Michiana Unsolved: The Darlene Hulse murder

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ARGOS, Ind. (WNDU) - A young Marshall County mother was beaten to death nearly 35 years ago. The violent attack started at her home with her three young daughters inside.

Investigators believe Darlene Hulse was killed by a stranger. In her latest "Michiana Unsolved", NewsCenter 16's Kim Shine explains why the family believes this may be their last chance at justice.

"My grandfather had come over, and he didn't live to far from us. He was riding his bike and brought us bananas. I remember him leaving, us waving goodbye to him and mom was like, 'OK, go get in the tub and we've got errands to run' or something."

It was normal summer morning in the town of Argos. Friday, August 17, 1984.

As 8-year-old Marie and 6-year-old Melissa were in the tub, they heard unfamiliar sounds.

"And it sounded like a dog barking, like growling and just noises," Marie McCleskey said. "And I looked at Melissa like, 'Dad brought us a dog, a puppy.' We got excited, and I was like, 'I'm going to go check it out. You stay right here.'"

Now 42 years old, Marie remembers running down the hall to find there was no dog. Instead, there was a stranger inside their house.

She saw a man wrestling in the doorway with their 28-year-old mother, Darlene Hulse.

Marie raced to the phone to dial one of the two numbers she knew.

"It happened so fast, I couldn't compute what was going on, and my mom was yelling at me: 'Run! Run!'"

"We lived in a ranch house, so I ran the length of the den into the kitchen, and I just remember thinking, 'OK, I have to call somebody,'" Marie recounted. "This was before 911, so I start dialing my aunt's number, and all the while he is dragging my mom by her hair towards me. And I get the busy signal and I drop the phone, and then he comes over as he's dragging my mom, and he pulls the phone out of the wall, from the top down."

Still unclothed, Marie rushed out the back door to her grandparents house nearby. Melissa wasn't far behind, but their 12-month-old sister, Kristen, was still inside with their mom.

Officers arrived to the Hulse home about 15 minutes later.

Outside, they found a trail of blood leading from the front door down the driveway to where the suspect's car was believed to be parked.

Inside the home, there were signs of a deadly struggle, including a broken fireplace poker. Police believe Darlene was beaten in the living room with the weapon.

"When police arrived, the car was gone, Darlene was gone," Marshall County Prosecuting Attorney Nelson Chipman said. "The 1-year-old, sadly, was in the middle of the living room covered with her mother's blood."

The oldest daughters told police what they saw, and two sketches were created. They said he was driving a greenish-blue, late-model car -- meaning 1970-1974 -- in poor condition, with rust on the sides. A neighbor driving by also saw the car earlier that morning.

After the attack, Chipman said an intensive but quick manhunt began.

Remarkably, the next day, there was a call that a body was found in a remote, wooded area about 6 miles from the Hulse home. A timber buyer marking trees to cut stumbled upon a fully clothed Darlene.

"That was a remarkable stroke of luck," Chipman said. "That time of year, this would have been so overgrown. I've been here that time of year; you would not have seen her from the road."

Police believe the alleged delivery man lived in the area. And it's where Darlene was found that also convinces investigators that the suspect was someone local.

At the time, there was an old, broken fence where she was found. And in such as an isolated area, Chipman said the man must have known where he was going.

"It wasn't something newly done," he said. "It couldn't be pure coincidence that you come down this dirt road and you come to an area where, 'Oh, there's a V. I can just take her in there.'"

"I'm just wondering if he, whoever the gentleman is, saw her and had more contact with her than we actually realized," Marie questioned. "I don't remember my mom ever just talking to random man, it was mostly family members. Maybe he saw her, because it was a close community. And maybe he had ties with her that we didn't realize. That's the only thing that I can wrap my brain around. Or he was a complete psycho. Like, who would do this to somebody?"

"I have grown up in fear, knowing that evil is real," daughter Kristen Hulse Rooks explained.

Kristen said the attack was two days before her first birthday. As her sisters ran for help, she was inside the house with her mom and the intruder.

"I feel like I'm very lucky to be here. I feel like she did the best that she could to protect us, and that was the goal. And for that, I'm eternally grateful," she said.

Without the same memories as her sisters, the 35-year-old deals with her pain by asking questions. She often checks in with Chipman, and her sisters hope this story will jog someone's memory.

That's because investigators have the evidence: fireplace tools, a bloody chunk of carpet, but no suspect DNA.

"You've asked, 'Well maybe some of the blood is, maybe he had an injury,'" Chipman said. "They've looked. They have examined that, and they just keep confirming that it's hers."

"It makes me frustrated to think that now, if this crime had happened now, we would have so many more answers. And there just seem to be no rhyme or reason as to why it happened," Marie lamented.

"And there's no way he could have gone home without any scratches, any blood, nothing on him," Kristen added. "Somebody knows something or knows that their husband or their brother was acting weird, strangely that day and for a while."

That lack of DNA has helped keep this case ice cold, but detectives are not giving up. Right now, detectives are starting over with fresh eyes, once again tracking down persons of interest and conducting interviews.

Chipman also said they're choosing new pieces of evidence to send to the Indiana State Police Crime Lab.

"This is our last chance. It's so old," he said with a sigh. "Thirty-five years is a long time."

It's also a long time for Darlene's daughters to live with those horrifying memories of the man who brutally murdered their mother. But they will always love the kind, God-fearing woman who did what she had to do to save her daughters.

And with this story, the family hopes that you may remember something.

"She was a very sweet mom," Marie explained, smiling. "And I remember I used to suck my thumb when I was little, so my dad would put a sock over my hand before I went to sleep and my mom would sneak in, in the middle of the night, and she was like, 'I'll get that for you, honey,' and she'd take the sock off."

Darlene's husband and other daughter did not participate in this story.
That's because, even after all these years, the pain is understandably still fresh for them.

If you remember something about this case, no matter how small, come forward. You can contact the Marshall County Prosecuting Attorney's Office at 574-935-8666, and you can even remain anonymous. You can even call the NewsCenter 16 newsroom.

Your tip could finally bring peace to this family.