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Baby in the Car: The Lori Hayes Story

On a steamy August day in 1999, people outside a movie theater in Springfield, Illinois, heard the cries of an infant inside a vehicle. The jeep seemed to be abandoned, with no keys or adults inside, but the baby was sweltering hot and screaming. A woman removed the baby from the vehicle and brought her to a safe place to cool down while the authorities were called. Where were the parents of this child and why was the baby abandoned? This is the story of Lori Hayes.

Lori was born Lori Kotzbauer in 1974 in Indianapolis, Indiana. She eventually moved with her family to Kentucky. She graduated from Tates Creek High School and then the University of Kentucky. She married Brad Hayes and the couple moved to the Springfield, Illinois area. They bought a house in nearby Auburn and settled down to start a family. Lori took a job for the State of Illinois in the Kid Care Program. The couple was delighted to welcome daughter Alexis in early 1999.

Friends and family later recounted some difficulty in Brad and Lori’s marriage after the birth of Alexis. Being new parents is always a strain on a relationship, but twenty-five-year-old Lori seemed generally happy in her marriage. Brad’s career did take him out of town at times, leaving Lori alone with Alexis for days at a time. That was the case in the day leading up to that fateful day in August. In fact, Lori’s mother had left earlier that day to head back to Kentucky after a brief visit while Brad was out of town. Her family frequently visited and helped Lori care for Alexis when Brad was away. As Lori’s mother left for Kentucky, Lori explained she was going to take Alexis and do some shopping.

Later that day, authorities responded to the mall parking lot outside the movie theater when they received a call about an abandoned child in a hot car. Police didn’t know exactly what they were dealing with but started by running the plates on the jeep to determine who owned the vehicle. It belonged to Brad and Lori Hayes. Oddly enough, Lori’s purse and wallet were still in the vehicle and specks of blood were found near the trunk of the car. Something sinister may have happened to Lori. Something more than an abandoned child was going on here.

When police arrived at the home of Brad and Lori Hayes, they met with Brad as he was coming home from his business trip. Brad was wearing a baseball cap and told police when he returned home from his trip to Denver, he immediately left again to play baseball with friends. This may have seemed odd, but Brad explained that this was not unusual for him. Brad denied any issues in his marriage. Police considered him a person of interest in the disappearance of his wife, but they couldn’t prove anything just yet.

A witness told authorities that he saw someone driving the vehicle near the mall and told police the person was wearing a baseball cap. This reaffirmed the detectives’ suspicions that Brad may have been involved. They questioned him again but were not able to uncover any new leads or evidence of his involvement. He did provide a DNA sample willingly to detectives.

A police officer was on patrol and noticed some areas of a cornfield that appeared to have fresh tracks running through them. The deputy, on a hunch, followed the tracks several yards in and found the deceased body of twenty-five-year-old Lori Hayes. Her cause of death was immediately evident- she had a gunshot wound to the head. Her wedding ring was still on, which along with her wallet and purse being found in the vehicle led authorities to believe this crime was not motivated by robbery. Her autopsy showed evidence of sexual assault and semen was collected and processed for DNA.

(Above: Lori Hayes)

The DNA results exonerated her husband of any guilt. Brad was not Lori’s killer. Extraordinarily, the DNA did match to an open case. Very recently, a real estate agent reported a rape. She was showing a house to a man when he locked the door, frisked her, confiscated her phone, and then raped her. As he was leaving the house with her, presumably to permanently silence her, she was smart enough to walk out behind him. She let him out the door and then shut and locked the door. She called 911 as he fled. Lori’s killer was the same man as the real estate agent’s rapist and DNA proved it.

Without any other leads in Lori’s case, authorities began to focus on the rape since DNA linked the two crimes. They learned another real estate agent reported an attempted rape. While she was able to escape, she was able to provide a description for a sketch artist and a recorded voicemail message left by the perpetrator. Something both real estate agents told police troubled them, however. The man had secured the women, frisking them, like possibly a police officer would do. Was it possible one of their own was responsible?

Another officer came forward and told the detectives that the sketch marked a rape suspect she recently arrested. The man’s photo was put in a line up and he was identified by the real estate agent as her rapist. The detectives spoke with the man, who was already facing charges for a different sexual assault, but he denied he was involved and volunteered his DNA. The DNA, surprisingly, was not a match to the rape or murder case. The man was a victim of mistaken identification, at least for this crime.

Then something crazy happened. A woman who worked at a local security agency recognized the sketch and thought it looked familiar to one of her co-workers. The woman did not go to authorities, however, with her suspicions. Instead, she pulled out a photo ID in her co-worker’s employee file. She used a friend in real estate to learn who the real estate agent who had been victimized was. She went to this woman and showed her the photo of her co-worker. The real estate agent again positively identified the man as her rapist. There were two problems, however. She had already mistakenly identified one man and the method in which this amateur sleuth took to the identification process was not admissible as she did not show the woman an array of pictures but a photo of just one suspect. None the less, police wanted to investigate her co-worker, a man named Dale Lash.

Police brought Dale Lash in for questioning. He admits to having consensual sex with a real estate agent but insists he hasn’t raped or killed anyone. Dale Lash’s brother was brought in and asked to listen to the voicemail the suspect left one real estate agent. He told police it was his brother’s voice. Dale’s ex-girlfriend told police that Dale was sexually aggressive and abusive. Furthermore, Dale worked as a security guard and so would be familiar with frisking and securing a suspect just as the rapist did to his victims. This was enough for a warrant to search his home and gather a DNA sample.

When the DNA came back, it was a match to both the rape of the real estate agent and the murder of Lori Hayes. When confronted, Dale said “I’m fucked” (Unusual Suspects: Deadly Intent, 2017). Dale was arrested for the rape of the real estate agent and the murder of Lori Hayes. He was convicted of a total of 5 counts of aggravated sexual assault, 1 count armed robbery, 1 count of aggravated unlawful restraint, 1 count aggravated sexual assault with a firearm, 1 count aggravated vehicle hijacking with a firearm, and 1 count of murder. He was sentenced to death.

In 2003, Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted all death sentences in the State of Illinois to life in prison, including that of Dale Lash. He currently is serving life in prison plus 135 years for his crimes. He is ineligible for parole. That punishment pales in comparison to the pain and trauma he caused the victims of his crimes, including the family and daughter of Lori Hayes. What started out as a baby in a hot car turned into a horrific murder case that was solved by a civilian’s amateur investigative efforts and the power of DNA forensic evidence.



References

Unusual Suspects: Deadly Intent (2017) Field of Nightmares; Investigation Discovery; Season 1 Episode 1; Watch on Discovery Plus

Illinois Department of Corrections (2021) Lash, Dale; Retrieved at: Individuals in Custody (illinois.gov)

FindAGrave.com (2021) Lori Em Kotzbauer Hayes; Retrieved at: Lori Em Kotzbauer Hayes (1974-1999) - Find A Grave Memorial

Lexington Herald-Leader (1999) Obituary: Hayes; Lexington Herald-Leader; 06 Aug 1999; Retrieved at: 06 Aug 1999, 18 - Lexington Herald-Leader at Newspapers.com

Southern Illinoisan (1999) Missing mother found in field; The Southern Illinoisan; 04 Aug 1999; Retrieved at: 04 Aug 1999, Page 4 - Southern Illinoisan at Newspapers.com

The Dispatch (1999) Mother of abandoned baby found dead; The Dispatch Moline; 03 Aug 1999; Retrieved at: 03 Aug 1999, 3 - The Dispatch at Newspapers.com

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