Last week Springfield journalist Ron Davis wrote a story for the Daily Citizen about the city’s most famous cold case: the Three Missing Women.
He described it as “the biggest crime in Springfield history.”
Ranking Springfield crimes certainly is a subjective endeavor.
But I immediately thought of the abduction, rape and murder of 10-year-old Hailey Owens in 2014. The brazenness and brutality was a gut punch to the city, prompting an estimated 10,000 people to march along Commercial Street in memory of Hailey.
I was there that night, as was newsroom colleague Jackie Rehwald.
Another big Springfield crime is one that avoided many front pages across the nation only because the Great San Francisco Fire of 1906 happened at about the same time; it was the 1906 lynching of three Black men seized from the Greene County jail by a white mob and killed on the downtown square.
Regarding the Three Missing Women, June 7 will mark 30 years since Stacy McCall, Suzie Streeter, and Suzie’s mother, Sherrill Levitt, vanished from Levitt’s Springfield home.
A true-crime podcast called “The Springfield Three: A Small-Town Disappearance” by Anne Roderique-Jones has been wildly popular.
Clearly, an unsolved case holds interest longer than one where we generally know what happened, whodunit and justice has been served.
Stacy and Suzie had just graduated from Kickapoo High School.
“Vanished” really isn’t the right word but it’s the most accurate if you truly believe there is even a chance that they left of their own accord.
The logical conclusion is that they were abducted and murdered.
But what drives our curiosity is that no one knows how or why.
No one has ever been charged. Their bodies have never been found. We don’t know the details of their final hours.
In a way, maybe it’s best that their loved ones are spared that horror.
We certainly know the details of the death of Owens and that’s what makes us tremble when we dare consider the horror she endured.
The murder of Hailey Owens is no cold case. Craig Wood, now 54, is one of 20 Missouri prisoners on Death Row.
I met Wood and interviewed him in May 2017 while he was in the Greene County jail. Later that year he would be convicted of murder in November and sentenced to death in January 2018.
I believe the only reason Wood’s attorney, Patrick Berrigan, allowed the interview was because he was searching for a way to show that his client was also a man, a human being — not just a monster. It was a long-term play to spare Wood’s life.
What’s happening with Wood now?
Berrigan was present during that interview. He wore a blue tie with the words “Not Guilty” on it.
The jury that convicted Wood could not reach a unanimous decision on whether he should be executed. So Judge Thomas Mountjoy made that heavy decision.
Perhaps Wood’s best legal avenue to avoid execution is the fact that only Missouri and Indiana allow a judge to sentence a defendant to death when a jury can’t make a unanimous decision. In other states, the lack of a unanimous decision by jurors means life in prison.
Valerie Leftwich, Wood’s current attorney, tells me the Missouri Supreme Court has upheld Wood’s death sentence. She has filed a post-conviction motion challenging the conviction and death sentence.
The issue of Missouri’s execution law — allowing a judge to make the decision when a jury cannot — will likely be raised again should the case go before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“You have to first exhaust all your possible state remedies,” she says.
Wood does not have an execution date and Leftwich declined to provide any information on his current health.
According to the Department of Justice, it takes an average of about 15 years from when a defendant is sentenced to death and the execution. Less than a quarter of all people sentenced to death are actually executed.
That’s because a death sentence comes with a lengthy process of appeals and review.
What I don’t know is how many of those sentenced to death actually die in prison before their execution date.
Fifteen years after his death sentence, Wood will be 65 years old.
Meeting Wood face to face
When I met Wood there was no sense of looking Evil Incarnate in the eye.
He’s a big guy and looked like he’d just had his hair cut. I noticed his large, powerful hands and imagined them snatching a little girl off the streets.
I was glad there was a glass partition between us, separating me from any potential decision on whether to shake his hand should he offer it.
Berringer wanted me to agree in advance to what I would not ask his client. Instead, since Berringer would be there, I suggested that he instruct his client accordingly should he not like a question.
What happened next with my jailhouse interview with the Most Hated Man in Springfield was one of the most bizarre experiences in my journalism career and a lesson in how not to market a newspaper or a news story.
The News-Leader, then my employer, planned to market my exclusive upcoming story on billboards across the city. It was the first time they’d considered such a marketing strategy.
Thankfully, my face wasn’t on the billboard
That sounded good to me.
I even wrote a column that the interview was coming on Sunday. I said the same thing on my weekly TV appearance.
Alas, that’s when the stuff hit not the fan but the billboard.
Many of the good people of Springfield were not happy to look up and see Wood’s face staring down at them.
They demanded: How could the newspaper do such a thing?
Some asked: Why was the newspaper glorifying this miscreant?
My story did not glorify Wood. I knew that. My editor knew that. Everyone in-house who had read it knew that.
Still, the story was pulled — mission aborted — despite our pledge that it “was coming Sunday.”
I protested and for the next few weeks was kept in the dark as to when it would be published.
It finally ran. It covered the heinous nature of the crime, as well as an overview of Wood’s life before he became infamous.
Publishing the story ended the criticism and controversy.
But I did learn one thing that I had not known about the billboard plan.
Originally, it was two have two faces on it. The second one was to have been mine, which just might have made me the Second Most Hated Man in Springfield.
This is Pokin Around column No. 33.