Natasha Atchley was a vivacious teenager who loved to go out and have a good time. When the 19-year-old went to a birthday party in Shepherd, Texas, on Saturday, May 2, 1992, she was expecting to have a fun night out with friends. Natasha had arrived at the party with one of her male friends, but she left alone around 3:00 am. She never made it home and was never seen alive again.
The first sign that something was wrong came around 10:00 am Sunday, when a man called the San Jacinto County Sheriff’s Office to report finding a bu*rned-out Chevrolet Camaro on a dirt road about a mile from where the birthday party had been held the previous night. When a deputy arrived at the scene, he assumed that the car was either stolen or had been dumped there as part of an insurance scam. He immediately had the car towed to a nearby impound lot.
Natasha’s mother, Karen Woodard, had expected to see her daughter Sunday morning; it was Mother’s Day and Natasha had promised to stop by. Instead, Karen got a call from the impound lot telling her that Natasha’s car had been found abandoned in rural San Jacinto County. Concerned, she went straight to the impound lot to check out Natasha’s car.
Karen knew that something bad had happened as soon as she saw the b*urned-out Camaro. As soon as she saw pieces of Natasha’s jewelry in the front of the car, she started crying uncontrollably. Her tears got even worse when she looked in the Camaro’s hatch and saw what she knew to be a human skull.
The police had no idea that Natasha’s bu*rned body was inside the Camaro, which is very strange. Karen had found out about the horrible thing, and it was almost too much for her to handle. Chad Woodard, Natasha’s brother, said, “It just broke her.” After that, she changed. Her attention was always on Natasha, which upset her family.
Natasha was k*illed just one week before her 20th birthday. While she was a senior in high school, she was sent to live with her grandparents in Odessa, Texas, where she was born and raised. She moved to College Station, Texas, after graduating from Odessa Permian High School. There, she found an apartment with a few other people. People liked her and thought she lived her life to the fullest.
Although Natasha was living about two hours away from her old hometown of Livingston, she stayed in contact with friends there and would occasionally visit the area. Around two weeks before the m*urder, Natasha had called Keisha Myers, one of her closest friends in Livingston, to tell her she was going to be in town over Mother’s Day weekend. “She wanted to make sure I’d be here when she came to visit. She said she had something important to tell me, but I never found out what that was.”
Investigators talked to a lot of teens who had been to the birthday party on Saturday night, but many of them were drunk and couldn’t help them as witnesses. Most of them agreed that Natasha had been by herself when she left the party. No one could figure out how she could have di*ed.
To look for clues, deputies were sent to the area where the car was found. However, the fact that the Camaro had already been towed meant that the crime scene was already broken into. The place where the Camaro had been left didn’t give any hints about what had happened to Natasha. The car looked like it was stuck in a rut, but there were no footprints on the ground or other signs that someone had been fighting.
Following a thorough investigation of the Camaro, it was found that the fire began in the front passenger seat. That an accelerant had been used was found and that it “contained a petroleum fuel mixture consistent with a drip gas.” Detectives thought that the k*iller got the drip gas from one of the many old oil wells in the area.
Natasha’s body was pretty much burned up in the fire because it was so hot. A few scattered bones and her skull, which had broken and then exploded in the heat, were all that was left of her. This made it impossible for the medical examiner to find out the exact cause of her de*ath.
Detectives were plagued by rumors about Natasha’s d*eath from the start of the case. Some people thought that one of the partygoers had hid in her car and then attacked her. Others thought that she had been fighting with several people at the party, and those people had followed her and ki*lled her. Some people said that the son of a county judge kil*led her and then hid the crime. Some people said Natasha’s de*ath was their fault because she owed money to drug dealers. After hours of work, investigators tried to find out if any of the rumors were true.
Early on in the investigation, detectives got information that seemed to confirm that Natasha had been in a fight at the party. People who saw what happened said that Jim Morton, Cindy Henning’s boyfriend, kicked Natasha in the head after she and Cindy got into a fight. Soon after this, Natasha stormed off in a huff.
Police were told by several people at the party that Cindy, Jim, and a third teen left right after Natasha did. This means that it’s possible that they ran after Natasha and ki*lled her. Jim and Cindy were both arrested, but the main witness against them quickly changed his story, and they were both let go. Even though they would be thought of as guilty for years, there was no proof that they were involved with Natasha’s de*ath.
Investigators searched many homes and vehicles over the next few months but didn’t find anything connected to Natasha’s d*eath. In many public appeals, they asked anyone with information to get in touch with them. They tried hard, but they couldn’t find any solid leads, and the investigation eventually stopped.
Natasha’s file would sit on the shelf for years as a cold case. Every once in a while, a detective would look over the case file again in case they missed something. Some investigators were still sure that Natasha’s ki*ller was someone from the party, but they never had enough proof to charge anyone.
Natasha’s family and friends still couldn’t get over her de*ath, even though time had passed. According to Chad, “Once you’ve seen your sister’s bur*ned remains, it’s something that just stays with you forever.” The whole family was heartbroken when Natasha di*ed.
Karen did all she could to keep people talking about the case. She kept reminding people in letters to the local papers that Natasha’s mu*rder was still unsolved. The woman di*ed of cancer in 2002, and she never found out who ki*lled her daughter. Later, Chad remembered, “I think losing Natasha k*illed our mom.” Before she di*ed, she wanted to know what happened and who hurt Natasha.
Detectives were desperate to tell the family what happened, but they couldn’t find the truth. In an interview in 2020, retired Chief Deputy Tom Branch of the San Jacinto County Sheriff’s Office said, “I’m 100% sure that we talked to the person responsible for her de*ath during the course of our investigation.” We might never know the truth, though, unless that person or a witness comes forward.
Branch thought that the accelerant that was used to set the Camaro on fire was a very important clue. It is possible to get drip gas from an oil well if you know how to do it, but not everyone does. I believe it helps narrow down the suspects a bit.
At the beginning of February 2023, Natasha’s case was shown on an episode of “Cold Justice,” a true crime TV show with a group of investigators led by Kelly Siegler, a former Harris County, Texas prosecutor. The group works with police to solve unsolved mu*rder cases and has had a lot of success in the past. By July 2021, they had helped solve 49 cases across the country, leading to 21 convictions and 49 arrests. They were sure that Natasha’s case could be solved, so they met with the San Jacinto County Sheriff’s Office to look over all the evidence that had been gathered over the years again.
“The m*urder of Natasha still affects the whole county,” Lt. Charles Dougherty told the Cold Justice team. Several police departments, including the Texas Rangers, have been involved and started a pretty intense investigation over the last 30 years. This case is very hard to understand. The first thing the team did was talk to some of the people who had been at the party 30 years earlier, starting with Jim Morton.
Jim surprised everyone by saying he was happy to talk to the Cold Justice team and that he had nothing to hide. According to what he told them, he and Natasha had a fight the night she di*ed, but it never got physical, and he didn’t follow her out of the party. After Natasha left, Jim said he stayed at the party for more than two hours.
The investigation team talked to other partygoers and found that the stories they told had stayed the same over the years. They thought Jim and other people who were thought to be possible suspects had nothing to do with the mur*der. The team actually decided that Natasha’s de*ath might not have been a mu*rder after all.
They came to this conclusion after viewing the location where the car had been found and interviewing the deputies who had seen the car before it was towed. They learned that, prior to the fire, the Camaro had gotten stuck on the isolated dirt road. The driver had apparently revved the engine in an attempt to free the car, but this caused the back tires to spin and sink deeper into the mud. The car had sunk to the point that neither door could be opened, and the windows of the car were closed.
Witnesses, including several of Natasha’s friends, admitted to police that drugs and alcohol had been readily available at the party; Natasha had been drinking Crown Royal whiskey and had taken at least three doses of LSD. It was very possible that she became disoriented when she left the party and ended up on the isolated dirt road by accident.
There were no tire tracks to suggest that Natasha had been followed, and there were no footprints leading to or from the car. To the Cold Justice team, this indicated that Natasha must have been alone in the car when it got stuck in the mud, as it would have been impossible for someone to exit the car at that point.
They theorized that the fire had started due to her repeated attempts to get the car out of the ditch. She likely would have tried to exit the car once she saw the flames, then panicked when she was unable to open either of the car doors. Perhaps, in her intoxicated state, she had attempted to get out through the back hatch, only to find that the hatch couldn’t be opened from inside the car. Once she was overcome by smoke, her beloved Camaro became her tomb.
It wasn’t a perfect theory. The initial forensic testing done on the Camaro indicated that drip gas had been used as an accelerant; it seems unlikely that Natasha would have been carrying that in her car. The team wondered if the initial testing might have been incorrect, noting that testing now is far more advanced than it was in 1992. Unfortunately, there was no evidence available to be retested, so there is no way of confirming the test results.
Natasha seemed to have a premonition that her life would be cut short. Keisha Myers recalled, “She loved life and she lived life hard. She once told me she felt like she would die young. Sadly, she was right.
We may never know for certain exactly what happened on the night that Natasha Atchley di*ed. As of March 2023, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Rangers still have the case classified as an unsolved homicide. Cr*imestoppers is offering a $3,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the person or persons responsible for the crime. If you have any information about Natasha’s de*ath, please contact the Texas Department of Public Safety at 1–800–346–3243.