Donna Lee Fowler

Left and Right: Donna circa, 1980

Vital Statistics at Time of Disappearance

Missing Since: November 10, 1980

Missing From: Trinity, Trinity County, California

Classification: Endangered Missing

Date Of Birth: July 5, 1973

Age: 7 years old

Height and Weight: 3’0″ and 40 pounds

Distinguishing Characteristics: Caucasian Female, Blonde hair, Blue eyes, Donna’s baby teeth were still present on the upper portion of her mouth at the time of her 1980 disappearance, her bottom adult teeth had grown in by that time, she has healed skull fracture from when she was two months old in 1973, she has a 1-inch scar between the second and third toes on her right foot

Clothing/Jewelry Description: A brown multi-colored smock shirt, a pair of brown jeans, and brown suede shoes

NCMEC Number: 601335

Details of Disappearance

Donna was last seen in Trinity, California on November 10th 1980. For unclear reasons, Donna was kept home from school on the day of her disappearance. She reportedly told her grandfather, Dick Fowler, that she was going to runaway from home. Dick believed she was simply playing around and even helped her pack up her bags. She left her residence afterwards. Donna reportedly hung out with a friend who was the last person to see her.

They were sitting on the steps of the Joss House Historical Museum at approximately 2:30 pm in downtown Weaverville before they parted ways to go back home. Donna was last seen walking down Main Street. She never returned home and was never seen or heard from again afterwards. Donna’s mother, Darcy Cook, called the police and reported her daughter as missing at 11:30 pm after Donna failed to return home that evening. Darcy said she waited to report Donna as missing bus she she believed she was at a friends house. She called after discovering Donna was nowhere she knew of and she wasn’t with anyone she knew.

An intense manhunt for Donna was commenced the next day. The temperatures in the area dropped to 15 degrees on the night of Donna’s disappearance and investigators were initially fearful that they would find the child frozen to death. A special search and rescue team was flown into the area by helicopter from Truckee and German shepherds aided in the search efforts as well. Volunteers who helped to search for the missing girl also utilized bloodhounds.

Despite all search efforts, Donna was never found. Investigators and her family feared she had been abducted by someone who was driving in the area according to news accounts from the time she went missing. There were two reported sightings of Donna in the days after her disappearance. Investigators began to focus their search efforts in Redding, California after two witnesses reported seeing girls who appeared to match Donna’s physical description.

According to one of the sightings, a man reported seeing a girl who looked like Donna riding on the handlebars of a motorcycle on Highway 273 south of Redding a day after she was reported missing. The man told investigators that the individual driving the motorcycle was bearded and looked like a “biker type” person. The man had another passenger behind him and they both appeared to be dressed warmly while the girl was wearing clothing that appeared to match what Donna was wearing when she was reported missing.

An employee who worked at the Safeway market on Cypress Avenue in Redding reported that he saw a girl who looked like Fowler inside the store. He said he recognized the girl as Donna from a picture of her that was posted in the local newspapers following her disappearance. Investigators put both of the men under hypnosis but the results were inconclusive.

Donna’s strange disappearance rocked her town and area. Many parents held their children closer to them following the incident. Dick Fowler felt guilty over not taking his granddaughter seriously and blamed himself for her disappearance. He died in the years after she went missing. Her family continued to hope for answers in her disappearance and came to the belief that Donna was probably murdered.

In August of 2007, investigators received an anonymous tip regarding Donna’s whereabouts. The tip indicated that Donna was killed and her body was placed in a well in a horse pasture near Lower Mill Street in Weaverville. Investigators dug up the well indicated and they searched for any trace of her remains but came up empty. Donna’s cousin, Shannon Harper, suggested that investigators should search a well that was nearby but it’s unclear if they did this or not.

In December of 2008, Wayne Harvey Smith confessed to killing Donna. Smith was in prison at the time for the 1985 murder of 21 year old Samedy Khiev who lived in Norwalk, California. She was murdered by Smith at a donut shop in Rowland Heights, California on August 3rd 1985. He allegedly stalked her for several weeks before murdering her. He was convicted of killing her and was sentenced to life in prison with no parole for the crime.

In 2004, DNA evidence linked Smith to another murder that occurred in Los Angeles, California in 1983. On December 3rd 1983, 18 year old Stacy Belcher left her hotel room to go buy food and never returned. Her body was found three days later but her murder remained unsolved for 21 years until DNA from the crime scene was linked to Wayne. He was charged with the crime and the death sentence was considered for the case.

Investigators stated that Smith was always considered a person of interest in Donna’s disappearance. He was Darcy’s boyfriend at the time of Donna’s disappearance in 1980. He was questioned about her case a few days after she was reported missing but he refused to cooperate with authorities and he wouldn’t take a polygraph exam either. He moved away from the area shortly afterwards. In 1985, investigators questioned him again in Donna’s disappearance after he was arrested but he maintained he had nothing to do with her disappearance.

Investigators decided to strike a deal with Wayne. They proposed to not sentence Smith to death in exchange for information regarding Fowler’s disappearance. The police and the Trinity County District Attorneys Office wouldn’t go through with the deal without her mother’s permission. Darcy agreed to the deal as she wanted closure in her daughters decades old case. She also agreed to it since Smith was in prison for life and would ever get out.

Smith told investigators that he killed Donna on the same day she went missing. He said Donna came over to his “shack” and that he became angry at the girl when she refused to leave his house. Smith said he strangled Donna to death and disposed of her remains in the Weaverville landfill. The landfill was an open pit that residents would throw their trash into. Smith placed her body in the landfill and left.

Investigators have stated that the deal makes it impossible to prosecute Smith for Donna’s presumed murder and they still lacked the proper evidence to file charges, even with a confession. The landfill that Donna’s body is in was closed after her disappearance and was covered over with approximately 40 feet of dirt. Investigators decided to not attempt a recovery operation and have deemed it impossible.

At the time of her disappearance, Donna was described as a very outgoing child. She lived to run and was said to love school where she was a first grade student. She was described by her loved ones as a loving and trusting child. Her family held a memorial service for her after the confession. The missing persons case has since been reclassified as a homicide and the investigation into Donna’s disappearance has been closed. Her remains have never been located.

Investigating Agency

If you have any information concerning this case, please contact:

Trinity County Sheriffs Office 530-623-2611

Source Information

For The Lost

California Department of Justice

The Charley Project

The Doe Network


Find a Grave

Record Searchlight

Whittier Daily News

Crime Scene Blog

Your Record Searchlight Online

Porchlight International for the Missing & Unidentified

San Bernardino Sun

The Sacramento Bee 11/13/1980

The Sacramento Bee 11/19/1980

The Sacramento Bee 11/20/1980