Who Killed Juanita Todd? Part Five

Douglas “Bay” DeGraffenreid swears he didn’t kill Juanita Todd.

What if he is innocent?

More than 50 years ago police in Wilkes-Barre, PA, privately called DeGraffenreid their only suspect. Just because you’re a suspect doesn’t mean you’re guilty. But, if DeGraffenreid is an innocent man, why did he borrow money and flee to Los Angeles, CA, the night before taking a lie detector test to which he had reluctantly agreed?

A DeGraffenreid family member told me 30 years ago he believed he knew why.

“Douglas didn’t kill that girl,” said the man who asked that his name not be used. “But he figured that the cops were going to pin the murder on him or the guys who tortured that girl to death were going to kill him. Either way he’d lose.” 

The family member who communicated with DeGraffenreid in prison where DeGraffenreid is serving a double life sentence in California for murder, said he believed DeGraffenreid actually tried to shelter Juanita Todd from people who posed a threat to her life.

“Ever since Juanita and Douglas were teenagers, they were very good friends,” the man recalled. “Juanita felt protected with Douglas around.”    

That’s why Juanita asked Douglas to stay in her apartment, he said, providing no details about if, when or for how long DeGraffenreid stayed.

Wilkes-Barre was changing for the worse in the weeks and months before somebody stabbed the 22-year-old Black mother of two babies 22 times, knotted a bed sheet around her neck and left her nude body in a pool of blood on the floor. Police believed she died 15 to 24 hours before they found her body on September 28, 1972, at 3:15 am.

Some men, including one with whom Juanita had a relationship, were selling a large quantity of illegal drugs in Wilkes-Barre and had forced her to let them use her second-floor apartment at 13 Academy Street, DeGraffenreid’s relative remembered.

Whenever Juanita objected she paid in pain for her protests, he said.

Douglas once hunted down one of those men, beating him worse than the man had beaten Juanita. DeGraffenreid’s relative with whom I spoke a long time ago recalled a conversation he said he had with that same man Douglas assaulted just before Juanita Todd died.

“He come in the bar saying, `Man, oh man, I can’t believe what Juanita done,’ ” the relative said. “He said, `She must be crazy to do that.’ ”    

What Juanita did, said the man with whom I spoke, was flush illegal drugs worth a lot of money down the toilet. The grapevine on the street put a $250,000 price tag on the cost of that white powder that might have ultimately cost Juanita Todd her life.

People who knew Juanita back then agree the young woman wanted nothing to do with drugs — that she wanted to raise her two daughters minus the madness. If she took a stand — however risky that stand might have been — it makes sense to believe that’s why she challenged those who wanted to turn her home into a drug house.

Juanita Todd worked hard to provide a good, clean life for her children. The drug story still circulates throughout Wilkes-Barre whenever Juanita’s death is discussed in detail.  Some of the people who survived those bad old days are still alive. They still talk about the gross injustice the Todd family continues to suffer.

Those bad old days remain some of Wilkes-Barre’s worst times.

Not only did the June 1972 Agnes Flood decimate the city and surrounding region just three months before Juanita died, other suspicious deaths, police dishonesty and political corruption took its toll then and in subsequent years during the ’70s.

In 1975 two men kidnapped, beat and dumped Wilkes-Barre Magistrate Michael Collins in a field near the New Jersey border. Collins, a primary candidate in a re-election bid, ran against Francis Hannon, a politically-connected man-about-town whose mother worked at City Hall. A personable young white man, Hannon owned and rented numerous properties in the city and aspired to one day hold increased political power. The attack on Collins occurred five days before the primary in which Collins defeated Hannon. Collins, who suffered a fractured skull in the attack, went on to win re-election. He died in 2000.

In 1978 Wilkes-Barre police found the body of an on-duty Black Wilkes-Barre police officer who died in a shooting at the end of his shift. That officer’s family rejected the official finding of suicide and believed he was murdered. Some people still believe he was murdered.

Also in 1978 city police arrested and a jury convicted former magisterial candidate Francis Hannon for the murder of Olga Burns, a tenant to whom Hannon owed money.

“Suspicions that Hannon’s connections provided him cover to commit crimes were so strong that – after his 1978 trial and conviction – Burns’ relatives pushed for an inquiry into whether city police protected Hannon from prosecution,” said one of many Wilkes-Barre Times Leader newspaper articles about the Burns murder.

“The police probe led by (District Attorney Chester Muroski) eventually produced a report alleging dozens of errors or omissions by police. The police chief at the time, John Ruddick, retired about a day after the report was given to city officials. A captain of detectives who allegedly hindered the investigation of Hannon was suspended and demoted,” the Times Leader article said.

That same suspended and demoted captain of detectives had once headed up the Juanita Todd investigation.

A judge sentenced former magisterial candidate Hannon, who law enforcement officials suspected of masterminding the Michael Collins abduction but whom police never arrested for the crime, to serve a life sentence for killing Olga Burns.

In April 1999 Juanita Todd’s daughter Odetta wrote a letter to Hannon after hearing rumors that Hannon might have known her mother. Odetta even sent Hannon her mother’s photograph. Hannon responded that same month in a type-written letter from prison.

“I don’t think I ever met her or rented to her (Juanita Todd),” he wrote.

“I am sorry I can’t be more helfful (sic),” he wrote. “I wish I could provide more information to you. It is obvious to me that you love and miss your Mother very much. And of course that a big part of your life is missing. I wish you the very best. I hope that you obtain the necessary information to obtain closure on your Mom’s situation.  So you can get on with the rest of your life. I wish you well and the best of luck in your search for the truth and all of the facts thereof.”

Hannon wrote to Odetta Todd from a Virginia prison. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections press staff said in an email this week they have to research why Pennsylvania corrections officials moved Hannon to another state and where he is currently incarcerated if, in fact, he remains alive.

Not long after I first wrote about Juanita Todd 30 years ago, then Luzerne County District Attorney Peter Paul Olszewski, Jr. put together a city and county team of police and prosecutors and re-opened the investigation, interviewing old and new witnesses who might have vital information.

City police never tried to locate their suspect DeGraffenreid after he fled the city in 1972 and then ignored him after he phoned two years later from California asking to surrender on unrelated charges. After I easily located DeGraffenreid in a California prison in 1993, two Wilkes-Barre detectives flew to California to interview him.

DeGraffenreid’s family member even acknowledged “maybe Juanita told him things she told no one else.”

During the prison interview Degraffenreid denied killing Juanita. He said he didn’t know who killed her, according to what the city detective who led the investigative team told me after he returned from the trip.

The reactivated investigation stopped.

Thirty years later the time has come for police to again interview DeGrafenreid. Housed in the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison at Corcoran, CA, Degraffenreid has been eligible for parole since 2015.

Maybe DeGraffenreid will take the lie detector test he left behind in 1972 when police said other people who knew Juanita had taken a lie detector test and passed, including the Wilkes-Barre man DeGraffenreid had allegedly beaten for hurting Juanita.

“Wilkes-Barre Detective Capt. John W. Lowe has disclosed that five persons recently underwent polygraph or lie detcetor (sic) examinations in connection with the September 28 murder of a city woman,” the Times Leader reported Sunday, November 12, 1972.

“The five persons, including one female, voluntarily took the polygraph tests at the State Po (sic)-Barracks in Wyoming (PA). Three other persons, two males and a female refused to take the lie detector tests which were administered by a polygraph specialist assigned to the State Police facility at Montoursville,” said the Times Leader article. “The State Police polygraph specialist came to Wyoming Barracks on several occasions to administer the examinations with the final test being given late in the week.”

 “Police have pinpointed a number of potential suspects,” reported an October 1, 1972 Wilkes-Barre Times Leader article.

Some of those suspects still live in Wilkes-Barre as do some of the 50 witnesses the Times Leader reported police interviewed in the week following the murder.

“Detective Capt. John W. Lowe vowed, ‘I’m hopeful that someday this case will be solved. As long as I am a member of this police department, I won’t forget the case,’ ” the Times Leader reported.

“Do you have a suspect or suspects at this time?” a Times Leader reporter asked Lowe.

“Yes.” Lowe replied.

Lowe died in 2006, leaving an obituary that included Juanita Todd’s name among a few other notable cases he investigated during his career.

The October 1, 1972 article said, “Trooper William R. Koscinski, Member of the Criminal Investigation Unit at the Wyoming Barracks, has been assigned with the city police department to work on the case.”

State police reportedly tested physical evidence they gathered at the crime scene.

“Sources reported that despite reports to the contrary, ‘concrete physical evidence was uncovered in the victim’s apartment,’ ” another Times Leader article said. “It was reported that evidence is being analyzed in the State Police crime laboratory and that the results of this analysis should be made known within a few days.”

If that newspaper article is accurate, the Pennsylvania State Police should also have reports and scientific data available for any reactivated investigation.

Pennsylvania State Police did not assist in the revived 1994 investigation. A former person close to the case recently said PSP detectives were busy at the time solving another Wilkes-Barre homicide – a white, middle-class man whose wife poisoned him – that still attracts national media attention from a largely white true crime-obsessed audience.

Juanita Todd was simply not a priority.

After all these years Douglas DeGraffenreid remains as important as ever – a born again God-fearing man, based on letters he wrote to Odetta Todd from prison.

“I could always use the prayers offered by one that has an earnest heart towards our lord and savior!” DeGraffenreid wrote in a 1998 letter.

Righteousness requires his help to add context to new forensic testing that might help solve this terrible mystery that continues to crush hope among decent people in a frequently heartless city who deserve better.

Justice can prevail only if police reactivate their investigation. Justice can triumph only if law enforcement officials rise to the challenge of why good cops become cops in the first place. Justice can win only if public officials continue the search for truth.

Douglas “Bay” DeGraffenreid might very well be an innocent man.

Maybe he didn’t kill Juanita Todd.

But, if not him, who?