A 3-Year-Old Boy Was The Only Witness To His Mother’s Murder

In January 1992, 26-year-old Charlene Puffenbarger was found bludgeoned in her suburban Cleveland home. Her two young sons were left unharmed.

Charlene Puffenbarger, pictured here holding her two sons, was found murdered on Jan. 20, 1992.

In January 1992, 26-year-old Charlene Puffenbarger was found bludgeoned in her suburban Cleveland home. Her two young sons were left unharmed.

Photo by: Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc. (Screenshot from ID's "Murder in the Heartland")

Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc. (Screenshot from ID's "Murder in the Heartland")

It was early on Jan. 20, 1992, when Michelle Smitherman knocked on her neighbor’s door at the apartment complex where they lived in Twinsburg, Ohio, a small town outside of Cleveland.

It was silent inside Charlene Puffenbarger’s apartment, and she never came to the door as Michelle knocked.

Michelle sent her brother to check on Charlene, and her brother opened the door to a horrifying sight — it was Charlene, and she was motionless on the couch, her face a ghostly pale. Michelle’s brother scooped up Charlene’s children, Dustin and Derrek, and left to call the police.

It was clear to officers that Charlene was dead when they arrived at her apartment. She was on her back under a blanket, and her face and head were caked in dried blood. There was a belt pulled tight around her neck, and there were a few defensive wounds on her arms and hands. The apartment wasn’t ransacked, and her children were unharmed — who had killed the 26-year-old in such a violent way?

Police collected more than 150 pieces of evidence as they processed the scene. They even took out pieces of carpet and the majority of the couch where Charlene’s body had been found. In the bathroom, crime scene techs went through the sink and tub drains as they looked for evidence. Strangely enough, authorities realized that the door had been locked when the neighbor arrived. Whoever had killed Charlene had been able to lock the door on the way out.

Police were immediately suspicious about the fathers of Charlene’s sons, but they weren’t the only persons of interest in the case. It turns out Charlene had a few enemies who might have reason to want her dead.

Charlene had gone to high school with another neighbor, Emma White, but the pair did not get along. Emma believed Charlene was snitching to police about drug activity in the apartment complex and regularly confronted Charlene about her suspicions. Emma also tried to borrow money from Charlene and then threatened her when Charlene didn’t have any money to give. Charlene was afraid of Emma, but the police were able to confirm Emma’s alibi and rule her out as a suspect.

Their search for answers led them to the home of Willard McCarly, the father of Charlene’s younger son. According to Charlene’s mother, McCarly was angry and denied that he was the father when Charlene told him she was pregnant.

At the time of the murder, Charlene had recently gotten the results from a paternity test. The test confirmed it — Willard was the father. The results meant Charlene would be able to request child support.

Learn how police identified the true suspect and hear more about the testimony of a traumatized toddler that put a man behind bars on Murder in the Heartland on ID on Nov. 30 at 9/8c. More episodes are available now on discovery+.

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