It’s been 55 years since two fellow cops found Walter Stathers, a burly 43-year-old police officer in Coral Gables, Florida, face down in the grass next to his patrol car shortly after four in the morning and just six days before Christmas.
When the policemen turned Stathers over, they saw a bullet hole in the right side of his neck and an exit wound in his upper left forehead, according to a Dec. 19, 1967 incident report typed up by James Harley, one of the officers at the scene.
“His eyes were rolled back in his head,” Harley wrote. “And there was no sign of life whatsoever.”
Stathers’ service firearm, a .38 caliber Colt Trooper pistol, was missing when his colleagues found his body.
More than a half-century later, a dearth of solid leads on who may have killed Stathers, possibly with his own gun, has sucked the faith out of the fallen officer’s son, Wayne, that his dad’s murder will be solved before he dies.
Every morning when doing his daily paperwork, the 73-year-old dive master gazes at the photo of his father on his desk in Key Largo, where Wayne runs his scuba diving business. “It’s always on my mind,” Wayne told The Daily Beast during a recent phone interview. “Over the years, I’ve kind of given up and kind of lost hope in finding out anything about who did it.”
As the decades rolled on, calls from cold case detectives with the Miami-Dade County Police homicide bureau, which has handled the Stathers investigation since he was murdered, became less frequent to virtually non-existent, Wayne said.
“They would always tell me that they haven’t forgotten,” Wayne said. “But it keeps getting passed down to someone else whenever a lead detective retires. I haven’t heard anything from the cold case bureau in several years.”
A request by The Daily Beast to interview homicide investigators currently working the Stathers case was denied. “This is a very active and open investigation,” Miami-Dade Police spokesman, Det. Alvaro Zabaleta, said in an email. “Based on that fact and our efforts to maintain the integrity of the case, homicide bureau personnel cannot comment or provide any details of the investigation.”
Wayne has reason to feel demoralized, however. Solving the mystery of who shot Stathers has been marred by the murder weapon never being recovered, lost evidence including potential DNA samples, and the recent death of a possible person of interest, according to sources who independently pursued tips over the years.
A former Coral Gables top cop and a private investigator have long suspected Robert Jackson, a 72-year-old who passed away on Aug. 13 2021, of being involved in the Stathers slaying, but they allege that Miami-Dade homicide detectives didn’t bring him in for questioning since the murder probe began. According to the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner, Jackson died from COVID, just 12 days before his birthday.
In 1968, one year after Stathers was killed, James Butler joined the Coral Gables Police Department, where he spent his entire career in law enforcement. He rose up the ranks, serving 10 years as assistant chief until his final promotion to the top job in 1993. Butler retired four years later, but Stathers’ unsolved murder still gnaws at him because he believes Jackson was responsible.
“When dealing with a career criminal who is in bad health, you need to interview him before he passes this earth,” Butler said. “It is still an open case, but there is a 99 percent chance the person who just died is the subject who did it.”
David Bolton, the private eye and a Coral Gables native who’s dug into the Stathers case on his own for more than 20 years, shares Butler’s conclusion. Bolton told The Daily Beast that Miami-Dade homicide investigators confirmed to him that Jackson was the main suspect during a meeting three years ago.
“They told me everything points to Robert Jackson,” Bolton said. “So I gave them my file on Jackson. It took me six months of calling and calling them to get my file back. They told me they were working on it, but nothing happened.”
Ed Hudak, the current Coral Gables Police chief, isn’t as confident as Butler and Bolton about their suspect. He said Jackson’s name has come up several times over the years, but that Miami-Dade homicide investigators had tested DNA recovered from Stathers body that was inconclusive. “That did not come to fruition,” Hudak said. “If something had come up on Jackson, I am sure they would have told me.”
Hudak said he’s eager for closure on the Stathers murder, but that there’s been very little new evidence over the decades for county detectives to work with. “I’m disheartened that we still have an unsolved murder of an officer that happened long before I got here,” Hudak said. “It is a case I would love to see closed out.”
Jackson led a troubled life since he was a youth, according to Miami-Dade court records, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement background check, and police reports. Between 1966, when he turned 18, and 2014, when he was 66, Jackson was arrested more than two dozen times for various crimes. He spent time in jail for petty theft, shoplifting, grand theft, battery and assaulting a police officer. In the early ’80s, he was accused of committing two murders. He was convicted on some felonies, including a robbery charge and multiple cocaine possession charges.
On Jan. 1, 1982, Jackson allegedly got into a fight with a man named Justin Moore, according to a Miami Police report. Jackson pulled out a gun and chased Moore, shooting the victim three times in the face and killed him. Jackson fled the scene, but a witness positively identified him as the shooter in a photo lineup, the report states. Jackson surrendered to homicide detectives a month later and was arrested for first degree murder. State prosecutors declined to pursue the charges, the Miami-Dade court docket shows. The case file has been destroyed.
Records for a 1983 murder Jackson was charged with have also been destroyed. The court docket shows state prosecutors again did not proceed with the case against Jackson. Seven years later, he was arrested for attempted murder and using a firearm in the commission of a crime. A man named Joseph Daly accused Jackson of shooting him several times in the head and back, leaving him paralyzed. The court docket shows prosecutors also declined to pursue these charges against Jackson.
Jackson was last arrested in Sept. 9, 2014 for shoplifting and charged with misdemeanor petty theft, according to the Miami-Dade court docket. He was convicted and received six months probation. Efforts to reach surviving relatives of Jackson were unsuccessful. His wife Linda Bellinger and daughter Shadon Jackson both died in 2020.
The morning Stathers was killed, a woman named Bertha Dorquett, the maid for the homeowner who called the police station about a man lying in his yard and who heard a gunshot, told officers she saw a Black male standing over Stathers, the 55-year-old incident report states. It looked like the Black male was rummaging through Stathers’ pockets and then got on a bicycle and headed south, Dorquett said.
Later the same day, officers picked up a girl’s bicycle with no fenders as possible evidence and sent it to the county police’s crime lab to be processed, according to a Dec. 21, 1967 Coral Gables Police report. The following month, a teenage boy questioned by Coral Gables Police said Jackson, who was 19 at the time, occasionally used a bicycle with no fenders and that he and other teens believed Jackson killed Stathers, according to a Jan. 7, 1968 Coral Gables Police report.
Bolton claims that the bicycle was recovered outside of Jackson’s apartment building and that it was subsequently lost after it was sent to the crime lab. “No one knows what the hell happened to the bicycle,” Bolton said. “No one knows where it is.”
Scrapings taken from Stathers’ fingernails that today could have been run for DNA samples were put inside a refrigerator in the property room that broke down and stopped working, Butler added. “All that DNA evidence was ruined and lost.”
According to a July 18, 2001 video statement by former Miami Police detective John Haywood, one of his informants, a gas station owner named Frank “Bubba” Riley, called him the night after Stathers’ murder to tell him that Jackson came by his business and showed him a .38 caliber revolver. “I had not furnished the serial numbers to Bubba and he read off the numbers he saw,” Haywood said. “I got out of bed, went to my board and lo and behold it was the same damn numbers.”
Riley also took a lie detector test that showed he was being truthful, Haywood said in the video, which was recorded by Bolton around the time the private investigator started his own probe into the Stathers case.
In 1982, when he was a Coral Gables Police detective, Butler said he met Jackson and convinced him to take a polygraph test at the police department’s headquarters. “But it was inconclusive,” Butler said. “The examiner couldn’t get a straight answer from Jackson about what he knew about Stathers’ murder.”
Two decades later, on July 26, 2002, Jackson agreed to take another lie detector test. This time, it was Bolton who asked Jackson to answer questions. The test was conducted by Miami-based forensic examiner George Slattery. During the polygraph, Jackson denied fatally shooting Stathers, denied knowing who was involved in the murder and denied having any knowledge about the cop’s death.
Jackson demonstrated “significant and consistent psycho-physiological reactions consistent with deception to the relevant questions and answers,” Slattery’s report states. When Jackson was advised about the apparent deception, he had no explanation for those reactions, according to the report.
“Therefore, we are unable to clear Mr. Jackson on this matter and offer this for your information,” Slattery wrote.
Butler told The Daily Beast that he and Bolton teamed up in recent months to piece together their previous work with the actual case file at the Miami-Dade homicide bureau. “The goal is to find out if the county ever interviewed Jackson,” Butler said. “I told one of the detectives that we have some independent leads you may have or may not have. I never heard back from him.”
Wayne, Stathers son, told The Daily Beast that he knew investigators had a suspect in mind for many years, but didn’t know the alleged perpetrator’s name. “It was just recently that I heard Jackson’s name, probably from Jim Butler,” Wayne said. “I’d like to think if they had anything serious on [Jackson], they would have brought him in.”
While he would like to have closure, he’s not expecting a definitive answer about who killed his father, Wayne said. “I am sure all the officers who have looked into it would like to put it to rest too,” he said. “It’s been so long that I really don't have any hope that something will turn up.”