The Times West Virginian

August 13, 2012

Unanswered questions

Fame Cooper's family still seeking answers after all these years

By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — When 14-year-old Fame Cooper ran away from home in July 1990, her family wasn’t that concerned.

She’d done this before. They knew the drill: She’d leave a note and call to let them know she was OK, and be back in a couple of days.

But this time, something was off. She didn’t leave that note. She never made that call. It was like she’d disappeared.

As days passed into weeks and then months, and there was still no word from her, her family grew concerned.

According to her older sister, Sunshine Hornick, the family waited until September to report her missing.

She was last seen July 11, but it would be almost four months to the day until they learned what happened to the dark-haired teen.

On a darkening early evening, shortly before 5 p.m., on Saturday, Nov. 10, 1990, some hunters stumbled upon her skeletal remains in a cow pasture at Robinson Hollow near Barrackville.

Her murder remains one of Fairmont’s most troubling open cases.

‘14 going on 30’

Fame Cooper was born Sept. 19, 1975, a daughter of Tina Marie Sopranik and Rick Less. Her mother reportedly named her after the David Bowie song, “Fame.”

She had an older sister, Sunshine Hornick, and younger brother, Rodney Sopranik. Each of the three siblings had a different father and last name.

Sunshine’s birth last name was Cooper, but she took her grandmother Evelyn Hornick’s last name when she adopted Sunshine at age 6, and has lived with her since on Fairmont’s East Side.

Fame was born Fame Less. Her father was Rick Less, who later was convicted of the 1986 first-degree murder of Cindy Croston. She lived with a maternal aunt, Mary White, who was her temporary legal guardian, and great-grandfather on Fairmont’s West Side.

“She wanted to know who her father was, but he really didn’t want to be in her life at all,” Hornick said. “He really didn’t want anything to do with Fame. They thought it was best if she had my father’s last name (Cooper).”

Almost 22 years after her sister’s death, Hornick finds it easy to talk about Fame.

Fame Cooper was a walking contradiction in terms: In other words, a fairly typical teenage girl.

“She liked the boys,” Hornick said fondly of her little sister. “She had crushes on lots of different boys. She liked to go to school dances. She’d go to ball games just to see who was there.”

Fame, then just two months from her 15th birthday, “was your typical fun-loving, boy-loving, popular girl,” her sister said.

“She liked Paul Stanley of KISS. She had his pictures all over the wall. She was not into boy bands. She was more into hard rock kind of stuff.”

Described as having “homecoming queen looks,” the dark-haired, dark-eyed slender girl dreamed of becoming a model. She was shy, enthusiastic, compassionate and loved rock music — and the boys.

But there was an edge to Fame.

She was also moody and depressed, and as one relative put it, “14 going on 30.” And she ran away a lot.

‘This isn’t right’

“I don’t think she did that to hurt any of us,” Hornick said. “I think she was trying to find herself — who am I, what do I really want — that kind of stuff.

“So when she disappeared that July, nobody thought it was unusual.”

Yet it was.

“I remember the last weekend I saw her,” Hornick said. “I’m thinking it was around July 4 of that year. She’d wanted me to come over to our great-grandfather’s house and stay the weekend. Then one of her friends called and she went to stay with them. I was really ticked off because she’d invited me over there.

“I don’t even remember the girl’s name. All I remember is she came with her mother or father to pick Fame up. I remember Fame had a bag of clothes and stuff with her. She just got in the car and left. I didn’t know that was the last time I’d ever see her.

“We just figured she was with a friend and forgot to call home, you know? She did that a couple of times. But usually she’d call and say she was OK, she was at so-and-so’s house. So this wasn’t that unusual, but it was a little unusual.”

July passed. No word from Fame.

August passed. School started and still no word from Fame.

September. It was getting close to her 15th birthday and still no word.

White finally reported her missing to the police.

“This isn’t right,” she told them.

Even as the search for the young teen went on, her family heard nothing from her.



‘In search of something’

In an article published in the Times West Virginian on Nov. 21, 1990, Mary White told reporter Don Palmerine that Fame’s troubles seemed to have started in October 1989.

“She said she wanted to go out for parties and stay out all night. She wanted to come and go as she pleased. She was just 14 but she wanted to do adult things. She wanted to grow up too fast,” White was quoted as saying.

“She was a delightful child who was in search of something she couldn’t find.

“The friends she brought home were fine. But the friends she didn’t bring home influenced her.”

White would think Fame was safe and fast asleep in her bed, but when she checked on the teen, she would have slipped out the window and made her bed to look like she was still in it.

“She’d be gone for a few days, but she’d always leave a note telling us not to worry,” White said in the 1990 interview. “We would call the police every time she ran away.”

She would drive Fame to school, only to learn Fame would “go in one door and out another.”

When she came home, Fame would be apologetic. “This will never happen again,” she’d promise.

“But three days, a week later, and she’d do the same thing again,” White said in the 1990 article.

Fame attended East Fairmont for at least nine weeks her freshman year, but only off and on.

Sue Petonic, then-assistant principal at EFHS, was quoted as saying Fame was “a very quiet young lady, no problem at school as far as behavior was concerned. She was out of school part of (her freshman) year because of home-bound status.”

Fame was taken to a girl’s home in Elkins for a while, the article stated.

In January 1990, she attempted suicide, White told the reporter, by overdosing on cold medicine. They rushed her to the hospital, where she was kept for a few days.

“But she eventually ran away from that,” White said.

The article stated that Fame saw several counselors, including the youth pastor at her church. But nothing seemed to help the troubled girl.



‘Someone took that child’s life’

Then-Sheriff Junior Slaughter told the press that evidence confirmed the teen had been murdered and her case was being investigated as a homicide.

She had to be identified through medical and dental records.

Ted Offutt, then-Fairmont police chief, confirmed this for this article. He had been asked by Sheriff Slaughter to help investigate the case when it happened.

“It was basically obvious,” Offutt said. “There were ligatures on the body, wire used to bound her up. It was still present. You don’t have death of natural causes when the person is tied up. The autopsy ruled the cause of death a homicide. And that made it a murder case.

“Someone took that child’s life.

“The mom didn’t do much in raising this child. She had a miserable life as a kid. She was a truant who had very little supervision. I don’t want to say bad things about her. But she didn’t have much of a chance. And unfortunately this individual took advantage of that fact.”

He referred to a person of interest also suspected in the murder of another Marion County girl.

“We were confident he had committed the murder but there wasn’t enough evidence to file murder charges. With double jeopardy, if we had gone to trial and he was acquitted, even if we found major evidence the next week, we couldn’t try him again. We had him in jail on unrelated charges. But I’m confident he got away with these murders.”

According to Fame’s death certificate, the cause of her death was “undetermined,” and the date, time, place, description and location of injuries were all listed as “unknown.”

“There were all kinds of stories,” Hornick said. “That they found a rope around her neck. They found this with her. They found that with her. She may have been stabbed. She may have been shot. All kinds of crazy stuff.

“I never knew what to believe and what not to believe. The police didn’t tell us anything.”

Police asked Mary White to identify the body, which she did from some of Fame’s personal items.

“At first they just said it could be Fame,” Hornick said. “They didn’t find a whole body. I thought, ‘It can’t be her. Maybe she’s gone out West or something.’ And when they proved it was her, I was devastated. What made it worse was that the last time I saw her, I was really ticked off at her. But I would have stopped her, oh, yeah, if I had known.”

Tina Sopranik was upset at the news, “but she was the kind of person who never let anything bother her,” Sunshine Hornick said. “We always had problems with our mother, but she loved us in her own odd way. She passed away in 1992.”



‘Almost like twins’

Fame Cooper’s funeral was held in December 1990. She is buried in Barrackville Cemetery.

Every Sept. 19, on Fame’s birthday, Hornick places flowers on her grave.

“We choose to celebrate her life, not her death. We don’t do anything on the anniversary of when she was found. I don’t even think about that day,” she said.

She has her own theory about what happened to Fame.

“I think she overheard something she wasn’t supposed to and they were like, ‘We gotta get rid of her.’ I don’t know what that is or who it was. But I’m sure (the person of interest) had something to do with it. Even if not directly, he was an accomplice if he didn’t do it himself.

“I want the police to find who did this and I want them prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and I just want it to be over,” Hornick said fiercely. “Whoever did this to Fame has done it before or is doing it now. He needs to be stopped so he doesn’t kill other people.”

Losing Fame affected her family in different ways, she said.

“We were so close, almost like twins. For years I couldn’t deal with it and it caused other problems in my life, like depression and anxiety. Through counseling I was able to bring a lot of this to the surface, deal with it and move on. But it took a lot of years.”

She thinks of her sister often, she added.

“We’d just hang out and listen to music and talk about things. I was really a shy kid but I’d like to listen to her talk. She’d say things like, ‘I have a huge crush on so-and-so and maybe I should tell him. What do you think?’ Things like that.”

She liked stuffed animals but not dolls. Fame, on the other hand, was a big doll person.

“She had two big trunks of clothes for her Barbie dolls and her Cabbage Patch Kids. She loved those things.”

Evelyn Hornick has fond memories of Fame, who stayed with her for a while, along with Sunshine and Rodney, of whom she had temporary custody twice.

“When Sunshine started school down here at State Street, we bought her a Mickey Mouse watch with a red band. Fame was here then, too. When I went in to check on them, Sunshine was asleep and Fame had her arm over her. And there was that red watch on her hand. So we went and bought her one, too.”

Every time she hears about another missing child, Sunshine Hornick feels their pain.

“I know what these families are going through. They need to try to keep having faith in one way or another so they’ll get some kind of closure.”



‘Homicides never close’

“I think they can solve the case if they want to,” Hornick said. “I’ve heard of and read stories that 20, 30 years later they solve murder cases, so it can be done. I just wish they’d get on the ball and do it. It’s just that they have to want to.”

She understood why the police didn’t tell the family everything about Fame’s case, she said.

“I knew it would compromise the case. I understand that and I totally respect that. But I felt like we were completely in the dark. Nobody would come up and say they were still working on it. Or they still have clues. Nobody ever said that, even after they found her.

“Even 20 years later and nothing. It’s frustrating, but I want the police to solve this. The way I look at it now is even if the person or persons escaped human justice, there is still a universal justice. They’ll pay for it one way or another.”

“He was the only one who was a suspect,” Offutt said of the person of interest. “I’m confident he was the individual, but what you feel doesn’t count. It has to be a case built on facts.

“When circumstantial cases go to trial, evidence can stack up and make a compelling case. But with this case, there was not.”

There was “almost enough” evidence to go to trial, he said. “But we needed a confession and we didn’t get that. It did not get to the point where we could file charges. There are cases like that.

“The prosecution didn’t feel comfortable in going to trial. I would have taken the chance. If we could have made the connection the night both these children died, we could have made the case. I wanted to charge him with murder. But I understood that with double jeopardy, you get just one shot. If you lose, you don’t get to retry.

“The prosecution felt that down the road he would slip up or confess or they’d find a key piece of evidence. But that never happened. He’s still alive.

“He’s a very dangerous individual, a very scary predator ... a sadomasochistic pedophile ... and murderer.”

The case remains open, Offutt said.

“Homicides never close.”

Email Debra Minor Wilson at dwilson@timeswv.com.