Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Cold Case Archives

May 8, 2011

After nearly 30 years, murder of Mercer County couple remains unsolved

LASHMEET — Headlines on the Bluefield Daily Telegraph’s front page for May 2, 1982 told readers that British and Argentine forces were clashing over the Falkland Islands and that the Polish labor movement, Solidarity, was counter marching during the traditional communist May Day celebration, but there was one brief item marked “Bulletin.” The bodies of a young couple had been found in a home near Wright’s Mountain in Mercer County. A spokesman for the West Virginia State Police said they had been murdered.

No more details were available before press time on the night of May 1, 1982.

In an age of no Internet or 24–hour news cycle, readers had to wait until the May 3, 1982 edition to learn that a relative had found the bodies of Daniel Whitely, 24, and his wife Debra Sue Whitely, 20, in the bedroom of their home.

One of the investigating officers, Trooper S.A. Lester with the West Virginia State Police detachment near Princeton, told the Daily Telegraph that the couple had been shot with a small caliber weapon. When asked if there were any suspects, Lester replied, “Nothing that can be released,” adding that “further details are being withheld due to investigation.”

The bodies were sent to the State Medical Examiner’s Office in South Charleston for autopsies. Details about the joint funeral services were included in the May 3, 1982 story about the murders; the Whitelys had no children.

From there, the story ended, and the case went cold.

Almost 30 years later, the murders of David and Debra Sue Whitely are among the 33 unsolved crimes the West Virginia State Police are checking again for new clues and fresh leads.

Sgt. D.W. Miller Jr., the Princeton detachment trooper assigned to the Whitely case, opened the thick case file. He was only 13 years old when the Whitelys were murdered, so he had only the file for reference. The first step in checking a cold case is to familiarize oneself with the circumstances and the victims.

Born in Bluefield, David Whitely worked for Consolidated Coal Company in McComas and was a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. Miller said he believed that Whitely, a coal miner, worked the night or “hoot owl” shift at the mine.

According to the May 3, 1982 article in the Daily Telegraph, Debra Sue Whitely, born in Princeton, was an assistant manager for the Long John Silvers Sea Food Shoppe in that same city.

The couple’s tan and white trailer home is gone today, but Miller knows where it was located.

He went through the case file. “They had a P.O. box in Lashmeet,” he noted. “It (the home) was on Rock Road, Rock River Road on the Lashmeet end.”

One thing investigators then and now noticed about the scene of the crime is its isolation. To reach the home’s site, it is necessary to go up the road, then run off another road that leads to a field against Wright’s Mountain. The couple didn’t have any neighbors, so nobody saw or heard anything.

“They were found inside the home. I think they had made plans to meet someone that day, I think it was Saturday, and they never showed up. This person went down to check on them later in the day and discovered the bodies. They had been shot,” Miller read from the file.

Robbery appears to be the motive behind the shooting. Miller’s case file lists property that was missing, but he declined to describe it.

The file’s report doesn’t state how many times the couple had been shot or the possible caliber of firearm, but a pistol or small-caliber rifle may have been the murder weapon. Case records may not have all the details that are needed when a cold case is investigated again, so the officer in charge has to search the memories of retired investigators as well as witnesses.

“With it being that old, it’s hard to go off the memory of the troopers who were there,” Miller explained. “I’m getting bits and pieces from them, but it’s still kind of hard to recall from memory. What we basically do is go back through the report, talk to investigating officers if it’s still possible, and maybe get some insight off of what they heard and what they observed, and start reinterviewing witnesses, suspects, anything they had.”

Getting the case before the public again is another step toward solving it. The Whitely case stepped back into the local conscious last February when a story in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph described the new cold case project and the unsolved crimes it would address.

“The last time that we had a piece on the cold case, I had really good responses,” Miller stated. “I had several people call in some really good tips, and we’ve got really strong leads in the case now. I want to put this back out there again and reach out and ask people to please call me if they have any information, even if they feel it’s irrelevant.”

Miller said that the case’s original investigators deserve credit for the leads, but “things happened where they were not able to indict and follow up on it, but hopefully we’re going to be looking at some particular indictments.”

New or missing information can include tips about the crime itself or anything about the victims. Sometimes hearing the case or getting another look jogs memories.

“Even if they talked to the police back then or even in between then and now, it could help,” Miller stated.

Knowing anything about the Whitelys would be helpful too.

“It actually helps tremendously in any type of investigation. It’s best to get background on the victims because that way you can go off the people they knew and the people they associated with. With this being so old, it’s really a good thing to get to know the background of the victims,” Miller added.

Miller has not had any contact with any of the couple’s friends and only one member of the couple’s families, but he did learn that they used to visit with friends at the L & M Market in Lashmeet with other locals; apparently the convenience store had been a local hang out.

Anyone who thinks they have some information can remain anonymous, he added.

“It’s really tough, again, for people to remember the intricate details. It’s been so long, they forget about things. If they didn’t want to help back then, they really don’t want to help right now. It’s kind of tough for people to come forward.”

However, the passage of time changes situations. People who were young and scared when the murders happened may feel differently today. Some tips have already moved the case forward.

“We’ve had some tips and some good information. My feeling is that I’m getting really close to solving this. I want people to know that they can really step up now. Maybe that one little, small piece of information may be the one I’m going to need to really break it and solve this thing.”

Anyone who believes they have any information about the murders of David and Debra Sue Whitely can call 304-425-2102.

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