NEWPORT, N.C. (WNCT) — On June 16, 1975, 15-year-old Donna Emmel spent a quintessential summer day at Grice’s Grill.
Donna was described as an outgoing tomboy. She preferred cut-off shorts and getting outside over dresses and makeup. Donna’s cousin, Beverly, recalled only two times that Donna wore a dress, once at a school dance and when she was buried.
“She was a tiny little thing, but she was a spitfire,” Beverly told Dateline. “If you made her mad, watch out. I call her a spitfire.”
Grice’s Grill was a popular place for teens to hang out, featuring pool tables and an arcade. It was on US Highway 70, between military bases and the beach. Beverly never hung out at the grill with Donna, claiming that Donna spent time there with the “wrong crowd”.
Donna’s mother, Emily, called the grill that evening around 8:30 pm, telling Donna that it was time to come home. Witnesses from the grill stated that Donna left after the phone call and took her usual route home through a shortcut in the woods. She never made it home.
“She wasn’t one to stay out all night,” Beverly said. “And Aunt Emily would have never let her stay out. She knew something was wrong when Donna didn’t show up.”
Emily called the police that night when her daughter never showed up. Donna was officially reported missing the night of June 16.
Donna’s little brother told Emily that he had seen his sister on the path home that night with an unknown man.
The search for Donna ended the next day, June 17, when police found her body in a drainage ditch on Easy Street across from the Emmel home. The autopsy of her body showed that she died by strangulation and that she had not been sexually assaulted. Police told Emily that the killer had placed Donna’s body in the ditch after the murder, believing that she was killed somewhere else.
“I never saw her, of course, but my Aunt Emily did,” Beverly told Dateline. “I’ll never forget what she said – that it looked like Donna had been carefully placed in the ditch like she was being put to bed.”
Police questioned over 100 people in the first week after the murder, searching for the strange man, but none of them resulted in an arrest.
The sheriff’s office had a particular suspect they paid a lot of attention to. Stationed at Cherry Point was a US Marine named Gregory Allen. He hung around Grice’s Grill often as the military base was close. Police spoke to Allen once in 1975 and decided to let him go. He returned to his home in Wisconsin shortly after.
Allen ended up being arrested for sexually assaulting a woman in Green Bay, Wisconsin in the 1990s. His DNA had been placed in a database when he was convicted and this connected him to another case, a rape of a woman in 1985.
When police in Newport heard of Allen’s arrest, they told the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office in Wisconsin they believed he had something to do with Emmel’s murder. However, Allen was uncooperative, resulting in the questioning being dropped.
To this day, no one knows who murdered Donna Emmel. Donna’s mother, Emily, died in 1995 from cancer. Donna’s cousin, Beverly, is still holding out hope for justice.
“I wanna know why her? Why Donna?” Beverly said. “She had her whole life ahead of her. She didn’t deserve this. It’s past time for her to get justice.”
Anyone with information that may help solve Donna’s case is asked to call the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation at (919) 662-4500.