Depending on who you talk to, Katie Autry was either a sweet, innocent young woman who was out of her depth at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green in 2003 or a wild party girl who drank too much, engaged in risky sex and flirted with trouble. Of course, to pretend that both descriptions couldn’t be true of an eighteen-year-old American college student in the first half of the 21st century would be naïve. But in either case she didn’t deserve what happened to her.
The Murder of Katie Autry
At 4:08 AM on the morning of May 4th, 2003 emergency units responded to a fire alarm at Hugh Poland Hall, a freshman dormitory on the campus of WKU. Police were greeted by the site of smoke and water seeping out from under a door. When they opened the door, black smoke billowed out. Inside, they found the charred body of a young woman, a T-shirt knotted tightly around her neck. Miraculously, she was still breathing.
EMT’s scooped her up, loaded her onto a gurney and rushed her to the Bowling Green Medical Center. When she was wheeled into the emergency room, she was covered in third-degree burns so severe her flesh was still smoking. She had nasty bruising on her face and puncture wounds on her face and neck. The condition of her face was plain to see because the area where she was burned was centered on her genital region and did not extend above her breasts. Oddly, she was burned only on the front, not on the back.
The severity of her burns was beyond the capabilities of the Bowling Green Medical Center so she was medivaced to the burn unit at Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville where on May 7, 2003 she was pronounced dead, leaving an aching question. Who could’ve done such a horrible thing to such a sweet person?
Welcome to Scottsville
The social dynamics of small town America are not unlike a high school. Everyone knows everyone else, if not personally, at least on sight. Most people tend to get pigeon-holed into stereotypes, cliques develop, as do rivalries, and, sometimes, resentments. In the social dynamics of the town of Scottsville, KY in 2003, Luke Goodrum played two roles, that of privileged rich kid, and that of cocky rebel.
Scottsville lies twenty-five miles south of Bowling Green but is a world apart. It’s a blue collar town. Many of its roughly four thousand residents are employed at the Smucker’s jelly factory. Others work as farmers or truck drivers. The town has been around since 1817, and its downtown retains a quaint, old-timey charm. But none of this is what Scottsville is best known for. Scottsville is the birthplace of one of the fastest growing companies in America, the one whose plain yellow sign is omnipresent in rural America.
The Almighty Dollar
If you’re not from rural America, you may not appreciate the scope and reach of the Dollar General chain of department stores. In those parts of the country where even Walmart is too expensive, Dollar General fills a vital niche. It offers household goods from easily identifiable brands at rock bottom prices. Founded by Cal Turner in Scottsville in 1939, it now comprises more than 17,000 stores and enjoys profits north of $27 billion.
In 1983 the grandson of Cal Turner married Donna Goodrum, the mother of Luke Goodrum, and, just like that, Luke became related through marriage to one of the wealthiest families in America. But he hardly fit the mold of a spoiled rich kid.
Luke Goodrum was the son of a truck driver and acted very much like he preferred it that way. Rebellious by nature, he went around as if he had a chip on his shoulder. His maverick posture combined with his cooly underplayed connection to fabulous wealth made him irresistible to some girls, but Luke also had a mean streak, and he got a reputation for hitting his girlfriends.
The Good Girl
Katie Autry grew up in a foster home in Pellville, KY, a depressed coal mining town seventy-five miles north of Bowling Green. Life with her foster parents wasn’t easy. They were firm Christians and imposed a strict morality on her, but as she grew older she learned to follow their rules, and, by all accounts, she was obedient and well behaved by the time she entered high school in 1999.
At Hancock County High School, Katie became a cheerleader and participated in a variety of extracurricular activities. She was an honor roll student, Student of the Month, an All-State Academic and the recipient of the Perfect Attendance award. She was well liked, if a bit shy, and was widely regarded by those who knew her as a sweet girl. But she must have been squirming under the weight of all those expectations because as soon as she got to college she changed.
The Naughty Girl
Hailing from a rural county where 98% of the population was white, Katie took an unexpected interest in black men. At Western Kentucky University she flirted and coaxed and began drinking heavily in an effort to impress. She wasn’t always successful. The object of her primary crush kept her at arm’s length, which only increased her determination, leading to a liquor-laced clinginess that bordered on pitiful.
As her freshman year progressed, Katie set her mind to becoming more extroverted and empowered. With the help of alcohol she began exhibiting an alter ego that was so daring and flirtatious it earned her a reputation among her dorm mates as “the ho from the second floor”.
By the final months of her first year the transformation was complete when she took a job as an exotic dancer in a sleazy strip club called Tattle-Tails. The change in Katie Autry was stunning, but it was not unprecedented. Many co-eds hungry for acceptance in their first year of college are willing to go to great lengths to establish their own identities and be accepted by their peers. In Katie Autry’s case it cost her her life.
Stephen Soules was a mixed raced young man from Scottsville. Some called him sweet-natured and polite. Others called him a liar and a cheat. Certainly, Luke Goodrum thought of him as a liability. Having palled around with his older brother for years, Luke knew Stephen as an annoying mooch and untrustworthy besides. He knew this from experience. Months earlier, Stephen had snitched to Luke’s girlfriend that Luke had been cheating on her. Furious, Luke had threatened Stephen and called him a nigger. It was a mistake he would come to regret.
But all that had been in the past. On the night of Katie’s murder, twenty-year-old Stephen Soules felt comfortable enough with Luke to call and ask him for some weed. To tempt his old nemesis to bring it by, he announced he was having a warm-up party with some friends in preparation for going to a frat party at Western Kentucky University. Luke liked the idea of going to a frat party, so he agreed to meet Stephen and bring the weed.
But Luke’s eagerness to spend the night at a frat party was motivated by something other than a desire to have fun. Earlier that evening he had attacked his girlfriend in a jealous rage, holding her down and hitting her. To avoid any repercussions for his actions, he thought it best to get out of Scottsville. When Stephen called, he saw his chance.
Luke and Stephen partied hearty in Scottsville with friends before driving the thirty minutes to the Pi Kappa Alpha house in Bowling Green. Before setting off, Stephen consumed twelve beers, two brandies, and two joints. By the time he got to the party, he was dizzy and throwing up. Luke and the others left him passed out in the back seat of the truck they had driven in and went into the frat party.
Katie Autry was at the party. She had come with some friends and was already wasted. Before leaving her dormitory, she had downed a potent mix of 190-proof pure grain alcohol and Sierra Mist lemon-lime soda. At the party she drank even more. She was slurring and sloppy and was dancing provocatively with random men, thrusting her pelvis into their private areas in a not so subtle attempt to come on to them. At one point she walked past Luke Goodrum who was standing near the dance floor watching. She skimmed her hand across his stomach as she passed.
Finally, Katie’s roommate had seen enough and decided to send her drunken friend home. Not wanting to leave the party herself, she arranged for Katie to get a ride back to the dorm with someone else. As it happened, the person she arranged to drive her was the same person who had driven Luke and Stephen to the party from Scottsville.
A Horrific Picture
Later that night, Katie’s roommate called her to see if she was all right. The phone call was disturbing. Katie sounded as if she was lying face down on her pillow. She said, “Someone just came into my room.”
Her roommate asked, “Who is it?”
Katie replied. “I don’t know.”
When the results from the initial investigation came in, they painted a horrific picture. Katie had bruises on her face and puncture wounds on her neck. She had been strangled with a T-shirt, sprayed with hairspray, and then set on fire. The smoke alarm had been torn from the ceiling. The sprinkler system had been activated unintentionally. Whoever had done this was clearly an amateur.
Antibacterial lotion was discovered in Katie’s vagina. Combined with the fact that she had been sprayed with the hairspray in the genital area before being set aflame, it began to look like whoever had killed her had been clumsily trying to cover up a sexual assault.
An Unusual Investigation
The initial investigation revealed that Katie had last been seen in the company of two young men in a pickup truck leaving the party, the driver of the truck and Stephen Soules, who had been passed out in the back seat. Both men were brought in for questioning. The driver was quickly eliminated. The investigators turned their attention to Stephen Soules.
Normally in a police investigation of this magnitude the state police take charge. Oddly, in the case of the Katie Autry murder, the investigation was left to the campus police. Campus police mostly deal with traffic infractions, vandalism, and low level drug dealing. The detectives assigned to the Katie Autry case had never investigated a homicide, rape or arson. But this was their jurisdiction, so they took charge, and no one objected. It appears no one considered that they might bring a unique perspective to the investigation.
The Possible Exception
In many ways university campuses exist in a bubble, insulated from the outside world by a shiny, idealized vision of the way things ought to be. Most cops, on the other hand, experience a world that is only too real. For cops, viewpoints on race, privilege and sexuality are rarely subject to the distortions of idealistic zeal as they are on a college campus, with one possible exception: the campus police.
The Western Kentucky University police who investigated the murder of Katie Autry may have been tainted by the idealism that pervaded their world. They certainly reached some odd conclusions regarding the suspects in the case. By any objective measure, all signs pointed to Stephen Soules. But they weren’t satisfied with him. They wanted someone else.
Under questioning, Stephen Soules denied being in Katie Autry’s room, and then admitted it. He denied having sex with her, and then admitted it. He was in possession of Katie’s jewelry. His fingerprints were on the can of hairspray used to set her on fire. But instead of wringing a confession out of him, the campus police asked him leading questions in an attempt to get him to implicate someone else. Not surprisingly, Stephen Soules obliged, pointing the finger at Luke Goodrum.
Detectives from the campus police hauled Luke into the Scottsville Police station and grilled him relentlessly. But Luke had an alibi. After the party, he had gone to his father’s house where he had received a stern lecture about growing up and taking responsibility, before heading off to bed. But the police weren’t buying it. Luke Goodrum was a troublemaker and, what’s more, he had a reputation for violence against women. In addition, he fit the profile of the sort of person who has become the preferred villain on many of today’s college campuses, the rich, entitled white guy, especially the kind who attend rowdy frat parties. Luke Goodrum needed to be taught a lesson.
The Popular Narrative
The popular liberal narrative widely embraced on college campuses has it that women and people of color are largely blameless for the ills of society, and that wealthy white males are solely responsible for everything that’s wrong with the world. It’s a narrative that has currency. But the Western Kentucky campus police were confronted with an uncomfortable set of facts in the Katie Autry murder case.
It looked very much like a young man of color had brutally murdered a young white woman whose reckless, sexual behavior may have invited his aggression. This didn’t fit the narrative at all. First, a woman can never be responsible for a man’s attack on her, regardless of how irresponsibly she behaves. Second, black males are more often than not the victims of white injustice, so any accusation against them must be viewed with skepticism.
When news got out that Luke Goodrum had been arrested for Katie Autry’s murder many on campus felt vindicated. Finally, the police were doing the right thing. The right people were being held accountable. Perhaps, for once, justice would be done. The only problem was that not a single shred of evidence tied Luke Goodrum to the crime.
The Weight of Public Opinion
That didn’t stop prosecutors from building a case against him, a case fashioned from the obviously tainted accusation of Stephen Soules, whose most recent version of events was that he had engaged in consensual sex with Katie but had been pushed aside by Luke who had raped and killed her. Perhaps realizing their case was on shaky ground, prosecutors seized on the claims of two jailhouse inmates who claimed Luke had confessed to them, claims later discredited when it came to the light that the inmates had received favors in exchange for their statements.
But what really provided the momentum to bring Luke Goodrum to trial was the weight of public opinion. Besides having become an unwitting lightning rod for the dastardly deeds of elitist white males everywhere, Luke Goodrum had made plenty of enemies in Scottsville. He was cocky, arrogant and prone to violence. His former girlfriends were particularly damning.
Yet just because someone is obnoxious doesn’t make them a murderer. Fortunately, the jury agreed. They reached a verdict in less than three hours.
The Weight of Evidence
In the end, no physical evidence was ever found to link Luke Goodrum to the murder of Katie Autry. While, at the same time, the DNA results of a vaginal swab taken from Katie’s body tested positive for Stephen Soules. Even so, that didn’t stop some people from claiming that Luke’s family had used its wealth to buy his acquittal, that he had been rescued by the almighty Dollar.
Once again, the poor black man had taken the fall, while the rich white man had gotten away scot free. It was the same old story — except it wasn’t. The weight of the evidence had convicted Stephen Soules and acquitted Luke Goodrum, regardless of the narrative.
Justice and Revenge
Too often when we claim we want justice what we really want is revenge. Those are two different things. Revenge is a reckoning for those who have wronged us. Justice is the quality of being fair and impartial. Sometimes those two concepts move in tandem, but in the case of Luke Goodrum they were in conflict. It took the legal system to sort them out.
Did Katie Autry get justice? Stephen Soules was tried for her murder and found guilty. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. The story that emerged regarding what happened that night reads like a cautionary tale about binge drinking and sexual promiscuity on college campuses, although many people would prefer it to be about something less prosaic.
A Likely Scenario
Both Katie and Stephen were black-out drunk when they were thrown together in the back seat of the truck at the party. According to Stephen’s account, in their drunken fog, they fooled around and made out during the short drive to Hugh Poland Hall. Once at the dormitory, Stephen accompanied Katie up to her room, perhaps at her invitation. What happened inside the room is not entirely clear, but it may have been that Katie decided against having sex.
Judging by her response to her roommate when she called, Katie may have emerged from her drunken stupor enough to realize that she was in bed with a person who was a stranger to her, at which point she may have tried to resist. Drunk and high and frustrated at being repulsed, Stephen may then have tried to force her. They fought. He strangled her, and then he struck her and stabbed her. And then, comprehending what he had done, he tried to destroy the evidence by setting her on fire.
Monstrous and Pathetic
It was as monstrous as it was pathetic. Stephen Soules had no previous record of violence. What he did, he apparently did out of mindless desperation combined with drunken stupidity, not out of anger and malice. Which is why it was so incredible. How could something horrible happen for such a petty reason? Certainly, it was easier to believe that someone like Luke Goodrum was capable of something so brutal and heartless.
But the truth is not always the easiest thing to believe. Sometimes the truth defies our expectations and refuses to fit our narratives. Sometimes the truth demands more from us, and we have to be equal to it, if we hope to achieve justice, and not just revenge.
Previous Stop on the Odyssey: Mattoon, IL
Next Stop on the Odyssey: Muscle Shoals, AL
My American Odyssey Route Map
Van Meter, William. Bluegrass: A True Story of Murder in Kentucky, Free Press, 2009.
Sarkar, Deepra. “Who Killed Katie Autry? Where is Stephen Soules Now?”, The Cinemaholic, 18 January 2021.
Story, Justin. “Voices in the Dark: TV Show to Examine 2003 Slaying of WKU Student Katie Autry,’ Bowling Green Daily News, 2o November 2010.
Katie Autry in WKU sweatshirt, The Cinemaholic
Katie Autry being rushed to the hospital, SouthernFriedTrueCrime
Young Luke Goodrum, Bowling Green Daily News
Scottsville Dollar General Store, Malcolm Logan
Katie Autry as a high school cheerleader, The Cinemaholic
Hancock County High School, Malcolm Logan
Tattle Tails Strip Club, Bowling Green Daily News
Stephen Soules, SouthernFriedTrueCrime
Pi Kappa Alpha House, Malcolm Logan
Girls drinking at a frat party, Michael Discenza
Girl calling on the phone, Priscilla Du Preez
View from the backseat, Charles Postiaux
WKU water tower, Malcolm Logan
Scottsville police station, Malcolm Logan
Katie Autry in blue, SouthernFriedTrueCrime
Luke Goodrum at trial, The Cinemaholic
Dollar General corporate headquarters, Malcolm Logan
Stephen Soules in prison, Kentucky Department of Corrections
Hugh Poland Hall, Malcolm Logan
Rosine Cemetery, Malcolm Logan