Crime Junkie Podcast’s ‘Missing: Denise Pflum’ attempts to untangle what had happened to 18-year-old Denise Pflum when she went missing in late March 1986 from rural Fayette County, Indiana. The authorities had been looking for her for approximately three decades, and finding out what had happened to her was even more challenging. The episode interviews Denise’s family and investigators assigned to examine her case to provide a clear view of the mystery. If you’re interested in knowing what happened, here’s what we know.
How Did Denise Pflum Die?
Denise Diane Pflum was born to David and Judith Pflum in Connersville in Fayette County, Indiana, on January 14, 1968. The 18-year-old was a senior at Connersville High School and had been looking forward to graduating in late March 1986. She had excellent grades and had already been accepted to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where she had been awarded a full academic scholarship. An accomplished athlete, Denise was on the high school basketball and track teams and was one of the top students in her class.
According to reports, Denise was on her spring break from Connersville High School in late March 1986 and attended an outdoor party held on local farmland near her Everton, Indiana, home on March 28. However, she realized she had left her purse there the following day and called several of her friends to see if anyone wanted to go with her to retrieve it. When none of her friends were available, the teenager decided to go alone and left in her 1981 Buick Regal at around 12:30 PM on March 29, 1986.
Denise’s parents claimed that was the last time they had seen their daughter. A farm worker saw Denise’s light-colored vehicle parked in a field in Glenwood, Indiana, approximately three miles from where the party was held. The pasture was about a half-mile from Route 44, close to the Rush-Fayette county line. The farmer did not heed the parked car as he assumed it belonged to some mushroom hunter — a common pastime amongst the locals. Nevertheless, he grew suspicious when he found the Buick Regal still abandoned on March 30.
When the farmer called the Fayette County Sheriff’s Department, the officers quickly connected it with the missing person report filed by Denise’s parents the previous day. After the vehicle was identified as belonging to the missing teen, investigators flocked to the area and found it was locked with no signs of a struggle inside or around it. The authorities conducted a large-scale search, with searchers on foot, horseback, and in a plane scouring the neighborhood for the 18-year-old or evidence linked to the disappearance.
The officers interviewed the parents to learn they did not believe Denise knew anyone who lived in that area and could offer no plausible explanation as to why she had driven there. Besides, Fayette County Detective Ted McQuinley stated on the episode that her car presented no clues. He explained, “There was nothing inside. It was like she drove the car into the lane, parked, got out, locked it up, and vanished.” Sadly, Denise’s body has not been found to date, and the authorities or her family have no clue what happened to her.
Who Killed Denise Pflum?
According to Fayette County Sheriff George Zimmerman, Denise had no history of running away, and it was improbable on her part to go anywhere without letting her parents know. He said, “Denise is a straight-A honor roll student. She is the type of person who doesn’t do this type of thing.” What made the incident murky was she did not take any of her personal belongings with her, and the police later found her missing purse at the property where the party had been organized.
On April 2, 1986, more than 100 police officers and firefighters scoured the 100-acre plot of land in rural Fayette County where the party had been held and 300 acres of surrounding land where the teenager’s car was found. Even after the massive search operation, the authorities found no clues regarding Denise’s whereabouts or what might have happened to her. Admitting their frustration of finding nothing, Detective McQuinley said, “It was a tremendous effort. We have searched everything that we had any information that needs to be searched.”
Despite the absence of physical evidence, the authorities believed foul play was involved in her disappearance. They learned the teen had been her usual friendly and cheerful self in the weeks leading up to the day she went missing. Judith noted, “Denise was an honor student, a talented athlete. She probably would have gotten scholarships, athletic or academic. She had so much going for her. There was no reason to run away.” Eventually, the police asked for help from the public and announced a $5,000 reward on April 25, 1986.
Over the years, there were been numerous theories regarding what had happened and alleged random sightings of Denise throughout the country. The investigators combed through her address book and contacted all the listed individuals. There was even a cruel hoax call on August 10, 1988, where a Norfolk teen called Denise’s parents and pretended to be their missing daughter. Decades passed without any updates or breakthroughs, and the authorities admitted they had no definite theory or person of interest in the case.
Yet, the case took a prominent turn in March 2020 when the authorities announced they had arrested Denise’s ex-boyfriend, Shawn McClung, and charged him with manslaughter in her missing case. A statement provided by the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office read, “The information and probable cause allege that he previously claimed that she was still alive but has recently admitted that he killed her in March 1986.” According to reports, Denise and Shawn had been through an amicable breakup shortly before her disappearance.
According to Detective McQuinley, the officers had questioned Shawn during their initial investigation, and he had claimed she was still alive. He was in prison on unrelated charges when they charged him with his former girlfriend’s murder. Police sources stated Shawn had been given a plea agreement where he would be offered immunity in Denise’s case and have several unrelated charges dropped if he provided truthful information and led authorities to her body.
Surprisingly, the former boyfriend backed out of the deal and claimed he could not provide the body’s location, causing the authorities to charge him with voluntary manslaughter. The trial was scheduled in late 2020, but Shawn died in September that year before it commenced. He had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and his lawyer claimed he gave a false confession in hopes of being freed. A Fayette County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson noted that the three-decade-long investigation into Denise’s disappearance remains open and active.