By LUCY PERRY
Times Staff Writer
David Thomas likes to think about the victories he's seen within the county court system as he enters his third term as Clay County Prosecutor. But, it's an unfortunate reality that the unsolved crimes linger in his mind while an entire community continues to ponder what happened in those instances.
"There are a lot more murders that have been solved and the criminals convicted," Thomas said, pointing out that within the criminal justice system, sometimes things don't always work out that way. "But, people still hope that there's a way they'll be solved," he added.
The double homicide of Tanya Pickett and her step-father Ricky Mustard in 1988; the Jennifer Stochram murder of 1997; and the fatal stabbing of Alvy Smith Jr. in February are just a few mysteries that have investigators continuing to think on their feet. Pickett, Mustard, and Smith lived in Brazil at the time of their deaths. Stochram was a Harmony resident when she was killed.
Although some murder cases can remain unsolved for several years, they are never forgotten. Whatever evidence investigators have gathered in the unsolved cases, officials won't say.
"It's typical -- every county has that situation," he said regarding the pieces yet to fall into place in the murder puzzles.
At any crime scene, the most significant effort of investigating crews comes from collecting the physical evidence. Thomas said, because of improved ballistics and DNA evidence, investigations usually go smoother in light of recent technology than was capable years before. The key lies in finding that physical evidence and then, hopefully, a motive and a suspect.
"The immediate thing we look for is physical evidence when doing a search of the scene, like a firearm," Thomas stressed. "You have to preserve the evidence."
That type of evidence has panned out in some Clay court convictions over the years. Justice was reached when John Wallace and Robert Notter were convicted in the 1996 slaying of Joanne Cooper and when the Danny Miller murder of 1998 landed these four people in prison: Norman Johnson; Matt Hutchison; James Barrett; and Matt Selsam. Miller was from Art, Ind. Tony Banet was sentenced concerning the death of Brandon Custis, of Poland, in 2000. Those are just a few of the victories the county claims. But, what about the others, the ones that keep the community guessing about the at-large killers?
While Clay County Sheriff Rob Carter likes to think about the successful convictions in the solved cases and stresses that no stone is ever left unturned in any of the others, he indicated that although the Stochram murder case has hit a stand-still, it remains a priority for the department.
From his experience, many of the wrapped up investigations point to the same motive: Drugs.
"Seems like it's definitely a pattern -- they're killing each other over drugs," he said.
Brazil Police Chief Terry Harrison said the unsolved murders are continually being investigated. Some crimes take longer to be solved than others. He boasts that the city police have a pretty good arrest record.
"With most murders, you don't usually get an arrest on the spot," he said, explaining the process to find evidence and a motive can, and often does, take years.
Generally, it all depends on what police find at the time of the incident. Harrison agrees with Thomas that looking for physical evidence at the crime scene is a top priority when a crime scene technician investigates. Witnesses must be interviewed and police start to backtrack. If investigators don't arrive to find a suspect with a smoking gun in his hand, discovering what happened and who did it becomes a mission for everyone involved. Harrison says that requires a lot of footwork.
"In any case, the longer and colder the case gets -- sometimes years and years later -- they're still on the front burner for us," he said, adding Brazil's no different than anywhere else. Murders and suicides and attempted murders and suicides are subjects every community must tackle.
Smith is the most recent unsolved murder in the minds of Clay County residents.
"It's not going too bad," said an optimistic Harrison about that particular investigation. "We're currently weeding out information from our sources." He declined to comment on any information they've received regarding that case or the Pickett and Mustard case except the department is eager to solve them.
"They're both open and active cases. We'd like to get them solved," Harrison said.