Cops called her “colored.”
Two white male Wilkes-Barre police officers described Black homicide victim Juanita Todd as “colored” in the box reserved for “race” in their September 28, 1972 “initial crime report.”
This pejorative helps us understand why police failed to work as hard to find who killed the 22-year-old single mother of two as they might have worked had she been the daughter of a white cop or the mother of white children. Defending the use of the derisive term as commonplace in a different time only excuses official cruelty that hurt and belittled Black people, denying and depriving them of equal access to justice and protection under the law.
In the eyes of countless white people in an overwhelmingly white town, Juanita Todd was not one of us. At least Deputy Coroner Walter W. Lisman had the decency to describe Juanita Todd’s nude body as “black” in his September 28, 1972 report.
The police officers also wrote in their report, “Two colored female children, approx (sic) ages 1 and 2 were in the room with the victim.”
More than 50 years later those Black children have families of their own. Odetta Todd and her sister Tamu still seek answers about their mother’s death as they continue their fight for fairness.
In February 1994 Juanita’s mother, Mimi, told Wilkes-Barre Times Leader reporter Mitch Morrison she “doubts whether the police ever launched a serious investigation.”
“Black on Black (crime) was never a big issue,” she told Morrison.
Mimi Todd believed white cops neglected Black victims – even murder victims like her daughter whom the autopsy report calls a “Negro.”
To deny racism exists in Juanita Todd’s case is to deny common sense.
But in one grim case when Wilkes-Barre police did express interest in “Black on Black” crime, racial discrimination still ruled. Years before police reopened the Juanita Todd investigation, I wrote numerous columns about the 1986 murder of Hugh “Mac” McGhee, a 96-year-old Black man robbed, tortured, strangled with a belt and possibly raped in his small Wilkes-Barre home.
City police arrested three Black men for killing McGhee. Police only arrested a fourth suspect, a local white woman whose father worked with state police as a civilian employee, after I reported her alleged role in the crime and wrote columns in which the key witness in the case implicated her in the homicide.
Trent Ward, one of the accused Black men, told me from jail he was in another state at the time of the murder. After I reported his story, police and prosecutors finally pursued his claim that he could not have participated in the crime. Prosecutors dropped charges against Ward and he walked free.
Wilkes-Barre police had charged an innocent Black man with murder.
Sometime later I asked a well known detective who investigated McGhee’s murder – the same detective who as captain of detectives would head up the reopened 1994 Juanita Todd investigation – why he hadn’t previously checked out Ward’s alibi that was not difficult to confirm.
“We needed another N…..,” he said, using America’s most powerful racial slur.
Although I considered that detective a friend at the time, we were very different people. His comment bothered me for years. It still does. Why didn’t I write a column about his white-hot racism? Why didn’t I alert people in my community to the untold damage a racist white cop in our midst could do?
For better or worse, journalists protect our sources. Off the record is off the record.
Because that same former criminal investigator died in 2020 at age 70, I can now lay bare his story to show how bigotry systematically played a crucial role in Luzerne County criminal justice.
In 1993, after a chance meeting with Juanita Todd’s brother in a Wilkes-Barre bar and seeing her memorial photograph in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader where I worked, I started writing about the case. Because of my news columns, Luzerne County District Attorney Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. assembled a task force of several city and county detectives to reopen the 22-year-old case. Olszewski appointed the well known Wilkes-Barre chief of detectives to head up the team.
In 1994 I located suspect Douglas DeGraffenreid in a California prison. The detective captain and another city detective traveled to California to interview him. Not long after the prison interview, the lead detective convinced colleagues to abandon the case because DeGraffenreid refused to confess to the murder.
Good cops still cared.
Bad cops never did.
Police had stopped looking for DeGraffenreid about two decades earlier when he left the state less than two months after Juanita Todd’s murder. City detectives had already interviewed him and, based on their suspicion that he knew more than he was saying, asked if he would submit to a lie detector test. He reluctantly agreed to take the test. Then he fled.
Officials later issued a warrant for his arrest but for another crime. DeGraffenreid was wanted for an aggravated assault and battery against a friend of Juanita’s, a man who accused DeGraffenreid of attacking him several weeks after her murder during an argument in The Soul Bar on Hazle Street.
DeGraffenreid left town, however, and missed his assault hearing scheduled before Magistrate Michael Collins. Luzerne County Judge Richard Bigelow issued a second warrant for DeGraffenreid after he absconded, charging him with violating the year probation he was serving for burglaries.
Claiming they lost track of their prime murder suspect, Wilkes-Barre police quit looking for DeGraffenreid. But police did know his whereabouts. Shortly after DeGraffenreid left town, a newspaper article in The Wilkes-Barre Times Leader reported the suspect contacted Wilkes-Barre police to turn himself in.
Police dispatcher Henry Wichowski reported receiving a call from DeGraffenreid who informed the officer he was calling from Los Angeles, California. DeGraffenreid admitted beating up a Wilkes-Barre man before he took off, according to the newspaper article. DeGraffenreid said he was tired of being pursued and wanted to give himself up. He told the officer if the police wanted him they should contact the Sheriff’s Department of Los Angeles County.
Nobody bothered to call.
DeGraffenreid remains incarcerated in a substance abuse unit of a California state prison serving a life sentence on an unrelated Los Angeles homicide he committed after moving to California. He has been as consistent in his denial of guilt in the Juanita Todd case as the Wilkes-Barre detective captain had been in his pattern of dishonesty.
After the detective captain retired from the Wilkes-Barre Police Department in 1995 he went to work as Luzerne County’s public safety municipal coordinator.
In 1999 then Mayor Tom McGroarty criticized retired Wilkes-Barre officers for padding their overtime as members of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s drug task force. Police made few arrests, critics charged. The extra money increased the detective captain’s city police pension as well as that of his partner, the same detective who accompanied him to California and spoke with DeGraffenreid. The suspect says the detective captain never saw or spoke to him during that visit.
In 2003 Luzerne County commissioners appointed the former detective captain to the board of the county housing authority that oversees public housing for low-income residents, many of whom are Black.
In 2007 the former Wilkes-Barre detective captain was among a group of county employees who attended a gang conference in California. The Wilkes-Barre Times Leader reported, “Some had questioned the conference, which cost the county about $10,000, because it had not been approved in advance.”
In 2008, the year after I returned to Northeastern Pennsylvania after living in California for five years, I heard talk of the former captain’s latest political scheming. In addition to serving on the housing authority, a position to which he brought no related qualifications, he also worked investigating backgrounds of FBI special agent applicants.
I checked his county expense reports, saw discrepancies and called him to say we needed to talk. We met alone in a conference room at the radio station where I then worked. He wanted to talk off the record. No, I said, this time everything is on the record. When I pressed for answers about his expenses he reminded me of the Juanita Todd case as if he had done me a personal favor.
“I went to California to interview DeGraffenreid,” he said.
“You were supposed to go to California to interview DeGraffenreid,” I said.
Accusing me of harassing him, he threatened to take legal action. He stormed out. We never spoke again.
In 2009 this former Wilkes-Barre captain of detectives pleaded guilty to a federal felony in connection to his housing authority work and cooperated with federal prosecutors, providing information against three other public servants who pleaded guilty to federal public corruption charges.
His lawyer told the judge his client should be spared prison because of his distinguished service as a police officer. His lawyer said the detective was devastated he let down the public, his family and himself, and that his otherwise outstanding reputation was now tarnished, the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader reported.
“If we don’t take that (violation of the public trust) seriously it’s silent anarchy,” the judge said before sentencing him to serve two months in prison. “It’s troubling to me that you were a police officer and stooped to this kind of behavior.”
This “distinguished” former police officer was the same man who arrested and charged an innocent Black man with murder – the same man who used his power to control and close the Juanita Todd case by unduly influencing city, county, state and federal law enforcement officers with whom I socialized and regarded as sources.
We drank together. We shot guns on a police combat range together. The detective and I helped convict a white Wilkes-Barre dentist who killed his wife and tried to cover up his crime. When my father, a legendary former Pennsylvania State Police detective, suffered a stroke and he and my mother moved back to Scranton from the Harrisburg area, the detective drove him there as I followed with my mother in my dad’s car.
Yet, despite the good this bad detective did, he disrespected Black people so much he and other white law enforcement officials dismissed Juanita Todd as just another “colored” woman they considered undeserving of a complete and honest investigation into her merciless death.
Biased and reckless from the start, the context of how police handled this case only added to the eventual failure of the investigation. Did police actually test blood, fibers and other physical evidence they found at the crime scene?
Police wrote in their initial report that “A knife was protruding from her right side (abdomen)”. Do Wilkes-Barre police still possess that murder weapon?
Do police have the “small strands of fiber-like material” the autopsy report says the doctor removed from beneath her fingernails and turned over to city police? Do police still have the blood-stained sheet somebody tied around Juanita Todd’s neck? Does DNA exist that can be tested with new and improved technology?
What still exists are suspects.
And not just Douglas DeGraffenreid.
Do police and prosecutors know the person many people believe killed Juanita Todd is alive and well and living in Wilkes-Barre? That alleged perpetrator’s name today is the same as yesterday.
Black Wilkes-Barre has not forgotten.
More than fifty years later truthful answers to these questions remain long overdue.