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  • Pensacola News Journal

    A serial killer? A cover-up? After 50 years, Pensacola cold case may finally get closure

    By Benjamin Johnson, Pensacola News Journal,


    The last known person to see Deborah Jones alive was her friend Brenda Henderson.

    Just before 10 p.m. on Dec. 28, 1974, 19-year-old Jones arrived at Henderson’s home and asked her to go with her to the Ace Social Club on West Hatton Street.

    Henderson agreed, but asked Jones to give her a few minutes. Instead of waiting, Jones went ahead without her.

    Area resident Sampson Tucker would later tell investigators he was awakened sometime between 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. by the sound of a scream. Tucker said he couldn’t place the location of the scream and went back to bed after looking out of the window and seeing nothing.

    Less than an hour later, Washington High School student Frank Atwood discovered Jones’ partially nude body under the Texar Drive overpass, lying face up with a white turtleneck shirt and pink scarf that had been used to strangle her still wrapped around her neck.

    The lead investigator assigned to the case, Houston Harris, told the News Journal in 1974 that the department believed “it was a planned murder” and would question everyone associated with Ace Social Club.

    “I feel like we will catch somebody,” Harris said. “But this kind of case takes time.”

    So far, it’s taken almost 50 years.

    Over the decades the pool of potential suspects has grown from club patrons to include a longtime sheriff’s deputy and America’s “most prolific serial killer.”

    Complicating matters even further, Jones may have been a key witness to, or even the catalyst for, an officer-involved shooting that caused rising tensions between the Sheriff’s Office and Black residents of Pensacola to boil over.

    Five decades removed from Jones’ death, people are still sorting through what’s evidence and what’s speculation. And while a potential new lead in the case has given investigators hope they may have finally identified the culprit, others fear halfhearted efforts to investigate the killing may have doomed the case from the start.

    New suspect in Deborah Jones case confessed to killing 93 women

    In recent months, the ECSO’s Cold Case Unit actively dove back into Jones’ case, and Escambia County Sheriff Chip Simmons says they’ve taken a hard look back at the original investigation to rule out old suspects.

    One of the first suspects in Jones’ homicide was her husband, Willie Ray Jones. Prior to the discovery of Jones' body, Willie and Deborah filed for divorce, a possible motive for the slaying.

    However, Simmons said the now-deceased Willie Jones was quickly excluded as a suspect both in the original and new investigation.

    As part of the new investigation, Simmons told the News Journal that they are sending samples of blood and semen found at the crime scene to an FBI lab to undergo DNA tests.

    The hope is they can cross-reference the DNA with a notorious serial killer who, despite a staggering number of victims, may not be a household name for many.

    The infamous Ted Bundy – who coincidentally was captured on West Cervantes Street in Pensacola in 1978 – confessed to murdering 30 people; however, another serial killer who may have made his way into Pensacola in the mid-‘70s, Samuel Little, has confessed to killing triple that number of victims.

    Investigators suspect one of them may have been Jones.

    Who is Samuel Little?

    Little, dubbed the country’s most prolific serial killer by the FBI , confessed in 2018 to the Texas Rangers and FBI that he strangled 93 women to death over the course of 35 years.

    Although born in Georgia, Little grew up in Lorain, Ohio, and was raised by his grandmother. During a childhood plagued with disciplinary issues, he began to fantasize of strangling women and would collect true crime magazines depicting women being strangled, Little admitted in recorded interviews.

    Throughout his younger years, he was arrested in 11 states for various crimes including theft, attempted rape and fraud, but in 1982, he faced a murder charge for Melinda LáPree in Mississippi. A grand jury later declined to indict him.

    He also faced an additional murder trial in 1982 for the killing of Patricia Mount who was found dead in Florida, but he was later acquitted by a jury in 1984.

    Most of Little’s murders largely went unnoticed until 2012 when he was arrested on a narcotics charge in Kentucky. Law enforcement officials then used DNA testing to link him to three homicides in the late 1980s, eventually testing his DNA in nearly 100 murder cases around the country.

    FBI Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP) Crime Analyst Christie Palazzolo said, “For many years, Samuel Little believed he would not be caught because he thought no one was accounting for his victims.”

    Many of Little’s victims were women of color, drug users or sex workers, wrote Jillian Lauren, an author who profiled Little in the book “Behold the Monster: Confronting America's Most Prolific Serial Killer.”

    According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, Little’s elongated murder career could be attributed to multiple misclassifications during autopsy reports of the women who were found. Technically, many of Little’s victims were suffocated instead of strangled due to the lack of broken or fractured hyoid bones in the throat, leading medical examiners to list the deaths as either a drug overdose or natural causes.

    TDPS says that Texas Rangers and the FBI ViCAP have confirmed at least 60 of Little’s 93 confessions.

    How is Samuel Little connected to Deborah Jones?

    The connection between Jones and Little, albeit a theory, is based on the proximity of Little to Pensacola on his way to Savannah, Georgia, where he claims to have killed a woman in her early 20s.

    “He traveled through Pensacola during the time of (Jones’) death heading to Savannah, Georgia, and it's reported he was seen in Brownsville and used different IDs and stuff at the time,” Simmons told the News Journal.

    Simmons said they are sending the blood and semen found at the scene to the FBI so they can cross reference it with DNA standards they have of Little.

    Despite finding semen at the scene, the medical examiner who performed Jones' autopsy in 1974 ruled out sexual assault.

    According to the FBI’s data base of Little’s unmatched confessions, Little confessed he killed a woman in Savannah, Georgia, in 1974, fitting the time frame of when he may have been in Pensacola. Unfortunately, there is no defined pathway that Little took from Florida to Georgia.

    The earliest killings he confessed to took place in Miami from 1970 to 1972. He wouldn't kill again in Florida until roughly 1977 and a final time in 1984, both in Central Florida.

    The closest murder to Pensacola connected to Little occurred in 1977 in Gulfport, Mississippi, just over 100 miles away. There, law enforcement confirmed his confession of murdering a 35-to-45-year-old woman who is still listed as a Jane Doe.

    Unfortunately, no one can ask Little if he ever found himself in Pensacola or if he killed Jones, because the California Department of Corrections announced Little died at the age of 80 on Dec. 30, 2020, in Los Angeles while serving three life sentences.

    Wendel Blackwell and the ECSO officer-involved shooting

    Some believe Jones died not at the hands of a serial killer, but rather by a sworn officer of the law.

    Rev. H.K. Matthews, a 96-year-old Pensacola civil rights icon, said he spoke with Jones before she went to meet up with her friend at the Ace Social Club.

    Matthews told the News Journal that he spoke with Jones because she was a passenger in the car of 23-year-old Wendel Blackwell on Dec. 20, 1974. Blackwell, a friend of Jones with whom she was romantically involved, was killed that night in an officer-involved shooting by ECSO Deputy Doug Raines, an incident that led to a civil rights uproar.

    According to historian and professor of history at Flagler College Dr. J. Michael Butler, Raines was responding to a call downtown, and while there he saw Blackwell’s vehicle drive by.

    “(Raines) follows him, (and) Blackwell doesn’t stop,” Butler told the News Journal. “This is where the record gets murky.”

    Raines forced Blackwell into a median, and as the deputy exited the vehicle, so did Blackwell. Butler says Raines’ account was that the 23-year-old made a quick move with a gun in his hand, despite his hands being behind his head.

    “From 3 feet, Doug Raines shot him in the forehead with a .357 Magnum,” Butler said.

    According to Butler, other witnesses say Blackwell had his hands above his head with nothing in his hand, he exited the vehicle quickly or that Raines immediately exited and fired the first shot.

    Raines reportedly said Blackwell had reached his raised hands from behind his back and pulled out a pistol, and when Raines shot Blackwell, he fell backward with the gun landing underneath his head.

    Butler said the first time in the record that anyone else saw Blackwell's purported firearm, a .22-caliber pistol, was in the hands of Darryl Mumford, a civilian who was riding in Raines’ police vehicle.

    In his book “Beyond Integration: The Black Freedom Struggle in Escambia County, Florida, 1960-1980,” Butler notes that “with the exception of Doug Raines, every man present at the shooting first saw Blackwell’s pistol when Mumford held it.”

    “Raines said the gun was under Blackwell’s head, that’s his testimony,” Butler said. “A .357 Magnum shot from a 3-foot distance, if a gun is being pulled down, the odds of it landing under your head seems to be rather (unlikely).”

    After the shooting, many in the Black community, including Matthews, felt the gun was planted. Much of the community began urging then-Sheriff Royal Untreiner to give Raines a polygraph and then-State Attorney Curtis Golden to launch a grand jury inquest.

    According to Butler, neither of those occurred, and in the wake of the drownings of five Black fishermen under mysterious circumstances earlier in 1974 , the seemingly suspicious officer-involved shooting “inflamed the already blazing black resentment of police officers in the Panhandle,” according to Butler’s book.

    “The historical record demonstrates to me quite clearly that Doug Raines should have been charged with murder,” Butler told the News Journal. “And that’s me arriving at that conclusion based on the historical evidence that the sheriff’s department, people who were alive during the time and interviews that were conducted with eyewitnesses led me to conclude when I was doing my research in the early 2000s.”

    Eventually, the Raines-Blackwell shooting was brought before a grand jury, but after five days of testimony from 40 witnesses the jury deemed the shooting as justifiable. In Butler’s book, he writes that the grand jury found that Raines believed he was in imminent danger of death and “did nothing to inflame the conditions of the shooting.”

    Raines has since passed away.

    How does Deborah Jones' death connect to Wendel Blackwell’s death?

    After the chase between Raines and Blackwell, Jones exited the vehicle and ran away from the incident, later setting up a meeting with Matthews. During that meeting, Matthews said he learned that Jones wasn't just in a relationship with Blackwell while divorcing her husband.

    “She and Doug Raines were lovers. They had been dating each other,” Matthews told the News Journal. “Doug Raines was upset, according to her, about her being in the car with Wendel Blackwell.”

    During the meeting, Matthews said Jones left and wanted to meet up again to continue talking about what happened the night of Blackwell’s death, but Matthews said he made one mistake he believes to this day was fatal to Jones.

    “Rev. (B.J.) Brooks and I had a press conference that afternoon, and we made the mistake of saying that we had met with Deborah Jones,” Matthews said, “and we were going to meet back with her the next day, because she had some additional information to give us about the (Blackwell) situation.”

    Matthews said that later that night Jones was found dead.

    Asked if he believes calling that press conference and revealing he would be speaking with Jones led to her death, Matthews replied, “Yes.”

    Asked if he believes the Sheriff’s Office had something to do with her death, Matthews replied, “Speculation: With Raines being a member of the sheriff’s department and with all the connecting dots that we got from Deborah Jones – yes.”

    'The night that forever changed the black freedom struggle'

    From Matthews’ point of view, Jones’ death was “a means of silencing any further developments into what we know happened to Wendel Blackwell.”

    With Jones now dead and a grand jury finding Blackwell’s death justifiable in January 1975, Matthews led over 400 people in a protest downtown. On Jan. 31, 1975, Matthews led members of the SCLC and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to Tallahassee for a candlelight vigil in remembrance of Blackwell.

    Returning to Pensacola, Black community members continued protesting downtown and around the sheriff’s office, leading to ECSO Deputy Jim Edson filing daily reports about what Butler’s book notes as “document(ing) black movement in downtown Pensacola” from Feb. 6 to Feb. 28, 1975.

    Edson’s reports “revealed that protests occurred at the county jail and courthouse complex on a nightly basis and grew more intense as white leaders ignored black demands.”

    “Edson noted, for example, that 12 blacks carried signs in front of the county jail for 30 minutes on February 6,” Butler wrote in “Beyond Integration.” “The next day, 25 blacks circled the prison and remained on the premises for nearly three hours.”

    The protests led up to what Butler describes as “the night that forever changed the black freedom struggle in Escambia County” on Feb. 24, 1975. On that day, nearly 500 African Americans protested at the sheriff’s office and began chanting, “Two, four, six, eight, who shall we incarcerate? Untreiner, Raines, the whole damn bunch!”

    Sheriff Untreiner ordered Edson to break up the protest, and within 90 seconds, according to Butler, county deputies waded into the crowd and began “swinging nightclubs and arresting anyone who offered the slightest resistance.” Many in the crowd suffered minor injuries, including a juvenile who needed stitches after an officer hit him in the head with a club.

    The protest concluded with the ECSO arresting 34 adults and 13 juveniles. Included in the protest’s arrests was Matthews, who was charged with felony extortion, on the claim that he “used the violent crowd to intimidate Untreiner into removing Raines from active duty against his will.”

    A panel of jurors found Matthews guilty of his charges, and on July 17, 1975, he was sentenced to five years in state prison “at hard labor.”

    After 63 days, then-Florida Governor Reubin Askew commuted Matthews’ sentence to time served, and in 1980, then-Gov. Bob Graham pardoned him.

    Although Matthews was later pardoned, Butler says the initial conviction had already done its damage.

    “The felony convictions of Brooks and Matthews paralyzed the civil rights struggle in Northwest Florida and continued a period of white retribution against the two, particularly Matthews, for the leadership roles they occupied during the movement,” he wrote in his book. “The verdicts served as a warning in the black community and mired local race relations in suspicion and mistrust.”

    Is there an answer for who killed Deborah Jones?

    From a law enforcement perspective, there is no answer for who is responsible for Jones’ death. Her case remains on the shelf of the ECSO Cold Case Unit.

    From a historical and activism standpoint, many believe the answer lies within the agency tasked with solving Jones’ case, but as Matthews recounts, it’s “speculation.”

    Current Sheriff Simmons told the News Journal he’s not blind to how the sheriff’s office operated 50 years ago, perhaps making it more difficult to find an answer to the question.

    “I know that there was a concern that the sheriff’s office wasn’t adequately investigating the case,” Simmons said. “I would suspect there was a racial undertone to it; I’m not naïve.

    “I can tell you that we are going to look at it from a justice standpoint,” he added. “We’re going to seek all the interest that we can, regardless of color, and we’re going to do everything we can, just like we do with all homicides.”

    Butler concurs with Simmons, insofar as how the department operated in 1974, saying their negligence wholly contributed to Jones’ case remaining unsolved.

    “The answer to the question of how involved was Deborah Jones, unfortunately, is one that will never be fully clarified, because the Escambia County Sheriff’s Department never fully investigated the situation to begin with,” Butler told the News Journal. “They, through benign neglect, ensured that this was going to stay an unresolved mystery.”

    This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: A serial killer? A cover-up? After 50 years, Pensacola cold case may finally get closure

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