On Sunday May 4th, 2003, I had returned from my senior year prom celebrations and noticed my mom was upset. She had been informed of a horrific crime at my sister’s college, Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky. My sister was a freshman there and was safe. However, another freshman was not. Melissa “Katie” Autry was found around 4 am when the smoke alarm in her dorm sounded. She was alone in her room, badly burned, and barely alive. This is the story of a murder at WKU, the story of Katie Autry.
Melissa “Katie” Autry was born May 10th, 1984, in Kentucky. She had an unstable childhood related to her mother’s mental illness. Katie and her sister were placed in foster care. She eventually went to live with a older foster parents who provided stability for her. Katie thrived in high school. She was a good student and a cheerleader. She was a small petite blonde. As she prepared for college, Katie decided to attend Western Kentucky University so that she could stay close to her foster and biological families.
Katie started her freshman year at WKU in the fall of 2002. She enjoyed college life and a taste of independence. She eventually found a good friend with whom she became roommates with. Her and her roommate frequently went to parties and enjoyed drinking and partying on their college campus. Katie had also begun to explore her sexuality, earning her a not so nice nickname “ho from the second flo” (Logan, 2021). She was involved in a longer sexual relationship with a guy named Maurice. Maurice had a girlfriend out of town, however, and was not interested in a serious relationship with Katie.
During her freshman year of college, Katie decided to emancipate herself from the Kentucky foster care system. She wanted to be independent, but this also meant she lost her funding for college. As a foster child her college education was paid for, but now she had to come up with the funding on her own. She dropped to part time status and began working off campus in various jobs including a brief stint as an exotic dancer.
On Saturday May 3rd, 2003, Katie and her roommate had plans to attend a frat party on campus. They had “pre-gamed” before the party, so when they finally arrived at the party Katie was already intoxicated. Katie had a habit of getting teary and dramatic when she was intoxicated, and her roommate often had to babysit her. Katie spotted Maurice and asked him to dance, an offer he refused. Katie got upset and started a fight with Maurice. Katie got belligerent and disruptive, so the hosts asked her to leave because she was causing a scene.
One of the fraternity pledges was designated to drive people home and offered to take Katie home. Her roommate was having fun and didn’t want to leave. She promised to call Katie later and thanked the driver for brining Katie home. At 2:30 am, a little while after Katie left the party, her roommate called to check on her and make sure she got home okay. Her roommate had plans to stay somewhere else with a friend but was worried about Katie.
Katie answered the phone and told her roommate she was lying in bed. She then told her roommate there was a guy in her room and she was scared. She said she didn’t know who the guy was. Her roommate asked to talk to the person in the room. A male got on the phone and said he was the guy who had brought Katie home. He said he wanted to make sure she got up to her room okay because she was intoxicated and reassured her roommate not to worry. Before hanging up, Katie’s roommate thought she heard a second male voice in the room. She wasn’t overly concerned, however, and told Katie she would see her in the morning.
Approximately an hour and half later, the fire alarm at Hugh Poland Hall sounded. This was not unusual in a college dorm and is often a result of someone burning popcorn. The students filed out of the building, some half asleep and some still intoxicated. They assumed this was another false alarm until fire fighters brought out a badly burned body. That is when they realized something was seriously wrong.
First responders entered the dorm room and quickly located the room that was the source of the fire. Upon entering the room, the fire fighter said the sprinkler had already put the fire out, but he saw something glistening on the bed. He didn’t realize it was a person until he saw the chest rise. On the bed was the badly beaten and burned Katie Autry. She had a shirt wrapped around her face and another piece of fabric was wrapped around the sprinkler system. It was clear that something terrible had happened to Katie. She was, in fact, the source of the fire. Someone had lit her on fire while she was alive. As they carried her out of the building, she said to fire fighters “Take me home”.
Katie had severe burns to her chest and genital area. A hair spray can was found and proved to be used as accelerant. There was alcohol gel placed inside of her, presumably to eliminate any evidence of a sexual assault. She was transferred to Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee in critical condition. The doctors explained that Katie’s burns were so severe that they likely destroyed most of her nerve endings, a blessing as this would have significantly reduced the amount of pain she was in. Despite exceptional care, Katie was unable to survive her injuries and passed away three days later on May 7th, 2003.
Police wanted to figure out why her roommate, whom she was always with, was not home that night. Her roommate explained that she was with another friend that night, but she told authorities about that now ominous phone call between herself, Katie, and an unknown male. Because the male said he was the man who brought her home, they needed to look at the designated driver. They called him in for an interview, but he denied knowing what happened to Katie after he dropped her off. They even questioned her boyfriend, Maurice, but he had an alibi. Eventually, they went back to the designated driver and learned that Katie was not the only person in the vehicle that night.
According to the designated driver, a friend of his was with him that night. His friend, Stephen Soules, was a resident of nearby Scottsville and was not a student at WKU. He had gone with friends to the party but was drunk and passed out in the back of the car. On the drive back to Katie’s dorm, Katie teased Stephen about being sick and called him “sick boy”. When Katie got out of the car, Stephen told his friend that he wanted to “holla at her” and got out of the car.
Stephen Soules was brought in for questioning. Stephen was known as a liar and thief in his community. Stephen was a year or two older than Katie and had a history of being lazy, not attending school or working. He often hung out with other under achievers in Scottsville, Kentucky and was known as a pothead. He had never been in any serious trouble, but was known as a liar, cheat, and thief. Many of the people he hung around with did not trust him and felt hew as a mooch.
When they brought Stephen in for questioning, authorities learned that Stephen and a group of his friends had attended the fraternity party that night. They too had “pre-gamed” and was very intoxicated by the time the party got going. He was sick and went to sleep it off in the back of his friend’s vehicle. He said that on the way to Katie’ dorm, he and her were messing around and making out. He denied, at first, to going up to her dorm room. He later admitted that after she exited the vehicle, he followed her and snuck through the dorm room door before it closed. He said he followed Katie up to her room and they had sex.
The more police talked to Stephen, the more he changed his story. Eventually, he told authorities that he did not hurt Katie, but he knew who had. He said that as she was hanging out with Katie in her room, his friend Lucas Goodrum had called and asked where he was. He said that Lucas then showed up in the dorm room and told Katie he wanted sex. Stephen said that Katie said no, and Lucas violently attacked her. He said that Katie fought back, but was not able to get away from Lucas, who was much bigger than her. He then said he watched as Lucas Goodrum tortured and lit Katie on fire.
Lucas Goodrum was twenty-one years old in the spring of 2003. He was not a student at WKU, or anywhere else for that matter. He was also known as a bit of a screw up, not holding down a steady job or taking steps to get an education. Lucas had been married and divorced already and was the father of a young son. His ex-wife alleged Lucas was abusive to her. The day before Katie was attacked, Lucas was arrested again on domestic violence charges against his girlfriend at the time. Lucas was not a good guy, by any means.
Lucas’s mother had married his stepfather years earlier, who happened to be an heir to the famous Dollar General stores. Lucas’s family, therefore, had money and often supported Lucas while he refused to work and got high on a regular basis. Lucas eventually moved to Scottsville with his father and stepmother. Stephen and Lucas had been friends, but often argued because Stephen was a mooch and liar, according to Lucas. Stephen told Lucas’s girlfriend he was cheating on her, causing the two to argue and Lucas to call Stephen, who was mixed, a racial slur. Despite this, the two agreed to hang out the night of May 3rd and attended the party with other mutual friends.
When brought in for questioning, Lucas recalled seeing Katie at the party but denied ever going to her dorm room. In fact, the RA at another dorm said that Lucas was in the lobby of that building around 2:30 am that morning, the same time as the phone call between Katie and her roommate. Lucas adamantly denied knowing anything about the rape and murder of Katie Autry. His father and stepmother said he was at home before the fire alarms sounded at 4 am, providing him an alibi.
Authorities believed Stephen Soules account of that night, citing Lucas’s history of violence and Stephen’s lack thereof. They said on the episode of Southern Gothic that “we had no reason not to believe Stephen”. Stephen Soules and Lucas Goodrum were both arrested and charged with first degree capital murder. They were both facing the death penalty.
While awaiting trial, the DNA from inside Katie came back. Despite the attempts to use alcohol gel and burn her, semen was still recovered. The DNA was a match to Stephen Soules. There was no evidence from the room that contained Lucas’s DNA. Stephen admitted he had assaulted Katie but said he only did so after Lucas and because Lucas threatened to kill him if he did not. Given the lack of evidence against Lucas Goodrum, authorities were unsure they would secure a conviction. They decided to offer Stephen Soules a deal.
Stephen Soules agreed to plead guilty to all charges which included murder, rape, sodomy, arson, robbery, complicity to commit robbery, and complicity to commit rape. In exchange, the death penalty was taken off the table for Stephen Soules. Stephen, in exchange, also had to testify against Lucas Goodrum at his upcoming capital murder trial.
On the stand, Stephen Soules once again changed his story. He still said Lucas was the one who attacked, beat, and raped Katie initially. He now said, however, that after Lucas forced him to rape her, Stephen was the one who sprayed the hairspray and lit Katie on fire. He said he only did so at Lucas’s direction and under threat, but he had previously said that Lucas was the one who burned Katie alive.
Stephen Soules was the only person whose DNA was found at the crime scene. He now admitted to raping and lighting Katie on fire, causing her death. Lucas Goodrum had an alibi for the night and adamantly denied being involved. His DNA was not found at the scene and no evidence could directly connect him to the crime. The only connection was Stephen Soules say so and a jail house informant who claimed Lucas Goodrum confessed to the crime in jail while awaiting trial. This was not enough evidence for the jury. Lucas Goodrum was found not guilty on all charges and released.
Katie’s family was devastated and believe that Lucas Goodrum got away with rape and murder. Stephen Soules was sentenced to life with no possibility of parole. He remains in the Kentucky Department of Corrections to this day. He is now thirty-nine years old. Lucas Goodrum was charged a few years later with domestic violence and terroristic threats against his ex-wife. He moved to Texas and fell off the public radar. I was unable to determine his current whereabouts.
While many people believe Lucas Goodrum was guilty, there was just not enough evidence. The dorm rooms had to be unlocked by a resident key card. Stephen admitted to following Katie up before the door closed behind her, but how would Lucas have gained access to the building later? Why wasn’t his DNA found on Katie? Why did another person in another dorm claim Lucas was there at 2:30 am? I understand his parents’ alibi may not be solid, but these other factors lead me believe that is may be possible that Stephen Soules was in big trouble and wanted to point the finger at someone else for his heinous crime. I hardly think Lucas Goodrum was a criminal mastermind. If he was involved, the case failed to secure the evidence to prove it.
Cal Turner Jr, the heir to Dollar General, made a generous gift to WKU following the murder of Katie Autry. Some believe that Lucas was white and privileged, being able to afford a better attorney than his alleged co-conspirator. They sight privilege and race, Stephen was mixed, as factors in the acquittal of Lucas Goodrum and life sentence of Stephen Soules. I do not know if there is any truth to this, but I definitely am not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of Lucas’s guilty in this case.
Regardless of opinions on the outcome of this case, one thing is for sure. WKU college students and faculty were forever changes. Security protocols were changed as a result of this terrible crime. Katie will never be forgotten by those who loved her and people who never knew her but connected with her story.