From Schmidt’s Barn to the Bud: An Illustrated History of Arkansas Men’s Basketball

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.”

Curtain Call: Historic Movie Theaters & Drive-Ins of Arkansas

For a state as small as Arkansas, its residents have been blessed over the years with an abundance of unique movie houses and drive-ins. This pictorial-essay highlights some of the more regal theaters that graced Arkansas’ down towns and roadsides from the roaring 1920s to the New Millennium.

100 Things I Hate About College Football

Stockfootball
Editor’s note — This article was originally written for Yahoo! Voices in September 2013. It has been reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Gene Wojciechowski’s ode to college football is a great read. The only problem is that it’s written as a love letter; he was (mis)guided by his emotions.

And don’t get me wrong, I love college football.

But let’s be realistic about this. While Wojciechowski does point out that college football has its shortcomings, simply giving them a passing mention isn’t enough.

As the Summer of Manziel has shown, it’s astonishing how college football has weathered so many scandals without serious blemish. The players and even the sport itself seem practically untouchable.

So why would someone who claims to be a fan find so many reasons to hate a sport they care so deeply about?

In hopes of fixing it, of course.

Wojciechowski got a lot of things right in his article. College football is an awesomely inspirational sport that’s uniquely American.

But it’s time to stop looking at it through rose-colored lenses.

Why? Here are 100 reasons.

1. I hate universities that make football a priority over education.

2. That in my home state of Arkansas, the football coach makes more than the medical school’s Chief of Surgery.

3. I hate the over-commercialization of the game.

4. Naming rights.

5. That places like TCF Bank Stadium and Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium exist.

6. Fields with corporate stains on them.

7. The sheer number of bowl games. We’re up to 35 and counting.

8. 6-6 teams qualifying for a bowl.

9. And that nearly all the bowl games have names that sound like advertising slogans.

10. I hate that winning the Heisman Trophy has become a beauty contest.

11. Tim Tebow finishing as a Heisman finalist in 2008, while Graham Harrell missed the cut.

12. The stigma toward defensive players. If Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh couldn’t win one, what hope is there?

13. The fact that there are 125 schools competing in the FBS this year and no player outside of the Power Six has a chance to win the Heisman.

14. Stadium expansion while the rest of campus crumbles.

15. And the belief that having a bigger stadium equates having a better team.

16. Houston Nutt. We put up with this guy for a decade. How?

17. I hate pay-for-play proponents.

18. Writers who claim the NCAA treats [football] players like slaves.

19. Senior seasons. And the stigma that comes with it. Because in today’s game it usually means the player has no football prospects after college. Either that, or he’s a reserve.

20. The players who don’t care about the tradition or the pageantry of college football.

21. Knowing that they wouldn’t stick around campus any longer than they already have to.

22. I hate the BCS. Even now that it’s gone. I hate, hate, hate it.

23. Remember in 2003, when Oklahoma lost in the Big 12 Championship Game but still got to play in the BCS Championship Game?

24. Or when the Sooners got in again the next year instead of Auburn, and got thrashed by USC?

25. An inept and out of touch NCAA.

26. That high-profile schools and players often escape harsh punishments.

27. Terrell Pryor, Dan Herron, DeVier Posey, Mike Adams, and Solomon Thomas playing in the 2011 Sugar Bowl.

28. Also, we are two years removed from the Nevin Shapiro scandal at Miami (Fla.). Remember that? I guess a handful of suspensions was enough to satisfy the NCAA.

29. People who feel sorry for Joe Paterno and Penn State.

30. That for a few months, the fate of Penn State’s football program and Joe Paterno’s legacy was more talked about than Jerry Sandusky’s victims.

31. I hate that the Southwest Conference, one of college football’s premier leagues for more than 80 years, collapsed.

32. And the domino effect of conference realignment that it started.

33. West Virginia being in the Big 12.

34. Syracuse moving to the ACC.

35. Missouri joining the SEC instead of Florida State or Clemson.

36. The idea of Connecticut, South Florida, and Tulsa all being in the same conference.

37. I hate that most teams schedule an absolute dog on homecoming.

38. The fact that Florida hasn’t played an out of conference opponent on the road in nearly 25 years.

39. Indiana being a football-member of the Big 10.

40. That schools have cut down on playing in neutral site locations across their state.

41. Alabama and Auburn moving the Iron Bowl out of Legion Field.

42. Ole Miss and Mississippi State moving the Egg Bowl away from Jackson, Miss.

43. I hate the kitschy announcers.

44. Gary Danielson and Verne Lundquist.

45. Pam Ward.

46. Brent Musberger.

47. Bob Griese.

48. This guy.

49. Can’t forget Mark May and Lou Holtz, either.

50. I hate that the Oklahoma-Texas game changed its name to the “Red River Rivalry.”

51. That Arkansas and Arkansas State won’t play each other.

52. The SEC crackdown on cowbells at Mississippi State games.

53. Boise State’s “Smurf Turf.”

54. Eastern Washington’s red turf.

55. The University of Central Arkansas’ alternating purple and gray turf.

56. I hate the ridiculous number of terrible uniform combinations.

The Maryland Terrapins have got to be the worst offenders.

57. People who think Bedlam is a premiere rivalry game. C’mon, Oklahoma holds an 75-17-7 all-time advantage. The Sooners only lost one game between 1967 and 1994.

58. AP writers who give No. 1 votes to undeserving teams.

59. The terrible officials that permeate every conference.

60. The terrible officiating that seems to haunt every big Arkansas game.

61. I hate how ESPN only gives intense coverage to the established programs.

62. The completely undeserved hype a high-profile program gets if it starts the season 2-0.

(Looking at you, 2009 Miami Hurricanes.)

63. And remember when good coaches used to stay at one school for an extended amount of time?

64. I hate that fans are dissuaded from storming the field.

65. That it happens too often now.

66. And that you might get arrested if you do it.

67. Oh, and the SEC will levy a serious fine against your school as well.

68. I hate that a pizza and a coke at Razorback stadium costs more than $20.

69. That Arkansas made student tickets harder to get.

70. Let’s not forget, they also stopped guaranteeing students seats.

71. And U of A’s eagerness to build a new practice facility while the campus runs out of space for its students.

72. I hate the “facilities arms races.”

73. Which happen while a majority of college students and athletes of less popular sports wallow in debt that will haunt them the rest of their lives. (Marble floors imported from Italy, are you kidding me?)

74. The people who believe football players “go pro” in something outside the world of football.

75. The people who believe a majority of college football players are “student athletes.”

76. And people who think the football players live in a dorm and eat in a cafeteria similar to anything like that of a normal student.

77. That students are forced to move their cars from student lots before game day and have to pay out of pocket to park it somewhere else. (Often far from their dorms.)

78. That Matt Leinart got to play one more season at USC because he took Ball Room Dancing as his only class.

79. Athletes who get free (expensive) textbooks and sell them back at a profit.

80. That Arkansas’ beautiful video replay board has most of its picture obscured by AT&T ads.

81. I hate how football players are treated differently than their fellow student athletes.

82. When authorities look the other way when a member of the football team is involved in a quagmire.

83. Case in point: Michael Dyer.

84. Coaches who get a slap on the wrist.

85. Jim Tressle at Ohio State.

86. And that Tressel actually believed Pryor’s promise that he would return for his senior season.

87. The rap sheet for Urban Meyer’s players.

88. And many (Leach), many others.

89. The depressing notion that steroids might have infiltrated the college game.

90. I hate that the Arkansas-Texas rivalry is dead.

91. And the Hogs will no longer play LSU at the end of the season.

92. Instead we’ll play Missouri. The Hogs have played the Tigers five times. Five. Now it replaces the LSU game. Yippee.

93. Even though I won’t miss LSU’s Les Miles mispronouncing Arkansas.

94. This pass interference call against Arkansas in the 2010 Florida game.

95. That Bobby Petrino will coach a major Division I team again.

96. The fact that the immortal Bear Bryant (an Arkansas native) potentially was taking a job in Fayetteville when World War II broke out.

97. Coaches who abandon their schools because of an oncoming scandal. (Looking at you, Pete Carroll and Chip Kelly).

98. Razorback fans who think winning a national title makes or breaks the season. (We’ve only appeared in three SEC Championship Games since leaving the SWC in 1991)

99. That tons of scholarships go to football, leaving the rest of the athletic programs to fight over the scraps.

100. And lastly, I hate that there are so many egregious problems with a sport I love so dearly.

The War At Home

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Criticism of the militarization of local police forces is commonplace in the post-9/11 world, but the issue has been amplified by the recent events in Ferguson, Mo.

In the wake of a controversial shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer, the small town of about  20,000 has been besieged by riots, looting and instances of police brutality. While neither the protestors or police can be exonerated for their behavior over the past month, one take away has been the perplexing amount of military equipment utilized by law enforcement.

As various media outlets reported, Ferguson police responded to the riots with snipers, combat vehicles and a general approach toward protestors — peaceful or not — as enemies of the state.

In Arkansas, a state vastly similar to Missouri regarding culture and race relations, would an similar police response occur? In light of the equipment that the authorities have at their disposal, it’s a chilling thought.

New York TimesThis website, which emanates from a frightening report by the New York Times about the proliferation of military-grade equipment in several police precincts across the country, allows users to research the various hardware used by law enforcement, and is sortable by state and county. Arkansas, a state with just over 2 million people, possesses a shocking array of firearms and vehicles that seem more appropriate on the battlefield.

For example, Pulaski County, home to the state’s largest and most metropolitan city, Little Rock, owns several weapons that seem excessive for urban crime. Amid the usual provisions like firearms, utility trucks, and flash lights, police have a grenade launcher, a mine-resistant vehicle and a combat/assault/tactical vehicle. According the website, the total value of those three items — designed specifically for modern warfare — are valued at just north of $1 million.

Even the rural counties aren’t immune. Randolph County has a cargo plane. Baxter, Faulkner, and Mississippi Counties each have an “observation helicopter.” Meanwhile, Benton County, which has 160,000 fewer people than Pulaski County, has two mine-resistant vehicles.

Police simply being in possession of this equipment doesn’t mean they’ll use it. But like John Oliver noted on Last Week Tonight, the dissemination of military-grade weapons, combined with untrained police units, make for a volatile situation.