MichelleGwynnJones-com flowers cold case 2

 

by Shawn Erikson

Alfonse Swanson was destined to become someone special, or at least that’s what his mother always told him.  From a very early age, Alfonse displayed a great curiosity for the world around him, and an aptitude for learning and memorizing even the most obscure details.  Alfonse’s parents had high hopes for their son; they were convinced that one day he could become a teacher, a lawyer or perhaps even a doctor.  But those dreams were shattered when Alfonse’s father died.  Alfonse was only thirteen years old at the time, and his mother took him and his younger sister and left Minneapolis for New Grace, where she had family.

After settling in, Alfonse’s mother struggled with alcoholism and was unable to keep a steady job.  Alfonse worked part time through High School just to put food on their table, and at the end there was no money for college.  Any dreams of him becoming a teacher, lawyer or a doctor had to be put away permanently.   The day after graduating High School, Alfonse enrolled in the military just to get out of the house and the town he had grown to loathe.  But after two tours in the jungles of Vietnam, he gladly moved back to New Grace and joined its police department.  His ascension through the ranks was the stuff of legends, and he became the youngest officer ever to make detective.

According to Detective Winston Spaulding of the New Grace Police Department, Alfonse was somewhat of an odd duck.  “Alfonse was an enigma,” Detective Spaulding recalls.  “On the one hand he had all these strange ways of solving cases, obsessing over the trivial stuff and seemingly ignoring the hard, simple evidence.  Sometimes it worked and he was hailed as a genius, and sometimes it didn’t and the case wasn’t solved.”

“But Alfonse also had the kind of work ethics and drive that most of us can only strive for.  It didn’t matter at all how big of a case load he had; it seemed like he gave each and every one of them his full-time attention.  When I first came into the department as a rookie, watching him work his cases was both inspiring and intimidating.  My God, I thought, he is not human. Am I also expected to work like this?”

The Elaine Wilson homicide was one of the cases that Alfonse was seemingly working on full time, even long after it had been formally relegated to the cold case pile.  Initially, after having convinced his boss that Elaine’s death was not accidental, Alfonse had scoured all information sources available to him, looking for evidence of similar crimes.  But with the exception of the Conway killing involving the thirteen year-old girl in the mine shaft, he found no other case with a similar fact pattern.

After striking out on his initial approach, Alfonse told his supervisor he was going to take a vacation to Myrtle Beach.  He did not spend even an hour there, as he drove straight to Conway, meeting with the officers and detectives who had worked the mine case.  After a couple of weeks ordering up and combing through everything from the murder books to the evidence boxes, and contacting old witnesses, he had overstayed his welcome.  The Conway chief of police called Alfonse’s supervisor, and in no uncertain terms told him that it was time for the wayward son to return home.

Alfonse’s dogged persistence seemed perplexing to his colleagues, given that the crime scene and subsequent investigation had generated almost no evidence whatsoever.  From a purely pragmatic perspective, it was a case that could never be solved.  But there were two things that made Alfonse think differently:  first, he believed the bouquet of flowers was an important clue, perhaps an insight into the killer’s psyche; second, he knew one thing that none of his colleagues knew:  on the day Elaine went missing, Henriette Lane had lied to her parents and to the police.

According to both Henriette Lane and Bettie Holcomb, Elaine had gotten out of the pond some thirty minutes before them and was nowhere to be seen when they emerged from the water.  They had gone back the same way they came, on the unpaved road along which Elaine’s bike was later found.  They split up as they reached their neighborhood; Bettie went straight to her house and was home by 8.  Henriette stopped by the convenience store and was home a little before 9.  They told the police the same story, over and over again.

The only problem was that Henriette had not stopped by the convenience store that night.  Alfonse spoke with the owner a few days after Elaine’s body was found; he knew Henriette and her family really well, and was adamant that he had not seen her all summer.  And like Alfonse, he was working all day, every day.  On the evening of Elaine’s murder, he had even been alone in the store.  Alfonse checked the only other convenience store within a thirty minute bike distance from Henriette’s house, but the clerk who had worked that night did not recognize Henriette as a customer.

Alfonse carefully planned his next move, as he was still not sure Henriette had any information relating to Elaine’s death.  To be sure, there could be a completely innocent explanation for where she was during that hour, and why she had lied about it to her parents and the police.  For example, a visit to a secret boyfriend was not outside the realm of the impossible.  Rather than calling in Henriette for a formal interview, Alfonse decided to first speak with Betty, to see if she may know of an innocent or even exonerating explanation for Henriette’s lie.  It was a decision Alfonse would regret for the rest of his life.

Betty claimed ignorance of Henriette’s whereabouts after they had gone their separate ways, and had no information regarding a boyfriend or any other reason why she might not have gone straight home. Betty seemed flustered and uncomfortable speaking with Alfonse, even though the interview took place in her own home and in the presence of her parents.  But that did not strike Alfonse as odd; law abiding people, especially young folks, often found it intimidating to be speaking to the police.

He was contemplating his next move when tragedy struck again.  Days before she was scheduled to come in for another interview, Henriette Lane was found dead at the side of the road, a victim of an apparent drunk driver.  Henriette had been struck from behind as she was walking alone on a small road close to her school.  The car was found only a few hours later; abandoned at the county line.  Its left front bumper was damaged and it had blood stains along the side that matched Henriette’s blood group.  Inside the car, they found empty beer cans and a Mason jar with the remnants of a particularly foul moonshine.

The car had been stolen from a parking lot at the train station less than a week before the killing.  The owner was out of town and had a rock solid alibi.  Forensics lifted finger prints from a few of the beer cans found inside the car.  They were ran against the state and federal records without any match. The police assumed that the driver and his passengers were long gone, having left the county after abandoning the car.  Unfortunately, it was not Alfonse’s case to investigate, so it was never examined from the point of view of a detective who treated every death as a potential homicide.

Henriette was laid to rest not far from Elaine, and the town yet again came together to mourn the far too early passing of one of its daughters.  Henriette’s case was never solved and was eventually considered a cold case and archived.  The summer after graduating High School, Betty Holcomb left New Grace and moved out west, to take up studies at the University of California, San Diego.

Alfonse continued his investigation into the death of Elaine Wilson.  Bereft of the most likely source of information about the case, he resorted to reading through the old case files from New Grace and Conway, and studying the investigations and prosecutions of similar crimes around the country.  But it was not until another forty years had passed that those efforts finally bore fruit.  It started with the arrest of a notorious moonshiner, who was responsible for the accidental poisoning of multiple people across the county.  It gained some momentum when the New Grace Police Department raided the compound, and seized far more than some stills and fermenting mash.

And it took off in earnest when Alfonse finally realized what a Papaver somniferum actually was.

 

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