Not a day for a murder

Not a day for a murder

By Lauren Ferguson and Andy McWhorter | CW Staff

As Easter morning dawned on April 22, 1973, University of Alabama students were still asleep after a long night spent on Woods Quad listening to a concert by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Others had already driven home to celebrate with church services and foil-wrapped chocolate bunnies. But the holiday calm was abruptly interrupted for University of Alabama Police Department investigator Irvin Fields, who was informed by phone that a student named Paula Lee Ellis was missing.

Paula Lee, originally from Miami, was wrapping up her freshman year at the University. She had pledged Pi Beta Phi sorority in the fall, was popular among her friends, her sorority sisters and football players, and enjoyed participating in campus activities. Her brother described her as a typical college girl: a good student, former majorette in high school and interested in majoring in education.

She had biked to Woods Quad the night before to attend the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band concert, but she never returned to the Martha Parham residence hall the next morning. Her body would be discovered a few hours later, seven miles away, in a roadside ditch in Northport, just as Easter Sunday services were coming to a close across the area. This year, Easter Sunday strikes a solemn chord for the Ellis family. It marks the 41st anniversary of Paula Lee’s death, and another year that Tuscaloosa County’s oldest unsolved murder case remains cold.

The Ellis case is not the only murder of a University of Alabama student that remains unsolved. Ronald Perryman was shot in his home in 1976, and Chanda Fehler was found in the Black Warrior River in 1987, but some progress has been made in their cases over the years. Paula Lee’s murder, on the other hand, is no closer to being solved than it was that morning in 1973.

“It was a beautiful day,” Fields said. “Not a day for a murder.”

After receiving the call, Fields and his partner at the time, James Junkin, met at their office and began what they thought would be a simple search. Initially, they believed Paula Lee had spent the night at a friend’s house.

“We went to every friend’s apartment that we could find out that she knew and began looking for her,” Fields said. “Because a lot of times people go to others’ apartments, and you think they are missing, and somebody divulges where they’re at. That’s what we thought we were dealing with.”

At 9 a.m., Fields received a radio call from the Northport Police Department saying Paula Lee’s purse and its scattered contents had been located on a bridge on Flatwoods Road in Northport, three quarters of a mile down the road from the intersection of Flatwoods Road and Highway 43, where the road crosses a small creek.

When Fields arrived at the scene, they had secured the area, but Paula Lee had not been found.

“I told my partner there, I said, ‘I think I’m just going to go up the road there and scan the side of the road and see if there is anything else that might have been thrown out.’” Fields said. “I went up the road towards Hick’s Barbeque, about 100 yards, and found her body in the ditch on the north side of the road.”

Fields said when he first found Paula Lee’s body, it appeared she had been thrown to the side of the road and had skidded into tall grass. She was partially nude, with just a knit top on, the rest of her clothing thrown out beside her.

“Apparently, [the killer] had thrown her out, and they had gone down and discovered – I’m speculating now – they had gone on and discovered that the purse was still in the car, and they just threw that out on the bridge,” Fields said.

In the months after Paula Lee’s murder, various local and state law enforcement agencies worked on the case independently, including the University of Alabama Police Department, the Northport Police Department, the Tuscaloosa Police Department and the Alabama Bureau of Investigation. During that time, little progress was made in finding a suspect.

In November of 1973, a new division called the Tuscaloosa County Homicide Unit was formed in the aftermath of Ellis’ murder to have exclusive jurisdiction on all investigations of violent crimes against a person. According to the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office website, there were originally four investigators on the unit, two from the Sheriff’s Office and two from the Tuscaloosa Police Department. Today, there are 12 investigators assigned to the Homicide Unit, pulled from local law enforcement agencies.

“When Paula Ellis was murdered, there was no Homicide Unit,” said Sgt. Dale Phillips, commander of the Tuscaloosa County Homicide Unit. “Each department did it themselves. The purpose for having this unit was to eliminate lack of communication.”

Communication between investigating officers is critical to solving a case, particularly when there are no clear initial suspects. Fields said in a case like this, the evidence found at the scene determines how quickly the crime will be solved.

“You have something like this, that there is no subject [at the scene],” Fields said. “You’re going to have to start checking out every person that that person ever came in contact with. And you start developing a timeline of what that person did during that whole series of events.”

Fields said after following many leads and interviewing Paula Lee’s friends, they were able to establish a timeline of events for the night of her disappearance.

“The best information we could gather was that she had run around campus quite a bit, saw some friends, and she came back to the dorm. Then she decided to go over to [Woods] Quad where the music was playing,” he said. “That’s when the trail ends.”

According to an April 23, 1973, Crimson White article, friends of Paula Lee said she was last seen in her dorm at midnight before leaving for the rock concert at Woods Quad. Other reports vary, saying she was last seen anytime between midnight and 2 a.m. The next time someone saw her, she was lying in a ditch in Northport.

Fields said Paula Lee’s body was taken to Strickland Hayes Funeral Home in Tuscaloosa, where an autopsy was performed by a medical examiner. Fields said the method used to kill her appeared to be a belt, and there were no signs of sexual assault.

Several suspects were investigated by law enforcement agencies over the next year, but none were ever officially charged. Wayne Murphy, a retired investigator with the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, said he believes the killer is Charles Michael Brewer, a suspected serial murderer currently serving time for the 1980 murder of Lynn Holland, a 20-year-old Alberta City resident. Holland, who had multiple surgeries and wore leg braces to help her walk, was found strangled and beaten on the bank of the Sipsey River.

Murphy was not part of the original investigation into the Ellis case in 1973, but he began working with the Homicide Unit three years later. He said Holland’s body was found in similar condition to Paula Lee’s, also without any sign of sexual assault.

“I think everyone down there was in agreement on that, and I don’t know what their feelings are today, but we were in pretty much unanimous agreement,” Murphy said.

Fields, who worked directly on the Ellis case, said there was never a primary suspect.

“We never really got close to anyone that we could say was a real good suspect,” he said.

Leads were tracked all over the country, from Panama City, Fla., to Santa Fe, N.M., but after more than a decade without any new developments, the Ellis case went cold.

Unsolved but not alone

While the Ellis file remains the coldest case, other murders of UA students also stand unsolved after decades.

Ronald Perryman was a UA student who had previously transferred from the University of North Alabama, where he had served as UNA’s lion mascot, Leo. On June 5, 1976, he was found shot to death in his home in Duncan House Apartments on Reed Street, just north of the Strip.

According to a Crimson White article published June 10, 1976, Perryman, who had been shot once in the head and once in the upper chest, had been dead for several days before being found by a neighbor. The article stated slugs from a .38 caliber weapon were found on the premises, but no weapon was ever uncovered. Dennis Greenwood, a junior majoring in journalism at the time who also lived on Reed Street, had been away for several weeks for an internship in Montgomery. When he finally arrived home, he said a close neighbor told him she hadn’t seen Perryman for several days. Greenwood said he walked over to the house, ready to pry the door open with a credit card, but it was unlocked.

“All of a sudden I’m just hit with this really, really foul odor,” Greenwood said. “You know, I had been in the military, so I kind of knew what that smelled like.”

Greenwood said he asked the neighbor with him to go call the police and walked just inside the apartment before encountering Perryman’s body. He said Perryman was lying back on the bed, shot, and appeared to have been that way for several days.

“Apparently whoever killed him, they never figured it out. Some people say it was one person, some people say it was two, or more than one person, because they had written all over the walls in his blood,” he said. “That room was a mess; it was something I never want to see again.”

The Crimson White made multiple attempts to track down Perryman’s sister for comment, who has tried for years to get answers about her brother’s murder, but was unable to locate her by the time of print.

Despite the efforts of Perryman’s family, his murder case remains a cold file along with Ellis’ at the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office.

Eleven years later, on June 10, 1987, Chanda Fehler, a first-year graduate student, went missing from a now nonexistent pool complex located on the north end of campus, not far from the former Rose Towers. Fehler’s body was later found in the Black Warrior River.

In years past, the Homicide Unit and other law enforcement agencies were unable to devote members of their teams solely to cold case files. It wasn’t until 2012 that the Homicide Unit was granted two investigators, one from the Tuscaloosa Police Department and one from the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, to work on those cases.

“Early 2012, they provided extra personnel and equipment so we could start doing that,” Phillips said. “We had great success starting out, and we have since run into a manpower shortage that all the law enforcement have around here, because people were retiring, moving on or quitting. Our cold case unit got dissolved for a while, but it’s now back up and running.”

Phillips said while there were no investigators solely dedicated to unsolved murders before 2012, the unit continued to sift through cases.

“I want to stress something, having those two people here, that doesn’t really affect cold cases,” he said. “We’ve been looking at [those cases] without them. It’s just now we can apply a little more time to them.” The Ellis, Perryman and Fehler cases are each currently on three different levels of investigation activity, Phillips said.

“Ronald Perryman is a very active one right now,” he said. “Very active. Chanda Feller is one that is active, but I can tell you we had something going. But then Paula Ellis, that was [1973]. So you’re looking at 40 years since that happened. We look at it, and we try, and something may break tomorrow that leads us right into it.”

What went wrong

From the very beginning, the investigations into Perryman and Fehler’s murders were run by the Homicide Unit, but the unit did not exist in April 1973. Murphy said there was initially a lack of cooperation between the agencies investigating the Ellis case.

“The university police was working it, the Tuscaloosa police was working it, and the state was working it,” Murphy said. “The Alabama State Troopers was working it, and the Sheriff’s Office was working it, and everyone was wanting to take credit for solving it. And as a result, a lot of evidence was lost. No one wanted to tell the other agency.” When the Homicide Unit formed in the aftermath of Paula Lee’s murder, Murphy said the Sheriff’s Office never received any evidence from the other agencies investigating the case.

“To my knowledge, we never received any records from anyone else and continued to lead the unit in that particular case, but as far as ever getting anything from another agency, I don’t know of any evidence that was recovered,” Murphy said.

Paula Lee’s clothing, in particular, has an uncertain history. Fields said he believes Paula Lee’s pants would probably be the best candidate for modern DNA testing, but Murphy said he never found out what had happened to the clothes.

“No one ever brought forth the evidence,” Murphy said. “One of the things was her clothing. It was never recovered. Well, it was recovered by an agency, but we don’t know if it went to the funeral home or if it went to another agency. We just don’t know.”

Dr. Chuck Ellis, Paula Lee Ellis’ brother and currently a dentist in Birmingham, said he has tried to track down the evidence gathered during the investigation of his sister’s murder. Every time he has approached a law enforcement official asking about the evidence in his sister’s case, he has been directed elsewhere.

“I contacted Ted Sexton, the former sheriff, because I thought he was a make-it-happen kind of guy,” he said. Sexton referred Chuck to Loyd Baker, head of the Homicide Unit at the time. Chuck said Baker was sympathetic, but did not provide him with any answers.

“I would think the person in charge of the Homicide Unit for Tuscaloosa County could make things happen,” he said. “Where’s the evidence? You don’t know? Well, find out. Where did it go? What’s the paper trail for that evidence? I don’t know whether he did that or not, but all he gave me were empty answers.”

The Crimson White attempted to trace the path of evidence in Paula Lee’s murder, but law enforcement agencies have declined to provide any files on the case. Tuscaloosa Police Department, Northport Police Department, University of Alabama Police Department and the Alabama Bureau of Investigation all said they did not have any evidence having to do with the case and that it would have been turned over to the Homicide Unit.

Robert Spence, an attorney representing the Sheriff’s Office, responded to The Crimson White’s public records request for documents pertaining to the Ellis investigation, including names of investigating officers, police reports and correspondence between the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office and the other participating law enforcement agencies in a letter:

“The records you are seeking are not public records, and are specifically protected from discovery, except by court order. Please see § 12-21-3.1(b) of the Code of Alabama (1975). Sgt. Phillips may be able to answer some of the questions you have, but will not be able to provide the documents you have requested.”

That section of the Code of Alabama states, “Law enforcement investigative reports and related investigative material are not public records. Law enforcement investigative reports, records, field notes, witness statements, and other investigative writings or recordings are privileged communications protected from disclosure.”

Chuck said the lack of information coming from multiple law enforcement agencies about his sister’s murder has left him uncertain about the future of the investigation.

A case without closure

Even if all the evidence in the Ellis case could be accounted for, the sheer age of the murder makes solving it a difficult prospect. Over the years, witnesses, suspects and others who may have had some connection to the case have died, moved or simply lost contact with investigators.

“There’s a good possibility right now that the person that did this though is dead now,” Fields said. “The line at my door is getting short now. I hope one day it will be solved. And there’s always that possibility out there.”

The possibility that evidence has gone missing or been destroyed over the years also limits the likelihood that the Ellis case might be solved.

“Like I said, there was no physical evidence,” Murphy said. “Her clothing was gone. Everything, as far as major evidence we would concentrate on, then and now, was gone.”

Crime solving methods have also changed drastically in the past 40 years, and techniques that would have been the best practices in the early 1970s might be insufficient by today’s standards. If evidence was mishandled during the initial investigation, it could make DNA testing impossible.

“We do things state-of-the-art right now, but 40 years from now they’re going to think we’re a bunch of idiots,” Phillips said. “The requirements today are different. When I say requirements, when you go into court now, it’s harder. And the reason it’s harder is because we do have these matter of fact, evidentiary tests.”

Phillips said he has reviewed the evidence in Ellis’ case and does not think there is anything else they can do with what they have at the moment.

“What we have here – what I have seen we have reviewed, and it’s nothing we feel we could benefit from by doing any [DNA] testing,” Phillips said.

A call for answers

For four decades, Chuck has been trying to get answers from law enforcement officials. He is met with sympathy more often than not, but rarely with answers.

“There was a killer that was never caught,” he said. “Well, what happened to that guy? In the years that followed, there were other, similar homicides that were in the Tuscaloosa area that remained unsolved.”

Because Tuscaloosa is a target-rich environment of young, female students, Chuck said University, city and county officials should be more concerned that these unsolved murders have not been closed. Additionally, he continues to be disconcerted that no one can provide answers to where evidence is located or if this case can ever be solved.

“Nobody has followed through like I think they should have followed through,” he said. “And gotten the answers I think they should have gotten that we all deserve.”

For Chuck, closure for his sister’s murder is long past due and needs to become a priority among officials, especially considering the University’s dense population of young adults that could potentially be in danger.

“My challenge to Dr. Witt, to President Bonner, to Mayor Maddox, to District Attorney Lynn Head is to get the answers,” Chuck said.

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