Who Killed Juanita Todd? Part One

Each cut, 22 stab wounds, rips Juanita Todd’s flesh, drawing blood for each of the 22 years she has lived.

The blade tears open her face, her neck, her breasts.

An electric fan whirs in the small stifling apartment as Juanita’s babies – Odetta, 18 months, and Tamu, five months – lay unharmed near their mother’s body. Somebody knots and tightens a bedsheet around Juanita’s neck. Somebody might even feed the toddlers and change a diaper.

It is September 28, 1972, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Almost 51 years later police no longer look for this proud Black woman’s killer or killers.

Cops didn’t look too hard back then, either.

About 30 years ago I wrote a series of newspaper columns that prompted then Luzerne County District Attorney Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. to reopen the police investigation. That was 22 years after Juanita Todd died – one year for each year of her young life.

Twenty-two knife wounds.

Twenty-two years of age when she died.

Fate sometimes conjures unlucky numbers.

Olszewski told Wilkes-Barre Times Leader reporter Mitch Morrison in February1994 the case’s “reactivation was prompted” after he read my columns about the murder.  

“Before that I never even heard of it. I was in seventh or eighth grade when it happened,” said Olszewski, who went on to become a Luzerne County judge and now practices law in Northeastern Pennsylvania as a smart veteran prosecutor and defense attorney.

WNEP-TV this week aired “The Unsolved,” a two-part investigation into the Juanita Todd murder. The report omitted too much crucial information. More facts need to be reported. More must be said.

That’s why I’m re-examining the case. Each Sunday of my new series I’ll post a column on my website and on Facebook. On Monday I’ll read the Sunday column in a video posted on Facebook. We’ll revisit the past, chronicle the present and hopefully create a more just future in Northeastern Pennsylvania, a historically corrupt and racist region.

We owe Odetta and Tamu, their families and our community more than we have given.  There is no such thing as a cold case. All unsolved murders seethe with loss. All unresolved homicides boil over with pain. Unanswered questions burn hot with heartache.

WNEP renewed some interest in the case but not enough. My search will thoroughly reevaluate facts known and facts not yet publicly disclosed – facts I didn’t know then which I just learned in the few days since the television report.

I welcome local media outlets and other journalists at platforms such as NBC’s Dateline, 20/20, BBC True Crime, BlackPressUSA, podcasts such as Black Girl Gone and documentary film makers such as Robert May to join me in the ongoing search for truth about Juanita Todd, a strong Black woman mainstream society has mostly forgotten.

I called Odetta the day after WNEP-TV broadcast part one of the story.

“I didn’t expect to be talking with you this afternoon,” I said when Odetta answered.

“I didn’t expect to be talking with you, either,” Odetta said.

We last spoke briefly about four years ago when we ran into each other in a Wilkes-Barre area supermarket. That day young family members stood nearby, polite and quiet. Since then her son graduated from a state university with a degree in criminal justice. I smiled, left with my groceries and went on with my life.

Odetta went on with hers.

Our life experiences remain vastly different for many reasons. A white middle-class male can’t see the world through the eyes of a Black woman who says she remembers her family being called “colored” and “Negro” in a city that still calls Black people worse. I can’t feel what Odetta feels. But I can use my privilege and experience to help her try to set straight a crooked record of inequality and injustice. I can do that and I will.

Race matters in this story.

Gender matters in this story.

Class matters in this story.

We all matter in this story.

“My mom was tortured and tormented to death,” Odetta said when we spoke Thursday on the phone.

While we talked Odetta helped me remember. At almost 72 my memory isn’t as sharp as hers. I stopped writing about too many homicides in which I once specialized and put aside the terrible details of cases in which I once played a part. I told Odetta I don’t regret much about my turbulent decades as a local newspaper columnist. But I’m sorry I failed her family.

I once sat talking quietly with Juanita’s late mother and father in their small house, people of sound faith who raised Odetta and Tamu the best they could. I assured them I would do everything I could to help find their daughter’s killer or killers and push police and prosecutors to make an arrest. I hope they believed me despite their having every reason to distrust police, the press and white people.

But I didn’t do enough. I tried my best. I found the man police called their “one main suspect” whom they lost for decades until I located him in a few days in a state prison serving a life sentence for a California murder. I pushed. But, no, I didn’t do enough.

My biggest mistake was trusting the lead detective in the case whom I believed wanted truth as much as I did, a “friend” who later served time in federal prison after pleading guilty to political corruption and years later died in disgrace.

As renewed interest in the case grew, the detective and his partner flew to California to interview their “one main suspect,” a friend of Juanita Todd’s, who denied he killed her. When the detective returned, he told me he spoke to the man in prison. Evidence was weak and prevented police from making an arrest, the detective said.

I believed him.

The detective went to California all right, but his “one main suspect” says the detective never interviewed him. The detective’s partner, another hardcore white cop not known for his investigative skills, visited the prison, talked briefly to the suspect and reported back that the inmate had nothing to say.

The lead detective put on an empathetic face when he told me the case was over.

Officially it was.

I wrote a newspaper column commending the detective and his partner for trying. Odetta told me this week she got mad at me when she read that column in which I praised the lead detective for being one of the best cops in the city’s history. Did that detective, my “friend,” manipulate me into thinking the main sole suspect was the only suspect?

If so, why?

Because other murder suspects in the case still exist, Odetta said.

Police always knew that, she said.

Nobody told me.

The one main suspect remains in prison in California. He still denies the killing. Thirty years ago he refused to confess even after the detective offered to work to relocate the man to a Pennsylvania prison if he pleaded guilty to killing Juanita Todd so he could serve his sentence closer to his family.

That inmate and I need to talk.

When I ended my search for truth so long ago I let down Juanita Todd’s family.

That’s why I must return to the story and look deeper into who killed an unassuming Black woman and mother who died a savage death in a tough tribal town of about 43,000 people where I lived and worked for 17 years, an overwhelming white ethnic place I once called in a column “pound for pound the most racist city in America.”

Back then I wrote a lot about race. 

Not much there has changed.

Police and prosecutors must again reopen the case. The search for truth still matters for judges, prosecutors, cops, journalists and good citizens everywhere.

Truth secures us.

Deceit tears us apart.

The system in which most people still place faith stole justice from Juanita Todd’s family, friends and community in a bold abuse of public service and accountability. Powerful people, white people, controlled and dominated the Juanita Todd case in an unconscionable abuse of power. If any of us ever hopes to progress as a civilized society we must together face the aftermath of their betrayal.

I want to help change this unjust world.

So must you.

The troubling case of Juanita Todd is complex, uncertain and still constantly changing. But, like it or not, hope for our future remains a stark and unsettling matter of black and white.