Authorities haven’t forgotten local unsolved mysteries|[4/9/06]

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 10, 2006

For investigators, cases do not get much colder than the disappearance of Mary Franklin: in the 20 years since the 71-year-old was reported missing from her home on China Grove Road, the Warren County Sheriff’s Department has exhausted multiple leads on multiple occasions, even under multiple sheriffs, and each time come up short of finding a body or a suspect in the presumed slaying.

Yet on Sheriff Martin Pace’s list of unsolved crimes, old and new, Mary Franklin is a name that still comes quickly.

&#8220We will never close a homicide case,” said Pace, who worked on the Franklin case as a young field deputy under Sheriff Paul Barrett. &#8220It’s difficult. A lot of it is evidence or information that was gathered early on in the case in terms of forensics…Investigators felt they had good leads early in the case but were never able to prove their suspicions.”

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It’s a sentiment that’s familiar to investigators in dozens of other cases remaining on local agencies’ crowded plates, even those whose longevity doesn’t begin to approach Franklin’s.

Daily, in fact, there are reminders of more recent crimes that have eluded resolutions: sheriff’s department investigators routinely pass by a reward notice posted a few feet from their headquarters in the Warren County Jail soliciting information on Angela Shiers Barrentine, the 27-year-old mother of one whose body was pulled from her overturned truck in the Big Black River last August, nine months after she was last seen on Thanksgiving Day 2004. And outside the door of Capt. Mark Culbertson’s office in the middle of the Vicksburg Police Department’s investigations wing is another reward poster, this one seeking leads in a 1998 arson that caused close to $1 million in damage to Vicksburg High School.

Culbertson still considers the arson an &#8220active” case – &#8220It’s not being worked daily, but it’s still a viable case,” he said – and the fact that Barrentine can definitively be placed in Edwards the day of her disappearance is good enough reason for Pace to keep her case in the front of his investigators’ minds.

&#8220You really reach the point when you begin to run out of new leads,” Pace said. &#8220But in the Angela Shiers Barrentine case, there are a lot of man hours still spent every month on that case.”

And on others: Vicksburg Police continue to search for suspects in the killing of David &#8220Jones” Anderson, for instance, the 41-year-old Gibson Road resident who was gunned down outside the Elks club on Walnut Street after a friend’s birthday party last July, alongside a passenger in his car who was injured in the shooting.

They are also still seeking the man, described only as young and black, wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans, who beat and raped a 91-year-old woman in her home on Hillside Drive less than a week after Anderson was killed. Police released two composite sketches of the suspect based on descriptions by the victim and another woman who was ordered out of her home in the same neighborhood by a man who then fled two months earlier, but no arrests have been made. The elderly victim died in the hospital in November, but officials have said her death could not be attributed to the rape.

And there remains the high-profile case of Jacqueline Levitz, the millionaire furniture store heiress whose disappearance drew national attention in November 1995 when she was reported missing from the blood-stained home on Riverwood Circle she had bought only a month before. Since, the police and sheriff’s departments have teamed with the FBI on a collaboration that continues to meet monthly to review the presumed slaying. The investigators on that team have been reassigned to get a fresh perspective on the evidence, Pace said, and most on the case now weren’t there when it broke more than a decade ago.

&#8220We’ve interviewed people steadily,” said Warren County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Jay McKenzie, a member of the unit investigating the Levitz case, &#8220Then we’ve gone back and reinterviewed them to see if we can come up with anything new.”

Not only violent crimes remain on the radar. The 1998 VHS fire is the most notable of numerous unsolved arsons investigated by the VPD, as well as several burglaries, including a break-in at five Vicksburg Factory Outlet stores in December of last year that netted thousands in stolen goods and a similar crime at Sports Center on Pemberton Square Boulevard a month later. Thieves gained entry through the roof in each of those burglaries, but investigators have said they don’t believe the two are related.

That distinction is key, said Vicksburg Police Chief Tommy Moffett, because many criminals are caught or linked to other crimes by their operation in a similar case, often in other jurisdictions. Inquiries into similar-looking cases are more often than not &#8220long shots,” Moffett said, but in the absence of more convincing leads, any information that could potentially clear the path to solving a case has to be taken into account.

&#8220There’s nothing set. There’s no formula. It depends on the case. If you have something happen in another jurisdiction, you look at that case and see if any evidence from that other jurisdiction applies to your case,” he said, citing the rape suspect in the case of the elderly woman as an example. &#8220If a young male that’s anywhere near that description is arrested, or if there’s a similar rape in another jurisdiction, and if there’s evidence to be looked into, we’re going to follow up on that.”

Very often, that diligence doesn’t pan out; occasionally, though, it will, as in 1998, when police arrested Sean Bass for the 7-year-old murder of 73-year-old Major Cameron at his Speed Street home. Investigators took a bloody handprint from a wall at the crime scene in September 1991, Culbertson said, but it wasn’t until May 1998 that they were able to match the print to Bass – who had just been released from prison for a burglary conviction – through an automated fingerprint identification system.

&#8220We took prints from 90 people in that case,” Culbertson said, &#8220and one of them paid off.”

Technology and forensics have grown into daily necessities to an even greater extent since 1998, when case information here was still recorded on index cards rather than an integrated computer server, even if it still doesn’t yet exactly mimic the exaggerated high-tech wizardry presented nightly on cop shows. Pace hired forensics investigator Tiffany Luke to analyze crime scenes and evidence in November 2001. When pressed for a specific investigation that has benefited from the addition, he replied: &#8220All of them.”

&#8220The technology that is available today is so far ahead of what it was a few years ago, as far as picking up DNA and trace evidence recognition,” Pace said. &#8220It may not seem important at the crime scene, but as you develop a suspect, then you may have one fiber or one hair that’s able to connect a suspect to a crime scene.”

Technology or not, however, officials insist there is no substitute for old-fashioned police work; on that front, the main stumbling block for local departments is finding the manpower and the time to track down and interview witnesses, follow up on leads and pay extra attention to details when standard calls and new cases demand full resources on a daily basis.

&#8220I’ve got six investigators that cover all of Warren County, and one of those investigators is assigned full-time to human services and youth court cases,” Pace said. &#8220That leaves five investigators to cover all major crimes.”

The police department is limited, as well, both by personnel – the officer count remains under capacity – and time, Moffett said, and even high-priority cases, over time, require less attention if they’ve reached a dead end.

&#8220If some information poured in for some reason, I’d pull however many people I needed,” Moffett said. &#8220You’ll spend as much time as you have to spend based on what you have to follow up on. But if you don’t have anything, it’s a waste of time.”

Few agencies in Mississippi can afford to devote resources exclusively to cold cases. One that does is the Adams County Sheriff’s Department, which formed a two-man unit when Sheriff Ronny Brown took office in 2004 to solve four homicides committed since 1994 and a civil rights era bombing of a black man in 1967. That unit, led by retired Highway Patrol officer Horace Sumrall, headed an investigation that led to the arrest and eventual March 24 conviction of William Terry Davis, 43, in the 1994 beating death of his ex-wife, Rena Davis.

&#8220If a homicide isn’t solved within 48 hours, the chances of it being solved diminish greatly, and as the weeks and months go on, you get other cases and that case is pushed to the side,” said Maj. Jody Davis, who emphasized the collaboration of several agencies in the William Davis investigation but noted, &#8220The one that we solved could not have been solved if we didn’t have that unit.”

For the time being, there are no plans to begin a unit devoted exclusively to cold cases among local agencies, which are, in Pace’s words, &#8220limited as it is.” Occasionally, the Mississippi Department of Corrections’ Cold Case Unit will aid in an investigation, Culbertson said, and evidence is well-preserved in databases and depositories such as the state crime lab in Jackson. Much of the time, though, making an arrest is all a matter of investigators keeping their doors, and ears, open to sources.

&#8220You just have to follow the leads you’re given,” Pace said. &#8220You cannot afford to consider any information you receive unimportant because it may be a tidbit of information concealed in a lot of useless information that solves the case.”


A list of recent, unsolved crimes on local agencies’ agendas:.

July 2005 – Slaying of David &#8220Jones” Anderson: The 41-year-old victim was getting into a car parked on the street outside the Elks Lodge at 2916 Walnut St. the morning of July 19, 2005, when he and a passenger, John King, 38, 2006 Ford St., were shot. Anderson was pronounced dead at the scene, and King was taken to the hospital.

July 2005 – Rape of 91-year-old woman: The victim was raped at knifepoint and robbed of her jewelry on July 25 after answering a knock on the door of her home off Halls Ferry Road, police said.

The victim told police she went to her front door around 6:35 p.m. and found a man who forced his way into the home where she lived alone and dragged her to a bedroom where she was beaten and raped, Capt. Mark Culbertson said.

Police have issued two composite sketches of the suspect from the descriptions by the victim and a woman who was ordered out of her house nearby by a man earlier the same month.

The elderly woman initially spent two days in the hospital. She has since died, but officials have said her death could not be attributed to the rape.

August 2005 – Body of Angela Shiers Barrentine found: Authorities pulled the body of the 27-year-old mother of one from her truck in the Big Black River nine months after she was last seen on Thanksgiving Day 2004.

Warren County Sheriff’s Department investigators said they know from witnesses that Barrentine was in Edwards the day she disappeared, and family members have said she had a history of drug problems. No arrest has been made in the case, but Sheriff Martin Pace said he feels sure foul play was involved.

December 2005 – Burglary, Vicksburg Factory Outlets: Thieves broke into five stores at the shopping center late Dec. 9 or early on the morning of Dec. 10, entering through the ceiling and tunneling through the walls between stores to make off with thousands in cash and merchandise.

The thieves entered through the ceiling of the Reebok store at the north end of the outlet chain, said Vicksburg Police Sgt. Sandra Johnson, then broke through Reebok’s back office walls into neighboring Factory Brand Shoes. From there, they knocked holes in a series of walls to enter Bible Factory, Osh Kosh and Paper Factory stores.

There was no official estimate on the value of the merchandise taken.

January 2006 – Burglary, Sports Center: Thieves made off with at least $30,000 in sporting goods after puncturing the roof of the business on Pemberton Square Boulevard.

Two holes were cut through the roof, where it is believed the intruders entered the building, and a hole had been drilled through a wall near the rear of the store.

Vicksburg Police Capt. Mark Culbertson said he did not believe the crimes were committed by the same burglars who hit Vicksburg Factory Outlets a month earlier, though he would not say why.

January 2006 – Slaying of Elizabeth Williams: The body of the 72-year-old woman was found Jan. 15 by family members in the trailer where she lived on Greenhill Road.

Williams was killed by blunt trauma to the head, Pace said.

Her green 1997 Chevrolet Malibu was missing but later recovered at a motel on U.S. 80, Pace said. No charges have been filed.