| by Sean Chaffin |
True crime and fictional accounts of detectives and forensic scientists are a constant on television and in the media NBC’s Dateline and CBS’s 48 Hours Mystery weave tales of murder and intrigue each week with the cracking of cold cases among the most popular.
Advancements in forensic science have helped police and courts put criminals behind bars who might have gotten away with crimes only a few decades ago. An investigator in the 1800s had little to rely on other than footprints, eyewitness testimony and his own instincts. The use of fingerprints to identify suspects did not begin until the early-1900s. In recent years, new technology and investigative techniques have made cracking these cases more and more possible. DNA testing has advanced, as has training for investigators.
“Since the advent of DNA testing in 1985, biological material (skin, hair, blood and other bodily fluids) has emerged as the most reliable physical evidence at a crime scene, particularly those involving sexual assaults,” as TIME magazine notes.
The odds of getting away with a perfect crime or murder have decreased. In December 2015, Fort Worth police arrested 58-year-old Melvin Linn Knox for the Aug. 7, 1973, shooting and stabbing death of Donald Bryan Rodgers, who was 14 at the time. Police believe the two were neighborhood friends, and Rodgers was found dead in the Knox’s family home. Knox blamed an intruder at the time and was suspected of the crime, but Tarrant County district attorney’s office did not prosecute because of a lack of evidence.
Cold case detectives reopened the case and amassed enough evidence to make an arrest. Police say Knox has since confessed to the crime and will now face charges.
And while investigators do break open cases like Knox’s, others remain unsolved. Some just need some key evidence or a key witness’s information or a confession. Others sit on the shelf for months, then years, then decades. This feature investigates a couple of Tarrant County cold cases that may just need someone to come forward and help bring the guilty person to justice.
It was a blistering hot day that Sunday in July 1998. Temperatures were expected to be in triple digits, but volunteers and police were out in force searching for 8-year-old Edna Rodriguez. The child had disappeared only hours earlier from the family’s home in the 3500 block of Travis Avenue, just a couple hours after midnight. Neighbors, friends and family milled about as police and volunteers scoured the area. Everyone hoped Edna would be found.
Diane Crump, a teacher at nearby George C. Clark Elementary, taught Edna in her pre-kindergarten class a few years earlier and would be teaching her younger sister that fall. Crump and her teaching assistant heard about the disappearance on Saturday and were bringing the family a meal that Sunday. About 1 p.m., Crump parked her car in the busy neighborhood about a block away from the Rodriguez home. She noticed a police crime van nearby. And then everyone ran.
“I just started running when everybody else started running,” Crump says. “Someone had dumped the body about two doors down on the other side of the street from where she lived. The police were there and not anybody was allowed around the body.”
As police cordoned off the area, family and friends broke into tears as TV cameras rolled. The sweet little girl who loved to play the tambourine in church and was remembered for her bright smile had been found. The search was over only 35 hours after it commenced – and was now a murder investigation.
GONE GIRL Like many immigrants from Mexico, friends say Fidencio and Juana Rodriguez moved their young family to Texas to offer their children a better life. Fidencio’s older brother had helped with U.S. immigration so that he could make the move, according to friends. The girls were in English as a Second Language classes, and the family lived in a small house in south Fort Worth’s Rosemont area.
Friends say Juana was a good mother and focused on the family, which also included three sons. Her husband, 27 at the time, was a hard worker. Amanda Serrano, a friend of the family who also served as their spokesperson at the time, says Fidencio was friendly and a bit of a joker. Serrano worked with him at a mobile home manufacturing company.
Residents who lived in the area in the 1990s describe it as a neighborhood with some crime problems but also as a close-knit group of families where children and teenagers could play. Edna was said to be regularly seen playing on Travis and Lipscomb with friends and family that lived in the area. For a family seeking a better life in the U.S., things were going well in Fort Worth.
“Everything was going really well until the murder happened,” Serrano says.
In July 1998, Juana was in Mexico caring for her father, who had been in poor health, and her husband was at home watching the children. The Friday before Edna disappeared, neighbors say she was at home and had been seen playing with a dog in the front yard. Details aren’t certain as to what happened later that night as Saturday came – but life in the Rodriguez family would never be the same.
At 2 a.m. that Saturday morning, Fidencio called police. His daughter was missing, he said. According to media reports, he said Edna had been sleeping with him and another younger daughter. Before contacting law enforcement and relatives, the father told police he discovered a front window open and searched his home, yard and neighborhood for the girl.
“The first 48 hours following the disappearance of a child are the most critical in terms of finding and returning that child safely home, but they also can be the most troublesome and chaotic,” the U.S. Justice Department notes in its online checklist for what to do in cases of missing children.
Police were hopeful the girl was safe, but the more time that went by reduced the chances that Edna would be found alive.
ON THE CASE In the next day and a half after Edna was reported missing, law enforcement flooded the neighborhood – conducting a search with 40 officers and more than 130 volunteers. A police helicopter hovered overhead, and search dogs sniffed through streets and in yards, tails wagging as they surveyed the scene. Four police officers were assigned to work the case full time. But as the searched dragged on into Sunday evening, no signs of Edna were found.
And then as the day’s summer temperatures continued to rise and frustrations grew, a neighbor just a block away noticed Edna’s partially-clothed body in the front driveway of a vacant home in the 3600 block of Lipscomb Street – only 35 hours after the child was reported missing. One arm covered the child’s face, and the body was found inside a locked fence gate about 25 feet from the sidewalk.
Neighbors say police had searched the area thoroughly. One said she believes the body had to be placed there after police had previously searched and that she and neighbors would have seen the child’s body either Saturday or Sunday. Police came to the same conclusion and said the house had been thoroughly searched. They believed the body had to be placed there sometime on Sunday, and a neighbor helped investigators narrow down the time frame by noting that the body had to be placed there in the afternoon because it had not been seen there as late as 12:30 p.m., according to a report in the Star-Telegram.
A murder in one’s neighborhood is certainly rare for most and can understandably be quite shocking. “Gerald,” grew up on Travis and was about 14 when the crime took place. He asked that his real name not be used and now lives in the same home he was raised in by his grandmother. A sense of fear gripped the neighborhood.
“My grandma would make sure I was inside. People were more child conscious,” he says. “It was one of those weird moments as a child where you kind of grew up quickly.”
Today the house on Lipscomb where Edna’s body was found is occupied. Not too many residents remain who lived on the street at the time of the murder. Those who are new are shocked at the story.
Media reports at the time say that the girl was strangled but not sexually assaulted. A request by Fort Worth, Texas magazine for an autopsy report from the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office was denied on grounds that it is still part of an ongoing investigation and could not be released as it may jeopardize facts that only the child’s killer would know. Throughout the next few days, police continued to speak with neighbors and search for clues.
In the days that followed, the spotlight would shine on Fidencio Rodriguez as the last person to see his daughter. She had been sleeping in his bed at the time she disappeared. Police questioned him and conducted two polygraphs tests. The results of his polygraphs (administered in Spanish by an operator recommended by the FBI) were never made public. Rumors began to swirl in the area as the investigation continued.
Neighbors and some who knew the family at the time say that many friends and family would hang out at the home on the weekends, and drinking could be a big part of that.
“People would come and drink,” said Alejandrina Miranda, who has lived next door for 27 years, while tending to her well-manicured backyard garden. “There were a lot of people coming in and out of the house drinking. I did not know the family well though.”
Serrano believes that Friday may have been like many – with friends and family hanging out, drinking and having a good time. She stands by Fidencio, and believes he had nothing to do with the murder.
“He had many people in the house on the weekends,” she says, “We used to drink a lot on the weekends. I really think that he got drunk, and he fell asleep. And he doesn’t know what happened. I really think it was somebody at the house or somebody he invited. I wasn’t there, and I really regretted later on that I wasn’t there … when I was there, I watched the little kids and made sure they were okay, except that weekend.
“Maybe it was someone he invited that weekend, or he got drunk and maybe left the door open. I’m not sure, but I know he didn’t do anything.”
In days following the murder, police continued the investigation and announced that as many as 20 people would take polygraph tests to help gather more evidence and eliminate possible suspects. A $15,000 reward is offered to anyone with information leading to an arrest of the suspect. However, police report that calls to the department with information began to dry up. Police obtained a warrant and searched the Rodriguez home for the second time. Police recovered some items from the home but did not release details on what was taken. An affidavit for the search warrant was sealed to prevent the release of lab reports in the case that may jeopardize the investigation. Police said that Fidencio and his family cooperated with investigators throughout the process and that Fidencio never asked for an attorney when speaking with police.
On Thursday, July 15, 350 mourners gathered for Edna’s funeral at Travis Avenue Baptist Church. Numerous flowers, balloons and stuffed animals were placed at the location where the child’s body was found. At the funeral, along with an emotional outpouring of sympathy for the family, many in attendance also expressed support for Fidencio and his innocence.
“This is extremely painful for the family,” friend Sadrach Alfaro said while delivering a eulogy for the child, according to the Star-Telegram. “It’s torture not being able to find the person who did this.”
CASE GONE COLD It has been more than 18 years since Edna Rodriguez’s body was found. Those who remember the crime, the fear it caused the neighborhood and little Edna hope there is a resolution to the case one day.
“Everybody was scared,” says Miranda. “I had a little girl at the time and did not want to leave her alone. Hopefully someone will come forward and say who did it.”
Only three months after the murder, Serrano says the Rodriguez family moved back to Mexico. Fidencio and Juana Rodriguez could not be reached, and family and friends have maintained the father’s innocence. Many who remember the murder believe it is solvable if someone would just come forward with more information or evidence.
In the intervening years, however, no arrests have been made in the case, and it is sent to the Fort Worth police cold case unit. And justice for Edna remains out of reach.
“As in most of these cases, there was tremendous interest in the media and public when it was happening,” Sgt. Paul Kratz told the Star-Telegram during the investigation. Katz was the homicide detective leading the police unit looking into the crime. “Once that slacks off, people may not realize how large of an investigation this is. It is ongoing and will go on for the foreseeable future.”
Fort Worth police maintain that the case is still active but declined to release many details about where it stands due to it being part of an ongoing investigation.
“All I can say about this case is that it is still being investigated, there are several suspects, and there is evidence being tested,” Detective Michael McCormack says. “I can’t release more than that because of the integrity of the case.”
In early October, a scene similar to that 18 years ago was played out again. Police responded to an abduction of a 6-year-old Fort Worth girl in the early morning hours of Saturday, Oct. 8. Forty officers converged on the Polytechnic area and found the girl about a mile from her home that afternoon. Edis L. Moya Alas, 35, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador, has been charged with kidnapping and sexual assault.
For Amanda Serrano and her family, news of the kidnapping brought back a flood of thoughts about the 8-year-old girl with the cute smile.
The surveillance video is a bit dark and grainy and without sound – and only seven seconds long. In the video, two cars can be seen moving from right to left on Northeast Green Oaks Boulevard. The white vehicle in the foreground slows to a stop, just the back end is visible in the left side of the frame. In the background, a dark-colored sedan speeds along and doesn’t slow down. Just off view of the camera, the driver runs the red light and strikes a young woman as she walks through the cross walk.
Police would later use the security video to try and piece together what happened to 20-year-old UTA student Kelly Walters. Additional security video would show several cars slow to a stop and render aid as she lay in the street. And the driver who hit Kelly? He or she simply drove away.
That instant changed the lives of the Walters’ family forever. Within minutes police and emergency personnel were on the scene, but the collision would take Walters’ life as she was later pronounced dead. Friends and family were left stunned and saddened, and Arlington police are still searching for the driver.
“We are still checking on leads as they come in,” Arlington police spokesman Christopher Cook says. “Investigators did search specific zip codes of similar vehicles to the one described at the scene but still haven’t found anything.”
Family members believe Walters had gone on a walk that night and had texted a roommate that she was on her way home about 8 p.m. Three minutes later, she was struck in the crosswalk and the suspect sped away.
The young woman was remembered by many at UTA. She had a passion for politics and hoped to even run for Congress one day. She enjoyed running cross country, and friends and family say Walters was a compassionate and intelligent leader with a bright future.
Cathy Sneed taught English to Walters at Arlington Lamar High School and remembers her well. During her time at the school, Walters worked as a page in Washington D.C., something Sneed said she really admired in the young woman.
“The schedule was tough, but she loved being in the environment of lawmakers,” Sneed says. “She returned from Washington and finished her junior year at Lamar, making top grades for me and probably everyone else as well.”
“Her senior year, I still talked to her frequently when I went to the school library where she was an aide. She knew that the world was not as it should be and planned to change it. I have no doubt that she would have made that happen.”
Sneed only recently learned of Walters’ death and is heartbroken that no one has been arrested for the crime.
“That nobody has taken responsibility for her death is horrible,” she says. “That must weigh heavily on her parents, who are very nice people. I had the opportunity to meet them when Kelly was in my class. I adored Kelly and am so saddened by this.”
In April the Arlington Republican Club awarded a $1,000 Kelly Walters Memorial Scholarship to Ailey Ore, who is also a political science major at UTA, like Walters. She had been a member of the group since age 16.
Police continue to seek tips and help from the public in this case. They don’t yet have any suspects or updates to the case. Investigators believe the driver was in a dark gray 2007-2010 Chrysler 300 that may have had damage to the front end at the time of the crime.
Parents Ginna Walters and Gary Brizendine are left hoping that the driver will one day be brought to justice.
Cases Gone Cold
A look at some cold cases in the files of area police law enforcement. If you have any information on these murders, please contact the Fort Worth or Arlington police departments.
VICTIM: Carla Walker
LOCATION: Ridglea Avenue, Fort Worth
DATE: Feb. 17, 1974
A student at Western Hills High School, Walker was kidnapped while she sat in a car with her boyfriend at the Ridglea Bowl parking lot. Her body was found three days later in a culvert near Lake Benbrook in Tarrant County. The cause of death was strangulation.
VICTIM: Mildred May
LOCATION: 1000 North Freeway, Fort Worth
DATE: Feb. 4, 1967
This is the oldest case listed publicly by Fort Worth’s cold case unit. May’s body was discovered by a motorcyclist riding along the Trinity River beside the levee. It was later determined she had been strangled. Co-workers reported they had last seen her when she left the Matador Club on Camp Bowie the previous night. She did not return to her home where she lived with her husband. Her 1959 Pontiac sedan was found at 4500 West Freeway.
VICTIM: Ramon Robledo
LOCATION: 4811 S. Cooper St., Arlington
DATE: July 21, 2005
Robledo's body was discovered in the trunk of a 2003 white Nissan Sentra in a Wal-Mart parking lot. He died from gunshot wounds.
VICTIMS: John and Mary Mitchell
AGE: John, 69, Mary, 65
LOCATION: 2204 Hurley Ave., Fort Worth
DATE: April 14, 1999
Police responded to the Mitchell home after receiving a report of a double-homicide. Officers observed the two victims died of blunt force trauma. The house had been ransacked and there were indications of a violent struggle. In the 1980s, the Mitchells owned a music club in south Fort Worth.
VICTIM: Karen and Frederick Cremean
AGE: Karen, 27, and Frederick, 29
LOCATION: 4825 Mayfair, Fort Worth
DATE: Sept. 19, 1983
Officers were dispatched to the Cremean home and found the bodies of Frederick Cremean and his wife Karen. Both died of gunshot wounds.
VICTIM: Trina Lane
LOCATION: 3700 Cravens, Fort Worth
DATE: March 19, 1992
Officers arrived to 6001 East Berry St. where Lane’s body had been found floating in a creek at 3700 Cravens. She was reported missing by her mother on March 11, and her 1989 Ford Tempo was found behind a butcher shop at 4016 Mansfield Highway. Police reported there appeared to be a struggle inside the vehicle and that she had been strangled.
SOURCES: Fort Worth and Arlington police departments