Arkansas Times 7-26-2007
After 30 years, a murder victim’s son mistrusts officials’ reluctance.
By Mara Leveritt
Mike Fletcher was a young investigator for the Arkansas State Police in 1976, when he was assigned to investigate the disappearance of Linda Edwards, a Garland County deputy sheriff.
Toby Edwards, the deputy’s son, was just 6 the next year when wolf hunters found his mother’s partially buried remains scattered on a wooded hillside several miles south of Hot Springs.
Toby was a cynic by 7. That’s when Lt. Thurman Abernathy, the chief narcotics officer for the Hot Springs Police Department, was charged with Linda Edwards’ murder. The following year, Toby’s mistrust became set in stone when the murder charge against Abernathy was dropped.
Today, 31 years after she went missing, what happened to Linda Edwards remains one of the most famous cold cases in Arkansas police history. As Fletcher recently put it, “It is somewhat unique in that the victim and the ‘person of interest’ both worked in law enforcement.”
Fletcher is a captain now, a troop commander in the patrol division of the State Police. He insists, “There has never been one moment in 30-some years that I thought this case would go unsolved.”
“As recently as a year ago,” he says, “we received a phone call that gave us some information about this case. Some important, very crucial information. Why did that person call? They said they wanted to get it off of their conscience.”
Lt. Glenn Sligh, the current commander of the Criminal Investigation Division, which maintains control of the case, elaborates: “We’re of a strong opinion that there are people out there who have been told critical information by the party or parties involved. And a lot of these people are getting close to the end of their lives. They may be thinking about not wanting to die without disclosing something that could be of help.”
“We’re betting on human nature,” Sligh adds. “Human beings have a need to confess. Whoever was involved in this is 30 years older, if they’re still alive. That’s a long time to carry a guilt that’s this heavy.”
While Toby Edwards considers Fletcher “a straight-shooter,” he’s far from convinced that other officials, to this day, want to see his mother’s killer brought to justice. Edwards suspects that the investigation into her murder was obstructed three decades ago and that it is still being blocked today.
Whether or not he’s right, extraordinary circumstances explain his bitter opinions.
As Edwards acknowledges: “Pretty much everywhere I went, everybody told me it was a cover-up by the police department. That does shape an individual’s mind.”
He remembers, for example, being in the fourth grade and going with a cousin to visit his mother’s grave. A patrol car eased through the cemetery and pulled to a stop near the boys. When the officer asked them what they were doing, Edwards nodded towards his cousin. “We’re going to visit his aunt’s grave,” he answered.
The response was reflexive.
“I didn’t know,” he says now, “if he was going to pull me up and cap me off like they did her. I didn’t trust any of them.”
Linda Louise Ockert Edwards was 29 years old, divorced and the mother of three in March 1976, when Garland County Sheriff Leon Barlow hired her as a deputy, to work as dispatcher. Until then, Edwards — 5-foot-5, about 110 pounds, with hazel eyes and dark blonde hair — had tended bar at Hot Springs nightclubs, primarily the Black Orchid.
“She came in and applied,” Barlow remembers. “She had kids. She wasn’t married. She had no income.” When her background check came back clean, Barlow says, “I told my chief deputy, ‘Tell her we’ll give her a week’s trial.’ ”
He was glad he made the decision.
“She did a dandy job.”
Edwards had been attending Garland County Community College and was within a semester of graduating when she went to work for the sheriff. She needed the steady salary.
Her oldest child, born with Down syndrome, had been adopted by a family better able to care for him. That left 6-year-old Toby and his 4-year-old sister, Kim, living with their mother in rooms Edwards rented in the home of her friend, Mary Patterson.
With the sheriff’s job it looked like life might get easier. But a month after Edwards began working for Barlow, a doctor confirmed that she was pregnant. Four months later, she vanished.
The last time Toby saw her was Aug. 21, 1976, a Saturday. Edwards left work, went home to eat, and told Toby and Kim that they were going with Patterson to see a movie.
Edwards drove Patterson and both women’s children to the Paramount Theatre, but Edwards did not go in. She gave Patterson $15 for tickets, popcorn and — in case she wasn’t back in time — cab fare home.
According to notes made later by investigators, Edwards told Patterson she was going to meet Abernathy. She had not returned when the movie ended.
At 9:30 the next morning, after Edwards still had not come home, Patterson called a mutual friend, Sara Edwards (no relation). A little after noon, Sara Edwards called Sheriff Barlow to report Linda Edwards missing.
That evening, Edwards’ 1972 white Chevrolet Impala convertible was found locked and abandoned beside Highway 290 southeast of Hot Springs near what is known as Fish Hatchery Road. The area around the car was searched for days but, while no trace of Linda Edwards was found, investigators quickly zeroed in on Abernathy as a suspect in her disappearance.
Here lies one of the first places where doubt begins to cloud Toby Edwards’ view of the investigation. Sheriff Barlow acknowledges that, “back then,” political tensions strained the relationship between his office and the Hot Springs police. Still, he expected them to cooperate in the investigation when one of his deputies turned up missing. Barlow says that they did not.
The former sheriff says that “in the beginning,” police officials refused to make Abernathy available to be interviewed. “They don’t want one of their officers to be in trouble, of course,” he says, “but we had a hard time even questioning him.”
Fletcher contests that recollection. “I was there,” he says. “At the time, the chief of police and the chief of detectives were 100 percent cooperative with us.”
Fletcher concedes, however, “I think there were some people who had some information at the time who could have come forward and didn’t.”
That’s putting it mildly, in Barlow’s view. “We weren’t getting any cooperation out of the city — not the police chief, the mayor or the municipal judge,” he says. “They were trying to keep us from talking to Mr. Abernathy.”
In the 31 years since Edwards disappeared, Abernathy has spoken little about the case. He still lives in Hot Springs. He did not respond to a telephone message requesting an interview for this story.
“A week before she disappeared,”Barlow says, “she told me she was pregnant and who the father was.” Soon after the discovery of Edwards’ car, Barlow requested assistance from the State Police.
Fletcher, who was then with the State Police Criminal Investigation Division, and other officers of the agency’s major case squad converged on Hot Springs. They combed through Edwards’ possessions and conducted hundreds of interviews.
They learned that Linda Edwards was a gregarious person. She’d shared the intimacies of her life with several friends, all of whom, according to investigators’ notes, told essentially the same story:
While she had worked as a bartender, Edwards had an affair with Abernathy, who was married. They’d called it off and Edwards had stopped using a contraceptive. But in early 1976 the affair was resumed, resulting in Edwards getting pregnant. The baby was due in December.
On July 6, about seven weeks before she disappeared, Edwards wrote a lengthy letter to a friend who had recently moved from Hot Springs. It dealt almost entirely with her concerns about Abernathy and her pregnancy.
“Emotionally, I’m fine now,” Edwards wrote. “But for about a month there, I didn’t think I’d make it.” She then described the night she told Abernathy that they “had a problem.”
“That night wasn’t too bad. I had realized before he’d be upset so I was fairly flexible. But a few nights later we really had a bout. He drew his hand up. I really thought that night I’d had it. He swung me around the kitchen several times.
“Of course, I was entirely unreasonable with him that night, and he was furious with me. He finally decided he wanted me to get an abortion.”
Investigators learned that Edwards had scheduled the abortion but backed out. She wrote that Abernathy “was very mad, scared and upset… . This was one week ago…”
Nevertheless, she asked, “Don’t let yourself feel bad or hurt for me, because I’m on top of it now. Okay?”
Edwards explained she believed that Abernathy’s rage was fueled by the “fear of his baby touching his heart.” Since coming to that realization, she wrote, “I no longer fear Thurman.”
Friends told investigators, however, that as Edwards’ pregnancy progressed, the couple’s fights intensified. One of Toby’s teachers told investigators that, on the Friday night before Edwards disappeared, she’d seen her with a man in a blue car that was parked on Central Avenue. The teacher said the two were shouting at each other.
On Saturday, Aug. 21, Edwards talked with friends about an announcement in that morning’s paper that Abernathy had been promoted to lieutenant. One friend told the investigators, “She knew he was going to be making more money and still wouldn’t help her. This is when she really started getting mad.”
“She was determined-mad,” the friend said. “Not shaking mad but flat mad. She told me what she was going to do. She said he was going to get a divorce and marry her and give the baby his last name or she was going to see a lawyer on Monday and have her name changed to Abernathy.
“I told her to be careful. ‘With what you’re going to lay on him, he might hurt you.’ She said, ‘He won’t hurt me.’ I said it was like backing a tiger into a corner.”
Edwards reportedly would not listen. “Even with their arguments,” her friend told police, “she trusted him implicitly. He was like a god to her. He never once told her he loved her.”
An investigator also wrote that the friend commented: “She had very long fingernails. Looks like she would have scratched someone if they had molested her.”
A phone log at the police department showed that Edwards placed a call to Abernathy at 8:25 p.m. She later dropped by another friend’s house to report that Abernathy had told her, “Let me take care of a couple of people and I’ll get back to you.”
State Police investigators finally interviewed Abernathy on Aug. 27, six days after Edwards’ disappearance. Maj. W.A. Tudor, head of CID for the Arkansas State Police, conducted the interview in the presence of Hot Springs Police Chief Bob Griffith and Assistant Chief Marvin Owens. Notes from the session indicate that Abernathy refused to sign the form acknowledging that he’d been advised of his rights.
Under questioning, Abernathy confirmed that he had agreed to meet Edwards that night.
According to State Police records, made available by the former sheriff, Abernathy said he met Edwards at a gas station, and the pair then moved to the parking lot behind the Baptist church on Central, across from Oaklawn Park.
Abernathy said the two talked for 10 to 15 minutes “about his work, the promotion, the extra money that the promotion would bring, and other general topics.” A summary of Abernathy’s statements noted: “She did not mention to Abernathy that she was pregnant and she appeared ‘alright’ to him at that time. Abernathy drove away and left her parked on the lot behind the church.”
According to Abernathy, that was the last time he saw Linda Edwards. He told investigators that, after leaving Edwards, he met with the patrol officer on duty that night and sent him home at midnight — three hours early — because the officer had visiting relatives and “nothing was happening” in town.
“He told me that, if I didn’t have anything going, to shove off,” the undercover officer who was patrolling with Abernathy told investigators.
“Whose idea was it for you to go home at midnight?” they asked.
“Lt. Abernathy’s,” the officer answered.
“Had you asked him to take off early?”
After dismissing the other officer, Abernathy told investigators, he continued to patrol the city alone. He said he made contact with no one, in person or by radio, except to purchase a pack of cigarettes.
Fletcher cited in one report the time when Abernathy dismissed the other officer and the time he checked off-duty. “That’s two hours and 13 minutes,” he wrote, during which Abernathy’s whereabouts could not be confirmed.
Another variation from routine that Abernathy acknowledged was that he “took the police unit to his residence, where he kept it the remainder of the night.” He explained that, on the night Edwards disappeared, he’d taken his police car home because his family was having trouble with one of its other cars.
A report on the interview noted: “Maj. Tudor asked Abernathy if Mrs. Edwards had put any pressure on him during their meeting on the night of Aug. 21 to leave his wife and marry her. His response was, ‘No more than usual.’ When he was asked to be specific about the conversation with Mrs. Edwards, he refused to discuss it further. The interview was concluded and Lt. Abernathy resumed his normal police duties.”
Tudor’s own report on the session noted, “Lt. Abernathy refused to submit to a polygraph examination under any conditions and regardless of the questions asked.”
On the same day that investigators questioned Abernathy, they also examined his undercover police car: “Hot Springs Police Dept. Unit 128, a 1973 Dodge Polaris four-door, blue in color.”
They reported: “The entire vehicle seemed to have been cleaned. On the rear view mirror were milky looking marks that appeared that the rear view mirror had been wiped with a damp cloth but not dried. All the windows appeared to have the same markings on them. We were unable to obtain any prints or discern any prints on any parts of the interior vehicle. The entire interior seemed to have been cleaned recently.”
For relatives of Linda Edwards, the situation was surreal. Was she dead? No one knew for sure. No body had been found.
Toby and Kim’s father, Ray Edwards, took the children to live with him. He told them their mother was on vacation.
Abernathy continued to run the city’s narcotics squad. Barlow considered the situation a disgrace. The family of Linda Edwards had trouble with it, too. The missing woman’s brother, Roy Ockert, of Jonesboro, understood that Abernathy must be presumed innocent, especially because no one knew that a murder had even been committed. Nevertheless, Ockert believed that an officer of the law should be required to cooperate in a criminal investigation.
He wrote to Sam Stathakis, then-chairman of the Hot Springs Civil Service Commission, asking that, because Abernathy had “refused to answer questions that might help in the investigation,” he be suspended from the police department.
While still unsure about Linda Edwards’ fate, Ockert wrote, “Family and friends have made every possible effort to cooperate with authorities and we have reason to fear for our own safety, as well as that of my sister.”
But nothing happened. Mayor Tom Ellsworth cited court decisions which had held that an officer could be dismissed from the police force if he refused to cooperate in a criminal investigation — unless he was a suspect in the case. In that situation, the mayor said, the officer had a constitutional right to refuse.
The circumstances bothered Sheriff Barlow enough that he wrote a letter to then-Gov. David Pryor complaining that the city might be dealing with “a cover-up and a hush-hush attitude for the protection of others who may be fearful of their own exposure to illicit deeds and activities.”
Parts of the sheriff’s letter were quoted in news reports. Unbeknownst to Toby Edwards at the time, his stepmother was clipping such articles from the paper for when he and his sister got older.
In February 1977, the missing-person case became one of murder when hunters working with dogs found scattered human bones that turned out to be those of Linda Edwards. The state medical examiner ruled that she had died from blunt trauma to her head.
Several rings and items of clothing were found with the remains. But three important items were not. Edwards was believed to have been carrying a blue denim purse at the time of her disappearance, as well as her Garland County deputy sheriff’s badge, Number 137, and her official identification card. Those items remain missing.
The location of the remains, in Hot Spring County, put the case in a new jurisdiction. The State Police remained on it as investigators, but if anyone were to be tried for Edwards’ murder, it would now be in Malvern, not in Hot Springs.
Abernathy was charged with the murder in July 1977, 11 months after Edwards’ disappearance, by then-Prosecuting Attorney John Cole. Abernathy immediately posted the $50,000 bond.
And, now that he had been charged, the police department suspended him.
But the case against Abernathy was entirely circumstantial. There was no witness, no murder weapon, no confession and no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Abernathy hired Little Rock attorney Jack Holt Jr. to represent him, and in a preliminary motion Holt argued that almost all the evidence the state planned to introduce — evidence claiming that Edwards was pregnant by Abernathy, that the couple had been arguing, and that she intended to confront him on the night of her disappearance — could not be presented at trial because it was hearsay.
The Sixth Amendment grants every defendant the right to confront his accuser. If statements made by Linda Edwards were presented by her friends in court, Abernathy would not be able to challenge Edwards about them because, of course, she was dead.
In August 1978, two years after Edwards’ murder, Judge Henry B. Means agreed with Holt, ruling that most of the state’s evidence was inadmissible. When Cole appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court, the high court agreed that most of what the state planned to introduce was indeed barred because it was hearsay. Importantly, however, the justices ruled that, because of an exception to the state’s hearsay rules, testimony regarding the fact that Edwards planned to meet Abernathy on the night that she was killed would be admissible.
The case was sent back to Hot Spring County. And here’s where the saga takes another turn — one that would compound Toby Edwards’ mistrust.
While the matter was on appeal, John Cole was elected to a judgeship. Responsibility for Linda Edwards’ case passed to the new prosecuting attorney, Dan Harmon, who would later be sentenced to prison for running a drug racket from his office.
Harmon dropped the murder charge against Abernathy, announcing that he would leave it to a grand jury to decide whether new charges should be filed. In March 1979, Harmon announced that a grand jury had found the evidence insufficient and returned a no true bill, declining to indict.
Abernathy asked to be reinstated as a police officer. He wrote in a letter to the Hot Springs Civil Service Commission that, as a result of the grand jury’s decision, he felt he had been “completely exonerated.”
But that was not exactly the case. Not being indicted is not the same as being tried and acquitted. While Toby Edwards believes that a jury might have considered even the limited evidence against Abernathy sufficient to return a guilty verdict, if Harmon and the grand jury believed otherwise, they were ethically bound not to engage in what might have amounted to malicious prosecution.
Additionally, the grand jury’s refusal to indict kept open the possibility of a trial in the future, if more evidence were to surface. Had Abernathy been tried and found not guilty, he would be immunized against ever being tried again by laws against double jeopardy.
With the murder charge against Abernathy dropped, the Hot Springs Civil Service Commission voted unanimously to reinstate him to the police department.
“The man was suspended because he was charged with a crime and as far as we are able to understand, he is no longer charged,” City Attorney Curtis Ridgway told a reporter. “There is no active investigation into the matter and we have no choice.”
Abernathy was paid $14,664 in back wages, but the day he returned to work, Police Chief Grover Douglas demoted him to sergeant for “conduct unbecoming of a police officer.” With that, Abernathy resigned from the force.
“My being arrested on the charge of murder and being kept on the charge for over two years certainly dampened my enthusiasm for law enforcement,” he told the chief in his resignation letter. “… Justice has not been served in the Linda Edwards case. There is a person or persons guilty of this crime who has not been brought to answer for it.”
Twenty years passed. Abernathy took another job. People got on with their lives.
“You never can accept something like that,” Roy Ockert says, “but you eventually have to accept that there’s nothing else you can do.”
As a child, Toby Edwards had accepted that there was nothing he could do. But as an adult he began to think otherwise.
He explains, “For a while, I just kept trying to push it to the back of my mind — just trying to live with it. But it’s not happening like that. Life began telling me, ‘Take care of it.’ ”
By 2000, Edwards was 30, married and a parent himself. Knowing that, years ago, Ockert and other relatives had been allowed to see the file on his mother’s murder, he asked State Police officials to let him now see it himself.
To his dismay, they refused. They told him, as they told this reporter, that the case remains open and under active investigation.
Toby Edwards and his sister next decided to pin their hopes on DNA analysis, the great forensic tool that was not available when their mother was murdered. In 2004, they began seeking a court order to have her remains exhumed.
They were told that, though Linda Edwards is buried in Garland County, because investigators were claiming the investigation was still open, a motion seeking the exhumation would have to be filed by Eddy R. Easley, the prosecuting attorney for Hot Spring County.
Edwards says he and his sister signed paperwork requesting the disinterment in August 2004. He says that Easley’s chief deputy, Richard Garrett, assured them that the necessary documents would be prepared, though that “could take a couple of months.” In the nearly three years since then, they say, nothing has been done.
Edwards says that Easley has not responded to repeated phone calls seeking an explanation as to why the family’s request has languished. Easley did not respond to phone messages left with his office seeking comment for this article, either.
Toby Edwards recognizes that an exhumation and DNA analysis might be a long shot. After all, Linda Edwards’ remains had been scattered by animals and exposed to the elements for six months.
Still, he notes that his mother was buried in a sealed coffin that was placed inside a cement vault. He says records indicate his mother’s fingernails were included among the buried remains.
But long shot or not, what he can’t understand is why, after 30 years, any state official would object to a reexamination of the remains — especially if the state would not have to bear any cost.
In 2005, Toby Edwards says, a producer for the television show “A&E Cold Case Files” offered to pay for the exhumation and examination, with the intention of airing a show about the case. A&E later lost interest, however, after being denied access to State Police files.
Edwards feels caught in a runaround. He notes that the Hot Springs Civil Service Commission explained its reinstatement of Abernathy as a police officer by claiming that he no longer faced charges and there was “no active investigation into the matter.” Yet now he is denied records because police and the prosecutor claim, as Garrett wrote to this reporter, that the case remains “under active investigation.”
Even that, however, does not explain the prosecutor’s apparent resistance to opening Edwards’ grave. Lacking a response from Easley, the only explanation for the prosecutor’s inaction on that request came from Lieutenant Sligh of the State Police.
“With the prosecutor and the court,” Sligh says, “the sanctity of the grave and respect for the deceased is so strong, we want to make sure that everything else has been exhausted.”
Toby Edwards is fed up. After 30 years, he thinks the investigation qualifies as being exhausted. As for the sanctity of his mother’s grave, he believes it would be better honored if her killer were brought to justice. Though he is not sure what he can do, he has vowed to keep trying to make that happen.
Years ago, he had a monument placed on Linda Edwards’ grave, inscribed with a poem she’d written. It began: “Are you held by the past? Oh, let it go! Let it go!”
Edwards wants to, but he can’t.