Homicides in Smyth County are relatively rare, and unsolved ones rarer still. Cases may grow cold, but they are never closed, according to county investigator Captain Chip Shuler who said cold cases continue to be investigated no matter how long they have gone unsolved.
Almost 35 years ago, the name Sharon Blankenbeckler was on the lips of many Smyth Countians following her disappearance from the then-Kmart parking lot and the discovery of her body on Walker Mountain.
Recently, a cousin of hers mailed the News & Messenger a letter referring to the 1977 case and said, “Surely, there is evidence that was collected and can now be checked with the new technology of today, such as DNA.” The letter then asks how many cold cases are in the files.
Shuler said there are only three unsolved homicide cases in the county in the past 30 years. A police officer is assigned to stay on each case and continue to look for leads and information.
Shuler said the state forensics lab has told him it is willing to review the evidence in the Blankenbeckler case and apply technology unavailable 35 years ago, like DNA analysis.
“DNA’s brought us to the front on a lot of things,” said Shuler.
“I would really like to get it [solved] for the sheriff before he leaves,” Shuler said.
Re-elected in November 2011 and a young deputy in 1977, Sheriff David Bradley has said this will be his last term.
“We’re not giving up on it,” Shuler said, noting that persons of interest 35 years ago are still of interest.
Recently, Shuler briefly considered as a person of interest a serial killer who was grabbing national headlines prior to Blankenbeckler’s murder, the notorious Ted Bundy, who is thought to be responsible for the deaths of possibly 100 women.
For Shuler, hallmarks of Bundy’s known murders, for which he was executed in the electric chair, matched details of Blankenbeckler’s disappearance and murder, including his preference for women who parted their hair in the middle.
But the dates in Bundy’s timeline eliminated him as a suspect, Shuler said. Blankenbeckler disappeared while Bundy was in jail awaiting trial.
The 2006 death of Paige Odom in Chilhowie remains an open case after a special grand jury investigating the death reported this summer it found “insufficient evidence to establish probable cause for a charge of unlawful killing of Paige Odom.”
At first thought to have been the result of an accidental fall down stairs at the house she rented, the cause of Odom’s death was listed as “undetermined” in the autopsy report from the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
But the report also said, “The injuries on the extremities were very atypical for a fall mechanism and much more suggestive of a fight and/or some form of physical restraint. In addition, on the right wrist a circular contusion with linear components was present suggestive an object or ligature was applied. The officers attending the autopsy did indicate that an ornate bracelet with a floral pendant was found in another room on the floor. The hand and finger injuries are consistent with self defense injuries.”
“The findings are highly suspicious for a violent death,” the autopsy concluded.
The third unsolved case is the disappearance and murder of Barbara Jean Pauley Hunt, although Shuler said it is filed under missing persons.
According to the Doe Network, Hunt went missing Jan. 17, 1985, at the age of 25. Hunt was last seen by her sister who saw her walking down Marion’s Main Street the day she disappeared. Hunt was said to be crying. She was to report to jail that day and said police wanted her to give information about friends, but Hunt opposed serving as an informant.
Reports said Hunt went to the Club Cafe on Main Street and that four girls took her out of the club and that Hunt “was pretty doped up.” One of the women had a flat tire, so they borrowed a car. A couple of hours later they returned the car and Hunt was not with them.
On June 9, 1995, a Chilhowie man was arrested for Hunt's murder, but a jury was unable to reach a verdict in the case.
In a second missing person case, Donald Ray Billings was last seen walking away from the scene of a car accident he had on Feb. 14, 1997. Billings crashed his car on Highway 16 near Hungry Mother Grocery, the Doe Network reported. He told a man at the scene he was all right and did not appear to be injured, the witness told the sheriff's office. Billings, 30 at the time, started walking down the road toward Mitchell Valley and has not been heard from since.
When he disappeared Billings stood between 5'6" and 5'8", weighed 150-160 lbs., and had brown hair and brown eyes. Distinguishing characteristics include a distinctive gap between his upper front teeth, and he was uncircumcised, the Doe Network reported.
The Doe Network is “a volunteer organization devoted to assisting law enforcement in solving cold cases concerning unexplained disappearances and unidentified victims from North America, Australia and Europe,” its website said.
According to Shuler, current and new cases keep the sheriff’s staff busy, allowing little time for review of files in old cases.