LOUISVILLE — Ann Gotlib was 12 when she vanished while riding her bike near a suburban mall in 1983, a disappearance that rocked the city and made a generation of children think twice before venturing out alone.
Police announced Thursday that they have a suspect in the case — a dead felon twice convicted of abducting girls and injecting them with drugs in Alabama.
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The evidence against Greg Lewis Oakley Jr. is so strong that he would be in custody if he hadn't died in 2002, Police Maj. Barry Wilkerson said.
"If I wasn't here talking to you and he was alive, I'd be talking to him right now," Wilkerson said.
Police think he killed Ann by injecting her with an overdose of the painkiller Talwin.
She was last seen June 1, 1983, at the Bashford Manor Mall. Her bike was found outside the mall, but her body was never located.
Gotlib's parents, Anatoly and Ludmilla Gotlib, did not return a phone call seeking comment. Louisville Police Maj. Troy Riggs said the family opted not to make a statement.
The case dominated news coverage in Louisville for years.
"You didn't ride your bicycle alone for a long time," said Kerri Richardson, who grew up in nearby Shelbyville and is now a spokeswoman for Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson.
At a news conference Thursday, police said interviews, including with a former cellmate of Oakley and a former girlfriend, point to him as the person responsible for Ann's disappearance. Oakley was twice convicted in Alabama — in 1979 and 1981 — for abducting 13-year-old girls and injecting them with drugs, said former Louisville Police Detective Bobby Jones, one of the original investigators.
Oakley was also a suspect in two other attempted abductions of 13-year-old girls in September 1983 near the mall where Gotlib disappeared, although he was never charged.
"It matched his MO," Jones said.
Oakley grew up in Pine Apple, Ala., and had a doctorate in veterinary medicine from Auburn University. He moved to Louisville in 1982 and took a job as a USDA meat inspector.
He was sentenced to prison in Kentucky for the 1984 abduction of a 13-year-old girl from her home near the mall. Louisville Police Maj. Dave Wood, who oversees the major crimes unit, said that case was similar to Gotlib's. Oakley received a medical release from prison in June 2002, returned to Alabama and died in October of that year.
Jones and former Louisville Public Safety Director Ernie Allen said Oakley was thought to be a suspect early on, but the case couldn't be made.
"He was not near the top of the list or the prime suspect, but certainly we were aware of him," said Allen, who now heads the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Jones said Oakley denied during an interview in 1983 that he was in Louisville the day of the disappearance — an alibi that wasn't undercut until more than a year later, when detectives found a bank receipt from the mall marked the day Gotlib disappeared.
New information materialized in June, after police highlighted the 25th anniversary of the girl's disappearance. A former girlfriend of Oakley told police that he was in Louisville the day Gotlib disappeared. She also told investigators that she washed his clothes that night.
Also, Wilkerson said, a former inmate who had been jailed with Oakley was reinterviewed in September and told investigators that Oakley told him about kidnapping and killing Gotlib. Wilkerson said the inmate passed a polygraph test.
Riggs said the case remains open as detectives hope someone comes forward with information about where Gotlib's remains were left.
For Allen and Jones, having a suspect named is a relief after years of frustration, but finding Gotlib's body would finally end it for everyone.
"Just because he's been identified, we hope the search will not stop to find Ann," Allen said. "That family deserves closure."