Denise Pflum left her Everton, Indiana home around 12:30 pm on Friday, March 28, 1986. The 18-year-old, who was on spring break from Connersville High School that week, had gone to a party the previous night and realized when she got home that she had left her purse at the party. She made a few phone calls to friends to see if anyone wanted to go with her to retrieve it, but none of her friends were available so she told her parents, David and Judith, that she was going to go by herself. She climbed into her 1981 Buick Regal and drove off. She was never seen again.
The party Denise had attended Thursday night had been held outdoors on some local farmland, but it doesn’t appear that Denise ever made it there on Friday. A farmer working in a field in Glenwood, Indiana, approximately three miles away from where the party was held, saw her light-colored Buick parked on his farm Friday afternoon around 12:30 pm, but he never saw its driver. He assumed that the car belonged to someone who was hunting for mushrooms, a common activity in the area. He grew suspicious when it was still parked there on Saturday and called the Fayette County Sheriff’s Department to report it.
Deputies quickly determined that the car was associated with a missing person report and treated it as a crime scene. The car was locked and there were no signs of a struggle inside or around it. Hoping to find some clues to Denise’s whereabouts, police conducted a large-scale search of the area surrounding where the car was located. Searchers on foot, horseback, and in a plane scoured the area but found no sign of the missing teenager.
Denise’s car had been found about a half-mile away from Route 44, close to the Rush-Fayette county line. David and Judith told investigators that they didn’t believe Denise knew anyone who lived in that area and they had no idea why she would have driven there. Fayette County Detective Ted McQuinley told reporters that Denise’s car was devoid of clues. “There was nothing inside. It was like she drove the car into the lane and parked, got out, locked it up, and vanished.”
Fayette County Sheriff George Zimmerman told reporters that Denise had no history of running away and it was out of character for her to go anywhere without letting her parents know. “She’s a straight-A honor roll student. She’s the type of person who doesn’t do this type of thing.” She didn’t take any of her belongings with her; her missing purse was later found at the property where the party had been held.
Denise was a senior at Connersville High School and had been looking forward to graduating in a few months. She had excellent grades — she had been accepted to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio — and she was a great athlete. She was on the basketball team and the track team at her high school and was one of the top students in her class.
On Wednesday, April 2, 1986, around 100 police officers and firefighters scoured through the 100-acre plot of land in rural Fayette County where the party had been held the previous week. They found no clues to Denise’s whereabouts there, so the search was shifted to the location where her car had been found. Searchers combed through more than 300 acres of land there, but once again came up empty.
Detective McQuinley admitted that the lack of clues was frustrating. “It was a tremendous effort…at this point, we have searched everything that we had any kind of information on that needs to be searched at this time.”
A week after Denise was last seen, there had been little progress in determining what had happened to her. Detectives told reporters that they had eliminated the possibility that the teenager was a runaway; despite the lack of clues, they were convinced that foul play was involved in her disappearance.
Detective McQuinley told reporters that Denise’s family was focused on finding her alive. “They’re holding up much better than might be expected…I think that faith is holding them together. They just have to have faith, knowing their daughter’s character and that law enforcement is doing all it can…keep hoping, that’s about all they can do.”
David and Judith hadn’t returned to work since their daughter went missing. Judith told reporters that they were trying to remain positive. “We are not convinced that she ran away, but we hope that’s what happened; the alternatives are not good…a nightmare is the best way to describe it.”
Neither parent had noticed any sort of change in Denise’s behavior before she vanished; her mother stated that the teenager had been her usual friendly and cheerful self in the weeks leading up to her disappearance. Denise and her boyfriend had recently broken up, but it had been a mutual decision and they were still great friends. Her former boyfriend had been in contact with police and Judith didn’t believe he had any involvement in Denise’s disappearance.
A spokesperson for the Indiana State Police admitted that they hadn’t uncovered any clues to Denise’s location. “The investigation remains at square one.” He said that detectives were continuing to classify Denise as a missing person; they didn’t believe she had voluntarily disappeared, but they hadn’t found any solid evidence to suggest she had been killed.
On April 7, 1986, detectives asked people in Lawrence County, Indiana to keep an eye out for Denise. Although they stressed that they still didn’t believe the teenager was a runaway, they noted that she knew a number of people in Lawrence County through various sports meets. Indiana State Police Detective Sgt. Claude Trent told reporters that they hadn’t received any tips that Denise was in the area. “We’re just covering all the bases.”
Detective McQuinley told reporters that he had a personal stake in finding Denise; her father was his cousin. “I don’t care who finds her, as long as she’s found. We’d just like to see her back home safe.” He noted that all missing person cases bothered him, but this one even more so than usual. “When it’s someone in the family, it adds a little pressure.”
He stated that investigators had received a few tips about potential sightings of Denise, but none of them could be confirmed. “There were some possible sightings up around Indianapolis from people who didn’t know her…you just can’t get your hopes up too high on something like that.” Detectives followed up on each tip but none led them to Denise.
Investigators combed through Denise’s address book and contacted each person listed in it. None of them were able to provide any clues about what might have happened to the popular teenager. None of her friends had noticed any changes in her behavior in the days before she vanished and all of them insisted that Denise would never have run away from home.
On April 25, 1986, officials announced that a $5,000 reward was being offered for any information leading to Denise’s whereabouts. Detectives had exhausted all leads and were hoping that the reward announcement would bring in some new tips. A month later, the reward was increased to $10,000.
Despite the monetary reward offered for information, only a few tips came in and the investigation soon stalled. Months passed, and the Pflums were forced to adjust to a new normal without Denise. Then, on August 10, 1988, they got a phone call that gave them hope that their nightmare was almost over. Judith had answered the phone and accepted a collect call from Norfolk, Virginia; the young woman on the other end of the line said she was Denise. Judith noted, “The girl said things that sounded too much like our daughter…we felt compelled to drive to Norfolk.” While they were in Virginia, police in Indiana determined that the calls had been nothing but a cruel hoax. They had been made by a teenage girl who lived in Connersville. It was a huge letdown for Judith and David.
Years went by and there was no progress in finding Denise. By 2014, the case had been cold for decades but Denise’s family still hoped they would one day learn what had happened to her. Judith admitted that she believed Denise was dead, but dreamed of finding her alive. “It’s something you never get over. We think about it every day…the pain never goes away. You learn to wall it off and you go about your daily business.”
Like detectives, Denise’s family said it would have been completely out of character for her to run away from home. Judith noted, “She was an honor student, she was a talented athlete…she probably would have gotten scholarships, athletic or academic. She had so much going for her. There was no reason to run away.”
Indiana State Police Detective Scott Jarvis told reporters that there had been rumors about what had happened to Denise, but few solid leads. “So far, there’s not one constant theory. There isn’t anyone we’ve focused on or any persons of interest.” He admitted that solving the case grew more difficult as time passed. “Anytime this much time goes by, any potential witnesses could’ve died or moved on. The longer this goes on, the more rumors that come about.”
Over the years, there were several rumors about Denise’s fate. Some locals believed that she had witnessed something she wasn’t supposed to see, like a drug deal, when she went back to the farm to look for her purse, while others thought she ran into a killer while she was on the road. Prison snitches claimed to know who was responsible for the crime and where Denise’s body was buried, but the information they provided never led to the missing teenager.
The case took a surprise turn in March 2020, when detectives announced that they had arrested Denise’s ex-boyfriend, Shawn McClung, and charged him with manslaughter in Denise’s case. A statement provided by the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office read, “The information and probable cause alleges that McClung previously claimed that Pflum was still alive, but has recently admitted that he killed her in March 1986.” Shawn was in jail on unrelated charges when he was charged with Denise’s murder.
Shawn had been offered a plea agreement in the case; if he provided truthful information and led authorities to Denise’s body, he would be given immunity in her case and several unrelated charges would be dropped. He backed out of the deal, claiming he couldn’t provide the location of Denise’s body; he was then charged with voluntary manslaughter. The case was scheduled to go to trial later that year.
Unfortunately, Shawn would never go to trial in Denise’s case. He had been diagnosed with a terminal illness shortly before his confession, and he died in September 2020. If he had known the location of Denise’s body, he took the secret to his grave.
Denise’s parents were heartbroken. In a written statement provided to reporters, they said, “We were very disappointed that he didn’t give us the information we wanted but are hopeful that his attorney may be authorized to reveal more information after his death.”
A few days before he died, Shawn told his lawyer that he didn’t know where Denise’s body was because he hadn’t killed her; he claimed that he had falsely confessed to the crime because police had told him he would be able to get out of jail to be with his family if he did so. His plan fell apart when he was told that he would have to provide the location of Denise’s body in order for the plea deal to take place; he told his attorney that he truly didn’t know where she was and would have led police to her if it had been possible.
Denise’s parents admitted that there had been several details in Shawn’s confession which didn’t match the facts of the case, and they had been skeptical of it from the beginning. They did, however, think that he knew more about Denise’s death than he admitted.
Shawn’s attorney, Judson McMillin, noted, “It is unfortunate that Mr. McClung made false statements to investigators that likely brought about a fleeting hope of closure for the Pflum family. Yet under the circumstances, where Mr. McClung’s days were dwindling, his statements appear to be nothing more than a desperate attempt to live his last few days on earth as a free man.”
The attorney told reporters, “Based on my own private conversations with Mr. McClung, and his overall lack of credibility, I believe the person responsible for the death or disappearance of Denise Pflum is still out there.”
A spokesperson for the Fayette County Sheriff’s Department noted that the investigation into Denise’s disappearance was still open and active. “Our top priority is finding the truth and finally allowing the Pflum family to have the answers they have been searching for over 30 years. We continue to be hopeful that we will also be able to find justice for Denise Pflum.”
Denise Pflum was just 18 years old when she vanished from Connersville, Indiana in March 1986. Denise was an honors student and an athlete who was looking forward to her upcoming high school graduation and planned to attend Miami University to major in microbiology. Detectives believe that she was a victim of foul play, but her body has never been found and it’s possible she could still be alive. Denise has brown eyes and brown hair, and at the time of her disappearance, she was 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 135 pounds. She was last seen wearing a red Motley Crue T-shirt, blue striped jeans, and white sneakers; she was also wearing a gold ring with a garnet and a silver class ring with a red stone. If you have any information about Denise, please contact the Fayette County Sheriff’s Department at 765–825–0535.