Wednesday, June 21, 2023

An Occurrence at Gill Creek

The Drowning of A.N.W. Belk

(NOTE: Louise Pettus was a South Carolina researcher and author. Her archives are stored at Winthrop University. This story takes place in the Waxhaws, a Carolina border community.)

Abel Nelson Washington Belk (pictured) was the father of the Belk brothers, founders of Belk Department Store.

Lousie Pettus wrote the following true story. It reminds me of Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

"More than 80 years after the event, William Henry Belk could still recall his father and several black men hitching up the horses to wagons loaded with household goods. William Henry Belk was only 2 years and 8 months old. He was left behind with his brothers--one 4 years old and a baby of 7 months--and his mother, Sarah Walkup Belk.

"In 1950, LeGette Blythe set down William Henry's memory of that day in question. 'My father had heard that old Sherman (i.e., General William Tecumseh Sherman) was heading our way on his march towards Charlotte. Abel had what in those days they called weak lungs and hadn't been strong enough to join the Confederate army.

"'He figured that if the Yankees came along by our place and caught him at home, they'd probably hang him and take all the horses and anything else they wanted, and burn down the house...'

"For Abel Nelson Washington Belk, the decision to leave his home on the south side of Twelve Mile Creek in Lancaster County proved to be fatal. The Yankees didn't come that far north but turned to the east when they left the town of Lancaster.

"Abel Belk had headed for his father's place on Gills Creek some 6 or 7 miles east of Lancaster where his father owned a small gold mine.

"William Henry Belk said that the Yankees 'caught a fellow down that way who figured he'd save his own hide and get in the good graces by turning up my grandfather, old man Tom Belk. This scoundrel told them that my grandfather had barrels of gold hid out at his mine and said that if they caught him, they could make him tell where the gold was.

"It was later revealed that the troops found Abel Belk instead of his father and when they tried to force Abel to tell him where the non-existent barrels of gold were hidden, Belk could only say that he did not know. He was taken to the creek and his head pushed under the water time and again in an attempt to make him talk. Abel Belk, already sick with fever, collapsed and drowned.

"On March 8, 1865, Herron Belk, brother of the drowned man, wrote Sarah Belk, the widow, that 'there was a certain person buried about one and a half miles below here, in Graham's field, who I suppose is Abel.' One of the blacks who had accompanied Abel was able to identify Abel's dead mule near the creek.

"Herron Belk asked Sarah Belk to bring horses (the Union forces had taken every horse in the community) and a wagon to his house so that they could move the body to Shiloh Church.

"After seeing her husband buried, Sarah Belk returned home to raise three little boys. A college graduate, she would be able to give her sons the rudiments of an education. It would be far more difficult to operate a farm in the hard postwar years.

"With Alexander, Ely, Ben, Amanda, and Moriah (former slaves), now free, she labored and finally paid off the mortgage on the farm in 1872.

"In 1873, Sarah Belk married John Simpson, a man she had hired as an overseer. The family moved to Monroe, N. C.

"It was in Monroe that William Henry Belk, at the age of 14, went to work for Benjamin Dawson Heath in a dry-goods store. He proved to be indispensable to Heath who frequently left Belk in charge while he pursued other business interests (one of his businesses was the Bank of Charlotte which evolved into the present NCNB banking chain.)

"When he was 26, William Henry Belk opened the first store of what would become Belk Brothers, a large chain of department stores now simply known as Belk."

NOTE: Gold was first discovered in South Carolina in 1802. The Carolinas and Georgia had enough gold deposits that an assayer named Bechtler began minting gold coins (see picture). Today, these coins are rare and collectible. 

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:

Saturday, June 3, 2023

A Bearer of Nothing But Misery

Karen Slattery

39 years after the murders of innocents, Duane Eugene Owen is scheduled to be executed by the state of Florida

By Robert A. Waters

Duane Eugene Owen stalked women by night. A career criminal, he rarely worked, so he had plenty of time to slink into ritzy neighborhoods and peep through windows. Sometimes, if no one was home, he’d break in and steal items he could sell for booze and drugs. If a pretty female was home alone, he would often break in and assault her. Within a span of a few months, he brutalized at least six girls and women in south Florida, murdering two. Those who didn’t die survived only to battle life-altering injuries.

On the evening of March 24, 1984, in Delray Beach, Florida, 14-year-old Karen Slattery babysat the two daughters of the Helm family. At ten o’clock, as the kids slept, she called her mother. They spoke briefly, then Karen’s mom hung up. A pretty girl, she’d just had braces removed from her teeth—she told her mother she was happy because now she could chew gum, even though she wore a retainer. Karen attended Pope John Paul High School where she was a straight “A” student and a star diver on the swim team.

Shortly after midnight, William and Carolyn Helm returned home. As he walked to the front door, William sensed something was wrong. Lights in the living room were turned off, which was unusual. The television would usually be going, but now it sat mute. And the lights in the kitchen were on, which was not normal. An appeals court document recounted the scene: “Mr. and Mrs. Helm walked up to the house; [As he entered], Mr. Helm called for Karen, but there was no response, he then saw the pool of blood, and the hammer laying (sic) next to it. Mr. Helm also noticed the trail of blood into the master bedroom, where he noticed the doors closed, and could tell the light was on in the room as it was shining through the bottom of the bedroom door.” Alarmed, he told his wife to go to their neighbor and call 9-1-1. Then he took his daughters from the residence and waited for help.

Police found Karen’s shoes and retainer scattered about the kitchen. The phone was “askew.” Detectives discovered the master bedroom window had been cut. Because leaves and mud were on the screen and nearby bed, police determined the killer had entered there.

A court report read: “Officer Ernest Soto of the Delray Beach Police arrived at 12:15 a.m. on March 25, 1984 at the Helm's residence at 1221 Harbor Drive, Delray Beach, Florida. The officer saw a pool of blood and a hammer next to it; and a trail of blood leading to the master bedroom. When he opened the doors to the bedroom he found the naked body of Karen Slattery, with her blouse and bra pulled up to her shoulders, and a towel covering her head; her legs were spread open.” She wore pearl earrings and a gold chain around her neck.

Medical Examiner Dr. Frederick Hobin performed the autopsy. His report confirmed that Karen had been sexually assaulted: “The doctor determined the cause of death to have been multiple stab and cut injuries, a collapse of lung tissue, as well as internal bleeding. The autopsy revealed Karen had been stabbed and cut 18 times—14 stabbings and 4 incisions.” The victim had been stabbed in the back, the face, and the neck. The Medical Examiner stated that “there was one very deep cut to the throat which exposed the muscle on the neck and cut all the way through the esophagus.” For some reason, the hammer had not been used in the assault.

In court, Dr. Hobin testified that Karen’s heart was still beating when all the injuries were inflicted, but she was not conscious at the time of the sexual assault.

In late May, Duane Owen had been identified by two different burglary victims as the person who had broken into their homes. He was also picked out of a lineup by numerous students at Florida Atlantic University for exposing himself. (He was not yet suspected of Karen’s murder, nor of a similar murder, that of Georgianna Worden.) Police sent out an order to street cops to hold Owen if they found him. In nearby Boca Raton, Officer Kathleen Petracco, patrolling Country Club Boulevard, encountered a man who looked similar to Owen. She stopped him and he gave her a phony name and ID, but she was sure he was lying. She called her supervisor who arrived and determined the suspect was indeed Owen.

During interviews with Owen, the burglary suspect dumbfounded investigators by confessing to the Slattery murder. He told detectives where they could find several items from the residence he’d hidden after fleeing the scene. These items included a pair of blood-stained gloves he’d taken from the home and used during his attack on Karen. Other items were his undershorts (he’d taken most of his clothes off before entering the Helm residence) and his bloodstained socks. Cops hurried to the location and collected the items. Owen told investigators that while looking in windows, he saw Karen braiding the children’s hair. He said he went to a nearby bar and drank a few beers until he was sure she had put the kids to bed.

In 1984, DNA had not yet become a tool in the arsenal of law enforcement. However, a few years later, cops sent several items from the case to the FBI for testing. DNA from semen matched Owen while the items found with blood on them corresponded with Karen’s DNA profile.

In a matter-of-fact voice, Owen told investigators that after entering the home, he blitzed Karen. He’d come in through the master bedroom, he said, and ran straight toward the terrified girl. Karen stood in the kitchen holding the phone, he said. He yelled at her, demanding she put the phone down, but possibly from the shock of seeing a nearly-naked intruder running toward her, she held onto it. Owen struggled with Karen for the phone and he said he knocked it out of her hand and put it back in its holder. He said he thought she was trying to call 9-1-1, but it’s likely she was just starting to hang up after talking with her mother.

Owen said, “She kind of went to grab ahold of me or something trying to punch me away. And I think that’s when I came up from behind her...I thought I only stabbed her in the back probably more than once. When Karen fell to the floor she fell on her back. She didn’t fight…anymore…and didn’t talk.”

Angry cops could only imagine Karen’s terror when Owen suddenly appeared in the kitchen. She fought briefly until he began stabbing her.

Karen Slattery, living a life filled with wonder and promise, had been reduced to a lifeless corpse, splayed out in an obscene sexual pose.

Other Crimes Committed by Duane Owen

Owen was born in Gas City, Indiana. His mother was an alcoholic and his father a brutal drunkard. After his mother died of cancer when he was 10 and his father committed suicide, he and his brother became wards of the state. While in his early teens, Owen racked up several arrests. As soon as he turned 18, he enlisted in the U. S. Army under an assumed name. After 29 days, he was discharged and moved to Delray Beach to live with his brother.

Here is a list of a few (not all) crimes committed by Owen.

Shortly after moving to Florida, in February, 1982, police arrested him for indecent exposure. In July, he was also arrested for two burglaries. The arresting officer recommended “counseling for deviance” when stolen women’s undergarments were found in Owen’s apartment. Whether he received counseling is unknown.

On November 1, 1982, Owen attacked Virginia Sada, manager of the Peter Pan Hotel in Boca Raton. After breaking into her live-in office/home, he attacked her with a plumber’s wrench. Owen clubbed her so hard that a portion of her skull broke off and penetrated her brain. The attack left Sada with permanent brain damage. After disabling her, Owen raped his victim.

In 1983, Owen moved back to Michigan where he was soon arrested for “substance abuse” and several burglaries. While in jail, he received treatment for drug addiction. After being released, he came back to Delray Beach.

On February 9, 1984, Owen broke into the home of 17-year-old Marilee Manley in Boca Raton and beat her nearly to death with a wrench. She underwent brain surgery, but doctors informed her family she would never fully recover.

According to the Boca Raton News, on May 24, 1984, while Monica Simpson slept in her apartment, Owen broke in. He found a steam iron in the apartment and beat her unconscious. Fortunately, Simpson survived.

Dumille Gorman also survived an attempted break-in at her home. She prepared a composite sketch of Owen which helped to lead to his arrest.

In December, Owen climbed into the ceiling of the University Bowl and Recreation Center and crawled to an area above the women’s bathroom. When arrested, he told police he “wanted to watch girls.”

Somehow, he escaped serious punishment for his many crimes.

The Georgianna Worden Murder

On the night of May 28, 1984, Owen broke into the Boca Raton home of Georgianna Worden. He bludgeoned her to death with a hammer as she slept, and sexually assaulted her.

Worden taught at Boca Raton Community College and worked a second job with an architectural firm. Her two children found her body as they prepared for school. After confessing to the murder of Karen Slattery, Owen confessed to Georgianna's slaying.

In an odd twist, investigators found Owen's fingerprint on a library book in Worden's home. (The book was Mistral's Daughter by Judith Krantz.) He was charged with first degree murder, sexual battery and burglary.

In 1985 and 1986, jurors convicted Owen of all charges for killing both Karen Slattery and Georgianna Worden. The courts imposed death sentences for each murder.

In 1990, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the verdicts on a technicality. Owen was retried for murdering both victims and again sentenced to death. For decades, he launched appeal after appeal, dodging justice.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed a death warrant for Owen. The killer is currently scheduled for execution at 6:00 p.m. on June 15, 2023. One thing is sure: if he is indeed stretched out on a gurney and given a cocktail of death-dealing drugs, his passing will be easier than that of his victims.