Ch 12: Suspects

   The police department became nervous as tensions grew in the Black community in response to the increased number of rapes reported and even more that were rumored. It was difficult to ignore the headlines in the Black Free Press that accused the police of negligence in its investigation of the case. It was also difficult to ignore the repeated rumor that an Italian woman, Estelle Miletello, might be the person who hired someone to kill Vonda Harris. More than any other, the police continued to hear the Miletello name associated with the murder. Even though they sought to ignore the growing number of unsubstantiated tips they received involving Mrs. Miletello, soon they had to respond. Detective Brown pushed for the questioning of Miletello much to the dismay of other investigators who thought to investigate a white woman for the rape and murder of a Black woman was stretching the matter. Miletello was not connected. Brown pressed anyway, so Ellerman and others asked Mrs. Miletello to come to the station for an interview.

     Estelle Miletello was extremely nervous and agitated when she arrived at the police station She resented the rumors, whispers, and finger-pointing. When asked to come to the police station, she considered that an insult. She was insulted further when Brown asked her to submit to a lie detector test. If she passed the test, she would be eliminated as a suspect, and the department could ignore the rumors. Most of all it would satisfy Brown and shut him up.

    As they prepared Mrs. Miletello for the test, it became evident there would be problems. She grumbled and complained under her breath. She resisted even the most routine questions such as her name, address, or whether she was married. The lie detector needle jumped wildly because Mrs. Miletello's emotions were high. They finally settled, but were stirred again when the real questions began.

  "Why are you asking me these questions?" she asked.

  "It's just routine."

   "I had nothing to do with that. Why are you asking me these questions?"

  Feisty by nature, Mrs. Miletello continued to be uncooperative when they asked her even the most basic information: where she was on the night of the murder, and her knowledge of Vonda Harris. She was extremely edgy when asked about any possible relationship she had with Frankie Joe Robinson.

   "I don't see what any of this has to do with what you are looking for, and I don't appreciate it," she told investigators.

  They asked the questions but were visibly concerned when the test seemed to suggest she was lying most of the time.

  "She's lying about not knowing Frankie Joe," said Brown.

  "She's nervous and upset. You know how these machines work whenever somebody is upset or worked up," said Ellerman.

  "I think we may be on to something," Brown said.

  "We are not on to anything. We bring a woman to the station and out of the blue ask her questions about a murder she knows nothing about, of course, she's going to be upset. I'd be upset," said Ellerman.

  "She was nervous. There is more to this," said Brown.

  "There is nothing more. We should leave this lady alone," said Ellerman.

  The detectives mulled over Miletello's test results and analyzed them with their knowledge about such tests. What they knew is that polygraph tests only measure the amount of stress shown when specific questions are asked. It measures the rise in blood pressure, pulse, perspiration, and skin conductivity. A person like Mrs. Miletello, an extremely agitated person, could easily give false readings on test results. At the same time, a person in complete control of their emotions would not register any recordable stress and could sail through the test even though they lied on all questions.

  Police departments used polygraphs to eliminate suspects, rarely to convict them. A person unconnected with a case would usually pass the test, while those connected in some way may not pass. However, the test is not foolproof. It is so subjective that courts frown on the results because they are unscientific, and the scientific community repeatedly rejects the process. Most believe the test is accurate only 60 percent of the time, which leaves plenty of room for error.

  The Monroe Police used a lie detector test like a two-edged sword: it pointed the finger at those the police suspected and was useful in coercing confessions about cases. It was also helpful to shift blame away from a likely suspect if police believe there is cause. Estelle Miletello's test results made her look suspicious. So, the department, sure that it was a mistake, called her in for a second test. This time the questions were general and non-threatening. There were no questions about Frankie Joe or whether she may have hired a hitman to kill Vonda Harris. They only asked her whether she knew anything about the case. This time test results supported her claim and they let her go.

     The Monroe police were satisfied the feisty little woman was telling the truth.

    Detective Brown watched her as she left the station, but the rumors were fresh in his mind. Years of police work taught him to investigate rumors because sometimes buried between the exaggeration and half-truths, embellishments and lies was an element of truth.

   Nearly every person he talked to on the street mentioned the Miletello name. Some blamed Estelle others blamed Salvador. Still, others blamed both of them. Too many people were calling her name. Too many were pointing the finger at this little woman. His suspicions heightened because she seemed to have problems with the lie detector test every time questions were asked about her relationship with Frankie Joe, but had no problems passing the test when she wasn't asked about him. Had Ellerman and the others let her off the hook, dismissing a white suspect for the murder of a Black woman?

 Estelle Miletello resented being implicated in a murder because she and Frankie Joe were friends. She also resisted any efforts from the government to probe into private matters that were not connected to the murder. She refused to sit still and allow her family to be the subject of salacious gossip. She and Frankie Joe were friends; that's all they needed to know. Brown believed there was more and wanted to pursue her involvement more, but the second test eliminated her as a suspect as far as the others were concerned.

     While the rumors were viral, Brown also knew that rumors have a life of their own once they circulate. In just a short time, rumors can displace facts in the mind of those who hear them. The "facts" that rumors relate often change as each hearer embellishes it as it passes from one ear to the next. Rumors have wrongfully convicted many people and ruined lives. It could very well be that the rumors about Estelle were figments of the imaginations of those hungry to pin the murder on someone, especially a white woman bold enough to have a Black boyfriend and flaunt it in front of so many Black women. Jealousy could play a part, too. Brown wasn't sure, but in his gut, he felt a major suspect walking out the door.

   The rumors said Estelle and Frankie were lovers. When Brown talked to Estelle informally, she told him that she and Frankie were really close friends, but she did not know Vonda Harris.

  He also talked to her husband, Salvadore, who was labeled by the rumor mill as being a boyfriend of Vonda Harris. It was said that he had many Black girlfriends. Salvadore told Brown that he knew Vonda because she frequented his store, but he had never known her as a girlfriend. He said he never went out with her. The lie-detector tests proved that Salvadore knew nothing about the murder, and Estelle was cleared, too, as long as the interrogations stayed away from Frankie Joe.

   Brown even questioned Frankie Joe twice, but each time the test indicated he knew nothing about the murder.

   Standing across the street, the assailant saw Estelle Miletello as she left the police station. She was mouthing complaints about the tests and repeatedly being called to answer stupid questions.

As she drove away, the assailant turned and smiled.


The NAACP president was relentless in his agitations about the police investigation. From the pulpit of his church, he questioned whether the police department cared about the rapes and the murders. The newspaper headlines of the Black Free Press echoed his sentiment. The whole matter would have been less intense without the spotlight he kept shining on the case week after week.

   In response to the continued media attention, police detectives were busy trying to find the suspect in the Harris murder, even if others were neglected. The case in the public's mind was the one that city hall wanted solved if only to shut the mouth of the president.

   The frustrated detectives followed dozens of leads, yet all came to dead ends. Lawrence Ray Ward lived in the area and was arrested on a warrant for failure to appear in court the day the body was found. Officers noted that when he was arrested, he had an unusual amount of blood on his tennis shoes. He was questioned and given a lie-detector test. It looked as if they had the right person, but the test showed he was not involved. No lab tests were run on the blood on his tennis shoes.

    As the days passed, the detectives followed even the remotest leads. Larry Shaw and Arthur Harris were both arrested for being peeping Toms at the Kingsway Apartments. They were also given lie detector tests about the murder. No luck. A person with a mental health condition, Louis Reed, was questioned because he was known to walk the street all hours of the night.

   Officers even attended Harris' funeral and watched the mourners for suspects. It was not out of reason for murderers to attend the funerals of their victims. Out of view, they watched the mourners. Informants spotted Gerald P. Garrett, manager of the local Burger Chef, acting suspiciously. It was a long shot. They pulled him in, but the test dismissed him as well.

     The community became frantic, and tensions rose as it appeared that nothing was being done. Edward Williams, another known mental patient who walked the streets of the Booker T. area, was seen carrying a butcher's knife looking for the murderer of Vonda Harris. He wanted to help the police who seemed impotent in their efforts. They questioned Williams. Another dead end.

     Even while they were being accused of doing nothing, detectives were chasing down every rumor they heard. One rumor had them going in circles. J.C. Sanders Jr. told them he heard gossip at Willie T's Café on Renwick Street that a man named "Percy" knew who killed Vonda Harris.

     At the station, Sanders told what he heard.

     "All I know is that I was at Willie T's and everybody kept saying Percy's cousin did it," said Sanders looking up at Brown and Ellerman.

   "Do you know Percy?" asked Brown.

  "Everybody know Percy." "What's his last name?" Brown asked. "Percy Freeman. Percy said he knew who killed Vonda, that it was his cousin. He said he was going to turn him in, but he left for New Orleans," said Sanders. Brown and Ellerman tracked down Percy Freeman at his residence at 4106 Owl Street. [40]At the station, Freeman admitted that he knew nothing about the case and did not have a cousin in New Orleans. The lie detector test supported his claim. They started looking for anyone else named Percy. Anyone named Percy became an immediate suspect, including Percy Tugler, who was brought to the police station and interrogated for the possibility of being the Percy Sanders mentioned. Tugler was given the test and released.  It wasn't unusual for people to claim 15 minutes of fame by associating themselves with a crime in the spotlight. It makes them feel important, especially after a few drinks. Brown and Ellerman knew this, but they had to check out every lead. It seemed that Sander's "Percy" story was a dead end. An informant listening through the walls of an apartment at Kingsway Apartment told police that she heard two men discussing the rape and murder of a woman.

Evelyn Foster, who lived at #28 Kingsway Apartments, told police that she heard Berlin White ask Lester Gay, "Why did you kill her?" She said Gay then retorted, "Why did you rape her?" Foster was not sure whether the two were referring to the murder of Vonda Harris or Ella Mae Turner, who was found dead on the corner of Ponder and Sherrouse Street a week earlier. Thinking they may have a lead to resolve both murders, detectives picked up White and Gay but dismissed them as suspects in either the Vonda Harris or Turner murder. After two weeks, the detectives had interviewed sixty-eight people and had begun going around in circles leading them right back to nothing. They chased every tip and wacko lead but came up empty-handed. The public didn't know about the sixty-eight people questioned or the intensive search that had become priority one for the detectives, so the accusations of "doing nothing" continued.


In reality, the assailant had covered his tracks well. There were bodies and victims all over the city, yet not a single one pointed to him. He was the perfect criminal who had committed the perfect murder, and he enjoyed every minute as he observed the investigation.
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