The newspapers at the time billed it as a mystery fit for Perry Mason.
Pauline Harper was a popular and attractive 22-year-old seamstress, engaged to be married to an Air Force sergeant from Oklahoma. For the wedding, she had purchased a green dress with matching shoes and a tiara, and kept a picture of her fiancee next to a pink telephone in her bedroom.
On July 12, 1959, she attended a cocktail party and returned to her family’s apartment in the Oliver neighborhood, above a cut rate store. The next morning, her mother came to wake her and found a blue pajama top wrapped around her neck. Harper was dead.
[Click here to see the original incident report from 1959]
The case received weeks of attention on the front page of the Afro-American, documenting various twists and turns. One story noted that Harper may have been attacked a week earlier while walking home; others raised the possibility that she was slain by a jealous would-be suitor or that she was killed accidentally, mistaken for another family member involved in a feud.
“Everybody was talking about it. This was something that didn’t happen every day,” recalled her older sister, Bernice Lee, now 79.
“Somewhere in Baltimore, a killer walks the streets a free man with the blood of the Blue Pajama Girl on his hands,” the Afro reported. “He may be the man who sat besides you on the bus this morning when you rode to work. He could be the man who sipped that drink next to you in the neighborhood bar last night. He could be your neighbor.”
A half-century later, the case has been closed. There were no handcuffs, and no indictment, and no jury heard evidence, as the suspect eluded detectives one last time. But police presented their findings to prosecutors, who agreed the case could be closed, bringing relief to family members and a former fiance, who for decades wondered what happened that night.
Sam Snowden is hard to miss as he walks through City Hall, wearing a suit and fedora, giving a quick hello or chatting up everyone he sees.
Snowden took a different path than some of his other family members, continuing his education and traveling the world with the military. An Air Force veteran and retired manager with the U.S. Postal Service, he joined city government after helping with Mayor Martin O’Malley’s campaign, and now works as an investigator on the CitiStat team.
Over the years, Snowden (seen at right; photo by Sun photographer Chiaki Kawajiri) lost ties with much of his own family, like his brother Joseph, a huckster who worked the streets selling goods from a horse-drawn carriage. But when Joseph needed help, he trusted Sam to help him do the right thing.
Joseph eventually fell ill with cancer, and Sam helped him secure medical care. He visited him at the hospital to bring home-cooked meals and keep him company.
In 2003, just days before he died, Joseph called Sam to his room.
“I want to tell you something,” he said. “Dooley Boy killed Pauline. We drink together – he told me.”
Though they were not close, Sam remembered Harper — a cousin, the daughter of his aunt — and how her death upset his mother, who became melancholy and began praying more frequently.
As for “Dooley Boy,” Sam knew who his brother was referring to, but he didn’t know his real name. What could he do with this information after all these years, anyway, he wondered. Why tell him, he asked?
“Because I know you’ll do something about it,” Joseph said.
For three years, Sam thought about it what his brother had said, and it gnawed at him. Most of all, he remembered his mother’s sadness.
After seeing news reports about cold case investigations, he began asking around City Hall about how he could get in touch with a detective. On June 6, 2006, nearly three years to the day that Joseph confided in him, Sam made contact with Det. Tyrone Francis, a 30-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department.
Even by cold case standards, the Harper case was dated. Police are only required to keep records going back about 30 years, so turning up the original police report was going to be a long shot. Detectives couldn’t inspect the crime scene and reconstruct the incident, either – the home was razed in 1977, the St. John’s Christian Community Church built on the spot where it once stood.
Francis scoured micro-film records. The Baltimore Sun had given the case scant coverage – only a brief write-up that referred to Harper as a “Negro” – but in the Afro it was the hottest story going at the time. With the department’s own records, Francis not only was able to find copies of some of the original investigative records but was able to determine that “Dooley Boy” was William Henry Kittrell – Pauline Harper’s half-brother.
Kittrell was 16 years old when his sister was found dead, and, Francis learned from news reports at the time, police had initially considered him a suspect, holding him in custody for nearly two days.
“I was never so scared in all my life,” Kittrell told the Afro in an article accompanied by a photo of him helping his grief-stricken mother from the funeral service. “They took me downtown, put something like a license tag around my neck and they mugged me and finger printed me. When the lieutenant asked me, ‘Why did you kill your sister?’ I almost fell out.”
But his account of his last encounter with his sister, after she returned home from the cocktail party, was curious. She was drunk, he said, and showed him “how they danced at the party. We were playing.”
Then, he said, she asked him to unbutton the back of her dress before she went to bed and told him to turn off the light. He said he considered locking her in the bedroom, for her own safety.
There was no sign of forced entry, and Harper’s second-floor room wasn’t accessible from the outside. The family dog, a mutt named Koochie, had free reign of the house, and Snowden recalls that it was so aggressive toward strangers that it had to be put away when his family visited. No one heard the dog bark.
The case “presented police with the riddle of who was able to strangle the girl in her own bed and leave the house without being seen,” the Afro-American reported at the time.
But maybe the answer had been right under their nose.
Francis tracked down Kittrell to an apartment in West Baltimore, and his first impression of the 63-year-old suspect was that he had “lived a rough life,” Francis said in an interview.
Indeed, records show that even in his older age, Kittrell was running afoul of the law, arrested for drug possession at least four times since 2000. His criminal record also included charges of assault, battery and burglary. Nothing approaching murder, however.
Under questioning, Kittrell was arrogant, Francis said. He said he did not remember anything about Harper’s death, and denied that he ever socialized with Joseph Snowden, which other family members would later refute.
“‘You think I did something? Prove it,’” he recalls Kittrell saying.
Asked to submit to a lie detector test, Francis said Kittrell failed “miserably.” Francis had a few other leads, too: there were bite marks on Harper’s body, and Kittrell had served in the Army, which would have dental records that could be compared.
Relatives had long suspected Kittrell’s involvement, they would tell Francis, but their mother defended his innocence. If he were charged in the crime, it would be like losing another child. Over the years, however, Kittrell would display a propensity for violence and attempted sexual assaults on adolescent family members, according to police documents.
“Dooley Boy” had become the prime suspect.
Francis wouldn’t get the chance to follow through on those leads. Cold case investigations are fraught with fits and starts, and he lost track of Kittrell. As it would turn out, he had fallen gravely ill and been admitted to a local veteran’s hospital.
In March 2007 — four decades after his sister was killed, three years after Sam Snowden came forward with new information and just a few months into Francis’ investigation — Kittrell died from liver cancer.
“I always had hoped, before he got deathly ill, that he was going to give it up,” said Francis, who has since retired from the police department. “He almost burned the polygraph up, and seeing as how he never invoked a right to an attorney, I always hoped that we could have broken him in the interview.”
It will never be known whether police were closing in on Kittrell or simply giving a spirited pursuit that would have reached the same fruitless conclusion as those who investigated before them. But after reviewing the case, prosecutors decided there was enough evidence pointing to Kittrell to stop pursuing leads and close the case.
The law allows police to close a case “by exception,” when arrest of a suspect is not possible due to the reasons beyond police control, such as death of the offender, prosecution declined, extradition denied, and victim’s refusal to cooperate with investigation.
In May 2007, 47 years after Pauline Harper was killed, the case was finally closed.
Word didn’t reach most of those who once followed the investigation, such as one-time suspects Thomas T. Parker and Wilbert Ward.
Ward was jailed for a week, and when he met his future wife people warned her that he had been a suspect in the killing.
Parker, meanwhile, died in 1992, and his widow said that the allegations dogged him for years.
“It made him a nervous wreck,” Dolores Parker said. “I don’t think he ever got over it.”
Another person who never received closure was Harper’s fiancee, David Knighton, the Air Force sergeant. Reached by phone in McAlester, Okla., where he has been a pastor for 30 years, Knighton said it was a relief to finally learn what happened.
He said he had conjured up all sorts of possible scenarios over the years, including the possibility that she had been seeing someone else who killed her after learning she was engaged.
“[Pauline’s murder] brought to my attention how frail life is. For 26 months [during a tour of duty in Okinawa, Japan] I had been looking forward to coming back and being with her the rest of my life,” said Knighton, who has survived bouts with prostate and colon cancer. “Over the years, I think it made me a better person too, in the sense that you live one day at a time, and to make the best of life each day.”
As for Kittrell, Francis said he escaped punishment by the criminal justice.
“I’m of the belief that nobody gets away with anything,” he said. “By our standards, it wasn’t adjudicated. But there’s all sorts of justice.”