Darla Harper spent the evening of March 4, 1986 chatting with a neighbor who had stopped by to visit her at her Gravel Ridge, Arkansas apartment. The neighbor left around 9:30 pm, leaving 25-year-old Darla and her young daughter, Leslie, alone in the small apartment. What happened after the neighbor left remains a mystery; Darla was never seen again.
Darla, a 1977 graduate of Pine Bluff High School, worked as a personnel analyst in the Little Rock office of the Internal Revenue Service. When she failed to show up for work the following morning, her manager was immediately concerned. Darla was an extremely reliable and responsible employee; in her four years working for the IRS, she had never missed work without calling to let someone know first. When phone calls to her apartment went unanswered, one of her co-workers was dispatched to go check on her.
Darla was not at her apartment when her co-worker arrived; he found her front door open and her 2-year-old daughter inside. Leslie was alone and confused, but was unharmed. Although there were no signs of a struggle inside the apartment, there was blood on the outside of Darla’s front door. The co-worker immediately called the Pine Bluff Police Department to report that Darla was missing and possibly hurt.
Deputies from the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office were the first to arrive at the scene, and they were unsure if they were dealing with a simple missing person case or something more sinister. A quick check of the parking lot showed that Darla’s car was missing, leading them to wonder if she had driven away from the apartment complex voluntarily. Investigators started going door-to-door in the complex, hoping that some of the other residents might be able to shed some light on the situation.
When investigators spoke with the neighbor who had visited Darla the day before, she told them that Darla had been fine when she left the apartment. Around 11:00 pm, however, the neighbor had heard some noises coming from Darla’s; it sounded to her as if furniture were being moved. She picked up the phone to call and make sure everything was okay, but the noise had stopped by then. Not wanting to risk waking up Darla’s young daughter over something silly, the neighbor hung up the phone without calling. Now, she wished that she had remained on the line.
As soon as Darla’s mother learned that she was missing, she knew that something terrible happened. Mel Nixon was adamant that her daughter would never have left Leslie alone under any circumstances. Mel was able to provide detectives with some background information on Darla, including the fact that she and her ex-husband, Barry Harper, had finalized their divorce just four months earlier.
Detectives were eager to speak with Barry, but he denied knowing anything about Darla’s disappearance. He was repeatedly questioned by investigators and continued to maintain his innocence. With no evidence linking him to any possible crime, detectives were forced to look elsewhere.
The day after Darla was reported missing, her car was located in a commuter parking lot near Crystal Hill, Arkansas. This was nine miles away from Darla’s apartment, and not in an area where she would normally have driven. There was a small amount of blood found in the car; when the car was brought in for further processing, an unidentified set of fingerprints were also found.
Darla’s daughter, Leslie, was just a toddler and detectives knew she wouldn’t be considered a competent witness if the case ever went to trial, but they spoke with her anyway. Leslie said things like “three men came in funny hats” and “Mommy was in a bag, her feet were broken.” Due to her young age, it was unclear if she was relating what she had actually seen or if it was fabricated. Either way, it was clear she had witnessed something traumatic.
There were no reported sightings of Darla after she was reported missing, and detectives were convinced that she had been the victim of foul play. They made several appeals to the public for any information that might help them determine what happened to the young mother, but few tips were received.
Six months after Darla went missing, Mel Nixon and her husband, Jerry, announced that they were offering a $10,000 reward for information that led to the recovery of Darla, dead or alive. They were also offering a $16,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for Darla’s dea*th. They hoped that the prospect of a monetary reward would bring in new leads for investigators, but the phones remained silent.
Eventually, detectives exhausted all the leads they were able to develop and the case started to go cold. Although they would periodically review the case file to see if there was anything they might have missed, little progress was made on the case over the next few years.
In 1990, investigators received a tip from Barry Harper’s wife at the time; she told them that Darla’s remains were buried in the backyard of the home that Barry and Darla had shared prior to the divorce. A search of the property was conducted and some bone fragments were found, but investigators were unable to determine if the bone was human or not.
In 2009, a man was walking his dog in a wooded area of Sherwood, Arkansas when he stumbled upon what he thought was a shallow grave. He immediately phoned police. The only open missing person case in the area was Darla’s, and investigators noted that the site was just three miles from Barry Harper’s home. A search of the dirt-covered mound was conducted, but nothing of interest was found.
Darla is officially still considered a missing person, but everyone involved with her case is convinced that she is dead. Her daughter was the center of her world, and she was far too close to her family to leave without telling anyone. Over the years, there have been a few sporadic searches for her remains, but nothing has been found to suggest what might have happened to her that March night so many years ago.
As an adult, Leslie noted that she still remembers a few things about the night her mother disappeared, but she was so young when it happened that she isn’t sure if she is remembering something that she witnessed or simply recalling things that she was told later. She told one reporter in 2003 that she could remember seeing people wearing all black with ski masks over their faces coming up the stairs. In 1986, she told investigators that her mother’s feet were broken; it’s likely that she witnessed someone carrying her mother out of the apartment.
Darla’s family has been waiting for more than 35 years to learn what happened to her. They have come to terms with the fact that she was most likely killed on the same night she went missing, but they would like to be able to bring her home so they can give her a proper burial. Although the case has been cold for decades, detectives believe that it can still be solved if the right person finally decided to come forward and tell investigators what they know.
Darla Harper was 25 years old when she went missing in 1986. She has brown eyes and light brown hair, and at the time of her disappearance she was 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 115 pounds. She was last seen wearing blue jeans and a pullover shirt; she was also wearing a teardrop-shaped diamond pendant, a diamond cluster ring, and a horseshoe-shaped diamond ring. She has a small scar on her right cheek and a burn scar on her left elbow. If you have any information about Darla, please contact the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office at 501–340–6601.