Who Killed Juanita Todd? Part Nine

We watched excited children lick dripping double-dipper cones as their parents matched them scoop for scoop or ate top-heavy sundaes loaded with whipped cream and bright maraschino cherries – happy families out for ice cream on a hot summer day.

Low-key, the four of us sat at a red wooden picnic table beneath a green pavilion at a popular Wilkes-Barre business. My wife sat across from a soft-spoken woman spooning mango-flavored ice from her cup. I had already finished my large root beer slushy while Odetta Todd enjoyed her fruit-flavored frozen treat. We dug in like little kids relishing innocence in a sweet sunshine-filled world.

Despite the terrible loss that brought us together last week, we had a nice time.

We talked about soul music and laughed about Odetta’s age, so young at 52 she knew nothing about the Delphonics, Philadelphia’s love song legends from the late ’60s and early ’70s who so sweetly sang “La-La (Means I Love You)” and “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time).”

We also talked about the great Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, to whom Odetta’s been listening lately, and his anthem about why Black women like her and the woman sitting beside her need to pay particular attention to the message of the song “Keep On Pushing.”

 “ ‘Cause I’ve got my strength

And it don’t make sense

Not to keep on pushing

Hallelujah, hallelujah

Keep on pushing”

I once posted a link to this hopeful song on my Facebook page among supportive comments advocating reopening the Juanita Todd homicide investigation. I have so far posted nine columns about her murder on that page. The song provides encouragement and the promise of perseverance.

The woman sitting beside Odetta had been friends with Odetta’s murdered mother, Juanita. Young Black women sharing the same circle of friends, they worked hard, tried to enjoy life and raise their children as best they could. That’s why the woman spoke with Wilkes-Barre detectives following Juanita’s September 28, 1972 murder, telling them information about a male friend of Juanita’s, the man she still believes killed her friend.

Now she worries that so many years have passed police might have “lost” her statement.

She believes that same man carved the words ‘You’re next’ on the outside of the wooden door to her apartment after she talked with police. She said she reported the threat to police and an officer took photographs of the door.

More than 50 years later she clearly remembers when that man later pointed his finger in her face and said “I’ve killed before. I can kill again.”

No ‘70s soul song lyrics match those deadly words.

But our nostalgic trip down oldies’ music lane then took on an equally grim significance.

Odetta said her aunt had told her about the O’Jays, another ’70s R&B group, and how she found one of their 45 RPM records on the record player in Juanita’s apartment as she was removing her sister’s most cherished belongings after Juanita’s murder.

“‘Back Stabbers,’ ” Odetta said. “The song on my mother’s record player was ‘Back Stabbers.’ ”

Released one month before Juanita Todd’s murder, the song’s lyrics remain a chilling omen of what lay ahead for the 22-year-old mother of two who died with 22 stab wounds in her body. Juanita Todd suffered stab wounds in her back.

The words to the song “Back Stabbers” slash a nightmarish edge into the heart of Juanita’s killing.

“I believe (my aunt) shared that with me for a reason,” Odetta said.

The O’Jay’s words are predictive:

“A few of your buddies, they sure look shady

The blades are long, clenched tight in their fists

Aimin’ straight at your back

And I don’t think they’ll miss”

Juanita Todd’s killer’s blade didn’t miss.

The autopsy report confirmed the cruelty.

“Back: There are six superficial penetrating lacerations located along the right scapula ranging in diameter from .5 cms. to 1 cm. They are approximately distributed 5 cms. right of the midline. There is also noted at the level of L-1 a deeply penetrating puncture wound at the posterior axillary line.”

Even today those cutting “Back Stabbers” words give rise to haunting questions that beg answers.

“I keep gettin’ all these visits from my friends, yeah, what they doin’ to me?” sang the O’Jays. “They come to my house again and again and again and again ….”

Were some of Juanita Todd’s “friends” involved in her murder? Odetta and her mother’s friend believe they were. Ghostly “Back Stabbers” lyrics still wield solemn power to provoke many people, mostly Black people living in Wilkes-Barre, into remembering the names of those supposed “friends” who still live in the city.

The people who loved Juanita believe clues and truth lie in the O’Jays’ warning:

“Smilin’ faces smilin’ faces sometimes tell lies (back stabbers)

(They smilin’ in your face)

They smilin’ in your face) might be your neighbor

Your next door neighbor, yeah (back stabbers)”

Odetta Todd says her mother sensed danger from people she knew, smiling faces she once liked. Shortly before her death Juanita scheduled a hearing with Magistrate Michael Collins to obtain a restraining order to keep three specific former friends away from her. Juanita died three days before that hearing took place.

One of those people is the man Odetta believes killed her mother – the same man who threatened her mother’s friend and yet a second woman friend of Juanita Todd. Both women said they reported the threats to Wilkes-Barre police. That man still lives in Wilkes-Barre.

Luzerne County District Attorney Sam Sanguedolche has not yet met with Odetta and Tamu Todd. He and Wilkes-Barre Police Chief Joe Coffay will hopefully soon  sit down with these still grieving sisters and dedicate resources and skills to reopening a modern, thorough investigation with help from the Pennsylvania State Police and the FBI.

Now that Odetta Todd is listening to Curtis Mayfield, she’ll sooner or later hear another of his many greatest hits. A woman of abiding Christian faith, Odetta will no doubt agree with some of the words to “People Get Ready,” the 1965 song Mayfield said he wrote that links struggles of “freedom” and “slavery” while stressing an abiding faith in God.  

Mayfield said in interviews he wrote the song in response to both the August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the deadly September 16, 1963 KKK church bombing on Bloody Sunday in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four Black girls.

Police eventually identified the guilty killers in that terrible tragedy.

I still have faith we can find Juanita Todd’s killer.