Hope fades for solving 1954 Delta murder

Saturday, July 9, 2011
Southeast Missourian File Photo Bonnie Huffman

DELTA, Mo. (AP) -- A white wooden cross appeared in the summer of 2007 where Bonnie Huffman's body was found more than five decades earlier. It stood out in the field of tall reeds off Highway N, less than a half mile from Delta High School.

Nobody seemed to know who planted the marker, which was up for a year until weather battered it so badly that her relatives took it down. They never forgot the unsolved murder. Every so often, there were signs like this that others had not forgotten, either.

Travel 95 miles south from St. Louis to Delta today, and you will find the more than 400 residents still theorizing about the killer. Speculation reached a fever pitch in 2004, the 50th year.

Enveloped in the talk were promising leads. A detective followed them all, from Delta to St. Louis. None panned out.

Each passing year meant fewer people alive to provide answers.

For Huffman's family, it has been a tough, emotional journey.

After years of raising money for a reward, they put the $4,248 toward two black, onyx benches as a tribute at Bollinger County Memorial Park Cemetery, where their loved one was buried at age 20.

When her family marked the 57th anniversary, there was no fanfare.

"I don't want it to seem like we've totally given up, but the wind is kind of taken out of the sail," said Huffman's niece Wilma Damlow, 57, of O'Fallon, Mo. "It's like beating your head against the wall. I think I'm tired of getting the bruises."

The first sign of trouble was the discovery of Huffman's gray 1938 Ford on July 3, 1954, abandoned along Highway N. An earring was on the running board, a seat cushion in a ditch. A plastic cap gun lay nearby.

"We assumed the worst right away," recalls Mary Lou Bess, of Perryville, who was with Huffman the night before. "Bonnie was in trouble. We just felt sure."

Huffman, a lanky brunette, graduated as valedictorian of her high school in 1950, while working at Woolworth's to save money to supplement her basketball scholarship to the then-Missouri State Teacher's College in Cape Girardeau.

She had been teaching at the Buckeye School in Old Appleton, a one-room schoolhouse for kindergarten through eighth grade. She was a few days away from a new job at Missouri Utilities Co., which would give her a salary bump to better support her mother and half brother.

"She believed in doing right," Bess said. "She had hopes for the future."

The night before her car was found, Huffman went to the movies with Bess and her husband. Later, they scoured dance halls in vain for Huffman's longtime boyfriend, who had just broken up with her. Huffman headed home after midnight.

She lived eight miles north of Delta with her mother and half brother. About 12:30 a.m., two witnesses saw her driving slowly along Highway 74, with a green 1947 Chevrolet trailing behind.

Two sweltering summer days later, on July 5, her body was found in a culvert a mile from her car and within view of the high school, from which the Missouri Highway Patrol ran the search for her.

Huffman's neck was broken and her jaw dislocated. A torn skirt hem and missing panties suggested rape, although an autopsy could not confirm it.

Townspeople were terrified. They stopped letting children sleep outside on humid nights. Huffman's mother, Lillie Thiele, nailed her house's windows shut.

Police questioned men by the hundreds and administered polygraph tests by the dozens. It was difficult to discern solid tips from tall tales. Two grand juries were empaneled; neither issued indictments. One man was arrested, but charges were dropped on belief he gave a forced confession. The ex-boyfriend had a strong alibi.

Eventually, the investigation grew quiet.

In 2004, Huffman's family held a candlelight vigil. More than 100 people attended, reading poems and setting three candles on the grave. Huffman's half brother, Bobby Thiele, lighted one. He has since died. Her sister, Loeta Eaker, now 79, of Dardenne Prairie, lighted another. The third was saved for Sgt. Eric Friedrich, who was to light it once the mystery was solved.

The cold case caught Friedrich's eye when he joined the Cape Girardeau County sheriff's four-member investigation unit in 1994. He has been working on it since.

The Highway Patrol destroyed most of the physical evidence in 1975, but hope remained of building a circumstantial case. The vigil provided momentum.

Friedrich was particularly interested in an American Legion magazine, dated just days before, found near Huffman's body. It carried the address of a man from St. Louis, who told police he was about 20 miles from Delta that weekend with his nephew. The man couldn't explain how his magazine ended up in Delta. Investigators later learned the nephew was a convicted rapist.

Then there was an anonymous letter, received in 2004 from someone who may have stumbled upon the killing and was afraid to speak up. Its author recalled stopping around 1 a.m. to help someone who pulled over on Highway N, about a half mile from Delta.

"Why I tried to help I will never know, because without the help from God I would have been killed," the document says.

It describes two men --one tall and slim, the other short and sturdy -- who started yelling and tried unsuccessfully to pull the letter writer from his or her car. The writer saw someone in a ditch hollering but drove off in fear. The two men also drove away.

Later, a tip was called in by a man who said that as a child, he was in nearby Allenville, Mo., that weekend with his father and his father's friend, both from St. Louis. He had vague memories of riding with them down Highway N and hearing one say they should have shoved the woman further into a culvert.

He said his father, who drank and was abusive, hid from police when they later came knocking at his grandparents' house in Allenville.

The leads all stood out for their specificity, but each fizzled.

The magazine subscriber has died, and Friedrich was unable to track down the nephew, who has a common name.

The man who called about his father was only 7 at the time of the killing; the father and friend are now dead, as is his mother, the only person who could corroborate the memory.

The person who wrote the letter never came forward.

"I always felt like there were people who knew a lot more than what they were saying," Bess said.

The only remaining physical evidence is a partial fingerprint from Huffman's car, with too little detail to submit to the national database. It is one of Friedrich's many frustrations in dealing with a case from an era when record-keeping and evidence-handling were less careful.

"I know it's been frustrating for the family. It's been frustrating for us as well," the detective said. "I cannot honestly sit here and tell you that something's going to happen in the near future because I'm not as hopeful, either. So much time has gone by."

Damlow, the niece, and her sister, Wanda Ross, 61, of Allenville, have filled almost a dozen binders and notebooks with their own research. They sponsored events trying to drum up new information: a dinner, a bake sale, a silent auction and dance. The last was in 2008.

Purchase of the benches, they said, signals recognition that they have done all they can -- but is not a surrender of hope.

"We have man's law for a reason," Damlow said. "You can't take people's loved ones away from them -- throw them in a ditch -- and not answer for it."

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com

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