More than 40 years ago a hunter found the remains of 5-year-old Stephanie Hebert tied to a tree in a swampy area in St. Charles Parish, but the recent arrest of a Massachusetts man may provide a suspect in the haunting cold case.
Jason Vendrick Franklin, 72, was extradited to Louisiana and charged with raping Hebert along with two other children at the time of the child’s disappearance. He was indicted on one count of first-degree rape and two counts of aggravated rape.
Franklin is being held in Jefferson Parish Correctional Center on $6 million bond, said Capt. Jason Rivarde with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office (JPSO), who confirmed Franklin became a suspect in the child’s death in December of last year when additional information surfaced, although they declined to comment further in the ongoing investigation.
He was due in court Wednesday (July 10) for a status hearing.
Authorities would not specify the information that led them to Franklin. But, at the time of Hebert’s disappearance and death, he lived eight houses away from her. While JPSO has taken the lead on the investigation, St. Charles Parish has been assisting from its start.
“The St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office has been in regular contact with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office since this horrible crime occurred about 40 years ago,” said Sheriff Greg Champagne. “We continue sharing information on the investigation to this day. We have no further comment at this time.”
On July 13, 1978, Hebert vanished from her home in Live Oak Floral Acres Subdivision. She was headed to a neighbor’s house three doors away, but did not arrive.
More than 100 deputies and volunteers searched nearby woods. For nearly six months, the FBI, psychics and volunteers aided by helicopters searched unsuccessfully for Hebert. Her parents, Donald and Joyce Hebert, pleaded for her safe return at a press conference.
On Nov. 29, 1978, the search ended when a hunter found her remains in St. Charles Parish in the Taft area.
A rope was wrapped around her skeletal remains where she’d apparently been tied to a tree. Her glasses, shoes and clothing were found nearby.
Then teen Roger Alexander, who also lived in the Waggaman area, was a prime suspect in the murder. But Alexander passed a polygraph test and a St. Charles Parish grand jury did not find sufficient evidence to prosecute him in 1980.
By April of 2006, Maj. Sam Zinna, now retired chief of detectives for the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office and earlier deputy with JPSO when Hebert disappeared, said the child’s mother approached him for help with the case.
Although Zinna declined to comment on the details of the case, he told Hebert’s mother at the time that it would be difficult to solve without new information and a suspect.
He was not part of the initial investigation, but he pulled the case files and used new technology that enabled him to get partial DNA evidence from the rope found at the crime scene that still remained at the Jefferson Parish Clerk of Court’s Office. He had it transferred to the JPSO’s crime lab and there he had success “to a limited degree.”
The partial DNA sample, thought to belong to the murderer, led to Alexander, who was living in Pennsylvania at the time. A DNA swab from the man, however, did not provide a match and the case went cold again.
In 2012, Daniel Parks Sr. emerged as a new suspect.
Parks was charged with the rape of a then local 7-year-old child that occurred around the same time of Hebert’s disappearance.
The child, who was friends with Hebert, told police she confronted Parks about the rape nearly a decade later in 1991 and was told she might end up like Hebert.
Brought in for questioning, Parks confessed to the rape and making a comment about Hebert, but later recanted his confession. Because he had diabetes, he maintained he may have incorrectly implicated himself in the crime. He was found guilty of aggravated rape and sentenced to life in prison, but remained among several suspects in Hebert’s murder.
Now, 40 years later, JPSO is investigating Jason Franklin in the murder case, which has haunted the community and those disturbed by the brutal scene of the little five-year-old possibly left to die alone in the woods.
Since being extradited, additional information made him a suspect in Hebert’s murder.
“Information came forward in her murder, which led to the sexual assault allegation,” Rivarde said.
At this point in the investigation, he said Franklin is accused of raping Hebert along with two other children. The incidents occurred between Sept. 12, 1975 and Sept. 8, 1977. The victims would have been between the ages of 3 to 7 years old.
- July 13, 1978: Stephanie Hebert vanishes from her home in Live Oak Floral Acres Subdivision in Waggaman.
- Nov. 29, 1978: A hunter finds the 5-year-old’s remains in a swampy area of St. Charles Parish, about 21 miles from her home.
- December of 2018: Jason Franklin Sr. of Massachusetts is charged with aggravated rape of three children, including Hebert, and named a suspect in the child’s kidnapping and murder.