Did Wilkes-Barre police brass purposely ignore evidence in the 1972 Juanita Todd murder investigation?
If so, why?
Six years after the 22-year-old Black woman’s barbaric killing, Wilkes-Barre Patrolman Don Smith swore under oath that Captain of Detectives John Lowe neglected crucial information that might have helped solve the Todd case.
Smith also told investigators Lowe told him “a contract was out on a cop because of the Todd case.”
Little documentation exists to prove Wilkes-Barre police botched the original investigation into Juanita Todd’s killing. What does exist shows severe alleged incompetence and deception on the part of Lowe who led the investigation. Some critics consider Lowe’s behavior part of a political cover-up, consequences of which restrict the system to this day.
In 1978, following the murder conviction of Francis Hannon, a well-known city man, then Luzerne County District Attorney Chester Muroski and then Special Assistant District Attorney Charles R. Coslett launched an investigation into Wilkes-Barre Police Department corruption. After gathering sworn statements under oath from several people including Wilkes-Barre police officers, the probe offered a damning behind-the-scenes look into a politicized and untrustworthy department wracked by shoddy work, misconduct, personality clashes and other malfeasance that placed police and the people they were paid to protect in danger.
On November 19, 1978, the Wyoming Valley Observer, a weekly newspaper, published most of the results of that investigation. Attorney Anthony Lupas, who represented Lowe, “edited” the transcripts, according to an editor’s note on the front page of the published report. Among many serious accusations against Lowe, one dealt specifically with Juanita Todd’s murder and how Lowe overlooked what could have been crucial evidence.
Patrolman Don Smith made the damaging allegation in his 1978 affidavit sworn under penalty of perjury.
“With reference to the Guanita (sic) Todd murder, I went to Capt. Lowe three or four years ago,” Smith said. “I related that Jackie Knight had information relative to the murder. Jackie Knight told me that she would not call headquarters because there were too many leaks. Three days after Ms. Knight talked to me, she was arrested for possessing drugs. One month later, Capt. Lowe said that a contract was out on a cop because of the Todd case. When I attempted to relate the information that Ms. Knight gave me to Capt. Lowe, Lowe responded, ‘We know about that. We have a suspect who fled the area and we know where he went.’ But, Lowe did not follow it up. It is my feeling that Ms. Knight has information relative to the Todd killing and would be willing to talk if her daughter is protected.”
On March 31, 1978, six months before the 1978 investigation went public, Thomas McCartha, a 36-year-old Black Wilkes-Barre police officer, died from what officials called a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Investigators quickly determined the off-duty K-9 officer and Air Force veteran killed himself on the steps of a Wilkes College building.
Members of McCartha’s family and others in the community disputed the official finding. Police took a closer look and agreed more than enough evidence existed to prove McCartha killed himself. Questions remain unanswered about whether McCartha played any role in the Juanita Todd investigation or possessed any relevant information about the case.
In Detective Captain Lowe’s response to 28 specific accusations included in the 1978 report, he failed to address the most explosive charges contained in Patrolman Smith’s sworn affidavit. Lowe dodged any mention of the Juanita Todd investigation or Smith’s claim that Lowe told him “a contract was out on a cop because of the Todd case.”
And police never searched for their “suspect” even after he called Wilkes-Barre police from California two years after Juanita Todd’s murder and offered to return to Wilkes-Barre to talk with them.
In 1994 I worked as a news columnist at the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. After locating the “suspect” to whom Lowe referred in Muroski’s investigation, I persuaded Wilkes-Barre police and Luzerne County prosecutors to reactivate the Juanita Todd investigation. Two detectives traveled to California and interviewed Douglas “Bay” DeGraffenreid in a state prison where he is still serving a life sentence for murder. DeGraffenreid maintained his innocence in Juanita Todd’s murder. The reopened investigation quickly ended.
I wrote a letter to DeGraffenreid four weeks ago and have not received a response.
Juanita Todd’s name does not appear anywhere else in the troubling 11-page report the Wyoming Valley Observer published in 1978. But the name of another man who also knew Juanita Todd and associated with her inner circle of friends does. His name appears in the report that, among many other allegations, also accuses Detective Captain Lowe of bad police work and unethical behavior while investigating a double shooting case involving this same man.
Because that man still resides in Wilkes-Barre, I have deleted his name from this column to recognize his privacy.
In his 1978 sworn affidavit Wilkes-Barre patrolman Don Smith made the following accusation about Lowe and that man.
“When (name deleted) shot Bob Southern, I reported to the General Hospital,” Smith says in his sworn affidavit. “A male nurse said they were taking the bullet out of Southern. No detective was on the scene, so I went up to the operating room and went with the nurse to the pathology department. I made a report of my findings to Captain Lowe and took the report to him. (Name deleted) was there at the time. Despite my wanting to see Captain Lowe alone, (name deleted) remained while I submitted my report and the evidence. The bullets were placed in packages and Lowe took the packages apart while in the presence of (name deleted). I testified in that case to the existence of two packages since the two pieces of the bullet were placed in separate packages. Following my testimony, Captain Lowe took the stand. I was subsequently recalled to the stand to relate that there were, indeed, two pieces. Apparently, Captain Lowe had lost the smaller piece. The first trial ended in a mistrial. (Name deleted) was later retried and found not guilty.”
Over the decades that same man whose name I have deleted has related to several people in Wilkes-Barre various theories about whom he believes might have killed Juanita Todd – including DeGraffenreid. City detectives interviewed this man in 1972 as part of their original Juanita Todd murder investigation. He told one city woman he sent me “four or five” letters about the Juanita Todd case from a state prison where he served his 10-to-20 year sentence for a 1994 Wilkes-Barre murder. I never received those letters from that man who still lives in Wilkes-Barre.
Wilkes-Barre Captain of Detectives John Lowe also maintained a relationship with yet another man who closely associated with Juanita Todd. This third man worked briefly at a Wilkes-Barre business where Lowe maintained an interest while serving the public full-time as the city captain of detectives. That man also still lives in Wilkes-Barre.
In the wake of Muroski’s inquiry city officials demoted Lowe to the rank of lieutenant. The police chief at the time, John Ruddick, retired shortly after city officials received the report. Other police officers involved in the Juanita Todd case and the Muroski investigation are long retired and/or have died.
Potential witness Jackie Knight is dead. Wilkes-Barre Captain of Detectives John Lowe is dead. Former Luzerne County District Attorney Chester Muroski – who went on to serve as Luzerne County president judge – died in 2019 at 80 years of age. One of the patrol officers on the scene in 1972 and who worked as a detective on the 1994 reopened investigation is dead. The lead detective in the 1994 probe is dead.
Will a fresh search for who killed Juanita Todd begin? Or, will bold civic duty die in Wilkes-Barre? Will public officials sworn to protect and serve purposely let the brave quest for truth succumb to bureaucratic insensitivity and drab indifference?
As justice dies, so dies the city.