By SAMANTHA PERRY
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
We often remark how a day, a week, a month goes by so quickly. “In the blink of an eye,” we say, noting how our calendar pages are turning so swiftly. Before you know it, a year has passed, then two — and then a decade.
Items once on the front burner are now gathering dust at the bottom of the to-do list. As time passes priorities change. It’s a reality of life.
But recently the West Virginia State Police began a new initiative to move cold cases from decades past back to the top of the priority list. Unsolved cases from years ago are now being looked at again by new faces and fresh eyes.
And today, the Daily Telegraph launched a new series, Cold Case Sunday. Working with the state police, we’re proudly putting these decades-old homicides back in the public spotlight.
When the Daily Telegraph first received word of the prioritizing of cold cases weeks ago, I was excited. As an admitted fan of “City Confidential” and other crime documentaries, I love the thought of catching a criminal and closing a case that was once unsolved.
We ran a story about the new initiative and then, within a day or two of its publication, I had a thought: Why not run a weekly series spotlighting each of these cold cases. I contacted First Sgt. J.R. Pauley, who heads the West Virginia State Police Princeton Detachment, and pitched my idea. He liked it, but had one request: give them a few weeks to become familiar with the cases and alert victims’ families of the renewed investigation.
I respected the request. Family members of victims should never be alerted to a new investigation via the community newspaper.
Last week, Sgt. Pauley called back. They were ready to talk about the cases. And we were ready to put them in the spotlight.
The first case, featured on today’s front page, involved the murder of a young couple in Lashmeet in 1982. Daniel Whitely, 24, and his wife, Debra Sue Whitley, 20, were murdered in their home near Wright’s Mountain.
Interestingly, the new investigator on this case is Sgt. D.W. Miller. When the double murder occurred some 25-plus years ago, Sgt. Miller was a classmate of mine and the husband at Montcalm Junior High School. When the crime transpired we were all aware of it, but it wasn’t a priority to we young teens.
Now, years later, paths have again crossed to shine the spotlight on a decades-old homicide in the greater Rock Valley area.
If you’re not familiar with the greater Rock Valley area, it’s no surprise. It’s a phrase I attempted to coin years ago with no success. Now I’m the only one who uses it.
Rock Valley refers to the many small communities in Mercer County through which the Bluestone River meanders and leaves distinctive rock cuts. Bramwell, Duhring, Montcalm, Rock, Matoaka, Lashmeet, Spanishburg — all are a part of the Rock Valley region.
As a resident of Duhring, people often refer to crimes in the Bluestone River area as having occurred in my “neck of the woods.” True, but regrettably, my “neck of the woods” has no broad term to describe it — yet. I still have hope Rock Valley will catch on.
Although a fan of TV crime shows, I also realize how many such programs do not accurately depict what it’s like in the real world.
On CSI (Las Vegas, Miami or New York), cases are usually wrapped up neatly in an hour. Evidence is processed by a staff of several investigators focused on a single crime. Fingerprints and shoe prints are analyzed in minutes. DNA samples are processed during a commercial break.
If only it were that easy. In West Virginia and Virginia, crime labs are backlogged. DNA samples can take months to process. A couple of years ago, one local prosecutor told me that crime lab officials, when given evidence, would ask the question, “When is your court date?” The unspoken meaning: We’ll try to have your evidence processed by the time you go to trial.
It’s easy for the public to criticize local law enforcement agencies, but many residents do not understand the challenges these men and women face daily.
In Bluefield, we hear a lot of complaints about drug dealers and, specifically, why “they’re not arrested.” While television dramas show criminals handcuffed and carted off to jail for suspicion of criminal activity, it’s not so simple. One has to have proof of drug dealing to make an arrest and win the case in court.
Even an arrest for marijuana possession is not as easy as one might think. Although an officer can have more than 20 years experience on the job — and know marijuana when he sees it — that’s not good enough for court. He must have a qualified chemist testify that it is indeed pot, and not dried parsley.
Knowing the challenges police officers face, we’re eager to present Cold Case Sunday to the public. It’s our hope someone, somewhere, may have a tip that cracks one of these cases.
After a horrific crime occurs, some individuals who have information on the case are too scared or intimidated to come forward. They may be afraid of retaliation. But after years pass, this fear may be overtaken by the desire to do what’s right, and help bring a murderer to justice.
Throughout the coming weeks, the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, in cooperation with the West Virginia State Police, will be bringing readers detailed information on cold cases across Mercer and McDowell counties. We encourage our readers to take note of these stories, and contact officials if they have any information that may be helpful in solving the crimes.
The victims of these crimes have no voice. Let’s hope someone will speak up for them.
Samantha Perry is managing editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.