CINCINNATI, OH — In November 2006, a worker from Consolidated Grain and Barn Co. spotted a body dressed in pearls floating in the Ohio River.
Authorities, who were unable to determine her identity, reported that the woman was five feet two inches tall with hazel eyes, a fair complexion, and very well-maintained teeth. She had been dead for approximately two days.
They were also left with one other crucial clue: The gold-and-pearl necklace that she was wearing.
She was known locally as the “Pearl Lady” or “River Lady” for eight years — and during this time, law-enforcement officials and thousands of amateur sleuths on the Internet attempted to identify her. But the case would remain cold for the next eight years.
Finally on November 5, 2014, her fingerprint was matched to those of a woman arrested for shoplifting in San Diego in 1986. At last, the “Pearl Lady” had a name: Barbara Hess Precht.
But since her identification, the mystery of what happened to Barbara and her family in Cincinnati has only deepened.Barbara Precht was a wealthy socialite who was born into the prominent Hess family in Cincinnati. Her father was the head of the local bar association, and her uncle was a judge.
She married her husband, James Precht, who was employed as a school supervisor, and had two daughters while living in Indian Hill, Ohio.
The family decided to flee Ohio in 1983 to California — which was the year that her husband, 79-year-old James Precht, later told investigators that “men with guns” came into their home.
Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Brian Williams revealed at a press conference in 2014 that Precht said that he and his wife left the area to get “a better life.”
One of Barbara’s daughters recalled hearing individuals, presumably intruders, arguing with her parents one night and believed that the men were possibly armed.
The family settled in Covina, California, and dropped off the radar entirely until 1986, when Barbara was arrested for shoplifting food, including chocolate chip cookies, Pringles, pasta, and Colby cheese. Not long after that, she and her husband dropped the girls off at an orphanage.
Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco, said, “This wasn’t a mom abandoning children. This was the hardest decision she had to make, to give them up for their own safety. That’s what it seems to me.”
Barbara’s official cause of death has never been determined.
Investigators have determined that she hit the water at a high rate of speed, breaking several ribs and other bones. They believe that it is possible that Barbara jumped from the bridge, but she may also have been pushed.
When police finally tracked down Precht at his apartment in Clifton, he initially told them that his name was Jim Tuman — and later refused to cooperate with the investigation.
He was arrested for falsification and obstruction of justice and eventually sentenced to 25 days in jail — but he has since been released.
Police are still investigating why he never reported his wife missing. And many other questions remain, including: Why did the family leave town so suddenly? Did the men who were allegedly threatening the family really exist — and, if so, who were they?
Dr. Sammarco was reportedly exploring other theories, including the possibility that one of them was in the witness-protection program.
The investigation continues.
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Main photo: Barbara Precht, at about age 46, prior to her 1983 departure from Ohio to California [Wikimedia Commons via Hamilton Co. Sheriff’s Office]