“I picked up the baby, Odetta, in my arms,” said Wilkes-Barre police detective Thomas Bird, his eyes staring into space like he was seeing a ghost and I wasn’t there.
That March day we talked almost 30 years ago marked the first time in 22 years the cop whom colleagues called “T-Bird” publicly shared his story about finding Juanita Todd’s two babies near her butchered body.
More than 50 years have now passed since she died.
Juanita Todd’s murder remains unsolved.
A hellish sight tore at T-Bird’s heart and mind when he entered Todd’s second-floor Academy Street apartment in the early hours of September 28, 1972. Somebody had stabbed the 22-year-old Black woman 22 times, leaving her nude corpse on the floor with a knotted bed sheet tied around her throat.
In 1994, when the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader and I persuaded police and prosecutors to take a closer look, in addition to weeding through piles of unorganized interviews, T-Bird said he relived the gruesome scene of violence he would never forget. Even as decades passed, T-Bird said he often thought about what he encountered that night in the neat apartment where Juanita Todd, who worked as a secretary at the telephone company, did her best to raise her children.
Even before Luzerne County District Attorney Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. reactivated the investigation in 1994 and asked T-Bird to be part of a new investigative team, T-Bird said he often talked to other cops about the case and how the gruesome nature of what he witnessed bothered him. For a young policeman who dreamed of someday being promoted to detective, the 1972 crime scene screamed as the kind of horror that couldn’t help but shape the way he would come to view his job.
Police had received an anonymous 3 a.m. telephone tip from a man apparently calling from a phone booth at the United Penn Plaza on South Main Street across the street from Juanita Todd’s apartment. Police have never disclosed whether they lifted fingerprints from that telephone receiver. The caller’s identity remains unknown.
When T-Bird entered the apartment he witnessed a shocking sight he never saw before and would never see again. Odetta, 18-months-old, sat by her mother’s head. Five-month-old Tamu played in her crib in another room.
“She was sitting on the floor by her mother’s body. An electric fan was close by,” T-Bird said.
Had baby Odetta been alone for too long, T-Bird said, she likely would have reached for the hard metal blades cutting through the sweltering humidity on a fan that had no safety guard.
“Somebody was worried about those little girls,” T-Bird said. “Somebody cared about them, in a strange way.”
T-Bird said he would always remember walking into the hot apartment that awful morning and finding Juanita on the floor in a thick pool of blood. T-Bird said he looked at the young woman’s naked butchered body and sensed a viciousness that taught him just how cruel the human species can be. Looking at those healthy babies, the city police officer sensed a confounding gentleness too.
Police never figured out who might have cared for Juanita Todd’s children during the approximately 15 hours that passed from the time the coroner said she died to the time police found her body.
The babies appeared fed.
Somebody changed their diapers.
Rumors that a woman cared for the children as Juanita Todd died still circulate throughout Wilkes-Barre, particularly among members of the Black community who remember the crime and the failed investigation.
Now adults with children of their own, Odetta and Tamu handle their deep hurt and trauma as best they can. The women still need people who care – this time for the right reasons.
In 2023 our responsibility as a community is to persuade law enforcement officials to reopen this investigation with a new generation of detectives, including seasoned Pennsylvania State Police cold case detectives who might be better equipped and better trained to solve this heinous crime. Last Monday I contacted state police asking what it will take to get their cold case unit involved in the Juanita Todd case.
Police long ago said they collected blood samples, fibers, a murder weapon and other physical evidence. Modern technology and improved forensic testing can revisit those original tests. With renewed interest, smart police work and luck, police and prosecutors might make up for their lack of successful investigative action after the homicide and during the short-lived 1994 reactivated investigation in which state police didn’t participate.
Wilkes-Barre police also said in 1972 they had identified several unnamed suspects.
Douglas DeGraffenreid might be willing to talk with police a second time in the California prison where he’s serving a life sentence for murder. Wilkes-Barre detectives privately considered DeGraffenreid their main suspect and T-Bird personally interviewed him in prison in 1994.
DeGraffenreid fled Wilkes-Barre in 1972 on the night before he was scheduled to take a lie detector test. Police never bothered to look for him then even after he called Wilkes-Barre police from California two years later and offered to surrender on another charge.
In 1993 I located the murder suspect in just a few days.
Only after settling into the Los Angeles area with a wife and children did DeGraffenreid become a California killer.
I sent DeGraffenreid a letter last week asking if we could talk.
And what about other unnamed suspects Wilkes-Barre police acknowledged in media interviews at the time of the murder, people whose names have been known by police and others from the beginning?
I even know their names.
What about three people Juanita Todd feared so much she asked Magistrate Michael Collins to approve a restraining order to keep the trio away? Does any official record exist of the hearing Juanita Todd’s family members say Collins scheduled to occur three days after Juanita died? Are those three people the same people police privately identified as suspects?
When the second failed investigation ended in 1994, I believed Juanita Todd’s murder would likely remain unsolved. I believed investigators had permanently closed the case. Whoever killed this young Black mother would likely go unpunished. Police would officially carry the case on their books indefinitely because no statute of limitations exists for homicide. But no one would focus on the hunt for her killer. No one would seek and find the truth.
In my final Times Leader columns about the reactivated 1994 case I gave T-Bird and the lead detective credit for the work they did. I now know how wrong I was to praise the bigoted white lead detective who lied to me, to the people of his city he served and worse, to the Todd family before convincing colleagues to close the case.
That bad cop later served time in federal prison for his part in Luzerne County political corruption.
To this day many people, particularly Black people born and raised in Wilkes-Barre, believe racism, sexism and political corruption protected Juanita Todd’s killer or killers. You can read their comments on my Facebook page whenever I post a new column, a new video reading or new promotion calling attention to the investigation.
Wilkes-Barre Mayor George Brown, Wilkes-Barre Police Chief Joe Coffay, Luzerne County District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce and Wilkes-Barre City Council members Tony Brooks, Bill Barrett, Mike Belusko, Beth Gilbert McBride and John Marconi have failed to publicly respond to several emails and six consecutive columns asking them to support reopening the Juanita Todd investigation.
While these public officials claim to represent the best interests of the city and county, they hide from bold leadership that shapes the core of public service. As more time passes with weak inaction as its guide, more and more people involved in this tragic story die.
T-Bird is dead. The white racist lead detective is dead. John Lowe, the lead detective in the original case – eventually demoted for his incompetence for bad behavior while investigating a different Wilkes-Barre murder – is dead. Magistrate Collins is dead. Juanita Todd’s mother and father are dead.
Is passion to solve this painful homicide also dead? Is compassion lost? Do inequality, discrimination and social injustice still govern Wilkes-Barre?
If so, hope for the city dies as well.
Juanita Todd’s life matters.