Friday, Sep 24, 2010 Posted on Thu, Sep. 23, 2010
SEARCHING FOR JANIE’S KILLER
By MARGARET BAKER
PASCAGOULA — Janie Sanders met her killer on a chilly September afternoon 35 years ago today.
The 16-year-old was walking home from Colmer Junior High when she was abducted, raped, stabbed to death and dumped like garbage in a makeshift trash heap off a dirt road just across the state line in Grand Bay, Ala.
To this day, her killer remains at large — something Pascagoula police are hoping to change with the help of forensic technology and new leads in the case.
“We need to get this guy off the streets no matter how long it takes,” said Detective Darren Versiga, who is among those taking another look at the case. “I believe there is somebody still out there who knows something and is bothered about it. You can’t conceal this type of crime for 35 years and not have told somebody about it. We’ve eliminated a lot of the old suspects.”
Police are poring through the more than 3,000-page case files and digging up DNA evidence, among other things, to try to link the killer to the crime. In addition, Versiga said, investigators have now ruled out certain evidence that at the time of the killing seemed so relevant that other pertinent leads went mostly unnoticed.
For days after the Sept. 24, 1975, killing, police investigators set their sights on finding a red Mustang a witness said she’d seen Sanders getting into the day she vanished. At least four days passed, former investigators Billy Johnson and Judson Brooks said, before they determined the witness was in school detention the day Sanders went missing and had mistakenly recalled an earlier event. There was no red Mustang.
“The red Mustang was the red herring,” Versiga said. “We’re now looking for a blue (Chevrolet) El Camino with a silver camper and large whip CB antenna on it. It was seen leaving the area where Janie was dumped and unfortunately we never capitalized on that information because of the red Mustang.”
That and other new details in the case are among the clues detectives are chasing to help solve the murder that has baffled authorities for more than three decades. Jane Westmoreland is holding out hope police this time around will finally identify the person responsible for her daughter’s brutal killing.
“I was in shock over this for years,” said Westmoreland, now a resident of South Texas. “I couldn’t cry. It traumatized me something awful. I can cry now and that’s healing a little bit. I just still can’t understand why. Why? It would mean everything in the world if they could find out what happened. Someone, somewhere knows what happened. Someone knows.”
The day Janie disappeared
The last hours of Janie Sanders life were spent in school at Colmer Junior High School in Pascagoula. When the bell rang at 3 p.m. that day, Sanders headed to her locker and met up with best friend, Robin Goodin Rivera, now a 51-year-old resident of South Alabama.
It was a day like any other, Rivera said, with the two leaving the school together as they always did to make the long walk home.
The pair took the same path home every day, she said, cutting through the back of the school property to get onto Chicot Road before making their way to Sculpin Avenue and heading east until they reached Martin Street and then Lanier Avenue, where Rivera lived.
Along the way, Rivera got chilly and asked to borrow her best friend’s white sweater. “It was just a normal day,” she said. “We were just walking home, talking girl stuff. When I got home, I realized I still had her sweater and ran back out to take it to her.”
By that time, she said, her friend was just a couple of houses down from the intersection of Lanier Avenue and Louise Street. “I gave her the sweater and said good-bye,” she said. “I turned around and ran back to my house. That’s the last time I saw Janie. She was going home.”
Sanders, she said, was a little more naive than most and likely trusted the person who picked her up that day. Police believe Sanders knew her killer or at least knew of him. Rivera was among those who went through intense interrogations with police investigators at the time because she would never admit seeing a red Mustang the day her friend disappeared.
Another witness saw Sanders make the turn off Lanier Avenue, heading south along Louise Street toward her home about a half-mile away. It was around 3:25 p.m., Versiga said. Around 4:15 p.m., an Alabama game warden patrolling an area a little more than a mile into Mobile County saw a blue El Camino, now believed to be the killer’s vehicle, driving out of a wooded area off Grand Bay Wilmer Road (formerly known as McGowen Road) in west Mobile County. The area was used as an illegal trash dump.
The game warden, now deceased, was out posting no-trespassing signs, former investigators said, and decided to go see what the person in the El Camino had dumped there. What he found was Sanders’ nude and lifeless body.
He called it in at 4:25 p.m. In a span of less than a hour Sanders had been picked up, raped, stabbed to death and dumped in an area about 28 minutes away from where she disappeared. Her estimated time of death was 4:05 p.m. Her clothing and school books were never found.
She’d been stabbed repeatedly, Versiga said, but blood evidence at the scene confirmed she was not killed there. Mobile County authorities handled the death investigation, with Pascagoula police working the kidnapping in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which continue to assist in the murder investigation.
Authorities suspect the killing occurred somewhere en route to the dump site. The path authorities described went along Louise Street, Orchard and Industrial roads, U.S. 90 and Franklin Creek Road in Jackson County and into Mobile County along Gaston Loop Road before ending at Grand Bay Wilmer Road.
Those who knew and loved Sanders, as well as others who grew up in the area where she disappeared, are hoping authorities this time around are able identify the person responsible for the killing.
For them, their memories of that day are as vivid now as they were in 1975.
“I was pretty small when Janie came up missing,” said longtime Lanier Avenue resident Derwood Alexander. “I remember being out in the yard the day it happened. The whole neighborhood was shocked. They just couldn’t believe something like that would happen. Everybody was more cautious.
“I have always wondered what happened over the years. To me, it seems like it was just yesterday. I was younger so I really didn’t know Janie that well. I just knew of her. She didn’t deserve that. It’s a case that’s always been in the back of my mind — the mystery of who did it.”
After the killing, Alexander and other children were no longer allowed to play freely with friends in a neighborhood they once felt safe in. Parents feared the killer would one day return to claim his next victim.
Versiga said authorities have, in fact, confirmed a man showed up at the school two days before the abduction and approached a child leaving a restroom, to ask if she’d take a ride with him. She didn’t, and the incident was reported to police.
“This predator was looking for any female,” Versiga said.
“Any of our children in Pascagoula could have been a victim that day. Janie was the unlucky one.”
Hoping for closure
Paula Hill and Kathy Prince, two of Sanders’ eight siblings who now live in Texas, keep their sister’s memory alive, just as the rest of the family does. After her death, they said, their lives changed forever as they tried to come to terms with their sister’s abduction and savage demise.
Prince was 10 years old at the time and still fondly recalls how her sister Janie took more of a motherly approach with her, always taking time out to brush her hair or play dolls with her.
“She wanted to sew and do the housewife stuff and wanted to grow up and be somebody’s wife at some point and be a parent,” Prince said. “We were all very close.”
What happened, family members say, affected their lives in a way they can only now truly comprehend.
“It affects you for the rest of your life,” Prince said. “I remember not being allowed to go anywhere alone for like a year and a half. Even now, it affects how I sleep. It affects how I feel about being alone in a house. It affect how you talk to people. It affects your sense of security. It makes you realize the world isn’t necessarily a safe place. Nothing in your life can ever be the same again. She was one girl out of five in our immediate family, but was unique as each of us were. There is no replacing her and to lose her was devastating, especially for my mom. She deserved a long life. She deserved better than this. But even after this many years, we have not forgotten her. Janie had a role to play in this family, and no one can take her spot.”
Hill echoed the sentiment, noting her late sister was simply a typical 16-year-old. Their mother said Janie was somewhat precocious and didn’t always listen very well, like most teens, but loved to draw, paint and sew occasionally. Retired investigators Johnson and Brooks said they, too, are hoping to soon find resolution in a case they’ve wanted to solve for years.
“It’s the only case of mine that remained unsolved when I retired in 1984,” Brooks said. “You never forget something like that. It bothers you. I don’t care who solves it. I just want it solved.”http://www.sunherald.com/2010/09/23/v-prin...ies-killer.html