Stidham murder case still a mystery

Editor’s note — This story originally was published in March 2015 by The Weekly Vista. It has been reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Dana Stidham-2 (The Weekly Vista)(1)Dana Stidham would’ve turned 44 on March 8.

Instead she died at age 18, the victim of an unsolved murder that continues to haunt detectives more than two decades later.

“I still think about it all the time. I just run it around in my head,” said Mike Sydoriak, a retired captain with the Benton County Sheriff’s Office who was a detective in Bella Vista when Dana’s murder happened. “I keep thinking, we talked to all these different people, why didn’t somebody see something?”

Stidham was last seen alive leaving Phillips Food Center (now Harps in Town Center) on July 25, 1989. Two months later, her remains were discovered in a creek bed in far eastern Bella Vista, near the Arkansas-Missouri border.

Sydoriak partnered with Bella Vista detective Danny Varner to investigate Stidham’s murder. They worked the case for nearly 20 years. For every lead uncovered, the detectives always found themselves lacking sufficient evidence to make an arrest.

In 1998, Sydoriak and then-Benton County Sheriff Andy Lee told reporters that they believed they knew who killed Stidham. They just didn’t have enough evidence for an arrest. The evidence “pointed to one man,” they said, a former high school classmate of Stidham’s.

“He never dated her. He always tried but never could,” Sydoriak says now. “She didn’t want nothing to do with him.”

Failed polygraphs, dubious alibis and other oddities further implicated the man. But it was all circumstantial evidence, Sydoriak said.

“We even had the FBI try and come up with something. They would make profiles, kind of like what you see on TV,” Sydoriak said. “They send out a questionnaire, we fill it out and send it back. They reached the same conclusion as we did.”

“I remember that night (she disappeared),” Sydoriak added. “Everyone was saying that she’d run off. But her mom knew right away that something was wrong.”

In August 2013, Benton County Sheriff Kelley Cradduck announced that he wanted to take a “fresh look” at the Stidham case.

He told reporters that his office was combing through old files and that they planned to digitize the items box-by-box.

“There’s new technology that exists that might help us uncover some clues that maybe were missed before,” Cradduck said. “We are going to keep looking and sooner or later, I do believe we will find a way to solve that case.”

Sgt. Hunter Petray is currently overseeing Stidham’s case for the Criminal Investigation Division of the Benton County Sheriff’s Office.

“This case is certainly not forgotten, but it’s kind of on the back burner because of other cases we’re working on right now,” Petray said in January. “That’s not to say that this case is any less important, but we’re going to go back and start from the beginning.”

Tips can be reported anonymously to CID at 479-271-1009 or sent to the Vista at weeklyvista@nwadg.com or calling 479-855-3724.

A life cut short

dana2Dana was preparing to embark on the next stage of her life when she disappeared. She graduated from Gravette High School in June, and had moved to an apartment in Centerton with her brother, Larry, and a few friends.

“She had the world open to her,” said her mother, Georgia Stidham. “She just had to decide what she wanted to start out with.”

A well-known, popular girl, Dana was relatively petite. At 5-foot-2, she weighed just over 100 pounds. She had a dark complexion, with shoulder-length brown hair. Sydoriak remembers seeing her often at local dances.

“They used to have weekend dances at the Civic Center in Gravette,” Sydoriak said. “They’d hire me to stand inside as the chaperone. Dana was always there. All the kids knew her and a lot of kids liked her.”

Georgia remembers a teen who loved “babies and old people.” Dana often babysat for young couples and was heavily involved with her family. She and her brother, Larry, were close, so much so that they often covered for each other at school.

“Dana was a freshman when Larry was a senior,” Georgia said. “I remember I got a call from Larry worried that he had missed too many days of school. I said, ‘but I have to sign a note when you’re absent,’ and then Dana said, ‘Well … I signed a few of those notes, Mom.’”

Home in Hiwasse

Dana was thinking about enrolling at the University of Arkansas. That was one reason she was back in Hiwasse on July 25, Georgia said. Dana needed to do a load of laundry and was contemplating moving back home to save money for school.

“She was looking into courses,” Georgia said. “She was very artistic. She could draw and paint — she could do anything.”

Dana’s father, Lawrence, was home while she did her laundry that day in 1989. Feeling ill, he asked Dana to fetch some medicine for him. She agreed to the errand, departing in the late afternoon for Phillips Food Store in Bella Vista. She was wearing white shorts, a white top with red lettering and red socks with white tennis shoes.

After stopping for gas, Dana arrived at the store. She purchased Alka-Seltzer, dish-washing soap and sugar. A receipt found later by investigators listed her checkout time as 3:17 p.m.

Sydoriak said that at first he was perplexed that Dana didn’t just stop at the convenience store in Hiwasse, which was only a few blocks from Georgia and Larry’s home. He later discovered why Dana avoided it.

“(The suspect) sat at the store a lot, because his parents owned it,” Sydoriak said. “He was there all the time.” They sold the store years ago.

When Sydoriak asked Georgia about avoiding the nearby Hiwasse Dairy Freeze — what residents called the “Hiwasse Hilton” — Georgia told him “Dana didn’t want to deal with (the suspect). He was always around.”

Dana had worked part-time at Phillips for about three years, and stopped to visit with a few friends inside the store. She also visited briefly with an older employee in the parking lot. Sydoriak said investigators interviewed a witness who was landscaping nearby. The witness said he saw Dana drive off, but wasn’t sure which way she went.

Which direction Dana traveled after leaving Phillips was critical to establishing a time line, Sydoriak said.

Later that evening, when Dana didn’t return home, her parents started to worry. They went out looking for her, and so did Larry when he got off work. Dana’s parents contacted Varner, a family friend who went to high school with Georgia, to tell him Dana was missing.

Varner worked at the the Bella Vista division of the Benton County Sheriff’s Office (which was the law enforcement agency for Bella Vista until Bella Vista became a city and formed the police department). Other officers joined the search as well. No one could find any trace of Dana. At about 9 p.m., a be-on-the-lookout was issued and broadcast by law enforcement agencies in the region.

The first clue

Dana Stidham-1 (Benton County Daily Record)(1)At 6:30 a.m. July 26, BVSO Sgt. Karen Myers was driving southbound down U.S. Highway 71 on her way to work. She was nearing Wellington Road, north of Town Center, when she noticed a vehicle on the side of the highway. After getting to Bella Vista and hearing the briefing about Dana’s disappearance, she decided to give the car another look.

It was still there when Myers returned. After running the plates, authorities found the car belonged to Dana. Her 1984 gray Dodge Omni had been abandoned and was sitting in the southbound shoulder opposite Wellington Road.

Investigators thoroughly examined the car, but it was only the first in a litany of frustrating clues.

The keys were still in the ignition, the driver-side window was halfway down and the rear tire was slightly deflated, but still driveable. There was no sign of a struggle. Dana’s purse was missing. The driver’s seat also had been adjusted for a much taller person, indicating that Dana likely wasn’t the last person to operate the vehicle before it was abandoned.

“Nobody saw the car there and then all of a sudden it shows up the next morning,” Sydoriak said. State troopers were running radar in the area until close to midnight. “They didn’t see the car.”

Further complicating the matter was that Dana’s family had been scouring the area for her all evening, and they had a plan in place if she was in trouble.

“We were protective. We had a route to take if Dana got stranded or didn’t contact us,” Georgia said. “And when she didn’t come home that day, we went all up and down (U.S.) 71 and never saw the car. So to see it the next day seemed strange.”

A primary suspect

Not long after investigators found Dana’s car, they found some of her laundry scattered near Eling Circle — 1,700 feet up Wellington from where the car was found. Authorities retained a private tracker and used a police-trained German shepherd to search the area.

It was about that time that Varner decided to interview Dana’s high school classmate.

“People had seen (the suspect) riding around that night at around 3 a.m.,” Sydoriak said.

When questioned by Varner, the suspect told police he was out driving his dad’s pickup truck. The suspect added that a girlfriend would provide an alibi for him. But, Sydoriak said that girlfriend denied knowing the suspect’s whereabouts. The suspect selected another girlfriend to back him up, but her story fell apart as well, Sydoriak said.

As July rolled into August, investigators were starting to think Dana’s disappearance pointed towards an abduction. She had a date waiting for her the night she disappeared. She also planned to pick up some boots from a friend in Missouri. But neither heard from her.

Meanwhile, her clothes and other personal belongings remained untouched at her Centerton apartment.

An unsettling theory

Dana Stidham-2 (Benton County Daily Record)(1)On Aug. 5, authorities got an important tip. A resident near Hanover Drive and Chaucer Drive alerted investigators after their dog brought a purse home after being let out to run. The purse turned out to be Dana’s denim purse. Investigators swarmed the area, finding Dana’s checkbook, driver’s license and photos strewn in the weeds. Because the items were discovered along the roadside, investigators suspected that they were thrown from a moving car.

That area is little more than a mile north of where Dana’s car was parked.

Sheriff Lee gave reporters a grim prognosis.

“(The) new evidence … has given us a bit of a scare,” Lee said at the time. “We know when she left the car, she took her purse with her. But we don’t believe she would be throwing personal items out.”

Investigators began scouring Bella Vista for more evidence. They searched a former gravel pit in Missouri that is just north of Hanover Drive, Lake Norwood (which is directly behind the grocery store where Dana worked) and a remote party spot near Newburn Drive. By mid-August, authorities were offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to Dana’s whereabouts.

Meanwhile, Dana’s parents told reporters that they thought she was alive and well nearby. The grieving parents waited by the phone day and night, hoping for good news, refusing to believe Dana had run away.

“After we found some of her stuff that was thrown out, we had volunteers on horses … to search the woods,” Sydoriak said. “The search was slow as we worked our way through the woods. But we didn’t go far enough.”

The tragic breakthrough

Summer turned to fall; the investigation languished. Authorities had little evidence to move forward.

Then, in mid-September, a local hunter discovered Dana’s remains in a seasonal creek bed about 100 feet from Beal Lane, a cul-de-sac off Newburn Drive.

The remains were skeletal, but approximately 90 percent complete. Her skull was found intact, along with most of the jaw. Her bones were scattered about 50 feet along the creek. Investigators discovered a T-shirt with duct tape on it and pieces of jewelry. They found the clothes she was wearing the day she disappeared buried nearby.

“(The case) has taken on a new appearance,” Lee said a few days later. “Before we were working on a missing-person’s case with a suspicious nature and now we’ve got a homicide.”

A cause of death

Dana Stidham-1 (The Weekly Vista)(1)There was evidence of a nick on Dana’s left shoulder blade, but any conclusive determination of death hinged on her missing sternum.

“We couldn’t find it. The most important bone we never could find,” Sydoriak said. “Without that, that little notch could’ve been taken out by an animal.”

Dana’s parents were distraught when they heard the news.

“They took my baby. It’s like someone took my whole reason for being alive,” Georgia said at the time. “The hardest thing is to wake up in the morning and face this all again. It would be a blessing not to wake up. But that would be giving in to (Dana’s killers).”

The pain of finding Dana dead was amplified by their belief that she was still alive somewhere nearby.

“I wasn’t looking for a body,” Lawrence said in a newspaper account. “I was looking for Dana.”

A new lead

Despite little progress, Dana’s case remained open during the early 1990s. Still believing Dana’s murder to be solvable, Sydoriak and Varner in 1996 tracked down the truck the primary suspect was driving the night Dana vanished.

They sent the vehicle to a lab in Texas for testing. From there the results were forwarded to the Arkansas Crime Laboratory in Little Rock. Reports indicate both labs found the hair samples closely matched Dana’s.

Sydoriak and Varner followed the revelation by organizing an interview with the suspect. He denied any wrongdoing and submitted to a polygraph test, but issued a cryptic statement: “sometimes I think I did kill Dana, but I know I didn’t.”

The detectives sought more evidence as the year wound down, asking the suspect for additional hair samples in September 1996.

His attorney, Brad Karren — now a circuit judge in Benton County — objected on the grounds that there was lack of probable cause and that the detectives were out of their jurisdiction. Karren added that no evidence linked his client to the crime.

Thanks to a court order signed by Terry Crabtree, then-Benton County chancery judge, Sydoriak and Varner were able to obtain more samples from the suspect.

Despite the samples and other circumstantial evidence, then-Benton County Prosecutor Brad Butler declined to move forward.

“The hair didn’t have the follicle at the end, and it wasn’t a 100-percent match,” Sydoriak said. “Nobody saw them together that night.”

“No one could really say he was with her,” Sydoriak added. “When (Dana) left the grocery store, that was it.”

That was the last major breakthrough in Dana’s case. Still, investigators who stuck with the case over the last two decades believe they’ve got the right suspect.

Keeping hope alive

Dana Stidham-1 (KNWA)When Sydoriak and Lee met with the reporters in 1998, they divulged more oddities about the primary suspect, including that he kept a photo of Dana in his wallet years after her murder, stole the grave marker from her headstone after she was buried and that a former girlfriend said he visited the cemetery at midnight and wept.

He joined the Navy soon after Dana disappeared. That also was peculiar, Sydoriak said, because investigators knew he’d been thwarting pressure from recruiters all year.

Georgia, who has given several interviews in the decades since her daughter’s murder, says she remains hopeful that her daughter’s killer will brought to justice. Her husband, Lawrence, passed away in 1999.

“I say a prayer each night that this will be the last day for me not to know what happened to Dana,” Georgia said in 2003.

On what would’ve been her 44th birthday, Georgia and Larry took balloons to her grave at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.

“We just spent some time with her,” Georgia said.

While Cradduck vowed to pursue the case, the year and a half that’s since passed has made Georgia doubtful of getting a resolution from Benton County’s criminal investigators.

“I want them to wake up, to show interest,” she said. “I want them to act like they care.”

Georgia, who said she sometimes feels like a failure because she wasn’t able to keep Dana safe, hopes to see an arrest before she dies.

“But I want them to arrest the right person, I don’t want them to go out there and (make an arrest) just to get us off their back,” she said.

“An arrest will never bring closure,” she added. “I’ll never get her back. But I’d like to see her killer caught so it wouldn’t feel like I just let my daughter die and I walked away.”

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Unexplained, Arkansas

Editor’s note — This is an excerpt from a piece originally written for THV11. Parts of it have been reprinted here with the author’s permission.

The Denver Post

Mike Huckabee made an unsuccessful bid for the White House in 2008.

Huckabee’s missing files

In January 2007, outgoing Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee made a peculiar request of his staff: destroy the office computers.

Huckabee’s staff obliged, wiping the memory of more than 100 computers before smashing their hard drives beyond repair.

The reason behind the frenzied housecleaning has never been fully explained. Huckabee briefly addressed the issue in 2007, saying the hard drives were destroyed to “protect the privacy” of his staff.

But one unearthed memo referred to potential backups of the destroyed drives. The memo also says the backups were supposed to be delivered to a Huckabee aide.

As of this writing, however, the story was last mentioned in 2011.

Clinton associate murdered execution style

A well known, quasi-political figure around Arkansas in the late 1980s and early 90s, Luther Gerald “Jerry” Parks, Jr. oversaw Bill Clinton’s security detail while Clinton was governor. Parks’ security firm was later contracted to guard Clinton’s presidential campaign headquarters in 1992.

But only nine months after Clinton won the White House, Parks was gunned down in West Little Rock. Parks was leaving El Chico when he was ambushed by two men in a white Chevrolet Caprice at the intersection of Chenal Parkway and Highway 10, where witnesses said the men shot Parks to death before speeding away. The only evidence left behind were 10 9-mm bullet casings scattered on the pavement.

Clinton’s far-right critics pounced on the murder. They said it had political overtones, pointing to the untimely suicide of Vincent Foster – a childhood friend of Clinton’s and one of his closest allies – only months earlier as evidence of a conspiracy.

Parks’ son, Gary, also tried to link Clinton to the murders. He claimed that his father had collected a file on Clinton’s salacious activities and that he was executed due to its contents. The Little Rock Police Department dismissed such claims as “unsubstantiated”.

Adding another twist in the case, Gary was recently charged with the murder of his mother’s new husband, David Millstein. Police in Baxter County think Gary had help, and they believe that the unnamed suspect might also have ties to Jerry’s murder.

Despite the passing of two decades, LRPD says its investigation into the elder Parks’ murder is ongoing.

Wikipedia

The West Memphis Three were freed in 2011 after spending nearly two decades in prison.

Does a killer still roam free in Arkansas?

Damien Echols was the lead suspect in the murders of three West Memphis boys in 1993. After serving 18 years in prison, Echols, along with the two other suspects, Jessie Miskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin – subsequently dubbed the West Memphis Three – were released per a controversial Alford Plea in 2011.

In one of Echols’ many interviews while in prison, he issued a sobering notion to filmmakers of the West of Memphis documentary: “The person who killed those three kids is still out there walking on the street.”

Investigators never found any physical evidence linking the WM3 to the crime scene. Moreover, witnesses who originally testified against the trio later said their confessions were coerced by law enforcement. And thanks to improving forensic science, investigators uncovered a strand of DNA from one of the shoelaces used to subdue the victims that didn’t match any of the WM3.

Further complicating the case was the mysterious “Mr. Bojangles.” On the evening of the murders, a “disoriented” African American man, covered in blood and mud, entered a Bojangles restaurant not far from where the bodies were found.

The suspect’s race was an important factor in the case, as the hair of black male was discovered in one of the sheets used to wrap the victims.

Police were summoned to the restaurant, but officers took the report via the drive-thru window and never entered the building to interview the suspect. Blood samples taken from the bathroom were later lost by WMPD investigators before the WM3 went to trial.

Other advocates of the WM3’s innocence point to one of the victim’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs, as the real killer. Hobbs had a history of child abuse and was reportedly the last person seen with three boys.

Sadly, after more than 20 years, it appears that the deaths of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Chris Byers will forever remain unsolved.

Unsolved, Arkansas

Editor’s note — This is an excerpt from a story originally written for Listverse. Parts of it have been reprinted here with the author’s permission.

The Crawford Disappearance

Maud-Crawford

Maud Crawford, center, with Arkansas Girls State participants.

Arkansas was a hotbed for mob activity in the first half of the 20th century. Al Capone regularly visited the state in the 1920s, spending ample time in Hot Springs betting on horse races at Oaklawn and relaxing in some of the many bathhouses that lined Central Avenue.

Naturally, a state so amiable to mobsters was bound to have a fair amount of shady business deals. That’s where Maud Crawford came in.

A well-known public figure in Camden and a pioneer for women in Arkansas, Crawford worked as a court stenographer before she decided to take the bar exam. Having had no formal legal classes, she aced the exam and eventually became an expert in abstract and title law. At the time of her disappearance, she was even assisting U.S. Sen. John McClellan of Arkansas with a congressional investigation into supposed mob ties with organized labor.

Crawford’s last known whereabouts place her at home. Her husband, Clyde, returned to find her car still in the driveway, the TV on, and money in her purse. Their supposed guard dog wasn’t even fazed. The police began searching for Crawford the next morning, but found few clues for her disappearance. Crawford’s body was never recovered.

In 1986, a series of articles in the Arkansas Gazette by Beth Brickell alleged that Crawford’s disappearance involved then-Arkansas State Police Commissioner Mike Berg. Crawford was looking into a potentially illegal transfer of assets between Berg and some of his family members. Only days before disappearing, she had confronted Berg face-to-face about the issue, Brickell wrote.

Meanwhile, Odis A. Henley, the officer originally assigned to the case, reported to his superiors that evidence he uncovered implicated Berg as Crawford’s killer. This contradicted official statements from the Ouachita County Sheriff’s Office, which said it failed to turn up any clues regarding her disappearance.

Henley’s findings did little to sway the rest of the force, though, and he was reportedly told by his superiors that “there’s too much money involved” before being reassigned. Adding to the intrigue, all of his files on Crawford disappeared after a short trip away from the office.

Legally declared dead by Ouachita County in 1969, Crawford’s death certificate officially lists her demise as the result of “foul play perpetrated by person or persons unknown.”

The Edwards Murder

www.lindaedwards.com

Linda Edwards’ mysterious death has alleged ties to Saline County officials.

Arkansas in the 1970s wasn’t the most hospitable place for an unwed mother of three. So when Linda Edwards got a job as dispatcher for the Garland County Sheriff’s Office, she considered it a godsend — but just six months after joining the force, she vanished.

Rumors began to circulate that the man she had been having an affair with, Sgt. Thurman Abernathy, had gotten her pregnant. The pair had argued over whether or not to keep the baby — she wanted it; he didn’t.

Their spat escalated past verbal exchanges and Abernathy allegedly killed her. Along with their stormy relationship, further implicating Abernathy in Edwards’ murder was testimony from her friend, Mary Patterson, who told police that Edwards was going to meet Abernathy the night she disappeared.

While the missing person’s case dragged on for nearly a year, things took a frightening turn when a hunter stumbled upon Edwards’ partially buried remains in the woods. After exhuming the body, medical examiners reported that she died from blunt-force trauma to her skull. A few months later, Abernathy was formally charged with her murder.

Arguing that most of the evidence against him was hearsay, Abernathy appealed his case. While the appeal wound its way through the courts, the case was passed along to Dan Harmon, the newly appointed prosecutor for Saline County.

Harmon dropped all charges against Abernathy, who had recently been promoted to lieutenant at the sheriff’s office. The decision to indict Abernathy was left to a grand jury, which cited insufficient evidence for its reason against bringing new charges.

Despite an intense statewide investigation, no tangible evidence has ever surfaced linking Abernathy to Edwards’ murder, and the case remains unsolved.

The Train Deaths (aka the Boys on The Tracks, the Mena Murders)

scribblyguy.50megs.com

The murder of Don Henry, left, and Kevin Ives was featured on Unsolved Mysteries in 1988.

Arguably the state’s most notorious cold case, the mysterious deaths of Don Henry and Kevin Ives still haunt Central Arkansas.

The mangled bodies of Henry and Ives were discovered near dawn on Aug. 23, 1987 on a set of railroad tracks in Bryant, a suburb just south of Little Rock.

The train’s engineer saw the boys’ bodies from a distance, but didn’t have enough time to bring the train to a complete stop. He told police they were laying motionless on the tracks, parallel to one another with their arms straight down at their sides, their bodies partially covered by a green tarp.

The initial investigation was swift.

Fahmy Malak, the state medical examiner, ruled Henry and Ives’ deaths accidental. Malak declared that the boys were under the influence of marijuana and tragically had passed out on the tracks. However, the boys’ parents didn’t agree with that conclusion — they were certain their sons died of foul play.

After fighting to get the case reopened, they finally succeed in early 1988. One of the families’ first goals was to get their sons’  bodies exhumed. Their findings where chilling.

Dr. Joseph Burton, an out of state forensic pathologist, examined the remains and concluded both boys had suffered injuries prior to being crushed by the train. Henry’s shirt was in tatters, with lacerations all over his body indicative of stabbing. Ives, meanwhile, had blunt force trauma to his skull. Burton concluded the boys were likely unconscious or dead before being run over by the train. The reported green tarp was never seen again.

The case got stranger. Witnesses came forward with testimony that they’d seen police officers beating Henry and Ives unconscious before tossing them in the back of a truck and speeding off. Others reported seeing a man in military fatigues loitering near the section of tracks where the bodies were discovered. Meanwhile, alleged witnesses with potential information about the murder died in droves.

Speculation about the case was rampant, with many in Bryant wondering if the boys had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some thought the boys had seen a “drug drop” that was connected to alleged cocaine smuggling via the Mena Airport.

Others insisted that the boys saw a Bryant official — that Dan Harmon fellow we mentioned earlier, to be exact — partaking in a drug deal, and Kevin and Don were simply victims of being potential witnesses that could jeopardize Harmon’s career.

Harmon, who previously had been investigated for drug trafficking, was later arrested on charges for running a drug ring, selling primarily cocaine, from his law office.

The parents did receive some closure for their efforts. A grand jury reversed its original verdict of “probable homicide” to “definite homicide” due to more contradictory evidence.

Arkansans haven’t forgotten the boys on the tracks. Residents honored their memory with a memorial last spring. But after 25 years, it appears that the case will forever remain unsolved.