Today, the skies become unfriendly when travelers refer to flight attendants as stewardesses. This faux pas, passengers report, equals mislabeling crawfish as “crayfish” in South Louisiana. However, in the mid-twentieth century, the stewardess and hostess titles signified beauty and dedication to duty. The appellation described only the best-dressed and the best-groomed of young women, usually single, slim, and attractive.
In 1962, Trans-Texas Airways Stewardess Donna Janell Kimmey worked from the airport hub in Dallas, flying into Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. TTA advertisements that year depicted their attendants as the most courteous and most attractive “angels” in the air, and Donna, a 22-year-old former beauty queen, wore the wings on her cap with pride.
Shortly before Christmas that year, someone strangled Donna in a New Orleans motel room bathtub, across Airline Highway, opposite New Orleans International Airport (previously called Moisant Field). Today, more than half a century later, police remain clueless as to who killed her.
Donna Kimmey graduated high school in Huntington, Texas, in 1958. That year she worked as editor of the school paper and manager of the basketball team. Her classmates voted her “the most beautiful girl in Angelina County.”
Donna joined TTA two years after graduation. Jo-Ann Gentry, the Houston stewardess who replaced Donna on the missed flight following her murder, said Donna loved her job and her life. She dated whomever she wanted and had “friends everywhere.” Jo-Ann told police the two planned a European vacation for the summer of 1963.
Following the death of Marilyn Monroe in August 1962, Donna bleached her brown hair in tribute, never dreaming her own death would soon follow.
At 10 a.m., Dec. 17, 1962, a bellhop at the posh Hilton Inn unlocked the door to a connected room in the suite of 12 leased by TTA for employees between flights.
Usually prompt, Donna Kimmey missed her morning flight to Little Rock, prompting airline officials to investigate. When no one answered the door, TTA personnel contacted the motel manager for help.
Inside, TTA staff found the room in disarray.
Police said later the disorder did not appear to be from a search for valuables. Investigators theorized that a scuffle had taken place in the room.
On the still-made bed, a letter lay, half-completed with a ballpoint pen just below an unfinished sentence. Donna had been writing a naval officer who sailed from San Diego for duty in the Pacific a few days earlier.
In a tiny bathroom, searchers found Donna’s body partially submerged in a tub of water, the top half of a two-piece nightgown pulled to her shoulders. The crew backed out of the room and phoned the sheriff’s office, who contacted the Kenner Police Department and the parish coroner.
Captain Richard Morris of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office told reporters that morning that police could not locate the bottom half of Donna’s nightgown or any undergarments. They found her purse near the bed, but no wallet or luggage anywhere in the room.
Captain Morris said both of Donna’s wrists appeared broken. “There are bruises on her face and neck like she had been choked,” he said. “At this time, we believe robbery was the motive, but the coroner is testing for rape.”
The following Wednesday, Dr. Charles B. Odom, Jefferson Parish coroner, said tests found no evidence of a sexual assault. He said an autopsy indicated the cause of death to be asphyxiation due to strangling.
Based on the autopsy findings, Dr. Odom reset the probable time of death at near midnight, Sunday evening. At the crime scene two days earlier, he told Captain Morris her death could have come before 7 that evening.
Five motel employees who saw Donna that day passed polygraph tests, including a restaurant waiter who delivered a cold plate lunch to her at 5:30 that evening. The police released four of the five, holding the black waiter “because he was the last person to see the stewardess alive.”
When Dr. Odom revised Donna’s time of death, police released the waiter after three days in jail.
Dr. Odom found bruises on Donna’s throat. Her left hyoid bone, a horseshoe-shaped bone in the anterior midline of the neck between the chin and the thyroid cartilage, had been fractured. The autopsy also found blood inside her windpipe.
Dr. Odom said Donna did not drown, although water filled her lungs.
“We think the killer strangled her and then tried to cover up. He drew water in the bathtub and placed her body inside to give the appearance of drowning,” Odom said.
“Judging from the damage to the tissues, her attacker must have been an extremely powerful man,” he added. “She had no chance to cry out. The killer apparently grabbed her at the throat the minute the door opened and didn’t let go until she died,” Odom said.
“There was no flesh or hair under her fingernails to indicate that she scratched or clawed her attacker. The attack was so swift and so violent that she was unable to resist. It would take a strong person to accomplish this.
“Death comes only a matter of minutes when something cuts off the air to a person’s lungs, and unconsciousness comes even more quickly,” the doctor said. “She probably was unconscious within 60 to 80 seconds of the moment the assailant grabbed her by the throat.”
The police found no new clues in the case until Friday, Jan. 11, 1963.
That evening, Kenner City Marshal Salvadore Lentini told a press conference that two young boys had discovered Donna Kimmey’s wallet. The wallet lay in a drainage ditch just off the Airline Highway in Kenner.
Inside, he said, police found her TTA employee identification card, but no money.
Captain Morris also joined the press conference, saying that police believed Donna’s assailant tossed the wallet from a passing automobile as he escaped. He also said finding the wallet provided the first new evidence since the day the bellhop found Donna’s body. Unfortunately, finding the wallet also marked the last time police made progress on the case.
In May 1993, Tom Cavanaugh, a retired New York City detective, wrote a book naming Charles E. Terry as one of two Boston Stranglers, confessed serial killer Albert DeSalvo being the second.
Under interrogation in June 1963, Terry told Cavanaugh that he visited New Orleans in December 1962. This information led Cavanaugh to believe that Terry killed Donna Kimmey, but he never found evidence to support his theory.
Charles E. Terry did not strangle Donna Kimmey in 1962. Next week, I plan to expose the monster who did – and tell you where he lives.
“Bayou Justice” is a weekly true crime column featuring exciting or notable crime-related stories often focusing on cold case files in South Louisiana; stories based on interviews with key players, among them: police investigators, lawyers, victims, and their families. If you have information regarding this case or another unsolved crime, contact Crime Stoppers or your local police agency, or email bayou firstname.lastname@example.org.