A group of investigators from the Tulsa Police Department — a national leader in clearing homicide cases — is working to change the way the world cracks unsolved crimes.
(page 2 of 4)
Across state lines
And Huff? He never forgot about Geraldine Martin, and in 2001, the case resurfaced and went from cold to burning hot.
First, however, the story starts in a different town, different state, different time. The year was 1965. El Cajon, Calif., was rocked by two brutal murders that year. Two seemingly unconnected murders. Decades later, evidence would prove otherwise.
Cheryl Burnett, a 19-year-old single mother, lived in El Cajon. On June 6, someone broke into her apartment, raped and killed her, and left her 2-year-old son to awaken the next morning and find his mother murdered. Later that month, in the same small town and only two miles away from Burnett’s residence, a man broke into the home of Louis and Lola Mercer, killing Louis and raping and assaulting Lola, leaving her in critical condition and with permanent brain damage.
According to previous news reports, the brutal timeline didn’t end there.
In July of that same year, in a town six miles north of El Cajon called La Mesa, a nurse was brutally attacked in her home and left barely alive. Thanks to a diligent neighbor, who jotted down the tag number of a prowler roaming the neighborhood a few nights prior to the attack, authorities traced the crime to Clyde Carl Wilkerson, a former felon, whom the neighbor identified in a lineup.
In November 1965, Wilkerson was sentenced to five years for the La Mesa attack, while the El Cajon murder cases eventually went cold.
Fast-forward three decades.
In 1999, Det. Jon Woodell from the El Cajon Police Department reopened the Burnett murder, while fellow Det. Robert Anderson took a fresh look at the Mercer murder. Using newer technologies, authorities collected a DNA profile that matched both cases, a DNA profile that matched Wilkerson.
In October 2002, Wilkerson was arrested at his home in Benton, Ark., and transported back to California for prosecution.
That’s when Geraldine Martin’s case in Tulsa reopened.
In El Cajon, Anderson was convinced that Wilkerson’s killing spree didn’t end in 1965. In fact, as a long-haul trucker, Wilkerson had too many open miles and too much unaccounted-for time not to be a suspect in other unsolved cases — that is, if Anderson could discover the unsolved cases.
The discovery, however, was the obstacle. There is no national cold case database, no networking site or group, no easy way for law enforcement agencies from all over the country, from small towns to metropolises, to share information on open and closed cases. Even learning about the existence of the cold cases takes painstakingly detailed research.
So Anderson began by mapping Wilkerson’s movements outside prison walls — a project Huff compares to searching for a needle in a haystack. Eventually, the detective found out that from 1973-1975 the serial killer lived in Tulsa.
In 2001, the Tulsa Police Department (TPD), on the cutting edge of homicide investigation, had completed a project to list all cold cases on its website. The available information led Anderson straight to the nearly 30-year-old unsolved murder of Geraldine Martin.
“The day that Det. Anderson made contact with TPD was unforgettable,” Huff says. “By the end of the day, the DNA techs had determined that (Wilkerson) was indeed the killer, as he had left evidence on the body of Geraldine Martin from a sexual assault.”
Finally, her killer was brought to justice.
“When the case was finally solved, and after the adrenaline finally drained out of me, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief,” Huff says. “This was one of the first cases of a serial killer in our town. I was there to witness the fear of the city in the mid-’70s, was there to have witnessed many detectives stretch themselves to the limit investigating it, been in the business long enough to see the benefits of technology advances such as DNA, etc. It was quite an emotional experience to come full circle with that case.”
Martin’s family reacted to the news with “shock, relief … all of the emotions anyone can imagine,” Huff says. “Her father died shortly after being told of the arrest.”