(LAURA SIMON ~ firstname.lastname@example.org) [Order this photo]
Deborah Manning's best friend, Sharon Rucker, chokes back tears as the dark-eyed boy scampers through dappled sunlight at Cape County Memorial Park, clutching a handful of baby's breath.
"He knows that Grandma's with Jesus and that a bad man made it where he can never see his grandma" -- Rucker's voice breaks -- "and that if we're all good someday, we'll get to be with her."
Mason's mother, Amanda Manning, was just a year older than he is on the hot, misty July night when her mother's nude body was found stabbed to death on a dark, lonely road between Chaffee and Delta, Mo.
"I remember being at my grandma's on the Fourth of July, doing the celebration, and I just remember us going home with Dad that night, and next morning coming back, and ... as soon as we got back in the door, my aunt grabbed me," Manning said.
An off-duty Chaffee police officer found her body a little after 12:30 a.m. July 5.
What happened in the intervening two and a half hours is a mystery that has haunted Rucker for 30 years.
"If this man is still out there, if he's not dead … would he come back and hurt one of these kids? Has he hurt other women? How many other mothers has he killed for nothing?" Rucker wonders.
Amanda Manning doesn't remember much about her mother.
"Nothing, really," she said. "Just what I've heard. Little bits and pieces. Just what I've been told or what I've heard."
Rucker recalls her friend's skills in the kitchen.
The two women met in 1975, when their husbands worked for a trucking company in Paducah, Ky. The Mannings invited Rucker and her husband over for chili.
"Best chili maker in the world," Rucker said. "She had her own recipe, and I loved it."
Amanda Manning said her mother's death made her father and older brothers, who were 10 and 7 at the time, unusually protective.
"They still hover over me like I'm a 16-year-old kid driving for the first time. ... If they don't hear from me within a day or two, they're looking for me," she said.
"They're terrified of something happening," Rucker added.
Amanda Manning and Rucker said her father did a good job raising his children on his own, but a girl still needs her mother.
"She left three small children to be raised without a mother, and nobody loves you like Mama," said Rucker, who hasn't given up hope that her best friend's killer will be brought to justice.
"I've prayed for 30 years that they find him, and I prayed since 1983 for my husband to get saved, and he got saved last week, so I'm not giving up," she said.
Lt. David James of the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department hasn't given up, either, although he suspects investigators' best opportunity to solve the case may have slipped by three decades ago.
The Cape Girardeau County-Bollinger County Major Case Squad, formed in May 1983, was just a few weeks old when Deborah Manning was killed.
James said her death should have been the squad's first investigation.
"I think that the Major Case Squad would have had a better chance of clearing the homicide at the time," James said. "You had some experienced officers working on the case, but maybe not enough, because the case drug out several months."
Months turned into years, and years turned into decades. Officers still pull out the case file and look at it now and then, and James said investigators plan to re-interview some witnesses this summer, but in a homicide investigation, time is the enemy.
"Obviously the first 48 hours after a homicide occurs is the best time to try to solve the case," he said.
The Major Case Squad brings together officers from different jurisdictions to concentrate their efforts on a single investigation. The extra manpower lets them quickly pursue multiple leads, James said.
In the Manning case, the squad could have been particularly helpful in interviewing witnesses at a bar the victim apparently visited the night she died.
"What you had was officers talking to a lot of persons who had been intoxicated at the bar, and they had problems with their memories," James said.
The time-consuming process eventually turned up a lead: Witnesses had seen Deborah Manning with two men at the now-defunct Candlewick Bar shortly before she disappeared.
Police identified the men, know their whereabouts, and even checked their DNA against fluid samples collected from some of the victim's clothing that was found scattered along the road where she died, James said, but they don't have any solid evidence connecting them to the crime.
"Obviously if we had DNA for the case, and it matched the suspects, we'd have an arrest," he said.
The source of some of the DNA still has not been identified, James said.
Is that source the killer? Finding the answer may hinge on old-fashioned sleuthing, he said.
"It really boils down to the old gumshoe detective. You've got to get out there, and you've got to ask questions, and you've got to talk to people," James said. "Basic police work sometimes is the best."
Someone knows the answer to detectives' questions. Rucker is sure of it.
"Somebody knows something," she said.
"They have to," Amanda Manning agreed.
The person who holds the key to the case may not even realize it, James said.
"People who think they might have one piece of information may be able to call that in or come in and talk to us about it. That may be what breaks open the case," he said. "... Even if it doesn't seem important, it may be to us."
James said anyone with any information pertaining to Deborah Manning's disappearance or death -- however insignificant or far-fetched it may seem -- should call 243-3551.
"That one thing somebody gives us a tip on -- that may help solve the case," he said.