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Disappearance of Ann Gotlib | WHAS11 wins access to Ann Gotlib case files after 3-year public records battle with LMPD

The WHAS11 FOCUS team is giving its viewers a look inside the Ann Gotlib investigative files from LMPD.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Ann Gotlib was 12-years-old when she disappeared in the summer of 1983. Her mother reported her missing as last seen alive at what was then called Bashford Manor Mall. Twenty-five years later, police said a man, who had died years earlier, was responsible for her disappearance.

Despite the discovery, Ann was never found.

For the last three years, WHAS11 has been fighting for access to the records to re-examine the 40-year-old case. LMPD continually denied access but that denial was overturned when an interview from the WHAS11 video archives proved the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s case is closed, and the public is entitled to see what's inside this case.

Case background

It's a mystery nearly 40 years old: What happened to Ann Gotlib? After she was reported missing, search parties spent weeks looking for the little girl, day and night. 

Federal agencies were called in to help collect evidence, while state leaders lead press conferences with Ann's parents, who were Russian immigrants and new to the United States.

Credit: WHAS11

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The big break in the case didn't come for 25 years. In 2008, LMPD's lead homicide detective Barry Wilkerson announced the department had proof that a convicted felon named Gregory Oakley abducted the little girl.

“I think I have every bit of probable cause to make the arrest if he were alive. I think I could put together a perfect package for the commonwealth’s attorney to where we could get a conviction,” Wilkerson said at a news conference.

Then-Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Stengel agreed with the conviction, in an interview with WHAS11 Reporter Mark Hebert.

Hebert: “Based on the evidence, you think this is the guy?”

Stengel: “Yes.”

Credit: WHAS11

Public Records Battle

From all accounts, it appeared to be "case closed." If that were true, the investigative file should have been made public. 

Under Kentucky law, investigative reports maintained by criminal justice agencies are subject to public inspection if prosecution is completed or a determination not to prosecute has been made.

But when WHAS11 first tried to get access to those records in June of 2019, we were denied.

The police department refused to release the records, citing the following reasons through email:

"Premature release of these records during the course of an open investigation could result in prejudice to the potential witnesses and has the potential to adversely color a witness’ recollection of the events."

In March of 2021, WHAS11 tried again, requesting the complete investigative file for the Ann Gotlib case from LMPD. We received another denial, but this time the police department blamed the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office, writing:

"This information is part of a criminal investigation that is still open in which no prosecutorial decision has been made." 

The words contradicted what had come out of the Commonwealth's Attorney's mouth 13 years earlier when he told a WHAS11 reporter his office would not be moving forward with a case in court because Oakley had died.

“It’s been our policy forever here. We’ve never indicted any dead people," Stengel said in a 2008 interview with WHAS11. "In fact, I don’t even know if we legally can indict a dead person.  And with the funding for this office right now, we couldn’t really justify wasting that time in the grand jury - that much time of both prosecutors and the grand jurors, to go through something which would be meaningless.”

With that interview, WHAS11 turned to the current Commonwealth's Attorney's Office, asking if the case was open despite these words from the former lead prosecutor. A spokesperson from the office confirmed the case was closed and suggested LMPD would be releasing the file.

In January of 2022, the station won the fight for access three years after WHAS11 started asking for the records. LMPD was forced to hand over seven boxes of evidence - including documents, photographs, VHS tapes and more.

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