Monday, June 12, 2023

Maryland Killer May Never be Known

The Unsolved Murder of Little Alva Jean Parris

By Robert A. Waters

Newspapers of the day called Riverdale Apartments in Essex, Maryland a “low-rent housing project.” Fredonia Parris, estranged from her husband, lived there with her four children and mother-in-law. While Fredonia worked the day-shift at Western Electric, Minnie Parris, the paternal grandmother, watched the children.

On the morning of June 10, 1960, 9-year-old Alva Jean Parris left her apartment to walk to her aunt’s residence, just three blocks away. By 1:30 P.M., when the child hadn't arrived, the family began searching for her. At 5:30, Fredonia reported her daughter missing. 

And thus began a case that has gone unsolved for 63 years.

It was nearly dark when the Baltimore County Police Department received word of the missing girl. They began searching immediately. Within hours, dozens of cops had scoured the entire neighborhood looking for the missing girl. They checked every basement within several blocks of the Parris residence, thinking someone may have hidden the missing girl there. Next morning, hundreds of cops and volunteer searchers began an all-out hunt for Alva Jean. Investigators contacted her father, Ralph Parris. He lived in Tennessee, so investigators quickly eliminated him. During the first days after the vanishing, detectives brought in dozens of “suspects.” None, however, were arrested.

Newspapers reported that the child had “big saucer eyes and pretty bangs,” with hair that draped to her shoulders. She attended fourth grade at Middlesex Elementary School and went to a nearby church. She had one sister and two brothers. Fredonia told investigators her daughter had no difficulties with anyone. The grieving mom said there seemed to be no reason for her to be missing.

The search continued for five days. Finally, on June 15, a group came to a swampy marsh on the outskirts of Baltimore. There they found a pair of discarded shoes that belonged to Alva Jean. Searchers noticed a long-deserted farmhouse back in the woods and headed that way. Cops said the place was surrounded by a grove of gum saplings, “some of the thickest woods in Baltimore County.” Two searchers came across a shallow grave covered by a piece of linoleum, some sod, and twigs. The missing girl’s body had been located. (They later discovered the linoleum had come from the ramshackle home.)

The Baltimore Sun reported that “Alva Jean was dressed in green shorts, a figured blouse and pink socks. She was lying on her back.” In a strange twist, detectives told reporters the killer had poured lye on the girl’s abdomen and genitals. This may have been an attempt to disguise the sexual assault that had occurred. Other newspapers reported that “the child’s face was battered and her teeth knocked out.”

Her aunt, Elizabeth Queen, identified the body at the morgue.

Inside the abandoned home, cops located a “drunk” who had been living there. They unceremoniously hauled him down to the station and interrogated him hard. The drunk was given a lie detector test which he evidently passed, since he was released. It turned out that dozens of homeless people lived in the woods surrounding the old house. After investigating each of the vagrants, none were ever charged.  

In a stunning turn of events, Assistant Medical Examiner Dr. William Lovitt told reporters he could find no cause of death. The Associated Press reported that “medical examiners have resorted to chemical and microscopic analysis to determine how Alva Jean was slain. The body was in an advanced state of decomposition when it was found.” Lovitt even tested the remains for poison, but the results came back negative. The Assistant Medical Examiner said he thought the girl had been dead for five days—in other words, she died shortly after she went missing. Lovitt examined both external and internal organs for signs of foul play, but never determined how the child died. (He said if he had to guess, he would say she'd been strangled.)

On June 19, the Sun reported that “funeral services for the murder victim were held yesterday afternoon at the Protestant Community Church, Edgewater, where Alva Jean had been a Sunday School member for five years, and her mother a member since childhood.”

Two weeks after the girl’s body was found, a teenaged boy was seen near the abandoned house waving a knife around. Cops arrested him and grilled him about the murder, but he was soon released.  

Investigators administered polygraph tests to Alva Jean’s mom and all her relatives. Cops said Fredonia’s results were “inconclusive” and detectives continued to suspect she had additional knowledge about her child’s death. The fact that she had an unbreakable alibi didn't seem to matter at all. (She had been at work from 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. on the day Alva Jean went missing.)

The investigation floundered. Cops “canvassed” hundreds of homes within a few miles of where the girl had disappeared but found no evidence relating to the case. Several children claimed to have seen a man wearing a sailor’s hat hanging around the neighborhood on the day Alva Jean went missing. Cops never identified the possible “witness.”

Years later, investigators told reporters they devoted more time to the Parris case than any other in the department’s history. Yet, with all their hard work, detectives never identified the killer.

So, who abducted the schoolgirl just a block or two from her home?

Here are a few assumptions we might make:

At the time of this post, if the killer is still alive, he’ll likely be in his eighties.

Like many killers, he attempted to hide his crime. He placed his victim in a desolate area, probably within hours of kidnapping her. Then he buried her in a shallow grave, shrouding the body with debris. He seemed experienced at covering his tracks.

He was almost certainly a known sex offender. His compulsion to sexually assault young children would likely have brought him to the attention of law enforcement. Newspapers indicated that cops relied heavily on polygraph tests to eliminate suspects. If so, that was a mistake. “Lie detector tests” are notoriously inaccurate, which is the reason they aren’t allowed as evidence in most American courts. Could a sociopathic killer have fooled the polygraph and walked free? (There is a long list of violent criminals who successfully lied to the lie detector and were turned loose to continue their deviant behavior. For example, Gary Ridgway, the Green River killer, was given a polygraph early on in the case. He passed the exam, was released, and went on to murder another 49 women before he was caught.)

The abandoned farmhouse and its surroundings should have been a major emphasis for investigators because the linoleum covering her body came from that house. In other words, the killer was in that house at some point. Did one of the vagrants abduct Alva Jean and bring her back to bury her?

The killer covered Alva Jean’s genital area with lye in an attempt to conceal his crime. That seems strange—in the 1960s, DNA testing did not exist and would not for another 30 years. Blood typing could be used by cops, but that alone would not identify a suspect. Pouring lye on the body may mean the killer had been caught before and was obsessive about not leaving identifiable clues behind.

Are there any other cases during that time-frame, anywhere in America, when investigators found a female victim with lye on her genitals? Certainly, that is a unique clue worth looking into.

After 63 years, Alva Jean Parris still lies in a dark grave awaiting justice.

NOTE: The exact movements of Alva Jean on the day she went missing are clouded. Many newspapers of the day said that at about 9:00 A.M., her mother sent her on an errand to the Queen residence. Mrs. Queen said she never arrived. Most news sources reported that instead of going on an errand, she went to play with her cousin. Still others said she played with a friend in a park until 4:30 when she started home. Whatever the case, sometime between 9:00 A.M. and 5:30 P.M., Alva Jean vanished. 

If you don't believe me about lie detector tests, check out this story I wrote a few years back:


AB said...

Thank you so much for posting this about Alva Jean. She was my mother's cousin. Your post is very thorough. I'm hoping that someone... anyone, can do some kind of YouTube hour-long segment with full details and photos on her case. Please please consider doing this because your post has the most detailed information on her case that I have found and would very much like to keep this information out there in hopes that it will one day be solved.

Robert A. Waters said...

Hello AB: Thanks for your nice comments. When reading about Alva Jean's case on Google and other search engines, I found little detail. When researching it, I was surprised to find quite a bit of info. We've considered doing YouTube segments on some of the cases I've written about in my blog, but so far it hasn't come about. In the future, if we do a podcast or video, Alva Jean's case will certainly be included.