Who Killed Juanita Todd? Part Four

Black and full of faith, Mimi Todd’s great-grandchildren Dione and Amanda dance gracefully beside the Mt. Zion Church pulpit to religious hymns playing over well-worn speakers. Smooth movements proclaim God’s majestic spirit as the young people wave skyward and say goodbye.

Dressed in matching red robes adorned with two wide white stripes that shape a cross, the nimble siblings from the Abundant Praise Dance Ministry set the mood for Mimi’s homegoing service celebrating death as a time to rejoice in her return to her heavenly home.

A white coffin with golden handles holds the body of the 90-year-old family matriarch. Bouquets of pure white and deep crimson flowers glow in soft light. A photograph displayed on a big screen behind the dancing brother and sister brings out her gray-haired dignity. Her striking color portrait framed and placed on an easel beside the casket crowns this powerful farewell.

Another great-grandchild, Vincent, sits in the front row on a folding chair. Wearing his United States Marine Corps uniform, he lifts a white-gloved hand, wipes his eye and prepares to rise, stand before the congregation and read Psalm 23, reassuring the flock that they will fear no evil as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

According to Mimi Lee (Bates) Todd’s obituary, she “went from suffering to glory on Monday, November 1, 2021.”

Suffer she did.

When Mimi and I sat together in her home almost 30 years ago, I felt her deep sense of loss. I asked about her daughter, Juanita, who died September 28, 1972, in a knife attack that slashed 22 wounds in her body.

More than 50 years later Juanita Todd’s murder remains unsolved.

Mimi Todd sighed the day we talked about her daughter.

“She was an average girl,” she said. “She would give you the shirt off her back, to use a phrase. She was just that friendly with the people she met. She wasn’t an honor student in school, but she made passing grades. She didn’t graduate from GAR (high school) but she did graduate. She got her GED and got involved in secretarial work. And that’s what she was doing, working at Bell Telephone.”

Apologizing for “butterflies in my stomach,” Mimi admitted she felt nervous.

In the weeks before we spoke police had reactivated the investigation 22 years after Mimi Todd’s daughter died. Detectives say they never “reopen” a murder probe because an unsolved murder case never closes. Work always continues, police say.

Until it doesn’t.

In 1972 Wilkes-Barre police said they were working on the case “around the clock.”

Then the clock stopped for more than two decades.

In 1994 Mimi seemed anxious about renewed interest in her daughter’s murder. An unconscionably long time had passed since anybody, let alone anybody with a badge, asked questions about Juanita.  

Taking a slow, deep breath, Mimi Todd said, “She was born December 16, 1949. Wilkes-Barre’s not her home. She was just shy of her 12th birthday when we moved here from Tallahassee, Florida. My husband was looking for work. It wasn’t that pleasant when we first came because he couldn’t find any, but finally he found work in the (coal) mine and he worked there at Glen Alden until it shut down. She was 11 years old when we came here. I didn’t know 11 years later that I would have to bury her.”   

On September 28, 1972, according to Wilkes-Barre police, after receiving an anonymous telephone tip from a man, police found Juanita’s body on the floor of her second-floor Academy Street apartment. Somebody had wiped her home clean of fingerprints, police said.

When police reactivated their investigation in 1994 Mimi Todd again had some reason, if only a little, to hope for justice. Two detectives planned to travel to California to interview Douglas “Bay” DeGraffenreid, the man investigators publicly called their only suspect. DeGraffenreid fled Wilkes-Barre the night before a scheduled lie detector test. He remains incarcerated, growing old in a state prison where he serves a life sentence for a Los Angeles murder.

Claiming he thought so highly of Juanita and her family that he made a point of riding in the hearse with Juanita’s body at her funeral, DeGraffenreid denied killing his friend. He said he believed another man who knew Juanita Todd set him up.

At the crime scene police found 18-month-old Odetta and five-month-old Tamu, fed, changed and resting near their mother’s nude, bloody remains. Mimi Todd and her husband, Junius, raised the girls who called Juanita’s parents “Mom” and “Daddy.”

“Juanita wasn’t as talkative as Odetta and not quite as shy as Tamu,” Mimi said. “She was in between. She was just an average teenager. Back in the ’60s there wasn’t all that much to go to anyway. Maybe to the movie. She went to church, Sunday school and a picnic occasionally.”

Mimi Todd seemed weary that day we spoke, drained mostly by the exhausting pressure of knowing few people truly cared about finding her daughter’s killer. But she never gave up. Her abiding Christian faith held strong, driving her to a devoted lifelong membership in Mt. Zion Baptist Church where she served on the missionary board and did volunteer tutoring.

“She was a friendly girl,” Mimi Todd said of her daughter in a voice soft with a haunting trace of the old South. “Maybe too friendly.”

Until she died Mimi Todd led a full and humble life among family and friends. She sang with Sr. Belle Williams Choir, loved playing the lottery, reading dream books and watching “Wheel of Fortune” and old westerns like “Wagon Train” and “Gunsmoke.” As a respected churchwoman in Black Wilkes-Barre she witnessed change, some good, but not enough awakening for white people wielding systemic power to pay attention.

Proud Black Baptist Protestants from the segregated Jim Crow South, the Todd family had moved to Wilkes-Barre for a better life. Instead of their finding joy in Wilkes-Barre, born-and-raised rulers in this white ethnic Catholic kingdom judged them unworthy. The powerbrokers and the powerless alike looked down on Black people like the Todd family. In the end, all Mimi Todd wanted was for people to listen, really listen, and take seriously her daughter’s death that still impacts overwhelmingly white Wilkes-Barre despite class or creed.

Young descendants of the Todd family have not forgotten nor forsaken the lessons their elders taught them. Standing courageously beside his mother, Odetta, Lance Todd, another great-grandson, addressed the faithful at Mimi Todd’s homegoing.

“She moved from Florida to Pennsylvania, in 1957 to be exact,” he said. “At this time in Pennsylvania it was pretty much illegal to be Black. I hate to say it like that. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. So pretty much it was illegal to be Black. It was rough, rough – obviously before there was any kind of civil rights or civil legislation.”

Fixating on the continuing lack of justice, Lance also spoke of his grandmother, Juanita Todd.

“She was murdered here in Luzerne County,” he said.

In this hard town unfairness and discrimination remains a glaring unhealed wound.

Thirty years after the last time police and prosecutors lost their way in this case, law enforcement officials have more than enough reason to resume their investigation into Juanita Todd’s murder with the increased benefit of modern forensic technology.

During Mimi Todd’s life she never saw a verdict in the violent crime that stole dear daughter Juanita. It’s not too late to liberate the entire community from that burden.

We must wave goodbye to injustice in both Mimi’s and Juanita’s names with the same devotion that the two dancers expressed at Mimi’s service when they raised outstretched arms to the heavens and saw hope for a new and brighter day. We must fight discrimination with the same steely commitment shown by that young Black Marine who stood tall in church to profess his belief in the holy promise that “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

We must refuse to punish the young by making them feel it is still illegal to be Black. We must right wrongs of our past with passion, even love.

Truth lies in that pursuit – a truth that sets us free.