COVER- Getting away with murder? Former cop has serious questions about why Staunton's most infamous killer almost got away
Two bullets was all it took to change Staunton forever. The double murder of sisters-in-law Constance "Connie" Hevener, 19, and Carolyn Perry, 20, as they closed up shop at the High's Ice Cream Store one April night in 1967 shook the otherwise sleepy Shenandoah Valley town to its core.
More than 41 years later, Staunton's crime of the century may appear on it way to getting solved with the November arrest of 60-year-old former High's employee Sharron Diane Crawford Smith on two charges of first degree murder.
At an early December press conference, a somber but satisfied-sounding Staunton police chief JamesWilliams announced, "This effectively closes the case."
But according to former Staunton police detective Roy Hartless who tracked down Smith on her deathbed in a nursing home this past August, this moment of closure for the victims' families almost never came. After three years of painstakingly reconstructing evidence and conducting interviews, Hartless– now working as a private investigator– says this case should and could have been solved long ago, and he believes a relationship between the original lead investigator on the case and suspect Smith derailed the investigation then and continued to hamper progress on it through the years.
"That," says Hartless, "speaks to a cover-up."
Crime of the century
The crime occurred across the street from a monastery in the relatively crime-free North End district. It was a warm, early-spring Tuesday evening– just before 11pm on April 11, 1967.
"There are people in this town who remember it like it was yesterday," says Hartless, a Staunton native who was a freshman at Robert E. Lee High School. "I remember thinking, 'Things like this just don't happen here.'"
High's was located in the middle of the otherwise quiet Terry Court business park, a shop serving sundaes and ice cream floats, and popular with area parents and their children.
"It was mostly older people and families there," says Carroll Smootz, who regularly visited his twin sister Connie Hevener at the shop. "It was about the last place you'd think this would happen."
And the two victims were the last people to whom it would happen. Born Connie Smootz, Hevener had been a cheerleader at Fort Defiance High School, who, after putting her pom-poms away, had taken an interest in her Christian faith and began reading the Bible daily. According to Smootz, his sister was his "angel on my shoulder."
"We were deeply close," says Smootz, "she was always the person who kept me away from the girls with bad reputations and kept me out of trouble in school."
Smootz had also known Carolyn Perry, then Carolyn Hevener, in high school. She had been his sister's teammate on the cheerleading squad, and he even went on a few dates with Perry.
"She was nice as could be," says Smootz, "but she played a much smarter game than I did. She was really into math and languages, and I just couldn't keep up with her."
Soon they would all be related by marriage, when Connie married Carolyn's brother Larry, and began working in the family business at High's, owned and operated by Carolyn's parents. To keep up with the demand that came with warm weather, the shop extended its hours to 11pm starting on the night of April 11. It would be the last time they extended their hours.
Just past 11pm, Smootz got a call from his aunt in Staunton.
"She told me to come to town right away," says Smootz. "If it had been Larry, they would have told me what the problem was. If it had been my mother or father, it would have come from someone in Harrisonburg, where they lived. That left one person."
As he approached High's in his car, he saw the tell-tale flashing blue lights of a police car, and soon his worst fears were confirmed.
"I saw my aunt there and I asked if Connie had been shot," says Smootz. "She couldn't even face me."
Hevener died at the scene. Perry died on her way to University of Virginia Hospital, leaving behind a two-year-old daughter.
The crime became national news.
As months passed and without an arrest, even ABC Radio commentator Paul Harvey allegedly took to the national airwaves and advised that if one wanted to get away with murder, they should go to Staunton, Virginia. (Harvey's office was unable to confirm or deny this.)
"Staunton immediately had a stigma," says Hartless, "and they wanted to get rid of it quickly."
Finally, in 1968, police made an arrest. William Thomas, a 24-year-old former Buffalo Gap High School teacher living in nearby Swoope was charged, and he stood trial in April of that year for the first of the two murder counts.
"He was going around town saying he'd done it, like he was getting some kind of thrill out of it," says Smootz. "People knew him around town, and they said he sounded crazy."
However, the evidence against Thomas proved scant. Prosecutors could not produce a murder weapon, nor could they put Thomas at the scene of the crime. All they had was testimony from several Staunton residents who said that Thomas had confessed that he had gone to High's Ice Cream that night to steal the $138 missing from the register.
In three hours, a jury found Thomas not guilty.
Nearly everyone in Staunton took the news hard, as the town was still small enough that many had a personal connection to the victims. Hartless, then 14 years old, was no exception.
"I had a paper route," he says, "and I remember delivering Connie's paper every morning. I couldn't understand why it had happened to her."
Five years later, in 1973, fresh out of high school, Hartless joined the Staunton Police Department as a patrol officer. He later became a member of the department's criminal investigation unit in 1988.
That April night always haunted him.
Through the years, Hartless says, he followed up on periodic new information, even going so far as to fly to California to interview Thomas' ex-wife once, who, despite having been divorced from Thomas for many years, had vouched for his whereabouts the night.
With that kind of information, Hartless never could shake the idea that police had gotten the wrong man.
"It just never made any sense to me," says Hartless. "Today, I could understand someone killing two people over $138. But back in the '60s, it just didn't happen that way."
The crime haunted the Hevener family, who owned and operated the ice cream parlor where they lost a daughter-in-law and their own daughter. In 1999, the Heveners approached the police and wanted to know why all the advancements in identifying forensic and ballistic evidence couldn't tell police who killed their daughter.
When a lab analysis of the bullet casings on file yielded no new insight, Hartless– who was then still a Staunton police detective– decided to apply old-fashioned shoe leather.
"There was very little there," says Hartless. "The file on a typical murder case is three inches thick; this was only half an inch. I figured the best thing we could do was start over from scratch."
As Hartless dug deeper, he says, he discovered why there was such precious little information.
Hartless began his new investigation with the scene of the crime. With High's owned and operated by the Hevener family, practically every employee was related by either blood or marriage. So, assembling the surviving family members and finding out what they could remember seemed a natural place to start.
Evidently, this was not the course Hartless' predecessor in 1967 had chosen.
"They said it was the first time anyone from the police had ever talked to them about the murders," says Hartless. "I was astounded. Being there representing the Staunton police, it made me feel about two feet tall."
According to Hartless, one doesn't have to be Sherlock Holmes to know better than to make such a mistake.
"That's Cop 101, right there," says Hartless. "If a murder takes place in a business, especially a family-run business, you talk to the people who run the business. To never talk to them is a fundamental error."
Chief Williams concedes that this was no minor error.
"Roy's absolutely right," says Williams. "There's no question that's one of the first places police should have looked."
What police would have learned in 1967 had they spoken with the Heveners is that neither Connie Hevener nor Carolyn Perry were supposed to work that evening. Instead, they were filling in for a co-worker, whose name the Heveners might have recalled at the time but since the family had not kept records on their employees, they'd since forgotten.
"Someone comes in, wants to work a few hours a week, and then leaves after a while," explains Hartless, "you're liable to forget that person 32 years later."
As it turned out, Hartless would not have to look far for that missing employee.
A fateful meeting
Following his retirement in July 2005, Hartless started working as a private investigator for hire, but continued to work the High's case on a pro bono basis.
"I made a promise to that family to do everything I could to solve this case," says Hartless. "That didn't end when I retired."
As he became known around Staunton as the expert on the High's case, friends and family of the victims would often come to Hartless with whatever new information occurred to them, but no leads bore fruit.
Then in May of 2008, Lowell Sheets, the Staunton businessman known around town as the founder of S&W Appliances, contacted Hartless with information that would set the wheels of justice in motion.
"I'm a cousin of Connie Hevener's, and word had gotten around town that I was interested in trying to figure this thing out," says Sheets, "and a woman saw one of my trucks and said to my daughter-in-law she had some information about the High's case."
That woman was 74-year-old Joyce Bradshaw of nearby Verona.
"It had been a long time coming," says Bradshaw. "I went to a yard sale one Saturday and saw an S&W truck in the driveway and figured I just had to tell somebody."
What she told Sheets, and then Hartless, concerned the night of April 1, 1967, 10 days before the murders, when she went out for a bite to eat with a co-worker: Sharron Diane Crawford.
"Diane was one of my aides at Western State Hospital," says Bradshaw, "so we had been acquainted at work, and she had always treated me okay. So one night she called me up and said she wanted to go get a hamburger."
Sitting in Crawford's car in the parking lot of the Kenny Burger on Greenville Avenue near Bessie Weller Elementary School, eating dinner, Crawford began the conversation Bradshaw would be unable to forget for the rest of her life.
"She told me to open up the glove compartment," says Bradshaw. "So I did, and inside there was a pistol."
Then came the words that Bradshaw has not been able to put out of her mind for nearly 42 years.
"Diane says, 'There's two bullets in that gun,'" Bradshaw recalls. "'One of them's for my stepfather. The other is for the Hevener girl.'"
So shaken was Bradshaw, that she could not even bring herself to ask the question that has burned in Staunton for more than four decades: Why?
"I was scared," says Bradshaw. "I just wanted to put it out of my mind."
The answer to that question is now known by Staunton police.
"At trial," said Robertson at the December 10 press conference, "we will be able to show motive."
Hartless also says he knows why Smith allegedly pulled the trigger, but says he's going to let Robertson make his case in court.
"I know what it is," says Hartless, "and it wasn't robbery, but I'm not going to tell you what it is."
Having chased dozens of leads on the High's case for nearly 35 years, Hartless initially was skeptical at Bradshaw's story.
"I asked her," says Hartless, "'How come you've waited 41 years to tell anybody this?'"
She claims she didn't wait at all.
"I went to the police the day after the murders," says Bradshaw. "I went straight to Dave Bocock."
David Bocock was in charge of criminal investigations in the Staunton police department for decades and was someone for whom Hartless himself had worked for many years, a man from whom Hartless says he had learned many tools of the trade. According to Bradshaw, Hartless wasn't Bocock's only student.
"When I went to Dave Bocock, and told him about Diane [Crawford]," says Bradshaw, "He said to me, 'Oh, yes, I know her, she used to come up to my farm to shoot target practice. She's a crack shot.'"
Days after providing her information, Bocock visited Bradshaw at work at Western State.
"He told me she had been cleared," says Bradshaw, "that the bullets from the scene didn't match her gun, and that she had passed a polygraph."
Bradshaw did not buy the story.
"As soon as I heard about the murders," says Bradshaw. "I knew it was Diane."
Over the years, Bradshaw says, she told her story to several different law enforcement agencies, including the Nelson County Sheriffs Department, and the Virginia State Police. She was unable to provide dates of that contact, and representatives of these two agencies were unable to confirm or deny contact.
"I tried to forget it, but I never did," says Bradshaw. "I tried to see if somebody in law enforcement could do something about it, but no one ever seemed to put much heart into what I had to say."
Having worked for decades with Bocock, who died in 2006, Hartless says he's troubled by the fact that Bocock didn't follow up more on Bradshaw's information.
"He did have her take a polygraph," says Hartless. "We tried to find a transcript but couldn't get it. But, the file says he had her take that polygraph for elimination purposes."
That, combined with the dearth of information in the High's file, and the audacity of investigating one's own target-shooting partner makes Hartless fear the worst.
"Can I say for certain Bocock knew she did it? No," says Hartless, "but there are certainly enough connections between Dave Bocock and Diane Crawford that would have kept him from looking into it further."
The Hook placed calls to all the Bococks in the Staunton phone book. The one family member who did opt to speak to the Hook praised Bocock as a "a good man, a fair man, and never wanted to do anything but solve that murder," but did not wish to have her name printed in the newspaper.
Additionally, the Hook reached the nursing home where Bocock's widow presently resides, but her nurse informed the Hook that she is suffering from dementia and would be unable to offer anything in her husband's defense.
According to Hartless, any hesitance of Staunton police to pursue the woman now known as Sharron Diane Crawford Smith did not end in 1967.
The long search ends
Sharron Diane Crawford Smith was a long way from the 19-year-old she'd been in 1967. Now 60, she is laid up in a Staunton assisted care facility, oxygen tubes tucked in her nose, as she is dying from kidney failure.
On August 28, 2008, Hartless finally met with her, the person for whom he had been searching his entire professional career.
Sitting with Hartless and representing the Staunton police was Wayne Snodgrass, Hartless' partner in the Staunton police for 26 years, who is still on active duty. Quickly, Smith confirmed to Hartless that she was the forgotten part-time worker who had called in sick that fateful evening.
"I told her, 'I'm here because the family wants closure,'" Hartless relates, "and she says, 'Good. I need closure, too.'"
Immediately, recalls thinking: "You worked there part time for a little while, why would you need closure?"
For the next hour, under the auspices of merely gathering information about the crime, Smith, he says, seemed at ease, answering questions about why she had called in sick, her polygraph test following the murders, and her time living in North Carolina from 1967 until 1986.
Then, at the end of their conversation, Hartless noticed a significant change in demeanor.
"I asked her, 'What would you say if I told you someone believes you may have shot these girls?'" says Hartless, "That got a considerable reaction. Her voice got higher and louder, not necessarily angry, but definitely hostile and defensive. It had definitely struck a nerve."
Exiting the building, Hartless turned to Snodgrass, and together they expressed hope that after a long time of being out to sea without a map, they finally had their great white whale.
"Wayne turns to me and says, 'She killed those girls,'" says Hartless. "I thought then it would only be a matter of days before we had an arrest."
While Smith's health continued to deteriorate, Hartless would wait more than three months for the day he'd worked so long to see.
The first thing Hartless figured his former colleagues would do with this new information was quickly make an arrest. Instead, Hartless claims Staunton police brass broke up the team that had worked on the case longer than anyone in the department.
"They took Wayne [Snodgrass] off the case," says Hartless, "and they told him he was forbidden from discussing the case with me anymore."
Chief Williams says he doesn't know of any gag order applied to Snodgrass, and denies any intent to do anything but have the case go through the proper channels.
"Wayne had been reassigned to patrol a couple of years before all this, though he had once been in investigations," says Williams. "We were just making sure that this was worked out of our investigations unit."
Another man who was effectively kept out of the loop on the developments in the High's case was Staunton Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Robertson.
Robertson confirms that the first he heard of a new suspect in the double murder was not until Hartless came to his office on November 19, 2008.
"I didn't know the police had anything to share with me," says Robertson. "Nobody briefed me until November, and then we made the arrest."
Robertson won't go so far as to confirm Hartless' suspicions.
"I certainly don't think the police were trying to hide anything from me," he says. "I think they probably just wanted to collect more information, and they did, and that will come out at trial."
Chief Williams says that Robertson was briefed as soon as the Department had gathered enough information to effectively prosecute the case.
"I can't get into the details," says Williams, "but there was still a great deal more investigation to be done in terms of corroborating what we knew in August."
Lowell Sheets, the man who delivered the case's key witness to Hartless, isn't buying the notion that there was any more evidence to collect.
"They were letting that woman die on the vine," says Sheets. "They certainly had to be thinking their interests would be better served if she would go out quietly rather than make all of this public."
And Smootz, mourning the loss of his twin sister Connie Hevener for nearly 42 years, sees no difference between the police in 1967 and now.
"They dragged their feet then, and they dragged them today," says Smootz. "If it had been their family who died, they would have done a lot more then; and if they really wanted justice, they would have arrested that woman instead of waiting for her to die."
Williams denies the allegations.
"Absolutely not," says Williams. "We want to be just, but we also want to be correct."
Just days after Hartless' visit, Robertson met with the families of victims Hevener and Perry and told them of the new information and that police were close to an arrest.
Nine days after Hartless spoke to Robertson, Staunton police met with the alleged perpetrator and finally decided they had sufficient information to go ahead with her arrest.
On Thursday December 10, 2008, Williams and Robertson sat before the media to announce the arrest and give reporters copies of Smith's mugshot. Indeed, she did look as close to death as Robertson had suggested when he told reporters, "There is some concern she may not survive the weekend."
The following Monday, the Staunton News Leader wanted to know what took police so long to make the arrest. In an editorial with the headline "What about justice?" the paper cited Snodgrass' removal from the case and the time lapsed between August and November as details for which police owed citizens an explanation.
"Was closing the case more important than finding the truth and making the killer or killers pay?" the paper asked. "If so, that's not justice delayed; that's a miscarriage of justice."
Robertson brushes aside the notion of police stalling.
"Anyone," said Robertson at the press conference, "who says the police dragged their feet on this is nuts."
Robertson might count Hartless among the "nuts."
"Not only did police drag their feet," says Hartless, "but we were on a fast track toward making an arrest, and then they sat on the information. Why didn't they go back immediately? There was enough to arrest her in August."
Hartless admits he does have his axe to grind with the Department for which he worked for 32 years, but only as a result of how they treated his longtime partner.
"They totally backdoored Wayne," says Hartless. "He won't tell you that, but I will."
Indeed, Snodgrass did not return the Hook's calls for comment. And Hartless was so upset that he declined to attend the press conference announcing the arrest.
"It was a dog and pony show," says Hartless. "I didn't care to be there for it."
Still, Hartless says he's proud to have helped bring closure to the families of the victims.
"That's what means the most," says Hartless. "It's painful, and it opens old wounds, but in the end there's closure."
But the case is not completely closed for Hartless. He says he's close to finding more information about what Bocock might have done to protect Smith, but won't say what it is in order to give a chance for the Staunton police to come clean about their own.
"Whether it comes from them or from me," says Hartless, I can tell you there will be more to this."
Chief Williams says he doesn't know about the nature of Smith's relationship with Bocock, but concedes that the initial investigation was flawed.
"We didn't have much to work off of," says Williams. "These days, we would have more documentation on a petty larceny charge at Wal-Mart than they did for this case. I don't know what they did or did not do, but it doesn't appear like they did a whole lot."
Hartless says that despite the fact that the dying Smith will now have to appear in court on Wednesday January 7, he's continuing to investigate the relationship between Bocock and Smith because he doesn't want to see another investigation handled the way the High's Ice Cream murders were handled.
"That's a situation where everyone pays the price for one person's actions," says Hartless. "There's just nothing worse than a dirty cop."
Regardless of whatever truth can be discovered about the investigation 41 years after the fact, for Smootz, nothing can get rid of the pain with which he's lived since that spring night when he, his family, and Staunton changed forever.
"There's no way I can have those 41 years back," says Smootz, "and there's no way to get back my guardian angel."
–Correction: The print edition of this story bore the headline "Getting away with murder? Former cop claims police nearly let Staunton's most infamous killer go free to protect their own." This is inaccurate, as neither Hartless nor this story makes such a claim. Additionally, the Hook misquoted Hartless about having found the transcript from Crawford Smith's polygraph test. Hartless had actually said he sought such a transcript but never got one. The headline and Hartless' quote have been corrected in this online edition.
–Clarification: The Hook wishes to clarify that when Hartless says, "there's just nothing worse than a dirty cop," he was not speaking of Bocock specifically. At the time of this publication, Hartless did not have information that would indicate Bocock was a "dirty cop," just questions about his original investigation. Additionally, High's Ice Cream was the correct name of the crime scene; the word "store" was inadvertently capitalized to make it appear part of the name. Also, the reference to blue police car lights may have been anachronistic, according to a source familiar with Virginia vehicles of the era.
Carolyn Perry, 20, (left) Constance "Connie" Hevener, 19 were each shot in the head while closing the High's Ice Cream Store in Staunton
FORT DEFIANCE HIGH SCHOOL YEARBOOK PHOTOS VIA STAUNTON NEWS LEADER
The front page of the Staunton Leader (now the Staunton News Leader) shocked the residents of Staunton, who believed their town, particularly its relatively well-heeled North End, to be safe.
STAUNTON NEWS LEADER
High's Ice Cream closed its doors long ago, but longtime Stauntonians still can't forget what happened at its location in Terry Court Shopping Center.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
On December 10, 2008, Danny Perry (left), having mourned his wife's sudden death for more than four decades, appeared somber yet relieved as Staunton Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Robertson announced the arrest of his wife's alleged killer.
PHOTO BY LINDSAY BARNES
Sharron Diane Crawford Smith, seen at left in her senior portrait at Wilson Memorial High School, was 20 at the time she allegedly shot and killed her two co-workers. On December 10, 2008, police took this mugshot of Smith, currently suffering from kidney failure in a Staunton assisted care facility.
WILSON MEMORIAL HIGH SCHOOL YEARBOOK PHOTO VIA STAUNTON NEWS LEADER/STAUNTON POLICE DEPARTMENT
Staunton police chief James Williams denies the allegation that his department delayed Smith's arrest as a means of stalling against re-opening the department up to charges of corruption. "Absolutely not," he says. "There was nothing more to this than trying to make sure justice is served. We want to be just, but we also want to be correct."
PHOTO BY LINDSAY BARNES
Former Staunton police investigator does not want to believe the worst about his former superior David Bocock and his potential motives for not investigating Smith more thoroughly, but, Hartless continues to dig because, he says, "there's just nothing worse than a dirty cop."
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO