NEWGRACENEWS.COM COLD CASE PART ONE

By:  Shawn Erickson

 

It was a death that affected an entire community; a tragedy that became even more profound when the efforts of one stubborn young detective revealed a horrifying truth:  what first appeared to be an accident turned out to be murder.  As the community mourned, the investigation ground to a halt, the case files were put in a box and relegated to the shelves of open-unresolved crimes.  But more than forty years later, the same detective, no longer young but equally stubborn, found a seemingly insignificant clue that led him to identify, track down and arrest the perpetrator.

In the early evening of September 8, 1974, three friends got on their bicycles and rode out of New Grace for a swim at the nearby Willow Pond.  Elaine Wilson, Bettie Holcomb and Henriette Lane were about to start their sophomore year in High School and were looking forward to the improved social status that came with their ascension from the freshman ranks.  All three girls lived in the same middle-class community and all three girls lived seemingly immaculate lives: they came from good families, had excellent grades and had always stayed out of trouble. But only two of the three girls would return home from that swim.

Bettie Holcomb got back to her house at approximately 8 pm.  She asked her parents if Elaine had called, and got a negative response.  After having a late dinner, she retired early to her room to get ready for the first day of the new school year.  Henriette Lane got home a little before 9 pm, as she had stopped by a convenience store on her way home from the pond.  According to her parents, she spent the evening watching TV in the family room, until the phone started to ring a little after 11. It took a while for Elaine Wilson’s parents to notice that something was amiss.  Robert and Ella Wilson had attended a church event, and later gone out for dinner with friends.  They came home around nine thirty, and initially assumed Elaine was back in her room.  An hour later they realized her room was empty and her bike missing.  In the days to follow they blamed themselves for going to the dinner, and for not checking up on their only daughter earlier.  But it would not have mattered; by the time they came home, Elaine had already been dead for more than an hour.

Robert started to call Elaine’s friends and finally got a hold of Bettie Holcomb who told him of the trip to the pond.  Bettie also told him that Elaine had gotten out of the water before the other two girls, and had left without saying goodbye.  Robert called Henrietta, who confirmed what Bettie had said, and told Robert that she had not heard from Elaine since leaving the pond.  Robert next called the Robert E. Lee Memorial Hospital, where the staff confirmed that no one fitting Elaine’s description had been admitted or treated that night.  Then Robert called the police.

Patrol units were immediately dispatched to Willow Pond and officers started to canvass the area around the lake, and the single road leading back to town.  These initial searches proved fruitless. As the night progressed the police were getting hopeful, that on her way home, Elaine had met another friend from school and decided to spend the night there.

But when the morning came, and the bells at New Grace High started to ring in the new semester, Elaine was nowhere to be seen.  As is customary in missing person cases, the police interviewed everybody from Elaine’s class, and everybody with whom she had more than a passing relationship, with the same result:  Henrietta Lane and Bettie Holcomb were the last two people in New Grace to have seen Elaine before she disappeared.

The police called in additional units from the county to expand the search around the lake area and two days later Elaine’s bike was found along a narrow footpath some three hundred yards from the road.  Encouraged by the finding, but severely troubled by its implications, the New Grace Police Department requested a specialized K-9 search & rescue unit from Richland County (New Grace County did not get its own search & rescue capabilities until 1985), and this effort immediately bore fruit.  Hunter, the aptly named bloodhound, picked up Elaine’s scent where the bike was found and led the police straight to her body sprawled at the bottom of an abandoned quarry.

The forensic investigation established that the fall had been close to 80 feet and the medical examiner opined that her death had been instantaneous from blunt force trauma to the head.  There was no evidence of foul play, there were marks on the cliff face above her indicating a slip and desperate attempts to find a handhold and then a plunge into the abyss.  Next to Elaine’s body, the police found a bouquet of late summer flowers, among them wingstems, ozarks and even some false foxgloves that had survived throughout the hot and humid months of July and August.  The police proceeded under the assumption that she had turned off the road to pick flowers, abandoned the bike and continued on foot until accidentally falling into the quarry in the darkening forest.

Elaine was laid to rest a week after her body was discovered and the town of New Grace mourned. She was the all-American girl in every respect with a life of endless possibilities in front of her. Every parent saw her as their daughter; every child as their friend.  As the church bells rang the funeral toll, there was not a dry eye in town.

There was, however, a young detective with the unlikely name of Alfonse Swanson who had just returned to the New Grace Police Department after undergoing a two-month intensive course in crime scene investigations at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.  Alfonse had decided to live by the one lesson a wily old G-man had instilled upon him from the first day of the program – do not make unfounded assumptions based on a lack of information.  Every dead body should be treated as a crime scene, until proven differently.  So Alfonse treated Elaine’s death as a homicide, because even though the evidence was entirely consistent with the flower-picking scenario, it was just an assumption.  There was no evidence excluding foul play.

Recalls Alfonse:  “The one thing that bugged me from the very first day was the bouquet of flowers. Take a step back and look at the scene with the girl lying dead at the bottom of the quarry.  With the bouquet, she is the accidental victim of a slip and fall.  Without the bouquet we have no explanation for why she left the road, followed the footpath, abandoned her bike and then fell into the quarry. Why would she do that?  Perhaps she met someone and that someone took her to the quarry, killed her and left the flowers there for us to believe it was an accident?  Prove me wrong, will ya.”

Upon further investigation, no one could prove Alfonse wrong.  Indeed, statements made by Elaine’s parents rather supported his misgivings about the working hypothesis.  According to Robert and Ella, it would be entirely out of character for their girl to pick flowers.  Said Ella:  “Our girl was a little bit of a tomboy.  She may have bent down to pick up a bat or a ball, but never a flower.  She simply was not that kind of girl.”

Alfonse asked the lead investigator if he could have a couple of days to search the crime archives of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division in Columbia.  As crime was low this time of season, the chief approved, provided that Alfonse paid for his own lodging and transportation.  Alfonse spent the next ten days buried deep in the archives, to the consternation of his chief who had a different definition of what ‘a couple of days’ meant.  But Alfonse eventually emerged, bringing back to New Grace the file of a case with an eerily similar fact pattern.

In June 1972, a thirteen year-old girl disappeared from a camping site outside Conway, not far from Myrtle Beach.  Long after the search and rescue efforts were abandoned, her decomposed body was discovered by some poachers in an abandoned mine shaft, a bouquet of wilted flowers next to her. That case was never treated as an accidental fall, because the forensic investigation conclusively determined that the young girl had had sexual intercourse before being dropped into the mine shaft. Also, hours before her disappearance, an eye witness had seen a person matching the missing girl’s description in the company of a young man.  That man was never identified or apprehended andthe case was never solved.

Alfonse went to see his chief, bringing the file along with the statements made by the Wilsons.  He made a convincing plea to have the case re-designated from an accidental death to a homicide and, as summer turned to fall, Elaine’s death became a formal murder investigation.  Her body was exhumed and a second autopsy performed and evidence was reviewed in light of the new charge.But in spite of all these efforts, the circumstances of Elaine’s death remained a mystery and the perpetrator of the crime remained at large.

As the New Grace fall turned into winter, the case, along with the darkening evenings, turned cold.

Series NavigationFLOWERS: NEW GRACE COUNTY’S OLDEST COLD CASE RESOLVED – THE DETECTIVE >>