In Richmond, 49 of the city's 94 murders last year are still unsolved. In Chesterfield, five of the county's 13 murders in 2003 are unsolved, and in Henrico, four of 23 slayings remain open.
Every year, dozens of area murders stay on the books, never forgotten, but waiting for a witness, a crucial piece of evidence, a lead, a break.
"We wish we could have all the evidence you see on a TV program readily available to us," says Henrico cold-case homicide investigator Robert Hewlett. "A lot of times you don't have anything. You have a dead body, he's been stabbed or shot, and a knife is not present, a gun is not present. All you have is a dead body. The body is dropped somewhere, you don't even have the crime scene."
As a homicide detective, you deal with witnesses who are afraid to talk, witnesses who each give a different color for the same car, capricious weather conditions that can obliterate your outdoor crime scene. It gets so the bodies don't bother you as much as having to tell the family you have no leads.
If a case isn't solved within the first 72 hours, it's probably a whodunit. Or maybe you know who did it, but you can't prove it, so you piece your case together, building the wall of evidence that will trap your killer brick by excruciating brick.
Some unsolved murders capture the public's imagination, some don't, but all deserve to have their stories told. Here are some of them.
Catena ParkerDate: September 1990Method: Abducted, strangledLocation: Behind the Science Museum
Catena L. Parker, a 17-year-old honors student at Richmond Community High, had been missing for almost three months when Civil War relic hunters found her skeletal remains in a wooded area behind the Science Museum of Virginia on Jan. 6, 1991.
A smart, pretty, petite girl with braces, Catena sang in her church choir and was a National Honor Society student. A senior, she planned to attend Georgetown University in 1991 and had already been taking classes at Virginia Commonwealth University.
On Sept. 18, 1990, Catena was on her way back from a VCU black-history class to catch a bus home to South Richmond, when she was last seen alive near the intersection of Shaffer and Grace streets.
Her classmates and family organized huge searches. Her picture and story ran on America's Most Wanted. Catena's identical twin, Catrena, stayed home to avoid false sightings.
"It was the worst time of our lives. That's about what it was. I couldn't imagine anything worse," says Catena's father, D. McCoy Parker, who created a foundation in Catena's name to support families of missing children. It also sponsors child-identification fairs at which children are fingerprinted; it will soon move into DNA sampling.
In particular, the case haunts Maj. Michael A. Jones, assistant chief of the Capitol Police, the police unit responsible for policing all state government properties in the Richmond area.
Jones was a 10-year veteran with the Capitol Police when he responded to the scene of Catena's murder. Even though he's no longer the primary detective on the case, he still stays close to it.
"I just want to see this case put down, just as a human being. It's just not right," says Jones, who has traveled as far as New York in search of leads on the case and has spoken with everyone from FBI behavioral profilers to entomologists to Smithsonian Institute anthropologists. At first, some media articles were critical of the Capitol Police taking jurisdiction on the case, but that's because they're not familiar with the Capitol Police, Jones says. Many of its officers are retired from other police departments and are veterans with lots of investigative experience. Plus, the Catena Parker investigation is a joint effort with Richmond Police.
Catena's case was recently reassigned to a new Capitol Police detective, Sgt. Tom Hickey, who is essentially starting the investigation process over, re-interviewing old witnesses and looking again at the major suspects.
Robbery was not a motive, though some of Catena's belongings were taken as "trophies," Jones believes. So far, he hasn't heard of any matching murders, but it's a prospect Jones fears. "To me, this is a predator," Jones says of the killer.
There are currently at least three leading suspects in the murder, Jones says. One of them, Elvis Cornelius Epps, was discussed but not named in the press in the early to mid '90s by former Commonwealth's Attorney Joe Morrissey. Epps was interviewed "several times but never would directly discuss the case," Jones says. "He's [the] No. 1 [suspect] but not the only one." Other detectives might come to their own conclusions, Jones allows.
Epps, who still lives in this area, was arrested in April 1990 and accused of brutally raping a West Indian VCU student the month before. The student testified that she met Epps, then 27 and a muscular, good-looking, well-spoken man, at a video arcade near Shaffer and Grace, the same area where Catena was last seen alive. Epps, the student testified, bought beer for her and talked her into following him to a pump-house building in the then-wooded area behind the Science Museum of Virginia, not far from where Catena's body was found. She then said that Epps threatened to kill her and told her to take off her belt. She blacked out and later awoke, finding that she had been strangled with her own belt and was naked. (Catena Parker was strangled, and elements at both scenes were similar, Jones says. Though it was impossible because of the advanced decomposition of Catena's body to say if she had been sexually assaulted, the way her body was found suggests she was, Jones adds.) In spring 1990, police found a beer bottle at the pump house with Epps' fingerprints on it. Epps claimed that he and the VCU student had engaged in consensual sex, and a jury acquitted him in August 1990.
In August 1991, Capitol Police arrested Epps near Catena's murder scene during a stakeout based on hopes her killer might return to the scene near the one-year anniversary. Epps was charged with trespassing and a felony count of cocaine possession, and was convicted on both charges. "All we can say is Mr. Epps returned to the Science Museum and was prosecuted," Jones says.At that time, the area behind the Science Museum was a haven for the homeless and drug users, with thick "tunnels" cut into the thorny brush. Now it's been turned into a well-manicured park.
Epps has been interviewed in connection with Catena's murder many times over the years, Jones says, and has denied ever meeting her.
Fearing tunnel vision, the worst enemy a homicide detective can have, Jones acknowledges that Epps may not be Catena's killer after all.
"There's always a chance this case could go unsolved," Jones says, sadly. "I told Mr. Parker there's a chance we might not ever bring justice in this world. And again, it's a faith-based thing, but my faith tells me justice will be brought in one world, either this one or the next one."
The Capitol Police are seeking anyone during September 1990 who might have seen something strange and worked at the FFV plant or at or near the Science Museum; hung out in the Shaffer and Grace area; or lived in the Bellwood area of South Richmond in the same time frame. If you have information, call 786-HELP and ask for Sgt. Tom Hickey.
Nancy ChoDate: April 15, 2002Method: GunshotLocation: Family Value FoodMarket, 3111 Hull St.
For the first time in his life, Wai Cho is living alone.
Immediately after his wife, Nancy, 42, was killed in a grocery-store robbery in April 2002, Wai Cho's father traveled from Hong Kong to live with him. In February, the elder Cho moved back to Hong Kong. Wai and Nancy Cho's son, Jeffrey, 22, is profoundly autistic and lives in a group home. Their daughter, Lily, 20, is majoring in industrial design and computer animation at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
"It's not good. Lonely. Very lonely. I live by myself in the whole house," Wai Cho says. "In my life, I always lived with my family."
Wai now works seven days a week, 365 days a year at the Chimbo Market, the Church Hill family supermarket he and Nancy bought in the early 1990s from Nancy's brother, who owns several area convenience stores. In the late 1990s, at Nancy's urging, the Chos bought a second store, the Family Value Food Market at 3111 Hull St. Nancy ran it against the objections of Wai and close friends and employees, who worried that it was too close to the road and provided easy access for robbers.
Their fears proved to be prophetic. On April 15, 2002, shortly before the South Richmond store's 8 p.m. closing, a masked, armed man entered the store, ordered all the employees onto the floor and grabbed Nancy and dragged her to the store's safe, which was hidden behind a counter, and demanded she open it. She refused.
"Nancy had money in her hand where they just counted a register. He started screaming for Nancy to open the safe, and Nancy kept saying no, and I guess he said [forget] it," says Brook Huff, a longtime friend and employee of the Chos who wasn't at the store during the robbery but talked to witnesses. "He grabs the money [from Nancy's hand] like he's going to leave, and they say Nancy took off behind the guy and said, ‘Give me my money.' " The robber turned his gun and fired upward, but Nancy Cho, who was just 5 feet tall, was standing on an elevated step behind the counter. The gunshot caught her full in the heart. There was virtually no blood spilled because her heart stopped pumping.
Huff recalls that earlier that same day, she had been at the store, and Nancy had loudly reminded Huff in front of customers not to order too many stock items because she was trying to save tens of thousands of dollars for Lily's college tuition. Huff believes the wrong person in the store may have heard that, or caught wind of it from neighborhood gossip. She also thinks that the killer may have known a store employee at one time because the killer knew exactly where the store's hidden safe was.
Huff and Wai Cho recall Nancy Cho as an active, friendly woman who was generous to a fault but also wouldn't put up with anyone stealing from her. The week before her murder, she had chased a nearly 6-foot-tall teen outside her store and struggled with him because he had stolen candy. The ironic thing, Huff says, is that if he had asked for it, Nancy Cho probably would have given him candy. "She'd say, ‘That OK. We make it up later,' " Huff recalls with a sad laugh. After her death, Huff and Wai Cho discovered that Nancy had been renting vans for a local church near the Hull Street store, just because she wanted to help people.
Wai Cho and Nancy Cho both emigrated to the U.S. in the mid-'70s and worked at Chinese restaurants; they met and fell in love in 1980 and married six months later. Wai was Chinese; Nancy was Korean. Her family disapproved of the cross-cultural union, but she learned Chinese to fit in the Cho family. She also spoke Spanish. Nancy Cho loved her family and working in the garden at her West End home. She frequently brought in roses to her stores.
Cho's murder is one of several murders and shootings of Asian storekeepers in recent years. Three murders, including Cho's, remain unsolved. Her own brother, Si Lee, president of the Korean American Grocers Association of Richmond, and his wife were both wounded in a store robbery. Family friend Song Jin Hong, a Korean patriarch who owned the OK Seafood market at 1401 Hull St., was killed in a robbery in August 2003. His murder is also unsolved. The Hong family closed their Hull Street store after the murder, and the Chos sold theirs.
There probably aren't good odds for solving Nancy Cho's and Song Jin Hong's murders. Cho family members say that police tell them that they have a man in custody for an unrelated crime and linked the Cho murder weapon to him but can't prove he was Nancy Cho's killer. He may have simply bought the weapon on the street.
In the wake of the Cho and Hong murders, the Richmond Police held their first Asian Police Academy in October to train storekeepers and to forge closer ties to the community. A community symposium is also scheduled in May to discuss crime-prevention methods.
Cho's family members are resigned to the fact that her killer may never be caught. Though they still hope for justice for her, they also know it won't heal their family.
"After we lost her, our family's lives, everything, is totally changed," says Lee, Nancy Cho's brother. "It's not the same anymore. We used to be a good, good family together. ... [But now it's] hard to carry on a conversation together. We just look at each other. Nothing to say."
Parker, Willis & CaballeroDate: May 6, 1997Method: ShootingsLocation: 3722 Delmont St., Apt. B
Vernon Terrell Parker was a good-looking ladies' man, a flashy dresser with a distinctive brown oval birthmark over his right temple. He also was a low-level drug dealer who might have been too ambitious for his own good, police say.
"The upper-level drug dealers ... were becoming somewhat jealous that, one, he was now dealing a little more than he should have been dealing, and, two, the females in that area took a liking towards him," hypothesizes Henrico Police investigator D.A. Sullivan, who with investigator Robert Hewlett forms Henrico's two-man cold-case unit.
Drugs and women -- "That's a dangerous combination," Sullivan allows.
Parker lived by himself in Delmont Court apartments, which sit right on the city-county line near Forest Lawn Cemetery. The area is known as an open-air drug market and homicide hotspot.
On the night of Tuesday, May 6, 1997, Parker, 27, was being visited by his 15-year-old cousin (whose name is being withheld by police request) and 16-year-old Ruben Hakim Cabellero, both from Philadelphia, and Dara Willis, a 14-year-old eighth grader at Fairfield Middle School. They had gotten pizza and were planning to leave at 11:30 p.m. to take Cabellero to Gilpin Court, police say, when there was a knock on the door and Dara answered.
"At this point, anywhere between three and six males burst into the apartment," Sullivan relates. All but one "had [ski] masks on, and they started demanding of all the occupants of the apartment where the drugs were and where the money was."
The assailants took Parker and Willis into a rear bedroom, instructing them to lie on the floor and place pillows over their heads. They told Caballero to lie down in the living room and shot him multiple times. They then shot and killed Parker and Willis execution-style, shooting Parker through his birthmark. Parker's 15-year-old cousin had been hiding in a closet but was discovered as the invaders ransacked the apartment. He was pulled out of the closet and made to lie down and was shot multiple times in the torso. The 15-year-old "basically played dead until he felt it was safe to leave the apartment," Sullivan says, and crawled out the back door to a neighboring apartment, where the police were called. It is unclear if the assailants actually found any money or drugs. The victims had money still in their pockets.
When rescue workers and police arrived, Parker and Willis were already dead. Caballero was transported to the Medical College of Virginia Hospitals, where he died.
The 15-year-old survived the attack and identified a man from a photo lineup as the unmasked assailant, leading to the arrest of 19-year-old Yusef Lateef Robinson in June 1997. However, when police re-interviewed the teen survivor, he said he was uncertain that Robinson was one of the killers, so prosecutors decided to drop the murder charge.
In the months following the murders, Henrico police and DEA agents started an anti-drug initiative in the Delmont Court area called Operation Divine Providence, aimed at arresting drug dealers and interviewing them about the triple murder. "It turned up a tremendous amount of information ... and we subsequently interviewed a number of people we felt were prime suspects in the shootings." Sullivan says, but "no one's going to give up a triple homicide just because they may be jammed up on some cocaine charges."
Police have received some new information recently and say they are currently seeking to locate the survivor, who is now 22, to speak with him again. They've also been hearing the same names over and over again in relation to the killers. "As recently as yesterday, I interviewed an individual in regards to this homicide," Hewlett says. "We got some leads that are going to put us in some directions, but nothing concrete where we could charge somebody immediately."
If you have information about these murders, call Sullivan or Hewlett at 501-5000.
Carrie Ann WilliamDate: Oct. 3, 2002Method: GunshotLocation: Timbercreek Apartments, South Richmond
Like the enigmatic murdered homecoming queen Laura Palmer from the early-'90s David Lynch TV series Twin Peaks, Carrie Ann Williams was a beautiful, vivacious young woman whose body was found wrapped in plastic.
But there the comparisons end. Unlike the hunt for the killer of the fictional Palmer, Chesterfield County Police seem to have a suspect in the October 2002 murder of the 26-year-old Hooters waitress and part-time model.
In November 2003, police searched for a second time the home in the Hampton Park subdivision that Williams shared with her boyfriend, Raleigh Thomas "Tom" Campbell, and their son, Chase, who was 3 at the time of the killing. Investigators reportedly used ultraviolet and infrared forensic lights at the house.
Campbell apparently remains a suspect in the case. Chesterfield Police Capt. Paige "Chip" Foster says, "It's certainly an avenue we're looking at but have not eliminated at this time." State forensic labs are still in the process of analyzing evidence seized in the two searches, Foster says, and results are expected sometime this spring.
Williams was a full-time client-service manager for a Chesterfield insurance agency and worked two nights a week as a waitress for the Hooters restaurant at Chesterfield Towne Center. A former exotic dancer, she modeled for a local agency and at World Wrestling Federation matches. She was also a devoted mother to her young son. In December 2000, Williams broke up with Campbell and sought child support. Campbell fought Williams in court, seeking custody of their child. However, in April 2001, the couple reconciled, signing a consent order stating that if the reconciliation failed, Williams would have physical custody of their son, and Campbell would have to pay for day-care expenses and medical insurance costs. Not long before she was killed, Williams had met with a financial planner to write her will and discuss custody issues.
At 12:45 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2002, Williams left the Hooters parking lot, escorted to her car by a male employee. It was the last time she was reported seen alive. Campbell called police about two hours later and reported Williams missing. Her 2002 Mercedes was found later that morning on the shoulder of the road about 500 yards from her home, with personal belongings inside. The next day, at 8:15 a.m., Williams was found, shot in the head and wrapped in heavy plastic, beside a Dumpster in South Richmond. Bruises indicated that she had been tied up or held down and possibly beaten. Her underwear and clothing had been cut.
Investigators seized clothing, a white sheet and plastic sheeting from Campbell's house in one search, according to court documents. The Richmond Times-Dispatch has reported that the plastic sheeting did not match the kind that Williams was wrapped in.
Campbell pleaded guilty in Chesterfield Circuit Court in September 2003 of three unrelated felony counts of dealing ecstasy.
Speaking by phone from Riverside Regional Jail in Hopewell, where he is serving his one-year, seven-month sentence, Campbell, 34, said he was upset at being a suspect in his girlfriend's murder and at having his "privacy invaded, not having an opportunity to grieve or mourn about it."
He said his drug charges were due to the fact that "I wouldn't go undercover for the police. I wouldn't wear a wiretap. I was scared for the safety of my son and his life. ... [The police] know who actually did the drug dealing. I had to make a choice." (Multijurisdictional grand jury proceedings are secret, and police will not comment on Campbell's arrest.)
Asked if he thought that drug dealers could have killed Williams, Campbell said, "I have no idea. I have tried, I have thought of everything. They [the police] don't know what they're doing. I don't want to get into it. It creates more animosity and more issues. I just want to get it done, be out with my son and start over."
Campbell then asked that his name not be used in this article, but when he was told that he was on the record and had agreed to talk to a Richmond magazine reporter, he said that if his name was used, "I've got people on the outside ... who can handle it."