History So Interesting
From DNA testing to the Dixie Mafia, we bring you new stories of true crime in American history. Join writer & host Benjamin Morris for exclusive interviews with authors from Arcadia Publishing, writing the hottest books on the most chilling stories of our country’s past.
Lowcountry Murder: Interview with Rita Schuler Part II
Part II of our interview with Rita Shuler picks up exactly where we left off before. In 1985, Elaine Fogle's murder was officially declared a
cold case, but new technologies were coming on board that would bring needed momentum to the search for justice -- a search that would take nearly 30 more years. In the conclusion to our conversation, Shuler describes that remarkable journey, and the methods, people, and inspiration that would finally bring it to an end.
Ben & Rita Interview #2
In 1985, 6 years after she was killed, the investigation of Elaine Fogle's murder was at a standstill. No witnesses, few leads, a person of interest whom detectives couldn't tie to the case and plenty of evidence, but none of it was conclusive or revealing enough at the time to identify a culprit. Was it a difficult decision to put this case on ice?
I really can't speak for that myself being that I was at SLED, but Walterboro Police Department, and also the SLED Regional Agent that was working on this case, they're the ones that made the decision to say, we're at a stopping point now, and this case is just going cold. We don't have anywhere else to go. And yes, I believe it was a tough decision for them. It was difficult, but until another piece of evidence or information arose, they just didn't have anything to work with. So I'm sure it was difficult for the investigators at Walterboro and also the SLED investigators to put it on hold. And I was told that it had gotten cold.
So you were at SLED when that decision was made. What were you doing in 1985? Had you moved on to other cases or were you still focused on Elaine at this time? Can you tell us where you were?
We had pretty much moved on to all the cases and every day in my lab, in our forensic lab. We had cases come in. So, of course, we had to work on them and Elaine's case was there, if anything new came in we would certainly pull it to the forefront. But until it did working in the lab at SLED, we weren't able to go any farther. So it was just on hold until investigators gave us more information or evidence or suspects to work with. And sometimes you go on to other cases. You don't forget about it, but until something new comes up, there's just nothing that can be done.
So one of the things that you write in your book is that in the late 1980s two key developments in forensic technology began to emerge - Behavioral Science and DNA Analysis. How did those change police work in your unit?
Well, Behavioral Science started around 1989 at SLED. SLED set up a Behavioral Science Unit. And one of our Investigative Agents did training at the FBI Academy for Behavioral Science. And he, as far as I'm concerned, is one of the best. I've always said that I think he could make a worm crawl out of its hole by just talking to him. And David Colwell, it was Agent David Colwell, not to be confused with Agent Chad Colwell that I had spoken of before, but yes, David Colwell was our Psychological Profiler. And Walterboro did ask him around 1989 to take a look at Elaine's case and try and come up with a profile of her killer, even though they had a suspect as I said, that they just kind of focused on, but they never could get enough on Ronald Allen. And he shortly left town, which that made them even suspect him even more. But he shortly left town and went back to Tennessee where his family lived.
And David did get on, he looked at all the information and he talked to the Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia and asked for their assistance. And they came up with a profile on this person from all the evidence and all the reports and incident reports and statements that they had in case.
So you also write that around this same time, if the new developments in forensic analysis were coming online, this is a slightly longer question here, so just bear with me. If Behavioral Science Analysis is coming into play and DNA Analysis is coming into play, what's interesting is that you write that around that same time you have two key forensic databases emerge kind of concurrently are sort of in step with these new tools, these sort of national databases. You have AFIS for fingerprints and you have CODIS for DNA. Now, listeners who tuned into our interview with Joshua Suchon will remember CODIS because it actually helped to finger Tina Faelz's killer decades after her murder. There was a hit, he was picked up, it matched and you go from there.
It's an incredibly powerful tool. When did AFIS and CODIS hit SLED? Was that right in that period in the 1980s? Or was that a little bit later? Was that closer to the 90s or the early 2000s?
SLED started the DNA CODIS technology around the late 90s. It was coming online then and they had started setting up their databases at SLED around the mid 90s, early 90s to mid 90s. So that was real exciting as well. And there was a time that if anyone was arrested in the beginning, they weren't necessarily put into the CODIS database, the DNA database, unless it was a offense and they got charged for it and arrested for it. And then later SLED was one of the states that anybody that was arrested for a crime, their DNA went in to the system. But again, it was depending on the areas around South Carolina as to whether it was entered, but the law was that yes, you can enter anyone that gets arrested for a crime. And I think now it's pretty much anybody who gets arrested for any crime, whether they are freed later on their DNA gets into CODIS.
Well, yeah, absolutely. I want to follow up actually, because these two databases are so pivotal to how this case took shape.
The information that was in them directly led to the events 10, 15 years later, once you guys got your breakthroughs. We'll come to that. I guess what I want to ask you, Rita, is put us back in that scene where here you are with your crime scene photo training from the FBI, right? Sometimes you're developing photos, sometimes you're going out to crime scenes, shooting them yourself. Okay?
I did not go to too many crime scenes myself because our Crime Scene Investigators, they were trained in crime scene photography and they were A-1. So they would bring it back to me in film, and I processed it. I went to the scenes if there was specialized photography needed on evidence that could not be transferred back to the crime scenes itself.
Okay. Let me ask you this. This is maybe a better way of getting at what I'm trying to understand here. When AFIS comes online, you are part of the chain of officers who are handling those lifts that are coming from a crime scene, right?
Correct.My job was, when the Crime Scene Investigators would bring me a fingerprint or a lift from the scene itself, I had to photograph that print and make it exactly one to one size at the first, when it was entered into AFIS, it had to be exactly the same size as the fingerprint.
I set up my four by five cameras, it was a four by five negative. I set up those cameras that when I would put the fingerprint to be photographed and I moved my camera up to a certain distance and it came into focus, it was exactly one to one. And it had to be one to one for our AFIS operator to enter it into AFIS to go out and check the prints that were there because the prints that were there were exact size. They came from the print cards and they were exact size. So it had to be exactly one-to-one. So that was my job. Any print they brought over, I had to photograph and then print it for them exactly one to one so that the AFIS operator could enter it into the automatic fingerprint system. And that was a lot of fingerprints.
And she would mark off what she called minutiaes which is the points you see in a fingerprint or a palm print, like ending ridges, circles, dots. And she would mark off several of those, and she's send it through there and it was pretty much like saying, okay, you go out there and see if you can find two or three matching points here, or all matching points here and you send them back to me. And the AFIS examiner would get a few back, but it had to be, okay, it could be dots, it could be ending ridges, but they had to be in the same orientation as the fingerprint in question that you entered into AFIS.
And after they did get maybe five or six hits back, it still took her to look at the prints with the naked eye to make sure that you had enough matching points there, and they were in the same orientation as that fingerprint from that crime scene. The matching points. It's called a candidate list. The candidate lists would come back five to ten prints. And then the AFIS examiner would have to look at it to make sure that the markings matched up to the orientation on the original print from the crime scene. And then it would go on to the fingerprint examiner. And he, too, would look at all those matching points to see if it was that fingerprint. They had to be in the same area in the same orientation as the original print that came from the crime scene or the print that is in question.
So let's get back to Elaine and tie this into Elaine. One of the first uses of this new forensic technology in Elaine's case was to reassess whether Ronald Allen could be tied to the scene of the crime. You write there's an investigation that took place in about 2002 where SLED went back and reviewed the evidence, tried to find what they could that could link Allen to the murder. But there was this kind of key absence, wasn't there? There was no male DNA at the scene that they could find at the time, there was nothing to compare it to in the database. And even after Mr. Allen had passed away and you'd obtained some blood from his autopsy, there were no matches. So can you help us understand why this didn't obtain? Why didn't this hit?
Okay. Back in 2001, with all this new technology that has come advancements in it and SLED and Walterboro Police Department decided they were going to look into Elaine's case again. This was in 2001. So, they had to assess all of the lab reports, all of the evidence that was still on hand at the Walterboro Police Department. And they were going to re-examine everything because now that the DNA is here now, oh man, if we could get DNA. I know we had semen samples. And if we could get the DNA from that semen sample, now maybe we could match it up to who we think this is. Ronald Allen. And working with SLED, one unfortunate thing was that there were no records still of the DNA, that DNA could not be located.
They did, again, check every piece of evidence that Walterboro had to see if maybe they could find some semen or DNA on that evidence. And unfortunately, again, those records and reports in 2001, they could not find any DNA.
So, they decided that they were going to find Ronald Allen though. If he's still alive, they're going to find Ronald Allen. And they did find that he was now in Tennessee and by the time they got there, Ronald Allen had passed away and they were going, oh my gosh, all the hopes here of maybe getting his DNA and maybe clearing him, or he's it. If we can ever find those semen samples or DNA at the scene. And luckily I know the hand of God moment I say, our investigators work with the investigative agency in Tennessee, and they knew Ronald Allen and they were going to help us locate him. And they did tell us that unfortunately, he had passed away.
But he passed away under maybe some strange conditions. They didn't know if he overdosed and they had to check for any kind of substance in his system. And the examiner had taken two vials of blood from Ronald Allen. And luckily enough, working with him, they allowed the SLED investigator to bring one of Ronald Allen's vials of blood back to SLED. And when they did get it back to SLED, they ran a DNA analysis on his blood. So we now have a DNA heavy profile of Ronald Allen. But again, we have no DNA evidence from the crime scene to try and match it back up to. So the case went back on the shelf again unsolved.
Fast forward to just a few years after that to about 2007. By this point you've been retired or semi-retired for about five or six years, but your interest in the murder hasn't waned. In some ways it's only grown stronger. After meeting Elaine's family, you start reaching out to active duty law enforcement, collecting leads and reassessing the status of the case. What were your main steps here at this point?
Well, in 2001, I retired from SLED and not because I needed to retire or anything like that, but I wanted to write books. I wanted to write books about cases that I worked on that SLED and just let everyone know how little pieces of evidence and dedication can help solve these cases and bring it up to some of the new technology we had. And my third book, Small Town Slayings in South Carolina, I wanted to bring in Elaine's unsolved case, and I wanted to find her family members so that I could learn more about Elaine because Elaine had never really been too far from my mind. And even after I retired in 2001, I kept saying this case can be solved. It can be solved. Now, when I did retire, I was not a certified law enforcement officer at that time. But in 2000, after I started writing my books, I was able to locate Elaine's sister.
And I told her that I had been involved with Elaine's case from day one in 1970 and it's always stuck with me. I told her about me just feeling real connected with it, and that I had been doing some, just trying to reach out to the law enforcement agencies since I'd retired to maybe see if they wanted to pick it up again, and I'd be happy to consult with them or volunteer with them to help them because I did know a lot about the case. And that's when I was informed from her that their family had been trying to do this all through the years too. But what I did was I started connecting with and trying to communicate with any of the key players that were in Elaine's case that I remembered while I was at SLED. And that being the chief investigating agent from Walterboro, and also I found Elaine's roommate. I wanted to talk to her and I wanted to talk to the friend that had come home that night and found Elaine. And I was able to do that.
And they gave me a lot of information. And of course, the investigator at Walterboro could only give me so much information because I'm not certified now, but anything that had been out to the public or in newspapers, of course, he could give to me and share with me. And he did that. And his conversations with me as well, he shared his conversation with me as to some of what he did during the investigation that I had not known about out while I was SLED, because we didn't know all that Walterboro was doing. And that's how I reached out to them. And then the family also said, I'll give you everything I have, and I'll give you my information of how some of the family had tried to connect with law enforcement during the years.
And that's when Elaine's sister pleaded with me, she said, "Rita", she said, "I thought Elaine had been forgotten. And if you will help me with this, let's do it. Let's see what we can get doing." And that's how I ended up working with her family and talking to some of my proteges that I had known through the years. And one being the deputy solicitor down in Colleton County, the 14th circuit. And I was a personal friend of his as well as I had assisted him with some official work while it SLED too. And we even drank a few beers together and I was talking to him about this case at one point as well, and I told him, I said, "Steve, I think", I said, "we've got all this new technology now." I said, "I just really believe that we could do something with it, but I just can't get through the law enforcement because I'm not active."
And he said, "Well, Rita, let me see what I can do." So he actually had his investigator go over to the Walterboro police department to see how much evidence and what they had for me. And he called me back. He said, "Rita, my goodness, they have got a room full of evidence there." He said, "Whatever you have to do get SLED back on this case", he said, "because new technology is going to solve it." And he sent me some documents that was very important, such as the autopsy report. He said, "you get these to SLED now and whatever you have to do, try and get SLED back on it." And I did call SLED, but at that time they didn't seem too interested in it and they were busy and it kind of just fell through the cracks again until about 2010.
Yeah. It sounds like you really did get the band back together in some ways, but in other ways, the band was still playing all along with all of the evidence they still had on file. And the interest level as murder has no statute limitations, they were still up to this.
Yes. I was still communicating with Elaine's family too, and some of the family members and they had some pretty good information they had derived over the years as well as I did. And then it kind of dropped again for a while. And one day when this wonderful Facebook started on social media. I was roaming around on Facebook one day and all of a sudden I popped up and SLED has opened up a cold case unit. I went, okay, this is my chance to get this information to them now, because they said on there, if anybody has any information on the cold cases listed here, please contact case unit at SLED. Elaine's case was the first one on that list. Well, of course I jumped on it. Another hand to God moment here, everyone in that cold case unit I had worked with at SLED and they were very interested in looking at what I had.
So I had a meeting with them and went over and carried everything that the solicitor had given me and everything I had collected during the years and the family had collected. And I gave them all that information. And of course when I left, they were very interested in, but I wasn't in the loop because I am unofficial at this time.
There's times I'm going, oh my goodness. I wonder if they're working on this and wondering if they're working on it, but I didn't call them. I said, they probably got it, got a cold case unit now. And I know I knew the ones that were working on it and they were really, really fine agents. And then I had an encounter in a grocery store here one day. I just got out the house and went to the grocery store. And when I was through the checkout line, someone behind me said, "Rita Shula." And I turned around and it happened to be one of the agents from the cold case unit, Natalie Crosland. And she said, "Rita", she said, "I have really gotten interested in Elaine's case now, too. We have gone down and got a lot out of the evidence from Walterboro again, and we're having it reexamined now for DNA. And hopefully we may be able to find the semen samples or hopefully I think we've got something right now that we can use."
And my head had was spinning and I'm going, "Oh my God, I wonder if it's the semen samples." But she couldn't tell me if it was, or if it was not. She said, "But I think we've got something now that we can use." Well, here I am. I leave and I go back home and my wheels are spinning again, but I was real excited that they're working it and interested in it and they're reexamining everything. And time went on a little bit again and I forget, it was maybe a couple months. And Natalie, the agent called me at home and she said, "Rita, we have found something that may help with Elaine's case", she says, "but I regret to tell you that SLED has disbanded the cold case unit so we can't work on it anymore. So I sent all the evidence back to Walterboro," and she said, "I really wish you would try and connect with someone at SLED and see if they would keep me on this case and let you assist me with this in some capacity, because I think we solved this case."
Well, I tried, but I didn't get any response again and they shifted her on over to another area, vehicle crimes. And I always said in my mind, what's more important, a murder or a stolen car, but that was just my personal thought. So that was in 2010, and again, it went back on the shelf unsolved, but I couldn't get out my mind that she had said they do have something that she thinks would be useful.
Rita, I have often thought of this case as a roller coaster. There are highs and there are lows. There are twists. There are moments where you're collecting evidence. You've got all sorts of expectation. You go up, up, up, up, and you're thinking, we're going to get there. We're going to get there. And then you get these frustrations, you get these limitations, you get these snags and snafus and you never know what you're going to get. But if every case has its lows, every case also has its highs. Tell us about Corporal Gean Johnson. How did the two of y'all meet?
Corporal Gean Johnson and I met in May of 2015, May of 2015. And this is how it came about on the 37th anniversary of Elaine's murder. Elaine's sister called me and she told me that every year on that date, she would pick up my Small Town Slayings book and read about Elaine's unsolved case. And she says, this year I picked it up and I read it. And she now has an adopted daughter that lives with her, Melissa. And she said, I looked at Melissa and I said, I can hear Elaine telling me, don't stop. Keep going, keep going. She says, I'm going to call Rita again. So she calls me and she said, "Rita, we are thinking about trying to get in touch with Walterboro police department again to see if there's any advancements in Elaine's case." And I said, "I think that is a wonderful idea."
I said, "But you are going to have to do it, because they kind of told in their own way, we got this and we'll handle it." So she hung up. And in a matter of just a few minutes, her adopted daughter called me back, Melissa, and she said, "Miss Rita, you better sit down." And I went, "What?" She says, "I called down there. There is a new investigator that they've got looking at Elaine's case right now, Corporal Gean Johnson. And we told him that we wanted him to communicate with you because you'd been helping us through the years." He said, "Well, this is really something because my wife came home a while back. Once I got on this case, my wife came home and gave me Ms. Rita's book, Small Town Slayings that had Elaine's case written in that book." And he said, "I was real excited about reading the stories she had written and even more exciting to see that she had been on this case since day one. And yes, I'm calling her to ask if she can assist me with this."
And he did call and I was just, as I said, over the moon. I said, "Oh my goodness, Corporal Johnson", I said, "I have been wanting to do this ever since I started on this case in 78. Yes, I will assist. But I'm not active now, so you're going to have to get permission from your police chief for me to be able to touch and look at the evidence and go through all the case files and everything." And he said, "I've already gotten permission." And that's how I met Corporal Johnson. And within, I think, it was like two days we talked on the phone and in two days I went over to meet him and I could tell from day one, he was like a big muscular Teddy bear that had a heart of gold.
He just made you feel good when he talked to you and you could see the passion in him. He said, I've talked to her family. And he says, I want us to solve this case. He said, I've prayed to God to help us solve this case because they had been waiting long enough. And that's when Corporal Gean Johnson entered my life. And we started going back to the beginning and reading over everything, everything, everything.
Corporal Johnson was only 13 years old when Elaine was murdered and he had joined the force around 1992. The two of y'all had very different careers in law enforcement. And I'm curious, Rita, how did your strengths compliment one another? What was the dynamic like between y'all as you got started working together?
Together? Elaine. He had learned about Elaine from reading the story and talking to her family. And then after talking to me too. And he was determined. He said, "We can solve this case. I've looked over a lot of the evidence already. This case can be solved." And it was just like instant power that we had with each other. We could almost finish each other's sentences sometime. And we shared what we thought the theories of how it could have happened or why it hasn't been solved. And some of them were even, and I don't mean this bad, but some of them was almost crazy to a point where we had to laugh, but we checked out everything, everything. We just had that connection and we trusted each other. That was a big thing too. We trusted each other.
You know, you have this amazing photo of the two of y'all. It's a photo by Vicky Hall with Corporal Johnson on the left and you're on the right. And both of you look like, I don't know if I can say this, but both of y'all look like total bad asses. He's six feet of solid muscle, biceps like tree trunks. He's packing serious heat. And there you are, you're rocking these killer shades, this leather jacket fit to make Arnold Schwarzenegger jealous. I mean, I look at this photo and I think this is CSI Walterboro.
That is correct. That was CSI Walterboro and a little bit of SLED retirement mixed in. And I mean, we wanted to get this guy. We wanted to get the person that did this with Elaine. Even if he wasn't alive anymore, we wanted to is. And we were certainly an odd couple. We were certainly an odd couple to look at us, but inside we were both this, we want to get this bad ass.
Yeah. So you're back in action. And you, Rita, are now fully authorized to review all the evidence, sealed or no. How did the two of y'all get started? How did you make sense out of the morass of material after so long?
PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:54:04]
[inaudible 00:54:01] of material after so long?
Well, we had to honestly, and you'll hear me say this so many times, go back to the beginning. There were binders, there were boxes and there were reports and it was a lot of repetition because every time they would try to reopen this, they would get the same reports back from SLED. They would get the same reports from Walterboro. So we had to go through and we actually had to set up a more simple outline of what happened back in 78 from the beginning. And the incident reports we have from them, any statements they had from any persons of interest or any statements they had written and also recordings and Corporal Johnson had listened to all of them.
I did not listen to any of the recordings because he'd listened to all of them. And he had pretty much talked to the ones that were still around with those recordings and he had his own records on them. But we had to put it in order because it wasn't in any particular order there in the file room, because of so many times when they'd open it up to look at it again, it was just repetition.
So we simplified it down to what really happened from 1978 up through the times. Went back to SLED and all the information about trying to find out from the examiners at SLED, what the reports were in 78. What the reports were in 2001, when it was opened back up. What evidence they had, what evidence SLED looked at. And we got it down to a pretty good binder there where we had the timeline pretty much set out.
And while we were looking through these files, I came across one file and in that file, I saw a SLED report from 2010, that reflected, there was some mixed DNA found on some panties in the living room where Elaine was found murdered, where her body was found. And I looked at it and I went, "Gene, what is this?"
And he said, "Rita that's a report from SLED, that when they got this evidence back in the cold case unit, back in 2010, this was reexamined. And there was some mixed DNA found on it. But of course I went, "Oh Jesus, this is what Natalie was trying to tell me in that grocery store." And it was Natalie's report from the DNA analysis of the DNA that was found on a pair of panties, but it wasn't semen. It was blood. So it was blood that was a DNA mix, male and female profile. And it was Elaine's blood and the bad guy's blood, which caused a mixed DNA. It was not the seaman. And I looked at him and I went, "Oh, gees, well, at least we've got a little bit of DNA here now to work with."
Now. We got to find a name to try and match it to. And he went out and got DNA from a lot of the people that he had talked to in Walterboro. I think he knew everybody there because he was born and raised there. And the ones that were mentioned in the case file, he went out, and they were pretty okay about giving him DNA. Like the boy friends and some friends and those two guys we talked about in prison and none of that matched back up to this DNA profile. So then we kind of get to a point after all of that, oh gosh, where do we go now? We've got this DNA profile. We do not have a name.
. So you found this mixed DNA, but your job wasn't over at that point? In fact, then you had to determine whose panties they were, because there were two females in the house.
And then you also had to determine what the DNA proved, if anything. So how did you proceed at that point?
Ah, let's see where I want to start here. When we saw that report, we also saw that there was questions about, is this Elaine's panties or is this her roommate's panties? Because in the evidence file, there were panties that the person that was in there that night, obviously went through her roommates dresser drawers, and he had thrown panties out on the bed. He'd thrown them into the trash can. It didn't appear to be any attack in that room, but the roommates panties, they were the bikini panties, and then the panties that were found on the couch, were what they call, old lady type panties. So the analysts who did the DNA profile on the blood on those panties said that they really needed to find the origin of the panties. Was it the roommates panties or was it Elaine's panties?
And the significance of that, if it was a Elaine's panties, then he, at some point when he was bleeding, touched those panties that had some of Elaine's blood on them. And that would tell us, probably he was taking them off her body. And possibly he had been cut in the process of him attacking her, or maybe even coming through that window that night. When he broke the window, he could have cut himself then. But at some point he was cut because it was his blood and Elaine's blood.
And after I saw that, I mean, I picked up the telephone and I called Elaine's roommate, Nancy. And I said, "Nancy," she knew that we were working on this case, I had been communicating with her, and I said, I just came plain out and asked her, "Did you ever wear old lady panties or did you wear bikini panties? What kind of panties did you wear back then?" And I told her why we needed that. She said, "Oh my God, Rita, I never wore old lady panties, they were always bikini pants and they usually had little designs on it." And I said, "Okay, thank you much." And then I picked up the phone and I called [inaudible 01:02:40] and I said, "inaudible 00:08:43] do you remember Elaine ever wearing bikini panties or old lady panties?" She said, "Oh, Elaine hated the bikini panties, she wore old lady panties."
So that pretty much told us those were Elaine's panties and being that it was Elaine's blood on them as well. And they were found in the area where she was attacked, right next to that couch where her body was found, laying down, right below where those panties were found up on the couch. So we now can pretty much assure that that was Elaine's panties. So we worked from that. What we didn't have, we still didn't have the name of the guy. So we weren't sure where to go from then, but it kind of went back on the back burner again, but not for long though.
I want to read you a passage from your book.
Yeah, go ahead.
At the beginning of chapter 17, you write, "For three months, corporal Johnson and I had been through Elaine's files, over and over communicating every day, and sometimes into the night. We cleared every potential suspect, discredited every rumor and cleared every suspect documented in the case file, including Ronald Allen. The suspect from day one."
You guys had been through a bunch of dead ends, to Elaine's former fiance, he didn't pan out. You write that dispatcher tapes of the days surrounding the murder, there was nothing there. What were you feeling at this moment? Frustration, worry, fear that there might not be anything new after all?
We were feeling all of the above. Yes. We were feeling frustration, but we'd always pull ourselves out of that frustrating. We were frustrated quite a few times during the time that we were looking at it. Fear, I don't know that we had a lot of fear because we just knew we had some DNA there and Gene and I both just knew in our mind that we're going to solve this thing. Once Gene realized too, that they had been so focused on Ronald Allen, he said, "I am not going to let this happen again, this is probably somebody they didn't even look at back then."] one thing they did do, when they found this mixed DNA profile, when the analysts found the mixed DNA profile, they already had Ronald Allen's profile at SLED from a few years back. They got his profile around 2001. So they checked it against this mixed male DNA in this profile. And it did not belong to Ronald Allen. So that finally cleared Ronald Allen. That did not put him in that house, and no other blood was found in that house except Elaine's and this unknown blood of this man.
high profile cases always draw folks out of the woodwork. Attention seekers, notoriety hounds, or just people who want to be involved for better or worse. And usually worse. You write in your book that you and Corporal Johnson started receiving crank letters in the mail with photographs of Elaine and this sort of cryptic message attached. And you guys, weren't the only ones. What were those?
Corporal Johnson and I did not receive any letters in the mail or photographs in the mail. It was Elaine's roommates friend that had found her, Billy O'Bryant, and he called me. I had told him we were re investigating this because we'd already talked to Billy and he called me and he said, "Miss Rita I received this crazy letter in the mail today." He told me the contents of it are about, 'we know what you did' and they sent me a picture of Elaine and he said, "It kind of scared me." And I said, "Let me call the Detective Johnson, we're going to want to see that, and we'll meet with you at the Walterboro police department."
So we did that, we went over and saw that letter. And then Corporal Johnson was also interviewing another person. Wasn't a person of interest but a person that knew Elaine back then. It was actually Dr. Flowers' son who Elaine actually babysat for. But there were words sometimes, about, he might've been involved in this or whatever. And he also called Detective Johnson saying, he'd gotten one of these letters. And Detective Johnson went over to talk to him. And Detective Johnson, pretty much soon, as he talked to him, he said, "I know he didn't have anything to do with this." He was only like 16 years old at the time or whatever. And he had nothing to do with this. He said, "Elaine used to babysit for me and that's pretty much all I knew about her."
But we had a thought of who it could be.It's August 2015 and you guys have been at this for months. You've been looking at every single scrap right from the beginning and no stone is left unturned, as they say. In August 2015, you have what you call, a light bulb moment. What was that?
Well, after we had looked into everything and we had pretty much eliminated everybody and all the persons of interests. We just got to a stopping point of, God, where do you go from here? And again, that's when my philosophy, go back to the beginning. So one morning I was walking around in my living room here at home and I was thinking, okay, I'm going back to the beginning now.
This case came across my desk in May 1978. And I photographed all the crime scene photos, I processed them, I photographed all the fingerprints, all the lists. And I went, oh my God, a light bulb came on in my head. And I said, "We have been so focused on DNA wanting to find DNA in this case, we have not even thought about the fingerprint system in this case." That is another great piece of evidence over there, are the fingerprints.
And we've never even looked at them. So I picked up the phone and I call my good buddy at SLED, Tom Darnell, he was fingerprint examiner. And I worked with him many years and I told him about the case. He said, "Rita, my gosh, I remember you talking about Elaine's case for so many years, what can I do for you?" And I said, "I have photographs of fingerprints and palm prints from that crime scene in my old manila envelope, over in my old photo [inaudible 01:15:08]" And I know that those files are still there because that's one thing I told SLED when I left, I said, "Don't get rid of all these negatives. Don't get rid of these photography files. If you have enough room for them, don't put them on digital, keep them in solid form." And they did that.
Tom told me, he said, "I go back over there quite a bit in some of my investigations, just give me a minute." And I could tell he was excited because Tom loves to get the bad guy off the street. So it was within the hour, Tom called me back and he says, "Rita we just got a hit on a palm print from your case file, that was a lift from the crime scene and it came back to a black male, 58 years old, Willy Butterfield." And I went, "What?" And he said, "Do you even know that name?" And I said, "No, I bet Corporal Johnson knows though, give him a call real quick while I calm down a little bit." And then Corporal Johnson texted me. He said "Rita, I'll call you in a few minutes."
And when he called me, he said, "You know what? This is amazing, I actually arrested Willy Butterfield in 2010 when I was with the Sheriff's department in Walterboro, in Colleton county." And he said, "I know Willy Butterfield, and his family still lives here and I'm going to see if he's still alive and I'm going out to find him." And within another two or three hours, Tom Darnell calls us back and says that they have made two fingerprints of Willy Butterfield as well.
They were found in the house, one on an end table. And there were two fingerprints on the entrance glass from where he had broken in to the house that night. But now that puts Willy Butterfield in Elaine's house, but it does not put Willy Butterfield, sexually assaulting and killing her. But, we have the mixed DNA on those panties now. So Corporal Johnson called and found that Willy Butterfield now is in a mental institution in Columbia, South Carolina.
I mean, it's interesting, isn't it? Because the emergence of a new suspect here matches up with the piece of evidence that the original investigators had overlooked years earlier doesn't it? That statement by none other than Ronald Allen's wife, Fran, of someone she saw that morning outside her house.
That is correct. The evidence shows that it was a black male and Ronald Allen's wife had seen a black male out at the water spigot of the early morning Elaine was killed, washing up at that spigot, that she had told investigators about, but they never acted on that and did not follow up that particular lead that she had given them.
So, let me ask you, why was that overlooked?
I can't answer that. I think it was because they were so focused in on Ronald Allen being the person that killed Elaine. He was close to her, lived close to her and it was just convenient. And I think they just zoomed in on him and they couldn't get it out of their mind that it was Ronald Allen. And up until Willie Butterfield was arrested, quite a few of the investigators still thought it was Ronald Allen, even though the DNA did not match up to Ronald Allen. [crosstalk 01:19:49] But I don't know why it was overlooked that night. It was maybe just an oversight or maybe it was just forgotten about and didn't think it was important enough.
I wonder if maybe they thought Fran was, [inaudible 01:20:12] events? Some other guy did it, some other dude did it. Or I wonder if they thought Fran was trying to create a distraction to defend her husband?
It's very possible that back then they thought that maybe Fran was trying to create a distraction to pull it away from her husband, Ronald. But after Corporal Johnson talked to her, when all this was over with and he interviewed her after Willy Butterfield was arrested and we knew we had the right guy and he said, "Fran was telling the truth back then, she knew it wasn't Ronald." And he said, "Because I can tell by the way she talks now that she knew it wasn't Ronald."
Knew it wouldn't roll.
You guys go looking for Willie Butterfield and you don't have to look far. He is in an institution for a fairly grizzly series of crimes committed back in 2010. What had landed him in jail at that time?
Willie Butterfield had been arrested for assisting a female with disposing of human remains of a person that was killed in a motel. And he had assisted her with trying to dispose of those remains and they were together when they did arrest them, so both of them were arrested for this crime. But apparently they both got out on bond because they were back out on the street. And at that time, it was awaiting to go to court. It took a few years for it to get into court. But one good thing that came out of that was when Willie Butterfield was arrested in 2012, his DNA got into the CODIS system and his fingerprints and palm prints as well got into the AFIS system, so his DNA was in the database in 2012. It was never there before, and that's the reason, one reason it did not hit on that mixed DNA because that mixed DNA did go into CODIS. They entered it into CODIS as well, and it did not hit. And sometimes mixed DNA doesn't hit anyway because it's a weaker profile and it doesn't hit anyway.
But his DNA was not in the system when they put it in the system back in 2010. But in 2012, his DNA was in entered into CODIS because of this arrest and his fingerprints and palm prints were entered into AFIS because of this arrest and that's how that palm print got a hit to the palm print from the crime scene of 1978.
Yep. So even though you have a palm print and a fingerprint putting him at the scene and you've got the hit, the DNA hit from CODIS, your work is not yet done. What remained to be established before you could charge him with the crime?
They had to find the connection of him brutally killing Elaine, the connection to her murder. So we knew if we could get Willie Butterfield's DNA then, and match it back to that mixed DNA on her panties in that blood, that would be Willie Butterfield's blood that would determine it was Willie Butterfield's blood. And that would place him at some point, his blood touching Elaine's blood and that would be the end of the puzzle there. His blood mixed in with Elaine's blood tells you at some point he touched Elaine's blood.
Were y'all able to interview Willie Butterfield?
Corporal Johnson was. He and one of his investigators went up to the mental institution in Columbia, South Carolina to interview Willie Butterfield. And he did talk to Willie Butterfield and I think one of the first questions he asked him was, "Do you remember me?" And Willie looked at him and said, "Yes, I do remember you." And that took him back to that 2010, when Corporal Johnson had arrested him when he was at the Sheriff's department and they gave him his rights. They read him his rights and said, "We'd like for you to sign here." He said, "I'm sorry. I can't read or write." And he said, "Okay, I'll read them to you and if you can, just put your X on the line here and the investigator here will be your witness." Well, after he read him his rights and gave him the line to sign on, he actually signed his name, very legibly.
So that was number one lie there too. And of course, Gean asked him if he'd ever been in Elaine's house and did he know Elaine? No, I don't know her. And he finally got around to the ending part of, well, we know you've been in her house. We know we can put you in her house. And why did you kill her? And he said, "I want a lawyer." so it had to stop. But during the interview, Corporal Johnson did get a buckle swab from Willie Butterfield. And when he left Willie Butterfield that day, he immediately went over to SLED and gave it to the analyst there to do the profile and do a match to the mixed DNA profile that they already had on file. And in a day or so, she called him and told him it was a match. Well, he called me and told me, he said, "It's a match, Rita. We got Willie Butterfield. And it's him. We know it's him now. We got his fingerprints. We got the match to the blood and it's him. It's his profile. So we can pretty much arrest him, but I have to talk to the solicitor."
Well, of course, when he talked to the solicitor, the solicitor said, "Okay, we know what this man did this now. With all this, we know he did it, but we can't use that sample that you got from him while he was in that mental institution, because he was deemed incompetent." And he said, "Is there any other profiles or anywhere that you have any DNA from him that possibly could be used?" And then Gean said, "Okay, 2012. That's when his DNA got into the system and SLED has his profile on file at SLED."
And in 2012, Willie Butterfield, hadn't gone to court where he was deemed incompetence yet. He was still out on that bond. So that freed that up to where they could use that DNA profile and look at the profile in the blood spot on the panties from the crime scene. And the analyst at SLED, she had to take a few weeks there, because we had a flood in between, but she did get a match from the 2012 profile that was in an into AFIS from that offense he had done, then that they still had on file at SLED. It was a match to the spot mixed DNA on the panties from the crime scene. And that's when we knew we really had him. I mean, all those checks that we went through, that's when the solicitor said, " Okay, you can arrest him now and you can tell the family."
It took 37 years, but you were finally able to deliver some news to Elaine's family.
Yes. After 37 years, we were finally able to deliver the news to Elaine's family and loved ones that we have arrested and we found the person that killed their beloved Elaine. And we were to meet over at Walterboro police department that morning and they were to meet with us, the family members. And on the way to Walterboro, I stopped and I picked up two red roses and when we got in the meeting room, Elaine's sister was there and her sister's adopted daughter, Corporal Johnson, police chief. And there was an administrator there, I think too. And Corporal Johnson told Elaine's family. He looked at them and they didn't know what to expect, because they'd heard bad news over the past. And they'd been disappointed over the past. And he said, I just want to tell you, we arrested the person that killed and assaulted Elaine, and his name is James Willie Butterfield.
And of course, everybody broke down and tears came to everybody, even the police chief and Corporal Johnson too, this big muscular man that did this wonderful thing, and myself. I walked over to Elaine's sister and I handed her one of those red roses. And I said, "Eolean, this is for you and Elaine." And I said, "We finally got him. We finally got the person that killed Elaine." And then I handed her to other red rose and I said, "Elaine, this is for you. We finally got him. We got him. You can rest in peace now, sweet girl. You can rest in peace."
This case really is such a roller coaster with the highs and the lows and the highs and the lows and the highs.
After the highs and the lows and the highs, there's still one more twist in the track, isn't there?
The competency issue for Willie Butterfield is still a part of this case. Can you tell us, legally, where does the case stand now? He hasn't actually been charged with this murder, has he?
Well, he was charged with the murder and they had to go through the legal procedures of the bond hearings and they also had the preliminary hearings. And at that time they did have psychologists saying that Willie Butterfield is still deemed incompetent. He is not competent enough to stand trial. He wouldn't know what was going on in any way, he is not competent enough. So that means that Willie Butterfield, all of his charges that he's had, not just the Elaine's charge, but all the charges he's had in his lifetime that he wasn't tried for, has been dropped. But if he ever does become competent, if they still do some psychological testing on him over the years, if he does get to the point of being competent enough to stand trial, all those charges will be put back on the table.
But at the point right now where it stands, it doesn't look like that's going to ever happen and Willie Butterfield may never stand in court and stand trial for what he did to Elaine or any of these other ones that were just disbanded after he was proved mentally incompetent. So he sits quietly in the institution now and he's been taken care of. And until he's deemed competent again, he may never enter a courtroom. He may never be tried for these.
But I'll tell you if he ever does become competent, Corporal Johnson's going to be standing on the doorstep, and God willing, as soon as he walks out that door, we're going to put handcuffs on him. It'll be just like that picture you saw of me and him standing in front of Walterboro police department.
Of all the cases you ever worked on in your 40 year career, why did this one stand out?
It was because of my connection to Elaine and how brutal it was and getting to know her family and how hard her family tried all through these years to have law enforcement work with them. They loved Elaine, just like every family loves their children, sisters, but they just kind of got knocked down sometime with law enforcement because law enforcement didn't have anything, they said, to work with. And I just felt like, something can be done. And sometimes the families, all they want is to know that somebody cares. And I did care about this case. This case kept me up at night sometime. I just couldn't get it out of my mind because of the connection I felt with her. And then she came from the same county I did. She was born and raised a kind of little country girl like I was. She's just a beautiful person and she had everything going for her and she never got to live like that. And that's why it touched me so much. I just knew it could be solved with all that mound of evidence they had down there.
Well, it's a rare opportunity for us to get to speak to the person, not just who wrote a book about the case, but who helped crack it, so thank you. Thank you so much for joining us. The last question that I have for you, and you probably saw this one coming, are there any other unsolved cases that have caught your eye?
Yes, many. In fact, I went on to become special deputy with Berkeley County down here, around my area, around Charleston, and there's three or four that I would love to see solved. And there's one that a little nine-year old boy was killed back in 1989 and they never have arrested the person that did it, and we know who did it, but we just don't have that physical evidence of putting them there. But that is one. And there's several other cases that I have really looked at for Berkeley County as well. And I'm not specialized deputy now. I kind of got out of that, but the cold case investigator over there calls me on the cases that I have looked at. And this little nine-year old boy, Justin Turner, his case is on the forefront. So we're hoping one day that it'll come around, that that one piece of evidence is there, even though we pretty much know who did it, that one little break is going to be there, but Justin Turner was one that's really stuck with me as well.
Well, that sounds like Elaine taught you to never lose hope.
Absolutely. And that's one thing I'll tell anyone that's going through the same thing of losing a loved one like this, don't ever give a hope, don't ever give up trying to communicate with law enforcement, even if they hurt your feelings. And even if they say we can't do anything else, keep bugging them. Keep bugging them. And there's quite a few departments now, I'm sure, and agencies that have cold case units and they are separate from working today's case because today's case is going to be the priority. But the cold case units that they're separate from today's cases, they concentrate on the cold cases.
They don't have to spend time on the cases that they're working today. And there's a lot of agencies that have established cold case units now. And you just have to make a breakthrough with investigators to get their attention. And you'll get your feelings hurt, but sometime maybe not, but keep pushing, keep pushing. That's what we did. And maybe a Corporal Gean Johnson will come along with one of them too, and stay on it. He was determined as I was. And he was only on it for about five months, but he was determined as I was after 37 years. So that determination and passion, but you have to have an investigator to work on it and stay on it to really, really take it on through to the end or as far as you can get.
Well, thank you. Thank you for those encouraging words. And thank you for just making the time for us. It has been a real privilege to learn about this case directly from you and to travel back through time and to see something that doesn't happen often enough, which is justice is served. And so we thank you for taking us there. Thank you, Rita.
And thank y'all for remembering Elaine and keeping Elaine's memory alive for her family and her loved ones. And especially for myself and Corporal Johnson, we'll never forget Elaine.
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