The murder of Tara Munsey

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It was the beginning of a new millennium & 16-year-old Tara Rose Munsey was a sophomore at Radford High School in Radford, Virginia when she suddenly went missing.

Tara was born on February 2,1983 in Radford, Virginia to parents Kitty & Bill. Despite her parents divorcing when she was young, she was very close to both. She was described as an out-going girl who was very friendly & pleasant & her dad would say that she was one-of-a-kind. At the time, Tara was working part-time at Taco Bell to earn extra money. She was dating her high school classmate, Nick & her dad said they were very much in love though described their relationship as the fast & the furious. Sometimes things were great & other times not. When Nick graduated from high school he joined the Navy & was stationed in Illinois. Despite Tara’s young age, their relationship was very serious & they hoped to eventually get married. 

Tara & Nick

On the afternoon of Tuesday, January 25, 2000, Tara & a couple of her friends went to the apartment of James Moede, a guy that they knew. They hung out & smoked marijuana before she was scheduled to work a shift at Taco Bell. Tara left the apartment at 2:30pm & went to work; after, she made plans to meet her dad & brother to watch a basketball game.

At about 8pm that night, Tara’s dad, Bill drove past the Taco Bell to their meeting point & noticed that Tara’s car was still in the parking lot. Finding this strange, he went into the restaurant to see why she hadn’t left & was told by her co-worker that she had clocked out a half-hour earlier & they hadn’t seen her since. Bill was immediately concerned & called police who didn’t take the report very seriously & felt that she would likely return home since she had only been missing for a couple of hours. Bill knew that something was wrong since Tara always checked in & was a reliable person. When Bill looked inside Tara’s unlocked car, he found her work hat & to-go food container in her front seat though her purse & keys were missing. Because of the frigid weather, police doubted that she would have just dropped these items & walked away. When Tara hadn’t returned after twenty four hours, her parents knew that something wasn’t right; they knew she would never run away.

Word of Tara’s disappearance quickly spread around town & search parties came together & began to look for her in the freezing cold. Some people believed that Tara may have run away to be with her boyfriend, Nick, but when police spoke with him, he hadn’t heard from her. His commanding officer also confirmed that he hadn’t left the base. There were also no findings that she’d purchased a bus or airline ticket. A co-worker of Tara’s let the police know that while she was working the drive-thru the day before she had disappeared, she had gotten into an argument with two males. Taco Bell had no surveillance cameras in place, so there was no way of police knowing who these men were. This meant there was no surveillance of the parking lot as Tara left that night; her co-workers hadn’t seen anything suspicious after she clocked out & left. 

As the search for Tara continued, two weeks passed & there was still no sign of her until February 10, 2000, a little more than two weeks later. Hikers found a body at the bottom of a 70 foot wooded ravine, seven miles away from Tara’s home by the New River near the community of Parrott, Virginia. Everyone’s worst fears were confirmed when her body was identified by the ID she carried in her back pocket; she was found covered in snow & it was believed she had been killed the night she went missing.  She was found naked from the waist up & she had been shot four times. Injuries also indicated that she had been pushed down the ravine post mortem. Because of the freezing temperatures, her body had little decomposition. 

The ravine where Tara was found tended to be an area where people would litter & discard items, making it hard to determine what might be relevant to Tara’s murder. Police did find a .22 caliber shell casing as well as Tara’s keys & a cigarette with the filter of the cigarette found separated. When Tara’s shirt was located, it was torn & contained the outline of an athletic shoe. 

Tara’s autopsy revealed that she had been shot once in the chest & three times in the face at close range, likely with the muzzle of the gun held to her body. Tissue & blood under her nails as well as bruising on her arms & legs suggested that she had fought her killer before her death. A rape kit found no signs of sexual assault though semen was found on Tara’s body & DNA was sent in for further testing. Investigation of the bullet casings found unique grooves on the bullet; only three .22 caliber rifles could have left these markings, a Sears, a Revelation or a Marlin which David Gibbs, a forensic scientist, determined. It was determined that the shoe print was left by a Nike running shoe though the print wasn’t large enough to determine the shoe size.

Investigators began to put a timeline together leading to her disappearance & spoke to Tara’s friends who were with her on the day that she disappeared. As they hung out at the apartment that Tuesday after school, they told investigators that an older man named Jeff Thomas had given them the weed & hung out with them. Tara used to babysit Jeff’s six-year-old daughter & he was also dating her boyfriend’s mom. He was 30-years-old, unemployed & mostly stayed in his girlfriend’s basement. Despite the fact that he was thirty, he often hung out with local teenagers. He had a history of violence; eight years earlier he was sentenced to two years in prison for attacking a neighbor with a baseball bat. Jeff denied having anything to do with Tara’s disappearance. 

When police brought Jeff in for questioning, he claimed to have stayed the night at his friend’s house, Kevin Willaims. When Kevin was interviewed he denied that Jeff spent the night. During the conversation, police found that Kevin owned a .22 caliber Marlin rifle though he told police that Jeff had his gun for at least some time between December 6, 1999 & January 30, 2000. He offered to let them look in his backyard where he did his target practice. Police found two shell casings under his porch that matched the casings found at the crime scene where Tara was murdered. When Jeff was questioned about the gun, he said he gave it to a mutual friend.

Additional interviews with Tara’s friends indicated that they had seen Jeff’s car follow Tara’s after she left James Moede’s apartment. During a routine traffic stop, a woman named Barbara Helton told police that Jeff had been staying with her the night that Tara was murdered. She said he returned home muddy & agitated & told her that he had “messed up & he wouldn’t have hurt her if she had given me what I wanted.” He told Barbara that he approached Tara after she left James’ apartment & offered to sell her more marijuana so they could “party a little bit” when she finished her shift. After she left Taco Bell, they went to a deserted area after Tara left Taco Bell & when he made advances with the goal of having sex with Tara & she refused, he became angry. He confessed to shooting Tara “execution style” three times, saying he pushed her to her hands & knees, grabbed the gun & shot her. The number of shots was never released to the public so police had reason to believe that Barbara was telling the truth. Barbara hadn’t gone to the police sooner since she was afraid of Jeff & feared her own safety. 

After police obtained a search warrant for Jeff’s car, they found a pair of athletic shoes & a forensic scientist was able to match the pattern with what was found on Tara’s shirt.  Three strands of blond hair with the root still attached were also found in the car & the DNA was a match for Tara. Jeff’s DNA was found on Tara’s body, clothes, under her nails, shoe as well as the cigarette butts at the crime scene. 

During the trial, prosecutors presented their case that Jeff waited in the Taco Bell parking lot until Tara finished her shift & convinced her to leave with him so they could smoke pot together. When she denied the sexual advances he eventually made, he became angry & when she fought back, he dragged her from the car, shot her & pushed her body into the ravine. It’s likely he stepped on the front of Tara’s shirt as he shot her with the rifle. He then smoked a cigarette, removing the filter. At some point, he removed her shirt & we also know his seminal fluid was found on her body.

Jeff Thomas

In March of 2001, Jeff was found guilty of capital murder, attempted rape & use of a firearm during the commision of a felony. He was originally sentenced to death but this was overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court; the fourth case in eleven months that was overturned.  It was unanimous, ruling that a Pulaski county judge failed to properly consider a request to move the case to a different location. 95% of potential jurors said they had heard of Tara Munsey’s death & 45% of those interviewed said they couldn’t be impartial. The judge for the case, Colin Gibb, denied the request to move the trial, saying that the 115 newspaper stories & 188 TV reports weren’t an issue because he was eventually able to find a jury who claimed they weren’t biased. 

Tara’s mom Kitty was happy with the decision, saying, “The loss of Tara has been terrible & will always be there, but we don’t wish to see another person die, we don’t wish to see Jeff die. To have her associated with another death & more pain would be terrible.” In June of 2002, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He remains incarcerated at the Keen Mountain Correctional Center in Oakwood, Virginia. 

BIll & Kitty re-married in 2005 & Kitty passed away in June of 2006 from breast cancer.


  1. The Washington Post: Another Virginia Death Sentence Tossed Out
  2. Verity Creates: Thrown In An Icy Ravine: The Murder of Tara Munsey
  3. It’s Crime O’ Clock Somewhere: The Murder of Tara Munsey
  4. The Cinemaholic: Tara Munsey Murder: Where is Jeff Thomas Now?
  5. Forensic Files: Season 14, Episode 10 – Filtered Out

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