Marcellus Williams: Could The Unsolved Murder Of Debra McClain Help Save A Man’s Life?

On July, 18th, 1998, Pagedale Police, along with paramedics responded to a call originating from Leroy Avenue. John McClain, upon returning home had been confronted with his worst nightmare; the gruesome murder of his wife.

Debra McClain, 40-years-old, sleight of frame and standing little over 5-feet-tall, had been repeatedly stabbed. In an otherwise seemingly undisturbed household, the kitchen in which McClain was found, exhibited all the signs of a frenzied attack—at first police thought that McClain’s throat had been cut, due to the amount of blood at the scene. McClain’s postmortem would later reveal numerous stab and cut wounds that would attribute to the bloody scene.

Within a week of McClain’s murder, a funeral service attended by some 50 relatives took place at Fairview Heights, where her mother resided. According to St.Louis Post Dispatch, John McClain was quoted by one relative as stating that both he and the police were aware of who his wife’s murderer was, stating, “You’ll be surprised when you find out.”

Less than 4 weeks after Debra McClain was laid to rest, Felicia Gayle was found stabbed to death in her apartment.

Gayle, who lived only 3 miles from McClain—yet in a far more salubrious gated community within the University City suburb of St. Louis—was the victim of 43 stab and cut wounds; the murder weapon also taken from the victim’s kitchen. The crime scene, again like that of McClain’s, was similarly undisturbed, albeit for the horrific nature of the murder and unavoidable blood that surrounded the victim of such an attack.

In part, due to Gayle’s previous affiliation with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, and likely due to the similar nature of both McClain’s and Gayle’s murders, news coverage—surrounding Gayle in particular—amplified.

While the similarity of the murders was clear to see, even taking into account the yet unrevealed specific details of both; the disparity as to where the murders took place offered pause for thought: while a murder of such in Pagedale would still be considered shocking, yet perhaps not unheard of, the same could not be so readily said for the suburb of University City and its ‘gated community.

 


  • The city of Pagedale, Missouri, lies on the far Eastern border of St. Louis County. With its consistently dwindling population perhaps an indication of the hardships that have beset the city over the preceding decades. Since the mid 1970’s the number of residents that make up the cities community has fallen by approximately one-third. Pagedale however, is not alone when looking into the demographics that tell the story of St. Louis County on a whole. Seemingly forever an undesired fixture of Top-10 lists relating to violent crime, the County; along with its namesake bordering city, has struggled to change its image. Nonetheless, like most counties within the USA, the disparity in standard of living between the lesser ‘desirable,’ Pagedale and more ‘desirable,’ University City is hard to dispute.  

While media coverage of both murders was restricted by large to local outlets and the Post-Dispatch, the Chicago Tribune ran an article by Steve Kerch within its Real Estate section, some 2 weeks following Gayle’s murder. With Gayle’s links to the media sector and her much heralded reputation as a fine upstanding member of the community, pressure on the police to find who was responsible for her murder steadily grew—as did the propensity for her story to be covered over that of McClain’s.

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During the subsequent weeks that followed both murders, law enforcement were quick to address the possibility that they were linked. Intriguingly however, certain aspects of both murders were being covered in greater depth than others. In the weeks following Gayle’s murder in particular, the Post-Dispatch ran with the following:


“Now police are investigating whether the murders are linked. Although the women lived in different worlds and were slain 24 days apart, police point to these similarities:

* The women both were in their early 40s with the same body types: slim and short with brown hair.

* Each were stabbed an equal number of times: more than 20.

* In each case, the weapon was a knife from the victim’s home. Each time, the killer or killers left the weapon behind.

* Most important, police noted similar wounds. Both women were stabbed in the head, wounds that police describe as unusual. Gayle was stabbed in the upper body and head. McClain in the upper body and head, including the nose, lips and ears.

Police also noted the differences: One family was well-to-do, the other poor. The Gayle house was broken into and robbed, there were no signs of either at the McClain home.

Within days of Gayle’s murder, University Police Chief Lee Payne offered the theory the two murders were linked. The chief of detectives, Capt. Jeffrey Keller, said that theory remains under investigation but added: “We have not established that one way or the other.”


The Post-Dispatch’s report raised questions of  potentially key issues.

Presumably due to police information, the Post-Dispatch reported that, ‘Each time, the killer or killers left the weapon behind,’ and, ‘The Gayle house was broken into and robbed, there were no signs of either at the McClain home.’

However, like University City Police, St.Louis County Medical Examiner, Dr. Mary Case articulated the similarities further. Indeed, certain findings that Case spoke of were in direct opposition to those of University City Police:

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Section taken from Williams’ Habeas Petition dated August 14th, 2018.

University City Police’s vagueness as to the location of the murder weapon was met with the very specific, and perhaps more importantly, ‘extremely rare’  nature of finding the weapon left in the body of both victims.

Of perhaps greater note, was Case’s assertion that both victim’s had their purses stolen during the time of their murders. Unless Case was mistaken, which seems unlikely, the evidence that University City Police were actively trying to establish distance between each case appeared a possibility—even at such an early stage of investigations.

Over the coming months, both victim’s families offered $10,000 rewards—September in Gayle’s case—for information relating to the homicides of McClain and Gayle—perhaps an indication that faith in local police was rapidly diminishing (perhaps more pointedly in McClain’s case). By the May of 1999, further news articles began to convey both the frustrations and fears of, in particular, the community within which Gayle was part of.

While Capt. Jeffrey Keller; Chief of the Bureau of Investigation, was keen to assert that Gayle’s murder was, “an isolated incident,” findings from residents adjacent to that of Gayles’ unearthed three subsequent break-ins only a matter of weeks before Gayle’s murder, and at remarkably similar times to that of McClain’s.


“That was one of the biggest mistakes (police) made, not informing us that we had a crime spree,” neighbor Chris Parks said.

After the murder, Parks said, she went to the police station and asked for the neighborhood’s crime statistics.

“They wouldn’t give it to me,” Parks said.

Capt. Charles Adams, Commander of the Bureau of Professional Standards, said crime statistics in University City are public records.

“We give them out to anybody that asks for them,” he said.


What was clear, some 8-months after—in the May of 1999—the 2 murders, was anger at the lack of progress being made by law enforcement; compounded by their apparent lack of transparency as to similarities between the two cases, and possible links with other break-ins. While Keller claimed Gayle’s murder to be an isolated incident, the fact that these victim’s of break-ins were not confronted by the perpetrator might easily explain there differing outcomes.

News from 3 miles south of University City in Pagedale revealed similar angst, along with stories of foreboding leading up to McClain’s murder. In the months preceding her death, McClain had told relatives that she was scared, and further informed other friends that she was afraid of a man that she did not want to name. While these stories were of a second hand nature, the prognosis coming from St.Louis County Police Lt. Jon Belmar was distinctly first hand, “Absent some confession or some damning evidence, we’re not going to make an arrest.”

Hot on the heels of publicized unrest from residents and family, and law enforcement’s lack of leads regarding either case, came news that police no longer believed the 2 murders to be linked. Seemingly, although police maintained that in either case there was, ‘not enough evidence for an arrest, much less a conviction,’ there was enough evidence to form the opinion that both murders were committed by different suspects.

While on the face of things, law enforcement’s conclusion appeared premature, behind the scenes a potential lead into the case of Gayle was materializing from a man by the name of Henry Cole Jr.

Cole, no stranger to life behind bars—convicted on no fewer than 12 occasions, ranging from first degree robbery, to unlawful possession of a concealed firearm—was being housed at the Workhouse, or City Jail in St.Louis, between April and June of 1999.

During his detention there, Cole was to meet Marcellus Williams. During their meeting at the City Jail, Cole and Williams discovered they were distantly related; although not by blood. According to Cole, sometime in early to mid May, he and Marcellus were watching the 6 o’clock news when a segment on Gayle’s unsolved murder case was aired. Part of the newscast went onto detail that a $10,000 reward was on offer for information surrounding the case. Cole testified that later that same evening, Williams confided in him that he had been the perpetrator in Gayle’s murder stating that, ‘I pulled that. That is my caper.’

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Felicia Gayle’s residence in the 6900 block of Kingsbury Boulevard, in University City, MO.

Officially; according to police records, Cole came forward on June 4th, with details regarding Williams’ admission to Gayle’s murder. During trial, Cole was to testify in great detail, Williams’ account of how the ‘caper’ went down. Furthermore, Cole’s reasoning for being able to recall the specific details of Williams’ crime, was due to him jotting  down events after each confession—Williams divulged his grisly tale to Cole over a number of encounters.

While entirely possible that authorities had no communication with Cole until June 4th, their admission that Gayle and McClain’s murders were not linked only a matter of weeks prior, seemed to fit the time frame for Williams’ alleged confession to Cole during that specific period.

With Williams now a viable suspect in the eyes of law enforcement in relation to the Gayle homicide, the question still remained why they were seemingly so quick to waive the very real possibility that McClain’s and Gayle’s murders were linked. The answer to that question became abundantly clear, when it became apparent that Williams was in fact detained in the same St.Louis City Jail over the period coinciding with the McClain murder.

Williams’ arrest however, would not take place until close to 6 months later, on November 29th. Police duly charged Williams with first degree murder and armed criminal action only a matter of days after another informant, Laura Asaro was questioned at her mother’s house on November, 17th. Asaro, a documented prostitute and crack addict, told police of her brief relationship with Williams which happened to coincide with the Gayle murder.

During Williams’ trial in the June of 2001, Asaro; during an emotionally charged testimony, admitted that police, ‘offered to help me with my warrants.’ Asaro at first believed officers had come to arrest her over outstanding warrants issued against her.


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Marcellus Williams Trial Transcript[s], June, 9th, 2001.

During trial the state relied soley on the testimony of Cole and Asaro, alongside evidence that claimed Williams sold Gayle’s husbands laptop to a neighborhood friend, and personal artifacts of Gayle’s found in Williams’ car.

Forensically, the crime scene offered varied unaccounted items of potential evidentiary value. While little DNA testing was conducted in Gayle’s case—by either prosecution or defense—hairs, including pubic-hairs, were taken into evidence and via gross examination, some were found to not match either Gayle, her husband, or Williams. Of further probative value were nail clippings containing blood and skin cells, and hair taken from the victim’s hands—according to Asaro’s testimony, Williams exhibited scratch marks the same afternoon of the Gayle’s murder. None of these came back with any match to Williams.

Perhaps the most important piece of evidence; the knife taken from Gayle’s body, was not tested for DNA—more on that later however.

Williams was found guilty of the murder of Gayle on June, 15th, and sentenced to death 4 days later.

While Williams’ case was now closed, and subsequently open to the many appeals that have followed over the past 18 years, McClain’s case was, and still is, open to this very day—largely due to the fact that nobody has been arrested, let alone convicted of her murder.

Contrary to St. Louis County Police Lt. Jon Belmar’s assertion that, “Absent some confession or some damning evidence, we’re not going to make an arrest,” came news from McClain’s widow, via Williams’ post-conviction attorney Kent Gipson, that implied St. Louis County Police may have in fact had some evidence in the form of a possible seemingly unknown DNA profile in connection with his wife’s murder.

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Kent Gipson: Co-counsel for Marcellus Williams.

As previously mentioned, Case, the medical examiner in both cases, believed there was a strong possibility that the murders were linked due to their many similarities. What’s more, The Innocence Project—campaigning on behalf of Williams—has offered that a DNA profile has been developed from the murder weapon in the McClain case due to them being informed that a surreptitious DNA sample was taken from McClain’s husband, who was at one stage treated as a suspect in his wife’s murder.

Gipson further highlighted the Innocence Project’s beliefs, “The husband says they were trying to pin the murder on him. It appeared to him that they were giving him cigarettes, then using them to get his DNA to compare it. That would suggest that they had some comparable DNA from the crime-scene to compare his DNA with. Obviously it didn’t match or they would have charged him.”

With McClain’s murder remaining unsolved some 20 years later, both her widow and son have duly informed Gipson that they want DNA testing to be carried out on the knife and any other probative items in connection with the Gayle homicide.

With a DNA profile seemingly available in connection with the McClain murder, and a profile of unknown origin evident in Gayles’, questions remain why the State of Missouri would be so reticent in allowing further testing.

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Tricia Bushnell: Director at The Midwest Innocence Project.

Tricia Bushnell—Director of The Midwest Innocence Project—was one of the driving forces in helping to secure Williams’ stay of execution in August of last year. Speaking with CJRJ, she made her feelings clear, “If you stand behind the integrity of your conviction, then there should be no problem with making a comparison, because you shouldn’t find there’s a match on these two different people. Now we aren’t saying that them being different means that Marcellus did it by any means. What we are saying is there is a possibility of incredibly probative evidence. If these were both ‘crimes right now’ wouldn’t they do that comparison?”

“We know there are steps that can be taken. Mr Williams’ life and justice is on the line for a number of people.”

Back in the August of 2018, then Missouri Governor Eric Greitens stayed the execution of Marcellus Williams and formed a Board of Inquiry to look into his possible wrongful conviction. With less than 4 hours before Williams was due to be put to death by lethal injection, Greitens listened to the people of Missouri; the United States, and the world round.

“A sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment,” stated Governor Greitens. “To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgement of guilt.”

petition that garnered more than 187,000 signatures at the time of Williams’ stay still grows to this day, with more than 314,000 advocates now putting their names forward.

Reasons for Greitens granting the stay primarily revolved around DNA reports provided within post-conviction appeals by Greg Hampikian and Norah Rudin, that both excluded Williams from being a contributor of the DNA found on the knife used to murder Gayle—following DNA testing on the murder weapon an unknown profile was found that did not match Gayle, her husband, or Williams.

With Mike Parson replacing Greitens as Missouri’s governor, initial fears by some were allayed as Parson chose to let the board carry on their investigations into Williams’ conviction.

While Greitens was correct in his assertion that the people of Missouri must have ‘confidence in the judgement of guilt,’ it too should be the case that they have confidence in local law enforcement continuing to look into solving cold cases such as McClain’s, especially when potential exculpatory evidence is seemingly at their disposal.

Attention given the nature of Williams’ situation, has understandably centered around the possibility of sending a potentially innocent man to his death. However, the conceivable links between an innocent man on death-row and a case that has run cold for more than 20-years being connected are very real.

Due to McClain’s case, ‘running cold,’ yet still open, requests for discovery by Williams’ attorneys relating to her case have been continually rebuffed. The hope now lies in the Board of Inquiries powers to have case files pertaining to McClain released for scrutiny. With the fear that one potential miscarriage of justice is being protected by the non disclosure of information that could lead to clemency or even exoneration for Williams, plus a re-invigoration of McClain’s case, one would hope that the board grant all available resources needed that could shed further light on the two murders that occurred within 3 miles, and 3 weeks of eachother back in 1998.

The Board of Inquiry; having met twice already, are due to offer an update into their findings within the coming weeks and months of this new year.


 

Sections from Post-Dispatch reports used in this article are shared here. Reasons for not displaying them within are for the quality of their reproduction only.

For any queries or questions relating to this article, please contact me here.

 

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