Amid obvious challenges surrounding the investigation of an unsolved homicide (cold case) from 1980, Vernon Parish Sheriff's Office (VPSO) detectives are determined to bring 15-year-old Mary Darlene Howard's killer, or killers, to justice.
Darlene’s mother, Wanda Howard, wants to know what happened, why and who murdered her daughter. “She is still emotionally devastated,” VPSO Lead Detective Rhonda Jordan said. “She is so hungry for closure. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for her.”
Friday, April 27 was the 38th year since the discovery of Darlene’s body.
“Darlene lived in Mike’s Trailer Park with her grandmother, mother and two brothers,” VPSO Detective Jerry Twyman said.
“She was reported missing on April 15, 1980 after her grandmother sent her to mail a letter,” Sheriff Sam Craft said. “She disappeared after walking to a mailbox in close proximity to her home.”
Her body was found 12 days later on April 27, 1980 on West Boundary Road in the Sandy Hill area approximately two to three miles away from her home.
“We think her case is solvable,” Jordan said.
Of the other four cold cases VPSO has opened, Darlene’s differs in that they took place six to 10 years later. All of the other victims were also in their 20s and were similar in appearance. Unlike the others, Darlene’s perpetrator also seemed to be someone she knew. The others were picked up from convenience stores. “We can’t rule out that her killer may have been a stranger,” Jordan said.
The other cold cases are Bambi Brantley, reported missing in 1986, remains not found; Karen Hill, reported missing and remains located in 1988 – her case has been solved and her murderer, Samuel Galbraith is in prison; Pam Miller, reported missing and remains located in 1989; and Tammy Call, reported missing in 1990, remains located in 1997.
Galbraith was in the Vernon Parish area during the time Miller and Call went missing, making him a possible suspect.
The manner of Darlene’s death is indicative of a crime that was very personal in nature. She was stabbed multiple times and she suffered defensive wounds to her arms, leading investigators to believe that she fought for her life.
Darlene’s clothing was found strewn about the forest.
“We can’t rule out the possibility that she may have been sexually assaulted,” Jordan said.
Darlene’s body was in the woods for 12 days. This makes it more difficult to gather DNA, due to decomposition and exposure to the elements. However, there are situations where DNA is preserved and accessible. “It’s a big task to catch someone from 38 years ago, but it’s possible” said Twyman.
Darlene’s shirt and pants were recovered from the scene and stored in evidence in 1980. These items will be sent to a crime lab for testing. Investigators also found a beer can at the scene which will also be tested.
“VPSO cannot rule anyone out as a suspect but the nature of the crime is very personal and Darlene would have been face to face with her killer during the incident,” Craft said. “VPSO fears that Darlene’s killer was someone close to here – someone she trusted.”
The cold case team is reviewing case documentation and have already began re-interviewing all persons associated with the case.
Darlene’s family members and they have assisted in the investigation.
VPSO speaks with Wanda at least once per week. She has been instrumental in providing information relating to the case.
Wanda refers to Darlene as “Sissy” which is a nickname her family used for her.
“During the many phone calls between detectives and Wanda, she always asks if they have any news on Sissy’s case,” Craft said.
Evidence which has been in storage for nearly four decades is being organized and reassessed.
Craft said they are announcing this 38th year since Darlene’s body was found because they are hoping members the public can help.“We would greatly appreciate the public’s assistance as we attempt to resolve these cases for both the victims and their families,” said Craft.
Detectives Jordan and Twyman are seeking any information that people might have regarding the case. They can be reached at 337-238-7248.