Monday, March 2, 2009

The Murder of Wilma Ward

by Michelle Feuer

I’m reminded this month that sometimes it’s not a bad thing to become obsessed and completely consumed with one’s work or passion. Obsession leads to progress, however uncomfortable it may be. This reminder came because of a coroner whom I met through my adventures with
CBS 48 Hours Mystery.

His name is Gary Watts and he is the
coroner in Richland County in Columbia, South Carolina. I should mention that he was introduced to me through 60 Minutes über producer Andy Court. You won’t believe the cold case full of twists and turns that Gary Watts and his team cracked open.

On October 17, 1983, Wilma Ward reportedly committed suicide in Cayce, South Carolina, by stabbing herself to death with a letter opener. Yes, you read that correctly, a letter opener! Back in the 1960s and 70s, Wilma, who was an office manager/bookkeeper, was allegedly having an affair with the Capital Sign Company's owner, Lloyd Blackwood—a married man. To conceal their so-called love child, Rachel (formerly Rachel Ward, now Rachel Wadford) was passed off as Wilma's younger sister. Turns out, Wilma was Rachel's mother—not her sister.

All of this would have remained a secret forever had it not been for Rachel's 2007 chance encounter with a former office worker and colleague of Wilma's. He told her about the affair and suggested that Wilma had NOT committed suicide.

Rachel accepted the fact that Wilma had taken her own life, but the circumstances had always troubled her. She never felt that she had all the answers to what really happened. Rachel was confronted with a mystery: Did someone murder her mother, and why?

Rachel called the Richland County Coroner, Gary Watts. Watts (pictured right) was able to recover the original ME's report and quickly doubted the validity of the suicide ruling. How could she have committed suicide by stabbing herself MULTIPLE TIMES? Watts immediately summoned two of Columbia's most experienced investigators, David Bell and Gene Mincey, to form a Cold Case Squad. Mincey was in retirement, but came out to help. With the case files, evidence, and photos all missing, they had to find and re-interview all of the original employees of Capital Sign Company.

In 1983, the original case investigator theorized that 5'3, 100 pound Wilma had attacked her lover (Lloyd) with a metal pipe—and then stabbed herself. Watts and the Cold Case Squad came up with an entirely new theory. Investigators believe Wilma's colleague, Jack Simpson, may have committed the murder. Simpson was a friend and longtime employee of Wilma's alleged lover and boss, Lloyd Blackwood. And the twists kept coming. Mincey and Bell learned there could have been an active IRS investigation into Capital Sign Company where Wilma was the bookkeeper/office manager for Lloyd. One theory is that Wilma was accepting under-the-table payments from Lloyd to stay quiet about their affair (company funds allegedly paid for certain household items of hers). Another theory is that Jack Simpson may have learned about the affair and had been trying to extort money from the company.

On October 20, 2008, Watts led a public Coroner’s Inquest, in front of a sworn-in jury. The jury heard testimony from key witnesses as questioned by Gary Watts. The Inquest lasted a full day, but in under an hour the jury came back with a decision. They concluded that Wilma Ward had NOT committed suicide, but was murdered. They even named the suspect as Jack Simpson who was arrested in November. This 1983 case may now go to the Grand Jury. Confusing to even the most enthusiastic crime buffs? In South Carolina during a Coroner’s Inquest, the jury can actually be asked to name a suspect. Keep in mind there was no defense whatsoever; it was all testimony as called by Gary Watts and his team. Jack Simpson was called to testify, but did not appear.

Something else worth mentioning from the national news lately . . . a couple of weeks ago marked the 20th anniversary of University of Florida student Tiffany Sessions’ disappearance. Let’s never ever forget this extraordinary young woman whose family still searches for answers. Please visit her family’s Web site or their Facebook group, The Tiffany Sessions Project, to learn more.


FleaStiff said...

Strange. Quite apart from the issue of multiple stabs, I would wonder about a woman killing herself with even one stab of a letter opener. I would perhaps not be so dubious if the letter opener were very sharp and had been used to slash a wrist or something, but a stab wound? I wonder if there are any forensic texts that discuss just how likely it would be for a woman to stab herself to death with a pointed but rather dull blade?
Throwing in various relationship and tax issues makes the case even better but irrespective of various motivations I just don't see how an initial investigator reached such an unlikely conclusion.

Kathryn Casey said...

Great post, Michelle. Glad to have you at WCI!

Leah said...

I remember this happened right before the Gainsville Ripper. I hope this case can be solved for the family's sake.

Vanessa Leggett said...

Great post, Michelle. Welcome!