes occurred, she had left Martin with Boubede at a bar at around 11pm, when she went home to sleep.
At around 2am, she claimed to have been awoken by the two burning something in the wood stove. Additionally, she said that her husband “hated Johnny Sharp with a passion”, though she provided no clear motive for the murders.
However, in the same documentary, Sherriff Doug Thomas stated that police had already interviewed Martin Smartt, and confirmed that he had passed a polygraph exam. Smartt died of cancer in June 2000, while Boubede died in Chicago in 1988.
There were plenty of other rumors regarding the crimes, and the community soon formed its own opinions about who had committed the Keddie Cabin Murders.
Thoughts that the crimes were “ritualistic” or that they had been motivated by drug trafficking – an acquaintance of Dana Wingate’s family claimed that he had stolen some LSD from local dealers shortly before the murders occurred, but this is unverified – were dismissed by Doug Thomas, who stated that no drugs or other paraphernalia were found in the home.
There was even speculation that notorious serial killer pair Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole were involved, but they were ruled out by police in December 1983.
New Evidence Found
On March 24 of 2016, a hammer that matched the description of the one missing from the Smartt residence was recovered from a pond in Keddie. Plumas County Sheriff Greg Hagwood states that the hammer “would have intentionally been put there. It would not have been accidentally misplaced.”
Though this evidence appears to turn suspicion back onto Martin Smartt, police have stated that they had six suspects under review at the time the hammer was recovered.
In April 2018, Special Investigator Mike Gamberg stated that DNA found on a piece of tape at the crime scene had been matched to a known living suspect, but did not elaborate.
The Keddie Cabin Murders took the media by storm; they were highly popularized due to their gruesome nature and seemingly random motive. There was coverage of the case in People Magazine, a documentary TV series by the Investigation Discovery Channel, and an independent feature-length documentary called Cabin 28 that was released in 2008 in which Marilyn Smartt makes claims about her husband’s motives.
A renewed interest from the public was sparked by The Strangers, which was also released in 2008. Various bloggers claimed that the film was inspired by the Keddie Cabin Murders, despite the fact that the film never claims such a thing and sports only the vague byline “based on a true story.” The details of the film and the actual case are passingly related at best, anyway.
Cabin 28 was demolished in 2004, and the memories of Sue, John, and Tina Sharp, as well as Dana Wingate, live on in the people who loved them, and the people obsessed with finally solving the case. With the promising recent developments, there is hope that this case will finally get justice.