Who Killed Juanita Todd? Part Eight

More than 20 years ago Odetta Todd stood alone knocking on the front door of the small brown-shingled house on a narrow Wilkes-Barre street.

After waiting and feeling the increasingly frequent stress that often made her wonder if anyone was listening, she turned away in frustration. A solitary figure fighting the world all by herself, pressure creased her face that day in 2000 as she turned back to the old house, stepped to a window and peered inside. Undeterred, she went back to knocking on the door.  

To say Odetta, now 52, refuses to give up would be an understatement. For decades she has relentlessly pursued every lead, every rumor and every instinct surrounding the unsolved murder of her mother. Brave in the face of adversity, Odetta refuses to give up.

On September, 28, 1972, Wilkes-Barre police found 22-year-old Juanita Todd’s naked body with 22 stab wounds and a knotted bedsheet tied around her neck. Odetta, then 18-months-old, sat on the floor by her mother’s head. Her baby sister, Tamu, played in her crib in another room. An uncovered electric fan played its death knell, spinning sharp blades in the deadly air.

The power of that long-ago horror sent Odetta to the brown-shingled house in Wilkes-Barre years later to talk with one of her mother’s friends and ask for help. Standing firm in her mission, Odetta waited patiently for the woman who lived inside to finally open the door. Welcomed and seated at the kitchen table, a friendly yet tense conversation provided a rare glimmer of hope for Odetta, a young Black woman who had then spent 28 years living in the shadow of her mother’s cold body.

The woman told Odetta she’d try again to help police with the case. She said she always believed she knew who killed her friend, Juanita. The woman said she believed the same man threatened her after he found out she had talked with police following the murder.

“You’re next,” said the note she found on her front door.

Wilkes-Barre police always considered that man a suspect yet never cornered him. City police never thoroughly followed up on what Juanita’s friend told them. It’s unclear if police ever interviewed that suspect.

The day Odetta and I visited Juanita Todd’s friend, she told us about another friend of Juanita’s who also knew information about the case and also spoke to police during the original investigation. She backed off when she said the same man threatened her.

Fear grew in the city.

Rumors spread – some true, some false.

Both women had told police about a piggy bank they had seen in this man’s apartment after Juanita Todd’s murder. They knew the piggy bank belonged to Juanita. But when police visited the man the women said threatened them, the piggy bank had disappeared. An officer found a blood-stained coin in the apartment and turned over the potential piece of damning evidence for analysis.

Both women believed that man killed Juanita Todd.

And both women agreed to meet with Odetta and me to talk again about how they could best serve the memory of their long-dead friend. Both had promised Odetta they would again talk to detectives if detectives wanted to talk to them – anytime, anyplace, anywhere. Juanita Todd’s friends said they would even testify in court.  

But these conscientious Black witnesses didn’t trust white Wilkes-Barre police.

And they feared the suspect even more than they feared the cops.

So Odetta wasn’t surprised when the second woman said she changed her mind and no longer wanted to talk about what she knew. The first friend, however, repeated to us what she had already told Odetta and Wilkes-Barre police.

Sitting with Odetta and her mother’s friend that afternoon, I listened to the woman talk about when she and Juanita were young and how she used to laugh at how “square” Juanita was. Odetta seemed relaxed, happy for the first time in the seven years I had known her. To laugh and listen to joyful stories about her mother provided a rare treat – loving insight into the woman Odetta never knew. When soft memories loaded with love and life ended, though, loneliness poured in as it always did.

Solitude often fuels Odetta’s obsession.

Passion to unravel the mystery of the woman who gave her life and then 18 months later lost her own has taken on an impenetrable force of its own. The violent killing police failed to solve drives Odetta as much as any of the many worries that plague her existence – so many worries I sometimes wonder how she has the strength to go on.   

Yet go on she does.

“I won’t give up,” she said when we left her mother’s friend’s house that day so long ago.  “I’ve been through too much.”

Still, she sounded tired, disappointed and hurt.  

“I’m not giving up,” she said. “Even if nobody’s behind me.”

In 2000 Odetta Todd at least had her mother’s friend behind her, the woman who courageously agreed to talk again with detectives – to even testify in court if police ever made an arrest.

That brave woman died last year in 2022.

The second woman still fears the suspect who still lives in Wilkes-Barre. Police need to know that and do everything in their power to ease her fears – everything in their power to ease the ongoing fears of mostly Black people who worry police and prosecutors just don’t care.

Does Odetta Todd truly stand alone?

No matter how long it takes or how much money it costs, good people of conscience with the power to reopen a thorough, modern investigation into Juanita Todd’s murder will hopefully refute this stark, telling question.

Others will turn away, political pretenders who forsake decency and call their cowardice public service.

I speak with Odetta regularly and believe she knows detail and context about her mother’s murder better than anybody. The abundance of facts she compiled in a lifetime of loss comprise a wealth of information into which investigators can dig deep.

Odetta Todd wants to help. She doesn’t want pity, to make trouble or use her mother’s death as an excuse for her own past failings. Odetta Todd deserves and has earned our respect.

Juanita Todd’s death story is Odetta Todd’s life story – the story of a city, a county, a community still struggling to find its identity, a chilling story of a knife-wielding killer who likely still walks among the living.

Odetta Todd believes she knows who killed her mother. She wants to share all she knows with police who already know the man’s name. After more than 50 years other suspects are alive as well.

The best smartest cops might never solve this tragedy.

But they need to try again.