The critical information in a murder case is gathered within the first 72 hours.
From there, Clay County Chief Deputy Eddie Scott says, the case begins to get cold.
As the years drag on, witnesses move or die; some evidence is not preserved.
But an unsolved case is never closed.
‘I don’t have any closure’
When Roosevelt Pernell Jr. was arrested for public drunkenness in 2007, his eye was swollen shut and discolored — black, blue, purple.
That was the last time anyone saw him alive.
Several hours after his arrest, he was found dead in his cell from blunt force trauma to the head. He apparently received the blow before being taken into custody.
There are rumors he got into a fight with a woman at the Chanticleer apartments before his arrest.
Debra Pernell Simmons of Michigan still searches for answers in her brother’s death, routinely publishing local ads, soliciting information. Their mother died without those answers.
Now, around the same age as her brother was when he died, Simmons’ efforts continue.
“This has been going on long enough, and I don’t have any closure,” Simmons said.
Simmons is far from alone in her quest for answers in a family member’s death.
More than 20 murder cases in Lowndes, Clay and Oktibbeha counties remain unsolved.
On Nov. 5, 2008, Willam Brown was beaten to death in his Oktibbeha County home. Someone, the sheriff’s department believes, was on a hunt for prescription medication.
Curtis Blissard, 64, was found dead in September 1991, shot multiple times and left in a ditch on West Churchill Road in West Point.
And with daily crime, local law enforcement has their hands full without cracking open old files. But they still remain a priority.
Senior citizen murders
“As long as (it’s unsolved), the case is always open. We’ll always investigate leads,” said Columbus Police Department Lt. Selvain McQueen, commander of the Criminal Investigations Division.
McQueen was “the new kid on the block” when Columbus was plagued by a series of senior-citizen slayings in the late ’90s. Five people were killed between July 1996 and November 1998.
“We followed every lead and spent countless man hours on these (cases), and nothing came to fruition,” McQueen recalled. “A task force was formed that involved surrounding agencies and retried investigators to comb over the case. We had officers that were assigned solely to the murder cases for several months.”
The Columbus Police Department has nine unsolved murders, including the five senior citizens who were killed in the late ’90s — Mack Fowler, Robert Hannah, Louise Randall, George Wilbanks and Betty Everett.
Those cases got national exposure, being featured on an edition of the national television series “48 Hours,” where Columbus was likened to Andy Griffith’s Mayberry. Even with the media exposure, the investigation ran cold.
In 2007, Salina McCoy, then 17, was found by the railroad tracks near Warren Street off Bell Avenue in Columbus in 2007, after being missing for 20 days.
McCoy’s family still lives in the area and continues to plead for clues about her death.
“The families — even though they know they can’t bring ’em back — they want closure,” said Scott, chief deputy for the Clay County Sheriff’s Department.
Family and friends aren’t the only ones burdened by the unsolved cases.
“Law enforcement wants that (closure) too,” Scott added. “We don’t like to leave this stuff behind us.”
Cold case unit finds success
Last year, the Clay County Cold Case Unit offered the Pernell family some closure, solving the 2003 murder of Roosevelt Pernell Jr.’s son, Roosevelt Pernell III, widely known as “Squirt.”
He was shot sniper-style by someone laying on the railroad tacks in West Point. Pernell III was a police informant who was turning his life around, and, Scott added, “he was my friend.”
After the Clay County Cold Case Unit was formed in March 2009, Squirt’s case was the first to be solved. Robert Rupert was arrested for the murder-for-hire and for the shooting death of Carlos Carr, whose body was found in Monroe County in 1994. Rupert remains incarcerated while he waits to go to trial for the killings.
Lowndes County Chief Deputy Greg Wright knew of at least two cold murder investigations in Lowndes County, one of which was a triple homicide.
The Oktibbeha County Sheriff’s Department has three cold cases, two of which the sheriff says he’s sure of killer.
On June 14, 2001, there was a double homicide on 16th Section Road in Oktibbeha County. Michael White and Derick Brantley were killed.
“It was a drug deal went bad, and two people got killed,” Sheriff Dolph Bryan said.
“I know who did two of these,” Bryan said. “I just can’t prove it right now.”
As an investigation gets cold, it gets harder to build a case.
The Starkville Police Department ran into a similar problem.
In 1980, in the Green Oaks area, a woman was beaten to death with a hammer.
It was domestic related, said Starkville Police Chief David Lindley.
“We identified the person, but could never find enough evidence to get him prosecuted,” he said. “We presented a case, and the DA’s office wouldn’t prosecute it at that time.”
Using DNA evidence
The Starkville police have three unsolved murder cases, dating back to 1976 when a woman was strangled to death in her Brooksville Gardens home.
In a 1990 case on Highway 182 — a burglary-sexual assault, where the victim died from knife wounds — forensics was able to establish a DNA profile, but it did not match any of the suspects.
“We’ve eliminated all the suspects we’ve ever had on DNA evidence,” Lindley said.
“A lot of these cold cases all throughout the area, throughout Mississippi, have DNA profiles, but without a suspect to compare it to, it’s really useless information,” said Austin Shepherd, forensic director for the Columbus crime lab.
Through the Combined DNA Index System, where offenders’ DNA profiles are submitted throughout the country, there remains hope the Starkville case and others like it will be solved.
New technology also can take very small quantities of DNA material and replicate the DNA code.
“You’re able to get good, solid DNA profiles from something that we weren’t able to before. That’s pretty new technology, within the past four or five years,” Austin said.
Aside from DNA and other evidence, investigators of cold cases rely on witnesses.
“As cases become older, people that have information, for different reasons, sometimes become more cooperative,” said Lindley.
Clay County’s Scott hopes that will be the case in the investigation into the death of Travis “Buck” Rambus, who was shot to death in the Oasis Club’s parking lot on Highway 45 Alternate in West Point.
“There were hundreds of people in the parking lot,” Scott recalled.
But no one would talk. Police left the scene with 12 different shell casings and zero witness statements.
Regional task force sought
Bobby Grimes, head of the Clay County Cold Case Unit, hopes to secure a Justice Assistance Grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to form a regional task force to work on cold cases full time. The Clay County unit is working about a half-dozen cases, including cases with the West Point Police Department.
“It’s important on these cold cases, to go back and have someone work full time on it, and that would give them the ability to do that,” Lindley said.
“What you have now is small investigative teams for each agency throughout the Golden Triangle area, and what happens is your current crime trend is so heavy, as it is, your investigators are so busy covering current cases,” Austin said. “A regional unit would certainly alleviate that pressure. Someone would have all day to work a case, and that’s what cold cases need. It’s really hard to solve a crime when you’re only able to dedicate a few hours to it.”
Until then, detectives are depending on anyone with information to come forward.