Who Killed Juanita Todd? Part Fourteen

After almost four months of official silence, Luzerne County Detective Charles Casey last week called Odetta Todd, one of murder victim Juanita Todd’s two daughters, and asked to schedule an interview.

Odetta said Casey told her Luzerne County District Attorney Samuel M. Sanguedolce and Wilkes-Barre Police Chief Joe Coffay will attend the meeting scheduled for September 25 – three days short of the 51st anniversary of Juanita Todd’s unsolved September 28, 1972 murder.

The detective told her to bring with her any documents or ideas she has about her mother’s unsolved murder.

Odetta told me she also wants supporters to accompany her to the interview. She even asked if my editor wife and I want to attend. I said we do not and doubt any official meeting with the DA and other members of law enforcement would occur with a member of the press in attendance. Odetta said she plans to bring 10 people with her to the meeting – family, activist friends and her pastor.

Not a good idea I responded in a Friday Facebook message.

“Neither of us would think of attending a meeting prosecutors and police respectfully offer you,” I wrote. “They don’t have to meet with you. Ever. This is not a public meeting.”

“You pushing for people other than you and your sister Tamu to attend this meeting will hurt your cause. This could be the beginning of a new, fresh investigation. You need to give prosecutors and police the benefit of the doubt. If you challenge them and try to tell them how to do their jobs, you seriously risk losing any chance of them helping you,” I wrote in my message

Even when prosecutors and police are wrong, they do not take kindly to anybody – even victims’ family members – telling them how to do their jobs. I know how quickly law enforcement can turn against anyone they believe is not playing by their rules.

In 1991 Luzerne County prosecutors and police arrested me and three of my newspaper bosses on felony charges for embarrassing them in a Wilkes-Barre murder investigation that led to the conviction and 13-year imprisonment of a dentist who killed his wife. We did nothing illegal, a new district attorney dropped the charges and we won a national First Amendment journalism award for our service to a free press.

Odetta Todd doesn’t agree some official meetings must remain private –especially meetings to discuss whether to reactivate an unresolved homicide case. Confidentiality is one reason police rarely release details about an “ongoing” homicide investigation, as they classify all unsolved murders. Another reason for confidentiality might be to protect the reputation of law enforcement officials who failed in the past.

Prosecutors and police have an ethical duty to admit if they lost or destroyed evidence in the Juanita Todd case, including the murder weapon. Nobody in an official capacity will say whether or not Wilkes-Barre police still have the knife. If not, this cover-up raises more questions than provides answers and warrants an outside investigation of county prosecutors and city police.

Ample evidence police collected at the crime scene should still exist. Testing and retesting with forensic science, particularly DNA testing, should help. Suspects still reside in Wilkes-Barre and elsewhere.

Odetta Todd can provide valuable help to police who have unanswered questions about her mother’s murder. To do that she must do her best to answer whatever questions police ask and fully cooperate in the process. I said from the beginning that I don’t want to fight with law enforcement officials. I’m asking for their help. So should Odetta respectfully ask for their help while not dwelling on unfounded rumors and conspiracy theories of the past.

I understand her distrust in prosecutors and police who failed to solve this heinous crime that left her mother, a 22-year-old Black woman, dead on the floor with 22 stab wounds in her body.

I understand Odetta’s distrust of the predominately white system in a largely white city and county. I’m white and distrust the system. But the system is all we have. That’s why we need to fight to hold accountable those who control politics and power in a government still rooted in fundamental white supremacy, bigotry and privilege.

For justice to prevail, Odetta Todd and her sister Tamu need significant public support. These traumatized and vulnerable sisters need serious help from a wide range of people in Wilkes-Barre and elsewhere, particularly Black people, who have done little or nothing to help to spark interest and awareness to reactivate this case. Only steady public pressure will persuade prosecutors and police to re-enter this case with a thorough and modern investigation.

So far, public apathy abounds.

No letter of support from the NAACP.

No Black Lives Matter backing.

No Black church support.

No all-white Wilkes-Barre City Council support.

No white Wilkes-Barre mayoral support.

Sparse public support for reactivating Juanita Todd’s case consists mainly of Facebook comments including many mentions of God and prayer.

Other than the undeveloped WNEP-TV report that provoked me to step back into the Juanita Todd story and two recent Times Leader articles, the case received no media coverage. The September 9, 2023 Times Leader article by staff writer Bill O’Boyle said, “Odetta and Tuma (NOTE: O’Boyle misspelled Tamu’s name) were interviewed by the Times Leader, but they have asked that their comments not be a part of this story.”

After the O’Boyle interview, Odetta said she did not trust the reporter and decided to ask that she and Tamu not be quoted. That omission denied readers the chance to hear her voice and heartfelt story. That decision was ill-advised.

A reporter for NBC Dateline Cold Case Spotlight recently told me the network plans a story next month. Black Press USA also promised coverage but failed to follow-up. Other national news outlets, including the New York Times, the Atlantic magazine, Capital B, a Black-led, nonprofit media organization reporting for Black communities across the country and “Charlamagne tha God,” a powerful Black celebrity radio host and others, failed to even give me the courtesy of an email response.

Still, this series of 14 columns accomplished the original goal that prosecutors and police review and consider restarting the Juanita Todd case. Luzerne County District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce has asked Wilkes-Barre police to do just that.

In an August 21 email I asked Sanguedolce, “Please answer this on the record question: As you ponder whether to reopen this homicide case, why haven’t you reached out to Odetta Todd, the murder victim’s daughter?”

I reminded Sanguedolce that in a July 24 email to me he wrote, “I plan on meeting with the Chief and possibly the lieutenant in the next week or so depending on schedules to see what cases they are reviewing – and to see if this is one or if not, whether it should be added.”

“After that meeting,” he wrote, “regardless of the outcome, I will reach out to Ms. Todd. If someone has information, I would like to make sure we get it. Obviously, that information could be important and time sensitive regardless of whether it leads to solving the crime.”

On August 22 Sanguedolce responded, “Not for public consumption, but I have reached out to Wilkes-Barre who has assigned detectives to locate and amass the file, reports, and evidence. In my experience, information leaked to the public does more to hamper an investigation than help unless you know the case well and know exactly what to release. Regrettably, we’ve learned that the same goes for sharing too much information with family.

“As you are probably also aware, we are suffering from a lack of personnel like most employers so unfortunately, amid trying to gather, review, and analyze the decades-old investigation, our detectives and lawyers along with Wilkes-Barre police, have been trying to keep up with current crime and ongoing investigations.

“We certainly haven’t forgotten about the case, but our limited resources are hampering us from moving as fast as we might like.”

Prosecutors and police certainly deserve the benefit of the doubt. Official explanations are understandable. Excuses are unacceptable.

I believe Sanguedolce, Coffay, county, city and state police detectives as well as forensic science experts and others working together can solve the Juanita Todd murder. I believe Odetta Todd can help, not hurt, her deeply personal sacred cause.

I’ll continue to write columns as the investigation proceeds – if the investigation proceeds –a decision entirely up to prosecutors and police. Journalists raise awareness, ask questions, demand answers and draw conclusions. Journalists sometimes make a difference for the better. Our search for truth is always worth the effort. For now, though, I’ll suspend my consecutive Sunday columns pending new developments in this case.

We must pay attention to how law enforcement officials behave and hold them accountable to the people and the laws they serve. We must take to heart our moral duty to help one another in the common purpose of fairness wherever and whenever we can. We must know the difference between right and wrong. We must take action to right those wrongs.

What happened to Odetta and Tamu Todd almost 51 years ago can happen to you and your family – a cruel and unjust future nobody deserves.