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In the summer of 2016, a young Ohio woman vanished without a trace on a bike ride home from her boyfriend’s house. An investigation into her disappearance lead police to a chilling discovery on a property containing what authorities dubbed a “barn of horrors.”
Sierra Joughin, a soon-to-be junior at the University of Toledo, was a victim of a kidnapping during her school break. A search for the 20-year-old drew hundreds of people who scattered across open Ohio fields in a desperate hunt. Her face was plastered on photos shared by thousands of people. An anonymous donor even offered a $100,000 reward for her safe return, NBC reported in 2016.
The search for Joughin ended when police found her body three days after she vanished, buried in a shallow cornfield grave. Police investigated local residents, including James Worley, a repeat violent offender whose suspicious behavior lead to a search of his barn — revealing a shocking scene.
Who is Sierah Joughin?
Joughin, who went by “Ce,” was born on February 11, 1996 in the small Ohio town of Sylvania, according to Justice for Sierah, an organization dedicated to preventing assaults and abductions. She was a hard-working student at the University of Toledo who enjoyed school and was close with her family. “She was hoping to study abroad this fall,” Sheila Vaculik told People days after her daughter’s disappearance, adding, “She’s very dedicated, caring, compassionate.”
Her mother said that she never thought an abduction could happen in their normally peaceful community. “We live in a very quiet, supportive community and I’ve got younger kids and wouldn’t even bat an eye letting them ride down to my parents’ house,” Vaculik told People before her daughter's body was found. “And now I won’t let them out.”
How was Sierra Joughin kidnapped?
On the evening of July 19, 2016, Joughin was riding her bike home after hanging out with her boyfriend, ABC News reported. He rode next to her on his motorcycle for most of the trip, but parted ways a short distance from Joughin’s residence.
“I remember exactly what I said. I kissed her, I told her I loved her and to text me when she got home,” Josh Kolasinski, Joughin's boyfriend, told ABC News.
When Joughin never returned home, her family alerted police later that night. Authorities found her purple bicycle several rows into a cornfield close to where she was last seen, according to Fulton County Sheriff Roy Miller, who added that there were signs of struggle, NBC reported at the time.
In the area, investigators also found a screwdriver, men’s sunglasses, a sock, a set of fuse boxes, motorcycle tracks and broken cornstalks, some with streaks of blood on them, indicative of a struggle.
“It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. You just had this eerie feeling that you knew that this was an abduction site,” Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Megan Roberts, who local authorities called to assist in the investigation, told ABC News.
According to the outlet, a community-wide search began along with the official investigation. Hundreds of people scanned acres of cornfield in search of the young woman.
A farmer brought a bloodied helmet to police that he said he found on the night Joughin went missing. This led investigators to suspect a motorcyclist.
Police went door to door in the area to find a break in the case. That break came at the doorstep of James Worley, who lived in the same neighborhood as Joughin.
James Worley is arrested
In an episode of Oxygen’s series Buried in the Backyard, police describe how Worley told investigators that he was riding his motorcycle on the night Joughin went missing, adding that he had lost some items, including a screwdriver and a motorcycle helmet.
“It was a huge surprise, for somebody to place themselves at the initial scene,” Vicki Anderson, a special agent with the FBI Cleveland Division, told Oxygen. “That of course set off our alarm bells like crazy.”
When authorities executed a search warrant on Worley’s property, they found in his barn a large, green crate filled with lingerie and a white, blood-stained freezer buried in the ground.
Special agent Mark Evans of the FBI told Oxygen that police also found a stained air mattress, duct tape, zip ties and handcuffs.
Worley explained the items were a part of a pornography business he was starting, but the evidence found on his property was enough to arrest him for Joughin’s abduction.
Photo: Fulton County Sheriff's Department via The Blade via AP, File
Later on in the day that he was arrested on July 22, investigators found Joughin’s body in a shallow grave in a cornfield not far from Worley’s residence.
How did Sierah Joughin die?
The college student’s body was found intact but hog-tied. Her wrists were handcuffed behind her back and tied to her ankles with rope. Her ankles were also taped together. An autopsy determined her cause of death to be asphyxiation from the plastic gag shoved in her mouth, according to the Toledo Blade.
“It was horrible. Everybody was sobbing and crying and falling to their knees. It was painful, and it just literally sucks the life right out of you,” Vaculik told ABC News.
Is James Worley still alive?
In 2018, Worley, 58 at the time, was found guilty of aggravated murder and the abduction of Joughin. It wasn’t the first time he had been convicted of similar crimes. He served time in prison for the 1990 abduction of Robin Gardner, who was able to escape her kidnapper, Toledo station WTOL reported.
A Fulton County judge sentenced him to death, setting his execution date for May 20, 2025, ABC 13 reported.
Since his incarceration, Joughin’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit, which was settled in 2018 with the family receiving $3.6 million and 3.05 acres of Worley’s property, which was most important to them, NBC 24 reported.
The ownership meant they could tear the barn down.
"How would you like to drive by a barn, where you believe your daughter was killed, on a regular basis because you live in the area? You see that barn there all the time,” Jerome Phillips, the family’s attorney, told NBC 24. “The property is always going to be there, but to see that barn, that reminder from an emotional standpoint, was just devastating to the mother.”