'Left behind': Anniston Cold Case Unit reopens unsolved 1972 murder case
by Irin Carmon
Aug 04, 2005 | 419 views |  0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
On her bad days, Tina Morgan wants to sleep at the cemetery, at the grave of the father killed when she was only 4. It's been three decades since Billy James McCarley died by a single bullet, but his daughter still dreams of his face. Now 36, Morgan keeps carefully preserved the documents piecing together bits of her father's life: the birth certificate marked Cleburne County; notice of the Purple Heart received for wounds in Vietnam; poetry written about holding dead friends' bodies in his arms at war.

The papers cannot tell her what she most wants to know: Who killed her father?

No one was charged in McCarley's death, but Anniston police have reopened the case, hoping it's not too late to find his killer.

The city's Cold Case Unit has begun poring over other, more recent unsolved cases. But rarely has it faced the challenges Anniston police Investigator Bruce Butterworth and his supervisor, Lt. Rocky Stemen, do now.

Many involved in the 1972 killing are dead, and memories of the living are faded. Physical evidence is scant.

But the search is on. Police documents obtained by The Anniston Star and a case spanning two states shows this renewed investigation is one last chance at justice.

A changed man

Like so many of his generation, McCarley left Vietnam "a changed man," family members say. On his second tour, a truck explosion perforated an eardrum. Doctors eventually gave up on getting out all the shrapnel embedded in his skin.

With his wife, Christine, and their children, Tina and Billy Jr., McCarley rented a basement apartment on East 23rd Street, in a white shingled house that still stands on exposed cinderblocks.

One night, not long after McCarley's discharge, the family returned from Christine's parents' home in Heflin. Billy had been drinking - wine, his wife later said - and wanted to go out again.

"Billy had cashed his check that day," his wife wrote in a statement to police. "I asked him to let me keep the money because we had bills to pay and I didn't want him buying anything to drink."

Morgan remembers her mother and uncle running to keep the car keys from her father. A little girl, she ran too, joining what she thought was a game.

"I begged him to please come back in and not go," Christine McCarley wrote. "He left that night. I never seen my husband again alive. The man I loved so very much with all my heart."

What's left behind

Last February, police made the 12-hour journey to Orient, Ohio, bearing baby photos. There, Stemen and Butterworth reinterviewed a suspect serving time in state penitentiary on a probation violation.

The suspect was shown cherubic little Tina, cradling baby Billy Junior. He was shown a postcard from a Japanese hospital, assuring Tina she was still Daddy's little girl.

"We wanted to show him what had been left behind," Butterworth says.

In the hours that followed, Butterworth says, the suspect "teared up" several times.

But two weeks away from release, the suspect was adamant: He did not kill Billy James McCarley, and he didn't know who did.

Now a grassy lot, the spot where the Blair Motel stood was once less placid. Run by habitual drug offender Jonas Blair, police say the bar-hotel doubled as a brothel. It was declared off-limits to Fort McClellan soldiers.

The night Christine McCarley lost the battle for the keys, her husband was seen at Blair's buying drinks for the table. With him sat a woman in her 50s named Lena, believed by police to be a prostitute, according to reports filed at the time.

His pay stub from Boyd Brothers Trucking was still in his pocket.

"We speculate that he was flashing money - of which he actually didn't have much," Butterworth says.

Wayne Chandler, now chief of police in Ohatchee, was one of the original investigators on the case. "He happened to be in a place where a lot of white people weren't found in those days," he says.

Chandler recalls testimony that "there were people in the restaurant that resented him being there with a black woman," and who said as much.

What happened next is unclear. McCarley left in a car, apparently with Lena. Conflicting accounts exist about who else was with them and why or where they were going.

A slug ended his life around 1:30 a.m. By the time the ambulance arrived at West 16th Street, Billy James McCarley was dead.

Mending a hole

These days, Tina Morgan finds comfort in military-themed chat rooms, where she talks about grief with soldiers and veterans who remind her of the father she barely knew.

"I pray to mend the hole in my heart," she says.

It was with that mending in mind that she called Anniston police in 2004. Stemen, who answered the call, re-examined McCarley's thin and yellowed file and saw possibilities.

Police practices have come a long way. Back then, Chandler says, neither training nor documentation were standardized.

There were other hurdles.

"It was difficult to get information. McCarley was a white man with a black woman in a black hotel," says Chandler, who, like most Anniston police officers then and now, is white. "There was a reluctance on the part of a lot of folks to give us any information."

Lena, heavily intoxicated for days after the death, was considered an unreliable witness. Later, according to a Star report, police "even helped her get drunk once to try to reconstruct her mental state the night of the murder."

Back then, the victim's wife took matters into her own hands. In her statement, she said she even showed up at Lena's house, her kids waiting in the car. "I asked her why did she leave my husband to die," she wrote.

But by 1977, The Star reported that despite the offer of a $1,000 reward, "the trail was ice cold."

'We're at a standstill'

"Today, things have improved a lot from a forensic point of view, and it's also easier to track people down," says Stemen.

And decades later, someone might be pricked by their conscience and speak up.

So it was that last year, McCarley's children sat in the Anniston police station, wondering whether to revive the search for their father's killer.

They agreed to go forward.

"A lot of my daddy's family, they say, 'Why do you want to rehash this and bring pain upon yourself?" Morgan says. "They say, 'You know, it's not going to bring him back.'"

She's not sure what she wants. An apology? More information?

She would like to know what his last words were.

"If it had anything to do with us… if he was thinking of us when he was dying."

Mostly, though, she wants her father's case investigated thoroughly, because she believes it wasn't before.

"They didn't care about my dad, because he was a nobody," she says. "But not in my eyes. He served in Vietnam twice, whereas there were a lot of people who wouldn't go the first time.

"To me, my dad was a hero. He is a hero."

Chandler says that 30 years ago, he and his fellow investigator did everything they could. Officers now on the case firmly concur.

Several people have been reinterviewed since the investigation reopened. But Lena, like several others who could offer clues, died three years after McCarley. Other witnesses have proved difficult to locate.

"Right now, we're at a standstill," Stemen says.

The team is asking anyone with any information to come forward by calling Anniston Police or Crimestoppers.

"Any time you go back and open up a case that's been unsolved for that many years, you'll have problems, Chandler says.

"But you may get lucky, and I guess that's what they're hoping."

Anniston police Investigator Bruce Butterworth stands at the corner of Dimple Lee O'Neal and West 16th Street. Billy McCarley was found dead in the vicinity of the intersection in 1972. Photo: Kevin Qualls/The Anniston Star

BillyJames McCarley, who was killed in 1972, is shown with his 10-month-old daughter, Tina, and his wife, Christine, in this undated photo. Photo: Special to The Star

Irin Carmon Irin Carmon is a recent graduate of Harvard University.

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