Who Killed Juanita Todd? Part Six

Wilkes-Barre Mayor George Brown knows the terrible details of Juanita Todd’s story.

City Police Chief Joe Coffay does, too.

So does Luzerne County District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce.

In addition to these three public officials, I also sent emails and my first five columns about the 1972 unsolved Wilkes-Barre murder of Juanita Todd to Wilkes-Barre city council members Tony Brooks, Bill Barrett, Mike Belusko, Beth Gilbert McBride and John Marconi

More than 50 years have passed since police found the 22-year-old Black woman naked and dead on the floor of her second-story apartment with 22 knife wounds in her body. Her babies rested nearby – 18-month-old Odetta close to her body, five-month-old Tamu in a crib.

Five long decades have gone by without answers to questions that could bring closure to a family and a community that has suffered in silence for too long. We’re no closer to an arrest today than we were back then. Or are we?

A modern investigation might solve Juanita Todd’s murder. New forensic technology, particularly advances in DNA science, might increase the chances of resolving this tragic crime. Renewed interest in this case might overcome the indifference that too often controls the way too many people live.

We need all the help we can get to solve Juanita Todd’s murder, mostly from people in power who can and will influence other decision-makers to restart the investigation police have essentially closed for 30 years. Long before law enforcement officials restarted the most recent 1994 probe, 22 years had passed with no police work on the case.

Terrible truth has eluded us for more than 50 long years.

We need genuinely interested and truly skilled public servants to restart and lead this mission. Public faith in public trust continues to weaken – often deteriorating for good reason. Restoring faith in politicians and police is crucial to morality and decency. Without protection and leadership, humanity crumbles beneath evil.

That’s why I’m recruiting good citizens to help.

We need you.

Everyday people who want to encourage law enforcement officials to revive this investigation will hopefully include church leaders, particularly Black church leaders, the local branch of the NAACP, the local Black Prince Hall Masons and young Black Lives Matter leaders who led hundreds of protestors in a June 2020 march on Public Square in the wake of police murdering George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

We need new voters, old voters, high school students and college students, particularly from downtown Wilkes-Barre-based Wilkes University and King’s College. We need everyone who can and will fight for social justice. We need to hold public officials accountable.

With the exception of WNEP-TV, credible local and national mainstream media so far have expressed no interest in helping raise awareness to this shameful injustice. Not one Wilkes-Barre or Luzerne County public official has publicly declared support for a new investigation.

That’s life in an apathetic community.

People of conscience must now consider one day filling Wilkes-Barre City Council chambers with protestors demanding action. An end-of-summer rally on Public Square could bring together hundreds of people to encourage each other and press for answers.

Justice for Juanita Todd is long overdue. But no progress will occur without significant public pressure. I’m looking for help, not a fight.

The Wilkes-Barre Times Leader and the Citizens’ Voice daily newspapers remain bitter rivals born of a 1978 Times Leader walkout that morphed into a sometimes violent strike and eventual split that resulted in a still unsettled war of words. Editors at both papers can show common community purpose by writing editorials asking for a recharged look into Juanita Todd’s death. Those editorials could be shared to emphasize just how important Juanita Todd’s legacy is to our hard part of an increasingly cruel world.

Ample reason exists to reactivate the inquiry with a thorough, modern investigation utilizing advances in DNA and other forensic testing.

Maybe we’ll fail to solve Juanita Todd’s murder. But maybe we will identify and convict her killer. I say we because unless we really try as a community we’ll never know who we are. Unless we commit to succeed we’ll fail again and again as a principled society. More missteps are unacceptable.

Good people working together increase the chances of police making an arrest or arrests. Longtime residents of the Wyoming Valley, of which Wilkes-Barre serves as the Luzerne County seat, still embrace “The Valley with a Heart” moniker, a romanticized and shallow image created in the early ’50s by a local radio personality.

The time has come to put up or shut up.

The decision to restart the investigation into Juanita Todd’s murder requires a genuine commitment from competent people charged with protecting and serving everyone. The legwork and investigative technique of solving a decades-long homicide is difficult and expensive. Yet, the cumulative cost of inaction is always much greater than the fair cost of conscience. Too many people have let themselves and others down for too long. More people should have Juanita Todd and her family on their minds.

I’ve offered to talk with sources confidentially and not for attribution in future columns unless they want to be quoted in support of or opposition to resuming the investigation.

Some talked.

Some listened.

Some didn’t bother to respond to any of my emails.

In the 17 years I lived and worked in Wilkes-Barre as a Times Leader newspaper columnist (as long as I lived anywhere) I made a practice of not talking off the record with most elected officials. I needed information to publish in the paper, not information to keep secret from people in my city who needed to know what was going on. In this case, I agreed to speak confidentially with sources as an independent journalist because people involved in this case need to talk now more than ever.

Neither persistent journalism nor hard-nosed detective work guarantees change. But dogged perseverance in the hunt for truth empowers the afflicted. The odds of progress increase through public support.

The time has come for Wilkes-Barre and Luzerne County officials to state publicly if they do or do not support reopening the Juanita Todd case. We need to know the names of who will and will not help the ongoing pursuit of justice, fairness and equality in a struggling town where Black lives often still don’t matter. The time has come for those officials to tell us exactly what they will do to help.

No excuse is acceptable from any elected or appointed Wilkes-Barre public official who ignores this ongoing travesty that disrespects race, class, gender and other living, breathing identities in this small city they all represent.

Inaction is indefensible. Indifference is unforgivable. Fear is understandable but inexcusable.

I once wrote a column calling Wilkes-Barre the pound-for-pound “most racist city in America.”

Only the pure power of the people will change that bleak reality.