Written by Stephanie Allen

Don’t Look Away

Don’t Look Away by Stephanie Allen

Community Needs to Help Police Solve Homicides

Arthur Johnson wants everyone to remember a simple rule: Treat others as you want to be treated.

To Johnson, lead pastor at St. Luke’s Ministries in Lakeland, that means standing up and supporting your neighbor when they’re in need. It means building a sense of community to help one another. And it means breaking the silence to stop a cycle of crime.

“The only time people want to talk is when (something) happens to them, and then they want the community to do what they wouldn’t do,” Johnson said. “If I require something of you, I better well be prepared to give to you, too.”

Lakeland police are hoping the community will listen to messages, such as Johnson’s, as a pair of detectives team up to work cold cases while two other detectives focus on more recent unsolved murders. The four make up the homicide squad, ready to tackle 38 open cases.

But even doubling the team within Lakeland Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Section doesn’t mean the detectives will be able to solve all the homicides. The detectives need the community’s help, said Sgt. Jeff Birdwell, who oversees the detectives.

“We need honesty,” Birdwell said. ”If people could think just for a moment: “What if it was their family member?’ ”

Birdwell said he knows cold-case detectives Brad Grice and Scott Kercher, as well as homicide detectives Russell Hurley and Brian Wallace, will have success after spending time re-investigating some of the department’s cases, but they desperately need the community’s involvement.

Grice and Kercher, officially named cold-case homicide detectives May 18, said they’re hoping to bring closure to as many people as possible.

“It’s important for the families to know we’re not giving up and for the criminals to know that they’re not free — we’re right behind them,” Birdwell said.

Many of the department’s unsolved homicides are exactly that because detectives are missing at least one crucial piece of the investigative puzzle – a piece of information that Birdwell said someone in the community must know.

The Rev. Johnson said he’s working on trying to bring community members together to remind them of neighborhood values and to create a giant support group that will help fight crime. He wants people to stand together and not be afraid to talk with police because there’s always more information out there.

“Somebody knows something. I will never accept nobody knows something,” Johnson said. “The question is: Who will talk?”

'When there is no closure, our mind starts to fill in the gaps and we become almost obsessed with putting things together.'

Linda Cook Thames knows what it’s like to want closure.

The 59-year-old grandmother has been waiting more than 12 years for her son’s homicide to be solved.

Every day she prays that she won’t have to wait any longer.

Lakeland police hope she won’t have to either.

Grice said its people like Thames who make the detectives work harder and never give up on a case – no matter how many years have passed. “You start getting really personal with these families,” he said. “They deserve closure.”

But the families aren’t the only ones who need closure, said Berney Wilkinson, a licensed psychologist at Psychological Associates of Central Florida.

Cold cases and unsolved homicides take a toll on the detectives and officers investigating the case, too, he said. The officers carry cases they’ve spent years investigating but haven’t yet solved with them at all times.

“I think (some) of the lesser-recognized victims in this are the police officers themselves,” he said. “A lot of police officers will carry the cases into their retirement and continue following them.”

From a mental health standpoint, Wilkinson said, it’s important for law enforcement agencies to focus on solving the cold cases if they’re able to devote the resources to that. Carrying the extra stress that comes from not having closure and not knowing exactly what happened can be devastating for everyone involved, both mentally and physically, he said.

People who don’t have closure can’t adequately go through the grieving process, and they usually get stuck in a denial-type phase, Wilkinson said.

“When there is no closure, our mind starts to fill in the gaps and we become almost obsessed with putting things together,” he said. “It creates this anticipation, this low-lying anxiety that wreaks havoc on your body.”

Janet Franson knows what it’s like not being able to forget an unsolved case.

The retired Lakeland police detective, who now works for the University of North Texas, spent years investigating the 1984 death of Anna Houston, a 79-year-old woman known as “The Cookie Lady.”

Houston’s death was one of the first cases Franson helped with as a young patrol officer, she said. Several years later, Franson became a homicide detective and learned Houston’s case was still unsolved.

She said she had to look into it.

“I took the murder book, took it home, re-copied all the old pages and put it together with how I thought was some kind of order,” she said.

She spent about three years working on it between cases at the office and at home, following up on dead-end leads. But she never gave up.

“This little old lady was as sweet as could be and somebody brutally, I mean brutally, killed her,” she said.

'Whatever motivates someone to step forward, we don’t question the motivation as long as the information is good.'

With no further leads, Franson asked The Ledger for help. Her hope, she said, was to let people know the case was still unsolved and, with any luck, have someone come forward with information.

A January 2000 story did just that.

Franson said two people who didn’t have anything to do with the murder, didn’t know each other and didn’t normally read The Ledger came forward with the same information. The new lead led her to Robert Austin, a 15-year-old neighbor of Houston.

The last thing Franson did before she retired from LPD was get a search warrant for Austin’s blood to test it against blood found at the crime scene.

Austin was convicted of first-degree murder in 2006 and sentenced to life in prison in 2009 for Houston’s death.

Franson said it was faith and the community’s help that solved Houston’s case. Without the witnesses who came forward, she could’ve spent years continuing to follow leads.

“Cases like that prove that you can go back, you can revisit these old cases and they can be solved,” she said.

But even with new technologies and the most advanced police work, the community is still vital to helping solve a homicide, she said.

“His particular name had never come up in the investigation,” Franson said. “You just don’t know what getting a story on the news or in the morning newspaper will bring forward.”

In Houston’s case, Franson said the two people who came forward did so because they wanted to do the right thing, but there are many reasons why someone might choose to share information, she said.

Police don’t question any of them, Sgt. Birdwell said. Detectives just need information.

“Whatever motivates someone to step forward, we don’t question the motivation as long as the information is good,” he said.

Some people come forward on their death beds because they don’t want to die holding on to a secret. Others become overwhelmed with guilt, knowing they hold information that could help close a case.

In 2011, a man called Tampa police and confessed to a pair of 30-year-old unsolved Lakeland homicides after he said he talked with a preacher and was inspired to confess.

Austin Jackson was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the 1984 slaying of 62-year-old William Clark Ford Jr. and the 1985 killing of 16-year-old Sharon Cheryl Boyce, according to court records.

During a recorded interview, Jackson told detectives he had wanted to get the killings off his chest. “It’s really been bothering me for years,” he said in a transcript.

Birdwell said that exact reason is why many people come forward to police, even with secondhand or hearsay information.

He said remorse can build inside a person for years before it finally becomes too much to handle.

“Circumstances change for all of us,” Birdwell said. “Somebody may have been in a relationship at the time who heard of that and now they’re no longer connected to that relationship or they may not have been a Christian 13 years ago, but now they’re involved in church and faith and want to do the right thing.”

Heartland Crime Stoppers received 2,053 tips and gave out more than $70,000 in rewards to people

Lakeland police have struggled with getting residents to come forward with information because people are afraid to get involved with a case, Birdwell said. The person might be afraid of retaliation, looking like a “snitch” or not wanting to be part of a court trial, he said.

But companies such as Crime Stoppers have found ways to work around those fears, Birdwell said.

Chip Brown, executive director of Heartland Crime Stoppers, which covers Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties, said people should never be afraid to call the local tip line because everyone is guaranteed anonymity.

And everyone who calls with a tip is eligible for thousands of dollars in rewards, he said.

“If that case ends in an arrest, the recovery of stolen property, or the recovery of stolen narcotics or drugs, then they are eligible for a reward up to $3,000,” Brown said. “And the money is paid anonymously.”

Brown said Heartland Crime Stoppers received 2,053 tips and gave out more than $70,000 in rewards to people.

He said there is no way for Crime Stoppers to figure out a tipster’s identity. “Nobody will ever know that they contacted Crime Stoppers.”

Detectives Grice and Kercher said they’re determined to bring closure to as many families as possible.

And they hope the community will help them do that.

Anyone with information about one of Lakeland’s unsolved homicides can contact Detective Brad Grice at 863-834-8951 or Crime Stoppers at 800-226-8477. You may also email detectives at coldcasetips@lakelandgov.net.

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