Family remembers Jessica Roach with scholarship, memorial
Jessica Roach was only 15 and a high school sophomore when she was abducted near her rural Georgetown home and strangled to death by a stranger.
She never had a chance to graduate, further her education and fulfill her dream of flying airplanes.
This spring, more than two decades after her death, Jessica's family will award a $1,000 scholarship in her name to a graduating senior at Georgetown-Ridge Farm High School — something they hope to do each year.
They will also dedicate a memorial to her at the school. Terry Roach, Jessica's mother, hopes it will serve as a reminder to people — especially young people — to always be aware of their safety.
"Kids think they're invincible and that nothing bad will ever happen to them ... certainly, that nothing bad will happen in Georgetown, Illinois. But it can," Roach said.
"What happened to Jessi ... is something you wouldn't wish on anybody. It was such a sad, terrible thing. But we hope that something good can come out of this — that kids will pay more attention to their surroundings and be protected."
Jessica disappeared on Sept. 20, 1993, while riding her bike on Mill Street east of Georgetown. Her remains were found in a cornfield near Perrysville, Ind., about six weeks later.
Terry, an optician, and her husband — Loren Roach, then a construction worker — waited about 14 months before police arrested a 31-year-old former janitor from Wabash, Ind., named Larry Hall in connection with their daughter's death.
In 1995, Hall was tried and convicted of Jessica's kidnapping and murder and sentenced to life in prison. However, an appellate court overturned the conviction in 1996 and ordered a new trial. He was tried and convicted again in 1997. That conviction was upheld in 1999.
Now 51, Hall is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole in a North Carolina federal prison. He's been a suspect in and confessed to the rape and murder of other young women, though he's never been charged in crimes against anyone else.
In February 1994, the Roaches moved to the Springfield area — a move prompted by Roach's job and one that had been planned before Jessica's abduction. The distance from Georgetown and the media spotlight helped.
"Whenever I went someplace — to the grocery store, wherever — you felt like everybody knows who you are," Roach explained. "This allowed us that personal space so we could heal. We didn't feel like every time you turned around, everyone was looking at you."
But that didn't mean she wanted people to forget her daughter or what happened to her.
When people think of Jessica, Roach wants them to remember the pretty, shy girl who loved to watch "Gone with the Wind" and always had her nose stuck in a book. She was close to her older sister, Myndi, and younger brother, Chris.
"Jessi was just starting to become a young woman and talk about what she might want to do," her mother said, adding her daughter had told her dad she was interested in becoming a pilot. "She didn't want the little ones. She wanted to fly big planes — commercial airliners and jet planes. She wanted to go as fast as she could go."
Roach said her family has long had a desire to establish a scholarship in Jessica's name to help other students achieve their goals.
"But it's just really been an emotional thing to try to put together. I didn't want to start anything that the kids weren't ready to deal with," said Roach, whose other kids were 17 and 13 when they lost their sister.
It was actually Jessica's sister, now Myndi Hawkins, who suggested launching a fundraiser for the scholarship last September around the 20th anniversary of Jessica's disappearance. Family and friends held a benefit in Georgetown and raised enough money for the first scholarship — which they will award to a female student recommended by school officials around graduation — and $500 toward next year's.
Prior to then, Hawkins had gone to a rummage sale in Georgetown and learned that the man holding the sale had a history of raising funds to help veterans and their families. When she told the man she was interested in raising money for the scholarship, he volunteered not only to help with the benefit but also to donate a memorial for Jessica.
"It just made me happy that after all of this time, someone felt so strongly ... that they wanted to help us with this," Roach said of the gift.
Principal Brad Russell said the marker, made by Adams Memorial, will be placed by a tree that was planted in Jessica's memory. Students in the school's buildings trades class will help pour the concrete footings and set the stone in place in the next couple of weeks.
Russell, who grew up in Bismarck, was away at college when Jessica disappeared, but was shocked when he read about it in the news.
"I remember thinking, 'How could this happen in this small community?'" he said. "I think the memorial will be a good reminder of what happened, and how quickly life can change."
That's why the family decided to have Jessica's missing person poster etched onto the black granite stone. Along with the information is the phone number for the National Center of Missing & Exploited Children and the reminder "No one thinks it will happen to them."
"We never thought anything like that would happen to one our children," Roach said. "I'm sure many parents, even today, go along thinking the same thing. We assume everything is going to be OK. We forget there are people out there like Larry Hall who make it their job to hunt our kids."
Jessica would be 36 now. While her family has healed, Roach said she sometimes feels sad when she thinks about all of the things her daughter has missed — being part of her siblings' weddings, being an aunt to her two nieces and nephew and realizing her own dreams.
"A lot of people have asked, 'How do you deal with it?' Really, you don't know what you can handle until you have to," Roach reflected.
"I found you can either grow from it, or you can die from it. I can't tell you when, but at some point I finally decided that Larry Hall had all the control over my life that he was going to have. From that decision, you grow and you heal and you get better.
"For me, the more I talk about it, the better it is. It keeps things in perspective. And I hope that people, even one person, will learn from it and be protected."