Sue Neef was ten minutes late for school on Friday, March 16, 1984. Suzanne, her mother, dropped her off at Bertha Heid Elementary School in Thornton, Colorado, around 8:20 a.m. It was late enough that the playground was empty and the school door was already shut. Tracy seemed to think about what she was going to do before she jumped out of her mom’s car and ran for the building. Tracy went through the gate that led to the front door of the school when she realized that the back door she usually used was locked. Sue looked until her daughter was no longer there. She had no idea that it would be the last time she saw Tracy alive.
For Susan, the day went by without any problems. After getting ready for Tracy to wait for her, she left her house at 2:45 pm and drove the six blocks back to Bertha Heid Elementary School. It was exciting for her to see all the kids leaving the building, but she didn’t see her daughter. Susan waited a few more minutes, thinking that Tracy was just late, but the little girl never showed up.
Sue at first thought her daughter might have chosen to walk home from school with a friend. Along the way, Susan kept an eye out for Tracy as she drove slowly back to the house. Susan knew she wouldn’t likely find her daughter walking along the sidewalk when she got back to the house. Different classmates of Tracy’s walked to and from school every day, but Tracy had never shown any interest in doing the same.
Susan took her car and drove back to Bertha Heid Elementary School. She parked this time and went into the school to find Tracy’s teacher. The teacher told her that Tracy hadn’t been at school that day, which shocked her. Because she didn’t know what to do, she cried as she drove home and called her husband right away at work.
When Gary Neef’s boss called him and told him to call his wife, he knew something was wrong. And Gary did it right away. But Susan was crying so hard that Gary could barely understand what she was saying. He left work and drove home as fast as he could as soon as he realized his daughter wasn’t there.
Gary and Susan were shocked for about 45 minutes as they drove around the neighborhood before they fully understood how bad things were. They knew they needed to call the police at 4:00 pm, so they did. They reported Tracy missing to 911. Right away, police officers responded and started their own search for Tracy, while detectives talked to her upset parents.
Forensics said that Gary said the day began like any other school day. Karen delivered papers in the early morning, and Tracy watched some cartoons while she did it. Karen was running late that morning, so Gary helped Tracy get ready for school. It caught his eye that she was wearing jeans and a shirt that said “I don’t look for trouble” on the front.
Susan said she was running late and that when she dropped Tracy off at school, the playground was empty. Tracy and her friends would usually wait on the playground for their teachers to come out and lead them in through the back door of the school. The back door was locked as soon as all the students were inside. From then on, the front door was the only way to get into the school. As a safety measure, everyone who came into the building while classes were going on had to sign in at the front desk.
Susan thought Tracy came in through the front door because the last time she saw Tracy, she was walking toward the front of the school. She was carrying her Pac-Man lunchbox and her winter coat in a red carry-on bag. There was no rule in place at the time that said school officials had to call parents if their child wasn’t in school. It had been almost seven hours since Susan last saw Tracy and found out she hadn’t been to class that day. Tracey could no longer be saved.
While police searched the area around Tracy’s elementary school very thoroughly, something very sad was found 40 miles away, close to Nederland, Colorado. The couple was walking their dog at Boulder Canyon’s Barker Reservoir at 4:45 pm when they found the body of a young girl. They were shocked. Tracey it was.
She was found dead in the grass near where Colorado Highway 119 went through Boulder. She was found on the ground with her knees bent together and her hands on her stomach, palms down. It looked like someone had carefully put her there. Near her body, some of her school supplies were spread out. Her backpack was found about 100 feet away.
After a while, a man came forward to say that he had found Tracy’s backpack on the side of the road around 1:30 that Friday. He hadn’t seen anyone else in the area. When he opened the backpack to try to figure out who it belonged to, he found that it was empty except for a Pac-Man lunchbox. A coat was lying on the ground next to the backpack. The man thought that the two must have gone together, so he put the coat inside the backpack and then left it where he found it. He would have probably found Tracy’s body if he had gone the other way.
Tracy’s wrists had marks that looked like they had been tied together, which meant that her kidnapper had probably held her down at some point. Another ligature mark was seen around her chin. It looked like it came from the strap on her coat. Most likely, her ki*ller tried to keep her quiet by tying her coat around her mouth, which left a mark. She had two small cuts on her face as well, one on her cheek and one above her left eyebrow. Most likely, the kil*ler’s nails did these as he tried to calm her down.
The coroner decided that Tracy had been s*exually abu*sed, even though she was still wearing her t-shirt and jeans when she was found. The official cause of her death was asphyxia. It was likely that the person who took her didn’t mean to ki*ll her, but by tying her coat so tightly over her mouth and nose, they did so by accident.
Tracy was fully dressed and left so close to a major highway, which made it seem like her ki*ller got scared when he realized she was dead and tried to get rid of her body quickly. Her book bag was found some distance from where she had been ki*lled. It was possible that her kil*ler had thrown it from his car as he drove off.
The autopsy showed that Tracy had most likely been k*illed between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. Investigators thought that someone had seen Tracy walking toward the front of her school and either grabbed her or got her to get into his car. Gary Neef was sure that his daughter would never have agreed to ride in a car with a stranger. He believed that she might have known or thought she knew the person who kil*led her.
Several girls in the Denver area had said that an unknown man se*xually ass*aulted them and then let them go before Tracy was kil*led. Investigators thought it was possible that the same man had taken Tracy. If that’s the case, he probably meant to let her go after beating her, but he ki*lled her by accident.
It was hard for detectives to find Tracy’s ki*ller before he could kidnap another young girl. No one saw Tracy getting into a car with anyone else, so they didn’t know anything about the person who attacked her. To get started, they made a computerized list of all the men in the area who had been convicted of a se*x cri*me since 1979. The list had more than 5,000 names on it. After working all night, they were able to narrow the list down to 400 men, which was still a huge number of possible suspects. They found a few people who might have been involved with Tracy’s de*ath, but they were never able to prove it.
Officials said they had ruled out any school employees or members of Tracy’s family as possible suspects. Police begged people to come forward with any information that could help them find Tracy’s killer. But eventually, people stopped giving them information, and detectives had followed all of their leads. The investigation stopped moving forward and then stopped.
The case would be looked at more than once over the years. In 1984, when Tracy’s body was autopsied, the coroner took two hair samples that most likely belonged to the person who k*illed her. One of them was found on her shoe, but it got lost and is no longer possible to prove anything. A second one was found in her pubic area. In 1998, DNA was tried to be extracted from it, but the hair became contaminated during the process. Even though some useful information was gathered, the hair can’t be sent for the more advanced tests that are now available because it was contaminated.
The mur*der of Tracy broke her parents’ hearts so badly that they got a divorce about a year after she died. After all these years, they still want justice for their daughter. Detectives think the case can still be solved, but they need help from the public. There are likely still people in the Denver area who know something about who ki*lled Tracy. Police are still hoping that person will come forward one day.
In 1984, Tracy Neef was ki*lled when she was only 7 years old. First-grader she was nice and active, but her future was taken away by a k*iller who has not been found yet. Since the 1980s, her family has been waiting for justice. It’s high time they got it. Please call the Thornton Police Department at 720–977–5150 if you know anything about Tracy’s de*ath.