Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

January 1, 2014

Police continue to seek leads in region’s unsolved homicides

By ANNE ELGIN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

PRINCETON — As the year 2014 begins, law enforcement agencies in both Virginias continue to investigate unsolved crimes that happened in the past year, and some dating back 30 years.

The West Virginia State Police started an initiative in 2011 to take another look at cold cases in each of the agency’s districts. Across the state and in Mercer, McDowell and Monroe counties, troopers started looking at unsolved murders and disappearances. Local police departments and county sheriff’s departments also continue to seek new leads in their cold case investigations.

Among the still unsolved crimes in our region:

• The death of a McDowell County woman, whose body was found in Mercer County in 2010, remains unsolved.

Crystal Cantrell, 36, of Welch, was last seen Aug. 6, 2010, on Gardner Road near Spanishburg with Michael Wiseman, according to an earlier report by retired First Sgt. J.R. Pauley, former district commander of the West Virginia State Police Princeton and Welch detachments. Her Ford Explorer was discovered along Gardner Road not far from where her body was found. Investigators have not described how she died.

Years have gone by, but the family remembers Cantrell every day, said her sister, Annette Key, a West Virginia native now living in Ashboro, N.C.

“She’s missed dearly every day and there’s not a day goes by that we don’t think of her, not a day that there’s not a tear shed for her,” Key said.

“We want justice, she was not only a great mother and sister she was the glue that held the family together,” Key said.

• A visitor to  McDowell County was shot and killed July 28, 2007.

 Brindsley Charles Ward, 53, of the Republic of Trinidad, died as a result of a single gunshot wound to the head. His body was found halfway in and halfway out of a front door.

Ward had been in McDowell County for only a matter of weeks before being shot.

• The case of a young Bluefield teenager still remains unsolved after the teen was reported missing in 2004.

Shawn Steptoe, 14, was reported missing May 17, 2004 by his father, Anthony Steptoe. He was living at 213 Union Street, and was last seen on May 17 between 5 and 6 p.m., said the investigator at the time, retired Lt. Tom Helton of the Bluefield Police Department. The teen left a note.

Authorities received tips about sightings of Steptoe in Mercer and McDowell counties, but the information did not lead to him. Then in early March 2005, an East Street resident found an unusual object. Days later, on March 12, 2005, two young boys walking down East Street kicked that object, but did not realize what it was until it rolled down the incline. The boys told their mother, who contacted police about what they had found.

It was a human skull. Police believe that a dog or some other animal brought the skull to East Street, said Lt. C.S. Myers of the Bluefield Police Department. Dental records showed that it belonged to Steptoe.

• Still no charges have been filed in the 2004 disappearance of Barbara Jean Flake of McDowell County.

Flake wasn’t known to leave her house on the old No. 6 Mine Road in the small Jenkinjones community without telling her family and friends.

 That’s why her son grew concerned about his mother’s well-being after not hearing from her in more than a week. Billy Flake searched for his mother on Tuesday, April 9, 2002, only to find an empty and undisturbed house. His mother’s pocketbook was still in the house, but she was nowhere to be found.

Police identified a person of interest in the case, but no charges have been filed to date.

• Authorities still believe there are other parties involved in a 2007 murder at Pinnacle Rock State Park.

Three days after Brenda and Losey “Lee” Bennett’s son shipped off to Afghanistan in September 2007, tragedy struck here at home.

Lee Bennett, a retired West Virginia State Parks employee who had spent his career at Pipestem State Park, was doing electrical work at Pinnacle Rock State Park near Bramwell on Sept. 19, 2007. Although retired, Lee worked part time for the state when the need arose.

On Sept. 20, 2007, authorities found the man near the picnic table area at the state park, where his body had been moved after a vicious assault.

Initially, state troopers worked to discover whether Lee had an accident on the job or if he was the victim of a crime. Doctors at Roanoke, Va., and a medical examiner’s findings determined Lee’s injuries were no accident.

State Police investigators soon found a suspect, Benny Ray Roberts Sr., 53, of Brushfork, who was convicted of the crime.

While police are certain Roberts was guilty of the crime, they do not think he acted alone on that autumn afternoon.

“Through the information we gained at that time and since then, we feel another party or parties were involved,” First Sgt. Pauley said in an earlier interview.

• Another case amoung unsolved murders was a  a convenience store clerk who was shot and killed at a local store.

Few clues were available then, and today investigators are still seeking fresh information that could lead them to who murdered 39-year-old Sandra Worrell of Bluefield.

 The case started at 7 a.m. on Jan 29, 1989, when Trooper K.J. Foreman of the West Virginia State Police detachment near Princeton responded to a call at the Little General Store on Oakvale Road. Worrell, a mother of two children, had been shot and killed. She was found behind the store's counter.

• A fatal 2004 pedestrian accident in Mercer County also remains unsolved.

Ryan Leeper, 26, of Princeton, was the victim of a hit-and-run incident at 3:30 a.m. on Aug. 1, 2004, along Route 20 near Melrose Square, but he did not die immediately. A Princeton resident saw him when emerging from a fog bank during those early morning hours. Traveling at 25 mph, he was unable to stop in time and hit him. The motorist parked in a nearby driveway and went back to help Leeper, flagging down cars and calling Mercer County 911.

A suspect vehicle was later found. Some evidence was removed from it and tested, but the tests were inconclusive, First Sgt. Pauley said in an earlier report.

— Contact Anne Elgin at aelgin@bdtonline.com