By Roy Ockert Jr.
Courier editor 8-29-2000
In June while marking the 25th anniversary of this column, we reprinted some of what I considered my best columns over the years. One of those was a column I wrote after the disappearance of my sister, Linda Edwards, a Garland County sheriff’s dispatcher, in 1976. Her remains were found five months later, and her murder is still unsolved, long forgotten by all those but those who cared the most.
That may be changing. The case has been reopened by the Arkansas State Police, and last week Little Rock television station KTHV led its 10 p.m. Monday newscast with an extensive piece about the case. (see video here)
Modern forensics methods are bringing once-unsolvable cases back to life. If DNA testing techniques had been available in 1977, Linda’s killer might have been brought to justice. Investigators think those techniques could still help today.
These developments, as you might imagine, raise mixed emotions within her family. We had long ago given up hope that the case would ever be solved and closed it, to the best of our abilities, in our own minds.
Linda, a 29-year-old divorcee, was last seen alive late Saturday night, Aug. 21, 1976, in Hot Springs. Earlier that night she had taken her children and a babysitter, who was a close friend, to the movie theater, giving the sitter money for cab fare home.
Linda never made it home.
That night she dropped by another friend’s house twice, met with a city police officer with whom she’d had a relationship and was seen by three acquaintances – the last about 12: a.m.
The next morning her friends became concerned and called the sheriff. That evening her car was found abandoned but operational alongside a quiet highway just south of Hot Springs. A full-scale search and investigation began that Monday.
Meanwhile, I had taken my family, including my mother and brother Ken, on a camping trip to Florida. Those were the days before cell phones; we had no specific itinerary, and foolishly we did not check in with anybody along the way.
By the time we returned to Hot Springs that Thursday night, Linda’s disappearance had become a major statewide story. Everyone knew about it except us.
In those first days after Linda disappeared, the policeman, who was married, had become a prime suspect. Linda had told many friends that she was carrying his baby, that he wanted her to have an abortion but she refused and that she intended to give the baby the policeman’s name. Before she disappeared that Saturday night, she told several friends she was going to have a “showdown” with him.
The policeman admitted meeting her that night but denied everything else. During the first few days the case became a source of great friction between sheriff’s officers and city police. Then, thankfully, the State Police took it over.
Unfortunately, some critical mistakes had already been made in the investigation. Her car was towed in to a garage but left where almost anybody could get to it. The policeman’s car was kept at his home that Sunday and had been cleaned by the time it was inspected Monday.
But for the next five months, while the murder investigation proceeded, Linda remained a missing person. We established a reward fund, sent posters all over the country and followed every tip, including some crazy ones. A grand jury looked into the case but ruled that the evidence did not warrant action.
Just into my second year as managing editor of the Batesville Guard, I spent every weekend in Hot Springs trying to help. For hours at a time my brother and I walked the woods in the area where her car had been found.
As it turned out, we were nowhere near the right place. On Feb. 12 a wolf hunter looking for his dog found some human bones on rugged Jack Mountain, about eight miles from where her car had been found. The next day more bones were recovered, the remains having apparently been scattered by animals.
Later, the medical examiner would use dental records to confirm that they were Linda’s remains. An autopsy determined that the cause of death was “blunt trauma to the head with compound skull fractures”–several blows to the top of the head with some sort of heavy instrument. The murder weapon was never found, nor were her purse, badge and sheriff’s ID card.
The next day Ken and I went to the scene and were shown where her body had been left beside a tree–less than 150 feet from a dirt road used often by hunters and loggers but almost nobody else.
We found some fingernails and small bones under the tree–evidence the authorities had not been thorough here either. If DNA testing had been available then, fingernails might have been critical.
Another critical fact about the scene as that it was in Hot Springs County, not
Garland. Thus the case came under the jurisdiction of different law enforcement authorities, a different judicial district.
We were fortunate that the prosecutor was John Cole of Sheridan, who conducted his own investigation and charged the policeman with first-degree murder. In August 1978, though, Circuit Judge Henry means ruled that most of the state’s case was hearsay — what Linda had told various people–and was therefore inadmissible. Cole appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court, which gave him only a partial victory.
Meanwhile, Cole has been elected judge, leaving the case to a new prosecutor named Dan Harmon. After the adverse ruling he dropped the original charge and submitted the case to a grand jury, which declined to issue an indictment.
For all practical purposes the criminal case was closed that day in June 1979. Harmon went onto some notoriety in other maters, eventually earning himself a federal prison cell.
The policeman, who had been suspended when originally charged, gained reinstatement and $15,000 in back pay, but then was demoted and resigned, saying his credibility had been destroyed.
After spending much time and resources, I eventually realized I could do nothing more to change what had happened. I had lost sight of a more important consequence–that two children had been left motherless. Thankfully, they somehow survived to adulthood and overcame their circumstances–to become a fine young woman and man.
If somehow after all these years, technology could solve the mystery of their mother’s death, justice would be finally served.