FAIRMONT, W.Va. – In 1990, Bobbie Proto went to a lock-in at Trinity Assembly of God’s youth center. She felt her friendship with her best friend from elementary school, Fame Cooper, was fading as the pair moved to different high schools. Bobbie recalled that Fame’s behavior had changed, and she was showing off in front of her new friends.

“I remember at one point, she was sitting behind me and she was cussing and talking, and the guy in front of us was talking, and I turned around, like, ‘Fame, stop. It’s not nice.’ She just looked at me like, ‘What?’ And so, we didn’t have a good interaction with each other at that point,” Bobbie explained, “But I knew she was going through stuff, you know. And it happens.”

It was only five years before that Fame and Bobbie decided to dress alike for her fourth grade birthday party. They connected because they were both shy. But, Fame’s heart was what stood out to those who knew her.

“She loved stuffed animals. They were all over her room. She didn’t have any money, so she gave me one of hers,” Bobbie remembered, “She was sweet like that.” 

Photos courtesy: Bobbie Proto

But the lock-in was the last time that Bobbie saw Fame. And many of her friends didn’t find out what happened to her until months later, when newspaper articles came out identifying Fame as the murder victim who was found by hunters in Barrackville. Rev. James Saunders, the leader of the youth center, laminated a copy of an article by the Times West Virginian in November 1990, headlined “Who Was Fame Cooper?”

“It crushed me. I still talk about it to this day when I go into schools and I go into youth groups, and I talk about [how] there are other kids that are Fame Coopers,” said Rev. Saunders, “They’re just looking for somebody to reach out to them, somebody to love them, somebody to be there for them.”

The Circumstances of the Case

According to the article, Fame’s aunt noticed a change in her behavior in 1989. The 14-year-old was sneaking out and skipping school, and eventually, she was sent away to a girl’s home in Elkins. When she came back, Rev. Saunders said Judge Rodney Merrifield introduced him to Fame to see if he could mentor her.

“She was a pretty little girl–you know, hard looking. You could tell, for a 14-year-old, she’d been through the mill,” Rev. Saunders remembered about his first impression of Fame.

Fame was going into her sophomore year at East Fairmont High School when she went missing. Courtesy: Sunshine Hornick

On July 10, 1990, Fame went to the arcade in Fairmont with friends on the east side of Fairmont near the Wendy’s. Bobbie said she spoke with the friends who were with Fame at the arcade who said that they left Fame at the arcade because she said she didn’t want to go home.

“[Fame] was just trying to stay away as much as she could, so she was out there not being able to go anywhere, just trying to cling on to anybody that would take her. And from what I got from [my conversations with the friends who were at the arcade], because if she went back to her aunt, which at the time was taking care of her, they were going to send her away again, and that was her biggest fear,” explained Bobbie.

The arcade is the last place anyone is known to have seen Fame alive. Three years afterwards, the remains of 1989 runaway Kimmie Eddy were recovered in Mannington. News reports from 1992 indicated that police were connecting the two cases.

Rev. Saunders said that police told him when Fame was found, they also found a letter addressed to him in her purse. Police brought the letter to his office and they opened the letter together, and it said, “Dear Pastor, Please pray for my sister. Please pray for my brother. Please pray for my family, but Pastor, thank you for leading me to Jesus.”

“Her life changed, and I think people should know that she was somebody that wanted to make something of her life–one that wanted to improve her life, wanted to go on and do something,” said Rev. Saunders, “But also, she wanted to be somebody that helped other people that she saw going in the same footsteps that she was. I really believe that needs to be stated, that Fame Cooper was a person that helped other people and wanted to see other people change.”

“I know if things were reversed that Fame wouldn’t give up on me, so I’m not going to give up on her.”

Some of the coverage, however, was criticized by those who knew Fame as painting the teen in an unfairly negative light. Fame’s sister, Sunshine Hornick, said she was a little troubled, but she was also a very bright, friendly person.

“[The articles] painted her as some kind of little tramp that ran away all the time, and that was not who she was. It was not accurate at all,” said Sunshine.

Sunshine said her favorite memories with Fame are sitting in her bedroom, listening to music and talking about boys and makeup. Courtesy: Sunshine Hornick

Bobbie said that there was never a day that went by that she didn’t think about Fame after she learned about what happened to her.

“It’s strange. It was just like I would be brushing my teeth and here goes a memory. You know, the same memory as it was the last night when I brushed my teeth. Just like something that was always there holding onto me,” Bobbie recalled.

Then in October 2019, she said a red cardinal was driving her crazy because he kept hitting her window. She saw it as a sign that she should start digging into Fame’s case.

“Because I know red cardinals are angels of people who passed away that are trying to get your attention. That’s what they’re supposed to be,” said Bobbie, “And at that point, Fame was really on my mind. And I started like, ok, let me just look into this. Let me reach out to Sunshine and see if anything else has come up, and this has been years. I hadn’t talked to Sunshine, like she barely even remembers me.”

The two got together and began researching. Bobbie said she flew in from Texas to speak with Marion County Sheriff’s Department investigators in 2020 and try to get the case reopened, which was successful. According to the sheriff’s office, the case is still open and being investigated. And now, Lamar placed Fame’s picture along with a tip number on a billboard in Fairmont last week for free.

The billboard with Fame’s picture on it was near Muriale’s in Fairmont.

“Lamar Advertising is a community oriented company that strives to be leaders in our community. We have donated billboards to local police departments, the FBI, and U.S. Marshals in order to help them find fugitives and solve crimes,” said Rueban J. Blankenship, Vice President of Lamar Advertising Company of Bridgeport, “It is our hope that this billboard may help to provide leads and information on what happened to Ms. Cooper and bring her family closure.”

In an interview with WBOY in 2020, Sunshine said the family has dealt with losing Fame in different ways, some by choosing not to talk about it, but it was very hard for her and she had to go in and out of therapy for years as a result.

“I had heard about all these cold cases that [the FBI] have solved. Thirty, forty…I think there were even fifty year cases that they’ve solved with all the technology and the advanced DNA and all of that, so when [Bobbie] reached out to me and said, ‘We need to try to do this,’ I thought, ‘Yeah, it’s time.'”

Sunshine said she appreciates Bobbie for being a huge help in knowing who to contact and where to start to get things rolling again on this case.

“[Fame] was my best friend,” said Sunshine, “I knew if things were reversed that Fame wouldn’t give up on me, so I’m not going to give up on her.”