Every so often a crime so bizarre occurs that at first glance, there is only one logical conclusion. One such case (for me at least) was the murder of Victoria “Vicki” Lynn Harshman. Honestly, it would be easy for me to lump this in with the I-65 series. In fact, no matter who I discuss the murders with, Vicki’s name comes up with that person down the road… Always.
When I first really started looking into the murder series, I would bring Vicki up. My theory had always remained the same. I believe the I-65 Serial Killer’s motive was robbery first, then rape. Then in 2010 another Vicki began to change that thinking. When Vicki Heath had been officially linked to the I-65 Serial Killer, I was not only stunned, but I had doubts. I thought in the new digital age that any and all murders of all hotel clerks had been found and logged. At least within the last thirty years of that time.
Vicki Heath, was almost forgotten. No matter who I spoke too, not one single detective, publication or friend had worked the case ever mentioned Vicki Heath. Vicki Harshman, I heard a dozen times. Vicki Heath? Never heard of her. When I got the call from a friend about Vicki Heath, I even corrected her.
“No that was a lady named Vicki Harshman in Lebanon, Indiana. It was a Holiday Inn in 1991”, I was adamant. I almost just hung up the phone, she was confused and heard something wrong. I would look this case up and BINGO, I got sucked back in just because someone who knows nothing about this case misheard something. She was certain, this was 1987, two years before the Days Inn murders. It changed things. I had come to believe that the I-65 Serial Killer had an event in life, in late 1988- either was released from prison or came on hard times. Took up robbing hotels. Beginning with Evelyn Wright and then James Walton eleven days later. Then, the Days Inn murders. In a span of a few months, he robbed and killed four people for money. The sexual assaults of Gill and Gilbert was an escalation. Either they fought or he just decided that since he was killing them, he should rape them too.
Vicki Heath changed that. This was over two years before the Days Inn murders, which were connected via DNA. For some, it all but ended speculation of the Wright and Walton murders. This was a serial rapist, who robbed. Not me. I doubled down. Prior to the Heath murder being discovered, two detectives had discounted the Wright and Walton murders based on one angle.
The murder of James Walton. He was a male and too far south.
The murder of Vicki Heath had proved(for lack of a better word or concept) that this killer had been this far.
Victoria “Vicki” Lynne Cozzy-Harshman, 36, was going through a divorce and had recently found out she was pregnant. Jamestown, Indiana, was a small town with about 900 people, so Vicki had taken employment at Holiday Inn ‘Holidome’ in Lebanon, Indiana right off I-65 on Indiana 39. While it was about twenty-five or thirty-minute drive from Jamestown, she didn’t mind.
Vicki was heartbroken. She was suffering… she had been crushed and was piecing her life together. Less than two years earlier on January 6, 1989, her eldest daughter Melissa Ashworth was killed in a car wreck. Melissa was Vicki’s daughter from her first marriage. There was a unique bond with her daughter that she was pregnant with at the tender age of 16. Whether times were tough, good or bad, they faced it together. Most of what they endured, was not only a learning experience for Melissa, but Vicki as well. Their relationship was often described as “sisters” or “best friends”. Vicki was devastated, but according to everyone who knew her from various sources, Vicki began to look to the future with optimism. She was young, getting her life together and finally finding her independence.
Over the years Vicki had tried her hand at being a sales representative then a beautician. After working at Holiday Inn, she took an interest in their management program which she felt would be her break to be financially independent. Aside from Melissa, she had two other daughters from her previous marriage one 14 and the other 8 years-old. She was married Steven Harshman, and even though they were separated, they remained on good terms. He encouraged her to finally find herself and be independent. Vicki had a brother and two sisters she was exceptionally close with. When any of them fell on hard times, they rallied together. Vicki was on a mission, sadly her journey in life would come to a horrific end.
‘Holidomes’ in the 90’s were an aging concept for Holiday Inn, which began in the seventies and were branded to have a ‘small resort’ feel. Definitely were not destination attractions for a family to exclusively visit, but had features for the family for a weekend getaway- as one advertisement would suggest “take a vacation from your vacation”. It was a cross between a small resort and activity center. The Holidome in Lebanon featured a large indoor pool, an arcade, sauna, arcade and mini-golf. From a security perspective, ‘Holidomes’ were sprawling, with pools made to look as if they were in a lagoon in a tropical rain forest, with a maze of plants and trees with live tropical birds inside cages. There would be two or three stories of rooms that had all glass fronts surrounding and facing the center pools.
For most tourists, ‘Holidomes’ would give the appearance of a safe place due to the investment, price and number of guests, but looking through old articles some were a hotbed of criminal activity. Drug dealers and street gangs would use them to party, gamble and entertain ‘outside of their’ home turf. Where there is gangs, drugs and weapons, violence follows. Worse, most Holidomes were far away from metropolitan areas and main tourist destinations. Law enforcement in these small towns had little to no knowledge or dealings with this type of criminal element and certainly lacked the manpower and budgets to effectively combat them. Holidomes were busy and always had lots of activity, but it was beginning of the end of an era for the brand. Not long after, Holiday Inn would begin “re-branding” and put up an Express location less than a mile away the next exit north on I-65 on Indiana 32 also known as South Street. The Lebanon Holidome was closed and demolished immediately after.
Lebanon was and still is the largest city and county seat Boone County, Indiana. Today it has a population of just over 15,000, little more than the 12,000 it was estimated to have in 1990. Even though it is less than thirty miles north of Indianapolis, it still is a small city that seemed to be from another time and another place. Just one hour south of Remington and 45 minutes from Brookston, in September 1991 the Days Inn murders were just still on the minds of many. Just seven months earlier, police had linked the Columbus assault, that was just 75 miles south- to the Days Inn Murders.
Like virtually all of the hotel clerk murders before, linked or not, this would have the same recipe. And like all the murders on I-65, almost appeared to be identical. Lone night auditor. Female. Robbed and murdered. When it first happened, that’s exactly what the police thought they walked into, until just a few minutes after they arrived something strange happened. Could the police looked too deep into one thing a minutes after arriving and then got tunnel vision or was this a bizarre murder that shared a very familiar yet so-different pattern.
Nine months before Vicki Harshman’s murder, another bizarre yet horrible crime spree would unfold- part of it occurring right at the very same Holiday Inn Holidome in Lebanon. On January 16, 1991, The Holidome was the scene of a brutal robbery/kidnapping of a guest left bound and gagged in his room. The alcohol fueled crime spree ended in tragedy thirty minutes later at an Interstate 65 Rest Area seven miles north of the Holiday Inn. The trio responsible crossed paths with Rev. William Radcliffe after a leaky radiator had threatened to strand him. After robbing him, Gerald Wayne Bivins would later admit to executing him inside a bathroom stall.
Prior to the Murder
On Thursday, September 19, 1991, Victoria “Vicki” Lynn Cozzy-Harshman, 36 had started her shift at 11 p.m. In many ways, life couldn’t get worse for her. Just three weeks earlier, she and her husband Steven decided to separate. To make matters worse, she just found out she was pregnant two days earlier on Tuesday. Still in pain from the loss of her daughter- she was pulling through and preparing for the road ahead.
Shortly after midnight, her sister Belinda Cozzy called Vicki talk about the future. Due to the separation and because she just found out she was pregnant, they were planning on moving in together. One would work days and the other nights, so they could care for the baby. They agreed to speak again in the morning after she got off work. Vicki sounded happy, almost giddy. While it wasn’t going to be easy, it was exciting.
- It was an uneventful but steady night. Between 1:30 and 2:00 a.m. she checked in a few more guests.
- Around 2:30 a.m. Lebanon Police officer Brent Wheat waved at her from the parking lot while he was out on patrol. According to several sources this was standard practice for LPD to patrol twenty-four hour establishments every single night and make some form of contact with employees to ensure everything was alright, especially the hotels.
- At 2:45 a.m., the newspaper delivery driver seen her behind the desk speaking with two men he assumed to be “guests” checking in or out. He swapped the September 19th papers with September 20th papers.
- At 3:39 a.m. an emergency call from a Holiday Inn guest came into the Lebanon Police Department. Cleveland truck driver Charles Wittal went to check out to get an early start ahead of traffic. There were blood spatters on the front counter and saw a trail of blood coming from a hallway off the main lobby.
- At 3:41 a.m. Officer Brent Wheat arrived on scene. “Blood was everywhere. All over three rooms. The front desk. Hallway and utility room, like she had tried hard to escape her attacker”, Wheat now a detective recalled in 2013.
Vicki was viciously bludgeoned throughout three rooms with a golf putter taken from the miniature golf course, until the head broke off. She was then stabbed a dozen times with her own scissors taken from her purse. She was lying in a pool of her own blood in the utility room. The bloodied broken putter and it’s head lay next to her body and scissors were tossed on top of her.
In the office behind the registration desk, the contents of what appeared to come from a purse was dumped everywhere. Initial reports stated that $100 to $150 was missing from the cash drawer. Later reports would indicate that after an audit, the amount was between $150 to $200.
The case was assigned to detectives Mike Beard and Albert Hendricks of the Lebanon Police Department.
One of them would have to deliver news to Lebanon Police Chief Carl Joseph Rady, Vicki was his first cousin.
Shortly after the discovery of Vicki Harshman’s body, an alleged female “friend” arrived on scene. When a detective peered into her car, he saw a small baseball bat. The car was impounded and the woman was questioned. She later gave police a consent to search.
During initial press conferences, Major Tom Garoffolo stated, “between $100 and $150 was taken from the register”. Detective Mike Beard and Albert Hendrix repeat this initial estimate to the media over the next few days.
Autopsy, Evidence and Analysis
That Friday afternoon Boone County Coroner Dr. Ritchie Coons conducted her autopsy.
Before Lebanon Police could notify Indiana State Police, Detective Jim Wallace with the Indiana State Police Lowell District Investigations was already on scene. The task force hunting the I-65 Serial Killer had previously decided that any case potentially linked to their killer, they needed to be on scene immediately to ensure evidence was handled properly and they could get access to guest lists and witnesses that could be linked with guest lists at the Merrillville, Remington or Columbus Days Inns.
- Vicki had been stabbed over fifteen times, up to twenty. – (It is noted that she was stabbed with a pair of scissors missing from her purse. Stabbing motions may have caused one of the blades to pivot creating superficial wounds near the strike wounds, not intended direct stabs)
- A lung was punctured and a few ribs were broke.
- She had stab wounds up and down her legs.
- She was stabbed in the chest and head with significant force.
- One blow to the back of her head from the golf putter cracked her skull from ear to ear.
- There was no evidence of sexual assault, however, investigators would not rule it out as a motive.
- After interviewing her sisters, husband and co-workers, investigators would learn that the items that were dumped in the office from a woman’s purse belonged to Vicki. Her billfold, car keys and identification were missing. They were never found
- Her car was still in the parking lot.
- All the cash was missing from the cash drawer, between $150 and $200(the exact amount has not yet been disclosed).
- Vicki’s sister, husband and co-workers also mentioned that in the past couple months she had been receiving harassing and threatening telephone calls from a woman.
- A woman claiming to be a “friend” of Victoria Harshman, arrived at the Holidome in her brother’s car shortly after her body was found. After seeing a “mini-baseball bat”, investigators sought and received consent to search the vehicle. It was impounded a short time later.
- The newspaper delivery man stated he saw two men at the desk speaking with Vicki when he dropped off the papers. They did not match descriptions nor the time-frame of last guests she checked in
One controversial move that raised eyebrows was when LPD Maj. Tom Garoffolo announced just hours after her body was discovered that Steven Harshman was, “Definitely not a suspect… he was in Washington looking for a job, where he currently lives”.
Detectives concluded based evidence at the the scene of the crime and autopsy that this murder was personal. Detective Beard gave a press release mentioning that Victoria Harshman had received threats both at home and at work. He also stated that one of her “friends” arrived shortly after the discovery of her body. He car was impounded after an investigator became suspicious of her story, being there after 3:45 a.m. and he saw a “mini-baseball bat” in her backseat.
The following day on September, 21, 1991, Detective Mike Beard told the Associated Press, “Here’s a lady who’s got stab wounds up and down her legs and chest and back and head… We’re not ruling out some kind of retaliation. Right now, we’re not sure. I believe she had received some threats”.
Lebanon Police Chief Carl Joseph Rady, Major Garoffolo and Detective Mike Beard and Albert Hendricks would consult Boone County Sheriff Ern Hudson and prosecutor Rebecca McClure for guidance. They felt that due to the lack of experience LPD had regarding homicides(Lebanon averaged one homicide every three years), they suggested they seek further assistance from the Indiana State Police Lowell Division Investigations unit. Lowell Division assisted with and/or supervised some of the most high profile homicides in the state, including the Days Inn Murders and the murder of Rev. William Radcliffe.-(it was established in 2013 by those present, that investigators were consulting Rebecca McClure at this meeting about murder charges being brought up against Vicki Harshman’s “friend” in the parking lot that evening. There has been no physical evidence linking her to the murder)
On the surface, investigators appeared to be stumped, however, they quickly ruled out suspects “based on lack of evidence suggesting otherwise”. Two of the closest men in her life were cleared hours after her death. Not only was Steven Harshman cleared, but her ex-husband from her first marriage Harry Ashworth.
Four days later on September 25, Detective Beard then back-peddled, told The Indianapolis News that, “we are continuing to interview Harshman’s family and friends while reviewing information from previous interviews… a search of her residence yielding nothing to suggest she had a homicidal enemy”.
Beard concluded with, “We’re not ruling out anybody”.
Aside from not asking for help and resources when experienced is needed, the biggest mistake inexperienced investigators make is when they zero in on a suspect and begin building a case. To be completely fair, they’re right on the money most of the time. When they’re wrong…. it’s a travesty of justice. Most folks, myself included, have zero empathy or sympathy for abusers and sexual predators,
What happens when one truly believes another is guilty of a crime, especially a police officer investigating it? We already know the answer to that. While I’m certain some would love to interject, citing core values, ethics, integrity and compliance, respect for the law, the institution and of course one’s “duty” to protect and serve; time and time again we’ve seen otherwise. Justice is denied.. Cases don’t get properly worked. Jailhouse snitches appear out of nowhere. Missing paperwork and evidence disappear and reappear on a whim. The list goes on.
The most egregious one of all? When victim’s families are told, “we know who did it, we just don’t have the evidence to prosecute”.
In 2016, I had the opportunity to speak about the Harshman murder with Diana Penner, a semi-retired reporter who spent twenty-two years with The Indianapolis Star. She did an excellent series called Indiana Unsolved, highlighting unsolved murders in the Hoosier state. Years earlier I aggravated her for any additional information she possibly had on a few notorious Indiana cases. Eventually we exchanged emails about the I-65 Serial Killer on different occasions over the years. Then in 2013, she wrote about the murder of Vicki Harshman, a murder we had discussed- which aside from the few folks looking into I-65 Serial Killer, had been long forgotten.
While there have been no “official developments” since the murder, Diana expressed to me that neither she nor investigators believed Vicki fell victim to the I-65 Serial Killer. The crime was obviously personal. It appeared to be a confrontation that escalated to murder, either because something was revealed or Vicki popped off. The evidence and circumstances didn’t suggest it was planned.
Which, I couldn’t agree more. Besides, the golf putter was acquired at the hotel and either Vicki attempted to defend herself with her scissors from her purse or they fell out during the attack. While it could be suggested that the “robber” found the scissors when he or she asked for Vicki’s purse or demanded she had them over when they told her to empty it, I find this all very illogical.
Like police and Diana, I doubt anyone planned to rob that hotel by acquiring a golf club en route to rob it.
Diana explained that from the start, the female “friend” that arrived on scene was Public Enemy Numero Uno. She said, “a detective peered into her car, he saw one of those miniature baseball bats that were popular gifts at baseball games in the eighties and nineties. The car was impounded at the scene and the woman was extensively questioned and gave police consent to search”.
Diana was a career investigative journalist and reporter, she never showed her cards at least not this stage in her career. Personally, I found it hard to believe that she simply relied on fifteen year-old “sanitized for the press” official police media statements. So I asked her had she dug into further than just what the police told the press?
“No. Absolutely not”, she chuckled sarcastically, “What do you think?”
Well of course I knew she did, but I was hoping that she’d offer more.
“No, I meant what do you think happened?”, she asked, “to Mrs. Harshman?”
I just couldn’t shake the fact that she and her husband were going through a separation. He was seeking employment in Washington state. She was pregnant.
“There you go”, she replied. “Now Steven, he was actually living in Washington at the time, not just looking for a job. He lived in Washington. That’s not to say he didn’t come down to Indiana to visit or whatever, but you’re a smart guy. Now I’ve done this awhile and in my experience, when a couple are going through some trouble, separation and divorce, they reconcile for a period… might even have a baby to try and save a marriage. One of two things happened here. Steven left the state after he found out she was pregnant or she got pregnant after he left the state. Either way, not good news”.
After mulling it over a few minutes, I said, “Ya know, this can go two ways right? He’s not happy about this….”
Diana cut me off and assured me it was nothing of the sort, “keep in mind who her cousin is”.
When I started I began to put together the I-65 Serial Killer series to the website this past April, I went to contact Diana Penner again to get some other information on the Days Inn Murders. I learned she passed away suddenly February 6, 2018, I had never spoke to her again. Like a true professional she never told me how or why she knew details to Vicki Harshman’s murder.
While investigators are not exactly candid, the information provided is crystal clear. They believe Vicki was killed by an acquaintance out of revenge. Do they still believe it was the woman in the car? According to Diana Penner’s article in 2013, yes. They just didn’t have sufficient evidence to bring charges against her. Police still consider her “a person of interest”.
So is the case closed?
Vicki Harshman had supposedly received some threatening phone calls from a lady who was making accusations and intended to do her harm. It has been insinuated that the woman who appeared at the Holiday Inn had perpetrated the crime, possibly left on foot, returned after cleaning up and actually was in the process of trying to leave, but police was there, so she had to play ball.
May 12, 1993 Steven Harshman acting as director of the Victoria Lynne Harshman’s estate, filed a lawsuit in Boone County Superior Court against Holiday Inns America alleging that they, “failed to insure that the Lebanon Holiday Inn complied with all applicable standards resulting in the death of his wife”. The case was later dismissed.
There currently is a total of $13,000 being offered for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction of the person or persons responsible for the murder of Victoria “Vicki” Lynne Cozzy-Harshman. The standard $1,000 offered by Crime Stoppers and $12,000 put into a trust by Holiday Inn at the time of her murder.
Please call the Lebanon Police Department at (765)482-8833.
You can also contact Crime Stoppers of Central Indiana at (317)262-TIPS(8477) or Toll Free at (800)222-8477(TIPS) . You do not have to give your name.
Categories: Cold Case