Saturday, January 28, 2006

By Danielle Komis

PART 2 OF A SERIES

Unsolved murder cases quietly dry up as the trail turns cold, witnesses die or move away, and community members’ initial shock of the crime wears off and the horror lessens.But for the families of the dead, horror’s path still ravages them every day.

 

The words wrap around the victim’s family and friends and make them feel safer. They all repeat the same line as if they are children repeating what their mother told them.

“Josh was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” they say.

They repeat it to comfort themselves and to avoid the inevitable guilt.

“Josh was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

But it doesn’t change the facts. Twenty-three-year-old Joshua West’s killer still is free more than seven years after he and 24-year-old Jason Walker were murdered in Elizabethtown.

A Double Murder

Joshua West and Jason Walker, both of Elizabethtown, were found dead in the early morning hours of Nov. 16, 1998, in a burned Volkswagen sedan on Nicholas Street in Elizabethtown. Both had been fatally shot in the head and then burned.

They left a party late on the night of Sunday, Nov. 15, friends said, and may have been going on a beer run to Jefferson County. Josh’s close friends said Josh didn’t know Jason very well, and aren’t sure why he was with him.

Walker had borrowed the car from Stephanie Roberson of Radcliff. Police have lost touch with the Walker family over the years, as some family members entered the military and others passed away.

Josh’s mother, Naomi Alexander, said the murder never leaves her mind. When she lived in town, she went to Elizabethtown Police Department every week to check on her son’s case. Now, she lives three hours away but still goes every month.

“I’m angry and I intend to stay angry,” she said. “I don’t want to ever get over it. I want to go on. But I don’t ever intend to get over it.”

At least one person knows who did it, Alexander said. But even if the killer is found, her grief still will be there. There’s no such thing as closure, she said.

“It won’t change the facts. The facts are he’s gone,” she said. “If these people are caught it will soften us maybe.”

Charming and Fun

In one of Josh’s early high school pictures he is clutching a teddy bear, smiling a smile almost too big for his young face. The other guys posed with basketballs, he told his mom. But he knew the teddy bear would be a better idea.

“Guess who the girls came up to after that picture?” Alexander remembers him asking.

Along with his charm and sense of humor, Josh had a sly smile that everyone adored, she said. He was good-hearted and had lots of friends. He loved fishing and camping, and never wanted to work at a 9-to-5 job. He worked flexible hours selling water purifying units in Louisville with his friend Jason Maravilla, and went on sales calls in the city.

Maravilla remembers sitting on the bank, talking and angling for catfish with Josh. Other friends whined about mosquitoes, he said. But Josh never did.

“It didn’t bother us,” he said. Maravilla hasn’t been fishing for catfish since.

Nov. 15, 1998

On Nov. 15, 1998, the night Josh was killed, Maravilla was in Louisville at Buffalo Wild Wings Sports Bar, wondering where Josh was. They almost always met at the nearby sports bar after work around 9 or 10 p.m. to have a beer. But Josh never showed up.

"To me it was unusual because this was a five-day-a week thing,” he said. “It was almost a ritual.”

Maravilla paged Josh, but got no response. He had seen him earlier that day at a work meeting, and Josh hadn’t mentioned anything about going right back to Elizabethtown after work. Especially with a crowd that wasn’t Josh’s usual crowd, Maravilla said.

“Rumor has it that he was with some bad people that night,” he said. “People he didn’t ordinarily hang out with.”

Maravilla thinks Josh was probably robbed that night. The two made a lot of money selling water treatment systems, he said and usually cashed their checks at a bank in Louisville because they didn’t have checking accounts. He is worried someone in the questionable crowd saw Josh’s cash and got greedy.

“If he chipped in on beers, maybe they saw the wad of cash,” Maravilla said.

Around the same time that night, Josh’s mother was at home in Elizabethtown, her stomach churning with a unexplainable bad feeling. Something was wrong, she just knew it.

“I don’t know if the feeling I had was something from him or not,” she said. “But I had the feeling something was wrong.”

So she went out to look for Josh. She had no idea where he was supposed to be because he didn’t live with her anymore. She paged him several times n her special page n 911.

He never called.

Josh had stopped at her house to see her that morning, she said.

“The last time I saw him I hugged him,” she said.

The next afternoon, Matt told her Josh was dead.

Alexander’s anger melts into grief when she recalls the moment she found out her son had been murdered. “I remember distinctly something happens inside where everything turns off,” she said slowly, her gold hoop earrings shaking. “You don’t have that horrible, horrible feeling. It’s like a switch. It just clicks off. And it changes your perspective on everything after that.”

She blames herself.

The Wrong Crowd

The new crowd Josh had started hanging around with always carried cell phones and pagers -- unusual for young people in Elizabethtown in the late 1990s, Matt West said.

Many of them were from major cities in Illinois or Georgia, or had ties there.

Sure, Matt and Josh used to do drugs and drink together with friends, Matt said, but they didn’t deal them.

Court records show that Josh had past drug convictions for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. However, Walker had past drug convictions for trafficking cocaine. But police say there is no evidence that drugs were or were not a factor in the murder.

Matt remembers overhearing friends’ conversations about the kind of money that could be made dealing methamphetamine and cocaine. It was commonplace.

“All that type of conversation took place right there and in front of everybody else. I thought that was normal then. I thought that’s just how things were,” he said. “And then you move away and get a clue. That’s not how things are.”

When Josh asked Matt to stop by an Elizabethtown hotel one evening, Josh was with that new crowd, Matt said.

Matt had a strange feeling when he and one of Josh’s friends arrived at the hotel.

“Things were on edge. Like somebody was hoping to avoid a problem,” he said. “Like he was uncomfortable around some of these new people.”

Josh had decided he wanted to try to work things out with Brenna and asked for Matt’s advice, Matt said. The couple had a fight a couple days earlier, which wasn’t unusual. They often fought over silly things, Matt said. Matt was there for only 10 minutes.

Soon after, Josh was dead.

Matt wants to think Josh did not get caught up in dealing drugs, or with people who dealt drugs.

“I would love to say that I knew for a fact that Josh had nothing to do with the drug trade,” he said. “But whether he had gone straight and so on we won’t be able to know.”

“I just had no idea,” he said. “I didn’t know that some of us had moved on up the scale to huge quantities that could be sold. We all had an idea, I guess. But we didn’t know it could get you killed.”

“Being the older brother, I feel ultimately responsible for not helping him get out of that, for not being there for him enough,” he said. “If you have a sibling who survives (risky behaviors), then it’s easy to say, well, I did what I could.’”

But it’s different when the sibling doesn’t survive.

“You tell yourself, damn, I could have tackled him, I could have chained him to the house, I could have screamed at the top of my lungs!” he said. “What would you be willing to give if you knew what the ultimate price would be?”

He blames himself.

Unexpected Parenthood

Josh worked hard to straighten out when his longtime girlfriend, Brenna Buchanan, got pregnant in 1997. The two had met through friends when she was skipping school.

Buchanan immediately smiles and laughs when she thinks of Josh -- or Jay, as most of his friends called him -- as if he was an inside joke that only she gets.

“He was just all about having fun,” she said.

But things got more serious when Buchanan got pregnant. She broke up with Josh soon after they found out, because she didn’t think he was ready to be a father. She was only a senior in high school.

“It was kind of one of these things where I let go because I knew he needed to find himself,” Buchanan said.

The baby was born on Dec. 27, 1997. Josh named her Shelby and bought cigars for all his friends. He was so proud, Buchanan said.

He, Buchanan, and Shelby loved to hike in nearby Bernheim Forest. Once, he got Shelby’s arm caught in her car seat, she remembered. He was so worried that he could have hurt his daughter, he cried.

He was killed when Shelby was only 9 months old.

The Pain

Depression grabbed hold of Matt for two years after his younger brother was murdered, he said.

“It was horrible. I wasn’t back and coherent for a couple of years,” he said. “I was very self-destructive and made self-destructive decisions and actions. It just wasn’t me. The person that I had become just wasn’t me.”

And then he snapped out of it.

“Eventually you get tired of being tired. You finally just wear yourself out.”

He went into health care after his brother was killed in hopes of righting some of the wrongs he committed in the past, he said. Now, he has a 6-month-old son named Josh.

Josh’s mother also had her own demons to face.

The boys had too much freedom growing up, Alexander said. She divorced their father when they were young and raised them on her own. Her children were her life, she said, but looking back, she should have kept a closer eye on them.

“I grew up thinking kids should have their privacy,” she said. “That’s a crock.”

While Josh was a good person, she knew he wasn’t an angel, his mother said.

“I don’t pull the wool over my eyes about anything,” she said.

After Josh’s death, she went to psychologists, but they just wanted to give her tranquilizers, she said. She refused to take them.

“They wanted me to get rid of my anger and I didn’t want to get rid of my anger,” she said. “That pain belongs to me. It makes me want to see justice done.”

Without a Dad

On the anniversary of Joshua’s death this year, Brenna Buchanan took daughter Shelby, now 8, to the place where her father was killed. It’s close to her house -- she has to drive by it every day to get home.

Shelby has grown up knowing that her father was murdered. Her mother wanted her to know the truth. Shelby even wears some of his old T-shirts from when he was young.

“The way she moves and stuff, I can see him,” Alexander said.

Kids in Shelby’s second-grade class notice her father’s absence.

“A lot of the kids say, 'Where’s your dad?’” Shelby said, examining a drawing she was working on.

“And I say, I don’t have one,” she said, standing up and putting her palms up at the end of her sentence and shrugging.

But she prays for her dad every night, Buchanan said.

“It’s been a long eight years,” she said. “It never gets any easier either.”

Buchanan sometimes dreams about Josh, she said. Or she’ll see happy couples with their children at Shelby’s school, and think about what might have been. Being a single mom is difficult, she said. And it was not a matter of choice. The killer did this to her and her family.

“I would like them to put themselves in my life and see what my life has been like,” she said. “Now my daughter has to suffer for that for the rest of her life.”

She can’t shake the feeling that if she and Jay had still been together, he wouldn’t have been murdered, Buchanan said. She had been the one to initiate the breakup.

Her lingering guilt recently kept her in a relationship she should have walked away from sooner. But after Josh’s death, it became hard for her to walk away from anyone again.

She blames herself.

The Investigation

Sgt. Terry Netherland, head of investigations at Elizabethtown Police Department, has multiple suspects in the seven-year-old case, but not enough evidence for an arrest, he said.

“I truly believe there might be someone out there,” he said. “That person with that information has never come forward.”

“There are people out there who know exactly what happened,” Alexander said.

But they have “all the reasons in the world” not to tell, Matt said. The people who know what happened were living outside the law, and probably still are.

The case file on the murder is extensive, Netherland said. Whenever new leads come in, he and other detectives follow up promptly, he said. But the number of leads has thinned as time has passed.

Alexander said “she’d give anything” if Elizabethtown Police Department had a cold case unit. But she knows that that’s not plausible.

“That’s TV, that’s not the way it really works,” she said. “If something else could’ve been done I feel like they would have done it.”

Alexander and Netherland have become friends over the years. It pains him to have to tell her they still have no arrests. He wants those involved to be brought to justice.

“I think the world of her,” he said. “Someday I hope to tell her the case is closed.”

And the blame will finally fall upon the rightful shoulders.

Next Week:

The naked body of 35-year-old Lori Paynter of Butler was found behind Bluegrass Inn in Elizabethtown in December 2002. Her mother, Bonnie Dickerson, said she went into a “kind of coma” for two years after her daughter died. The five-year-old case is still under investigation by the Elizabethtown Police Department.