Texas Kindergartener Found Dead 5 Years After Stranger Kidnapped Her Near Grandparents’ Home
A younger cousin playing outside with Opal Jo Jennings said a man ran up, punched the girl, forced her into a car and sped away.
A 6-year-old child in Texas was abducted and killed, and the man police believe was responsible for the crimes has served decades behind bars despite the fact he was never convicted of murder.
Around 5:30 p.m. on March 26, 1999, Opal Jo Jennings was playing with her 3-year-old cousin and a 4-year-old neighbor in an empty lot next to the home she lived in with her grandparents in Saginaw.
According to the Midland Reporter-Telegram, a man with a ponytail ran up to Jennings, punched her in the chest, and forced the wailing girl into a black car. The preschool children were able to provide enough information about the abductor and the fleeing vehicle for authorities to issue an AMBER Alert.
According to the outlet, authorities launched a search in the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington area for the missing child, and a lead eventually led them to Richard Lee “Ricky” Franks, then 30.
During the police investigation into Franks, officers learned the married suspect was a registered sex offender who had been convicted of charges in connection with the molestation of his 8-year-old niece as well as a second female relative. He also had a half-brother who lived near Opal’s grandparents.
Franks reportedly claimed during a police interview that he had given Jennings a ride but had to fend off the little girl’s sexual advances. He then insisted he dropped the kindergartener off unharmed.
Franks was arrested in August 1999, and his first trial the following June ended in mistrial after jurors deadlocked. At a second trial in September 2000, he was convicted of aggravated kidnapping, and a judge sentenced him to life behind bars. Franks, now 54, must serve a minimum of 35 years of his sentence before he is eligible for parole.
Franks claimed at the time of his conviction that he had a low IQ and that police forced his confession.
Despite multiple searches for Jennings, the girl’s remains weren’t located for nearly five years. On Dec. 30, 2003, two horseback riders found a partial skull in northwest Fort Worth, a remote area around 10 miles from where Jennings lived.
Three days later, officials announced the discovery of Barbie tennis shoes like ones Jennings’ was wearing when kidnapped and bones, which were later confirmed to belong to the young girl.
“It was hard not knowing,” said Jennings’ mother, Leola Sanderford, according to the Midland Reporter-Telegram. “Now, we know she's at peace.”
An autopsy determined Jennings died from blunt-force trauma to the head.
At a January 2004 service to celebrate Jennings’ life, the Plainview Herald reported that her great aunt, Teresa Sanderford, called the child her “blue-eyed princess” and said she wanted everyone to “remember the sweet little girl and not the victim.”
Opal's grandmother, Audrey Sanderford, said at the time that locating the child brought her comfort and helped the healing process begin.
“We know that she is home, in God's hands,” she said. “That part, in a way, is a wonderful feeling. In another way, she is our baby.”