No one knew her name.
On that Saturday night in 1996 when the woman’s body was found on South Lumpkin Road near Walker Street, just past Columbus’ Oakland Park neighborhood, all police knew was that she’d been shot in the head. They found no identification on her.
The next day, investigators called a press conference — rare for a Sunday — asking if anyone knew the woman, whom they described as black, age 25 to 35, 5 feet 6 inches tall, wearing a multicolored skirt and matching top, black dress shoes, knee-high stockings and, on her left hand, a silver wedding band.
That day they called her “Jane Doe.” The following Monday, they identified her as Joanne Walton, whose 32nd birthday had been the previous Friday, the day before her body was found at 10:20 p.m. Dec. 7, 1996.
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But that’s all investigators would say. “It’s a strange situation,” said Richard Koller, then a major with the police department. He declined further comment.
Three weeks later, police again sought the public’s help, spotlighting Walton’s case in their weekly “Crime Stoppers” report, offering a reward for any tip that would lead to the killer’s arrest and conviction.
In the years that followed, Walton — not one of Columbus’ more prominent homicide victims — was forgotten.
But not entirely: Randy Long remembered her.
“Joanne is who Joanne was,” said Long, today a police corporal. “I remember her out there back in my old patrol days.” He declined to elaborate, out of respect for her family.
For 13 years, Walton’s case was unsolved — until the summer of 2009, when Long, now the police department’s cold-case investigator, charged Jerome Upshaw with shooting her in the head.
Long didn’t have to go hunt Upshaw down. The suspect already was in jail, already charged with murder in another case: the Aug. 24, 2007, death of Anthony Jerome King.
Authorities said Upshaw was riding with an acquaintance the night King, 27, was killed. Upshaw told his friend to stop at a gas station at Old Cusseta Road and Farr Road, where King was buying food.
Upshaw jumped into the passenger’s seat of King’s 1994 Jeep Cherokee, and the vehicle sped away on Farr Road. Upshaw’s confused acquaintance followed in his own car.
Upshaw had a ,38-caliber handgun.
In the 900 block of Farr Road, the Jeep driver’s side door opened, and King tumbled out. He fatally was injured when his head hit the street. Still following the Jeep, Upshaw’s friend called 911, and stayed behind the other vehicle until he lost track of it on Interstate 185.
Police later saw the Jeep run a stop sign and tried to stop it. Upshaw sped away, racing south down Fifth Avenue from 35th Street. He crashed into a utility pole at 32nd Street, jumped out and ran. Officers finally found him hiding in a tree.
Last September, Upshaw was convicted of murder in King’s death and sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison.
“I think the sentence was more than appropriate,” Assistant District Attorney Wayne Jernigan said then. “The man is a cold-blooded killer.”
On June 11, 2009, when Upshaw was brought to Columbus Recorder’s Court for a hearing on Joanne Walton’s homicide, the case got so little notice that Walton’s name still was on a list of victims of unsolved homicides published in the Ledger-Enquirer two weeks ago.
Long said even other police officers were surprised to hear he had charged someone in Walton’s case.
“When I told them, ‘I got this one cleared,’ they said, ‘How? When? Where?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve been telling you guys about it,’” he said.
Like Long, Assistant District Attorney LaRae Moore, who will prosecute Upshaw, would not talk publicly about Joanne Walton’s past. But another investigator said Walton was an alleged prostitute, and that’s how she came to be in Upshaw’s company the night she was killed.
A check of Walton’s Columbus court records showed no prostitution convictions.
Her alleged killer’s criminal record was more extensive, including 1999 convictions for theft by receiving stolen property and possessing cocaine. Other charges related to King’s murder included hijacking a motor vehicle, theft by taking, and possessing a firearm during the commission of crime. Police also added traffic violations: leaving the scene of an accident, reckless driving, striking a fixed object and running a stop sign.
Walton’s killing was not one of Columbus’ more prominent homicides — not like the fatal stabbing of Muscogee school superintendent Jim Burns, which Long cleared May 3, or the bush-ax killings of Ann Curry and her two children, which Long cleared a year ago. Police held no press conference to announce they believed they’d caught Walton’s killer.
So to the public, it may have seemed police and prosecutors had picked only high-profile cases to pursue.
“Cleared” means police closed the case after an arrest. The suspects accused in the Curry, Burns and Walton homicides have not been tried on those charges. Lane and Upshaw have not been indicted by a grand jury. Michael Curry, the husband and father accused of butchering his own family, was arrested on an indictment after investigators gave evidence to a grand jury.
Police said their priority is to go after cases that hold the most promise of success, and Long said figuring that out isn’t difficult: He just listens to old-timers talk about how close they think they came to catching a killer early on.
“I listen to the old guys, and they say, ‘Well, we were this far along and this kind of drew to an end,’ and then I go get curious.” So he looks at the case file: “I’ll go in there and think, ‘Well, these guys were right. Let me go see where we can go to.’”
In the Burns case, police had stopped and questioned their primary suspect within the hour the superintendent bled to death Oct. 19, 1992, in his 620 Broadway home. Until a laboratory matched DNA from the knife to a saliva sample from Kareem Lane, they didn’t have enough evidence to establish Lane was in Burns’ home that night, investigators said.
The Burns case has not been the only one missing a key piece of evidence, said police Maj. Gene Hillhouse, who heads the investigative bureau: “There’s another case or two that’s in that same category.” Detectives will review all Columbus cold cases, but, “We have to do one at a time because of manpower,” Hillhouse said. “In some of the earlier cases, there’s not going to be any evidence, even though we may even have a pretty good idea who did it.... But we go back and try to find those that have potential evidence that we can get tested now, and we will be doing more of that.”
Long started working cold cases full-time in August 2007. Hillhouse hopes that as the department adds more staff to its patrol division, more experienced officers from patrol can move to investigations. Then he can add more to the cold-case unit, now just Long working with Sgt. Harvey Hatcher.
Both Long and Hatcher see investigating homicides as a mission, not just a job.
“Personally, when I became a police officer, I had in my mind that this is what I wanted to do,” said Hatcher, 54, who’s been with the department 25 years. “You’ve got patrol; you’ve got investigations into burglaries and financial crimes, but investigating crimes against people — armed robberies, shootings, cuttings, murders especially — that’s what I wanted to do.”
Colleagues have compared Long to a bulldog who, once he snags something, won’t let it go.“He and I both are like a junkyard dog chewing on a bone,” Hatcher said. “We like to get to the bottom of things.”
Though Hatcher is Long’s immediate supervisor, Long doesn’t need much supervision, the sergeant said: “Randy is highly motivated. I don’t have to look over his shoulder to see if he’s working. If we reach a spot on one case where there’s a delay, he’ll look at another one. I can’t even begin to describe how frustrating it can get at times, but you’ve got to keep on plugging away.”
Long said so far each cold case has taken about 20 months.
He believes God has had a hand in every one.
“I went to a Bible college,” said Long, 49, who’s in his 22nd year with the department. “A lot of my friends became pastors and youth ministers and missionaries and Christian school teachers. Me, I was kind of the black sheep. I wanted to go into the military, and I wanted to be in law enforcement. My favorite programs when I was growing up were ‘Dragnet’ and ‘Adam 12,’ stuff like that.”
He’s not a “super Christian,” he added, though he attends church faithfully. His work may be “something that’s ingrained in me,” he said, noting the name “Randy” (from the root “rand”) means “shield and protector.”
He doesn’t want credit for tracking a case until it can be prosecuted: “At the end of the day, it’s God that gets these resolved,” he said.
Said Hatcher: “Hopefully, with the good Lord’s blessing, we’re going to clear some more.”