Wednesday, February 26, 2003
for true crime book helps break
A true crime author was the one who figured out that DNA technology could help solve the 25-year-old murder of Liddie L. Evans.
Of course, Bruce Jordan's day job is as director of investigations for the Fayette County Sheriff's Department, so it was easy for the "author" to follow up on his hunch.
Jordan stumbled upon the case while researching his first book, "Death Unexpected," about murders in Fayette County.
"I didn't write about it because I thought I might be able to solve it one day," Jordan said.
Jordan didn't have time to look into the matter until the murder case against Fayetteville resident Jim Watson was settled last summer. Four months ago, he convinced Fayette County Sheriff Randall Johnson to reopen the investigation into Evans' death, and in December Jordan discovered the key piece of evidence that led to the murder.
Jordan declined to discuss what the evidence was, but he said he found it in December in the evidence room of the Clayton County Police Department, which had also investigated the murder of a woman whose body was found floating on the Flint River by a duck hunter.
"I guess one department's trash is another department's treasure," said Clayton County Police Chief Ronnie Partain, referring to the evidence found there that broke the case. "We had quite a stockpile of evidence from this case in 1977."
Partain credited Clayton County detective Russell Blankenship for doing a detailed and thorough investigation when it began 25 years ago. Blankenship spent three years working the case, officials said.
"Thank God they had a good area for maintaining it," Johnson said of Clayton County's evidence room.
Johnson was a spry, young and newly elected sheriff with 11 months under his belt when the case began to play out in the Flint River Dec. 20, 1977. He had never seen such a grisly scene.
It started with a woman's body that was found floating in the Flint River by a duck hunter. Then they found the sleeping bag that led to the dead body of Liddie Evans, which was just inside the Fayette County line running under the Flint River.
Evans's body was chained to a concrete block; detectives determined she was shot to death, judging by the wound to her skull.
"They pulled it up and they felt something heavy slip out," Johnson said of the sleeping bag. "When they came back up the second time they had a white female."
Days later, Johnson arrested a suspect, Carl Millard Patton Jr., who was eventually released when then-district attorney Johnnie L. Caldwell concluded there wasn't enough evidence to keep him.
"We knew at one time who did it, we just had to have proof," Johnson said.
Now, Johnson has Patton in custody again and the sheriff says this time there's much better physical evidence, partly in thanks to DNA testing technology that wasn't around in 1977.
"It's not going to be just one or two items (of physical evidence)," Johnson said. "It's going to be several items."
Johnson was reticent to give details about the physical evidence in the case, but so far it's clear that detectives have the following to consider:
The chain and concrete block that weighted Evans down to the river bed bottom.
Blood samples taken from Patton's vehicle after he was originally arrested for the murders in 1977. The blood was tested but didn't match Evans's blood type.
The sleeping bag that officials believe contained Evans' body and was found just before her body was discovered in the Flint River.
Sheriff Johnson said Evans' body was located "just inside" the Fayette County line. He joked that Clayton County's police chief at the time, Ronnie Thornton, and he were standing with others near the center of the Flint River bridge on McDonough Road when the body was found and Evans's body was in Fayette by a few feet.
"He gave me that one," Johnson joked. "He already had two (bodies)."
Johnson suggested that Patton might have been some kind of "hit man" based on the information the sheriff's department got in the early days of the investigation.
Patton's arrest may also solve three other murders in other jurisdictions, officials said. The first dead woman found in the Flint that day, Betty Jo Ephlin, may also be one of Patton's victims, officials said. Another of the victims, Joe Cleveland, was Evans' boyfriend at the time.
Fred Wyatt, another murder victim, was also shot in the head, although someone made it appear that he died by getting run over by a train, Jordan said. The bullet in his head wasn't discovered until recently when detectives had his body exhumed, the chief detective added.
Jordan said Ephlin was killed Oct. 13, 1977, followed by Wyatt Nov. 12 the same year. And the following Dec. 17, Evans and Cleveland were killed, the chief detective said.
All four victims had one thing in common, Jordan said: they knew Marie Jackson Wyatt, who is now deceased. Were she alive today, she would also be considered an accomplice to Patton, Jordan added.
When the case first broke in 1977, Johnson had about six or eight deputies; now he has more detectives than that, not counting all his other deputies and jailers.
The extra resources allowed Johnson, now in his seventh term of office, to assign three detectives to the case full-time for four months.
And it didn't hurt that new technology could better interpret the evidence.
"It's just really good investigative work, and we have to thank the crime lab and the chiefs in the adjoining county, too," Johnson said. "... We had to get out and hustle to get what we got."
Jordan worked the case along with Sgt. Det. Tracey Carroll and Sgt. Det. Dwayne Prosser, Johnson said.
This is believed to be the oldest criminal case in Georgia that could possibly be resolved with a conviction due to DNA evidence. It will also smooth out old emotions for a sheriff who constantly thought "what if" he could have convicted Liddie Evans's killer.
Johnson just may get his shot at convicting Patton.
"It's just kind of there and it always weighs on your mind," Johnson said of the only unsolved murder in Fayette under his tenure as sheriff. "If you can get rid of that, you'd have a clean slate.
"... I'm just glad to get this behind us."