Natasha Atchley was just a week away from leaving her teenage years and entering her 20s. And she lived life as if every day would be her last.
“She loved life and she lived life hard,” Natasha’s lifelong friend, Keisha Myers, told Dateline. “She once told me that she felt like she would die young. Sadly, she was right.”
Natasha was only 19 years old when she was brutally murdered in the early morning hours of May 3, 1992. Her remains were found later that same day in the trunk of her burned out Camaro hatchback on a dirt road in a rural area of Shepherd, Texas.
A former cheerleader, Natasha was pretty and popular, and always attracted attention.
“She was wild and fun. A free spirit,” Keisha said. “There was just something about Natasha - you either loved her or you hated her.”
Keisha told Dateline she had grown up with Natasha in Livingston, Texas. They were inseparable. But during their senior year of high school, Natasha was sent to live with her grandparents in Odessa, Texas. She graduated from Odessa Permian High School, got an apartment with roommates in College Station and began taking classes at Blinn College.
When Keisha found out she was pregnant, she said Natasha was overjoyed. She correctly predicted it would be a boy and told Keisha she would help her when the baby came.
“If you wanted to have fun, she was your girl,” Keisha said. “But she was more than that. She was just very much a loyal friend.”
Two weeks before her murder, Natasha called Keisha’s house to tell her she would be coming back to Livingston to visit and go to some birthday parties.
“I didn’t get to speak to her. She spoke to my grandma and said she wanted to make sure I’d be here when she came to visit,” Keisha said. “She said she had something important to tell me. But I never found out what that was.”
Keisha never saw or spoke to her friend again.
On the evening of Saturday, May 2, 1992, Natasha was last seen at a friend’s party in Shepherd. She never came home.
Around 10 a.m. the next day, a man and his grandson returned from a fishing trip and came across a smoldering hatchback car on a dirt road in rural San Jacinto County, about a mile from the party. Natasha’s remains, which had been burned down to bones, were inside the trunk of the hatchback.
Retired San Jacinto County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Tom Branch, who worked on the case for about 12 years, told Dateline investigators believe Natasha was killed at or near the site of the party sometime during the night or in the early morning hours, then driven about a mile away to the dirt road where the car was set on fire.
Lab reports indicated that the accelerant used to light the car on fire was identified as drip gas, Branch said. He told Dateline he believes the killer may have used oil and gas wells, which are common in the area, to finish the job.
“Drip gas is something you can get out of the oil well, if you know what you’re doing,” Branch said. “But not everyone does. I think it narrows down suspects somewhat.”
Branch told Dateline the scene was a gruesome one. “Her whole body fit in a shoebox,” Branch said.
Natasha’s family had reported her missing early that morning when she didn’t arrive at her mother’s house as expected.
Natasha’s brother, Chad Woodard, was only 12 years old when his sister was murdered.
"Once you've seen your sister's burned remains, it's something that just stays with you forever,” Chad told Dateline.
At the time he lived with his mother and younger brother in Livingston. He remembers Natasha as being active and lively, always around friends and cheerleading or playing piano.
“Living life full speed ahead is, I think, the only way she knew how to live,” Chad said. “And her death just devastated our family.”
Chad told Dateline his mother fought to find out what happened to Natasha for years. But she lost her battle in 2002 when she died of cancer.
“I think losing Natasha literally killed our mother,” Chad said. “It was her dying wish to find out what happened, and to find out who did this to Natasha.”
Initially, investigators believed they would solve the case pretty quickly. Two people were arrested for aggravated assault after a witness claimed that he saw them beating up Natasha, according to Branch. But the case fell apart when the witness recanted his story.
“It’s just been a really complicated case from the beginning,” Branch said. “And unfortunately, we missed something along the way.”
Branch told Dateline that the number of people at the party, which he described as a party involving alcohol and an array of drugs, made it difficult to investigate. Investigators served search warrants at houses and conducted searches of vehicles all over the surrounding areas. They questioned potential witnesses from the party. But no one was talking.
“I’m 100 percent sure that we spoke to the person responsible for her death during the course of our investigation,” Branch told Dateline. “But unless that person, or a witness comes forward, we might never know the truth.”
Endless theories about what exactly happened to Natasha that night are still being offered 28 years later.
Dr. Alan Ashworth, a former resident of Natasha’s hometown of Livingston, Texas, has dedicated many years to sifting through the theories hoping to uncover the truth and has written three books about the case.
“I believe we can solve this case,” Ashworth told Dateline. “I believe we have. But now it’s up to the authorities. I can solve the case, but I can’t make the arrests.”
The case is now in the hands of the Texas Ranger Unsolved Crimes Investigation Team. Dateline reached out for comment, but has not heard back.
Retired Sheriff’s Deputy Tom Branch told Dateline he stays in touch with the investigators on the team and said they are continuing to work the case. He said they believe the case is solvable and urges anyone with information to reach out to the Texas Rangers team or Crime Stoppers.
Keisha Myers told Dateline she would just like answers about what happened to her wild and spunky friend.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that it may not happen in my lifetime,” Keisha said. “It was her mother’s dying wish to know. But that never happened.”
Keisha was with Natasha’s mother when she died from cancer.
“She treated me like her daughter and my boys like her grandchildren,” Keisha said. Keisha’s boys, including the one she was pregnant with when Natasha died, are grown now.
“He reminds me of her, though,” Keisha said. “All the good parts of her. Her intelligence. Her sense of adventure. Her self-determination. It’s like he was a gift from her.”
A cash reward of $15,000 from family and friends, along with $3,000 from Crime Stoppers, is being offered for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of Natasha’s killer(s).
If you have information about Natasha’s case, call the Crime Stoppers hotline at 1-800-252-TIPS (8477) or submit a tip through the Texas Rangers’ Cold Case website.