- Associated Press - Monday, May 9, 2016

GULPORT, Miss. (AP) - Did you know Julia Critchfield? In 1978, the 36-year-old woman was found dead in a north Harrison County dirt pit.

Investigators say they’re no closer to solving the cold case than those who worked on it more than 38 years ago.

They’re stumped. They have no clue who killed her, but they believe people who knew her can help.

What they do know is someone used their hands to strangle Critchfield. Her body was thrown off a cliff at an old dirt pit off U.S. 49 and Mississippi 67, a few miles south of Stone County.

Evidence indicates she was sexually assaulted and killed somewhere else.

Her body was found 8 to 10 feet below a cliff Jan. 22, 1978. The dirt pit was across from the Ed Owens Club.

Harrison County sheriff’s Detective Caleb Mitchell has taken over the cold case. Crime Scene Investigator Kristi Johnson is helping him.

On April 20, they walked the area where the dirt pit had been. It held no clues.

They said their only hope at this time is someone who knew Critchfield will tell them things about her that could hold a clue.

“It doesn’t even have to be anything about the crime,” Johnson said.

The investigators want to know more about her and her routine.

“We’ll take any information we can get,” Johnson said.

Who was she?

Critchfield has been described as friendly, though she guarded her private life and didn’t easily trust others.

She was the divorced mother of four children. They weren’t living with her at the time. She was trying to get on her feet so she could take care of her kids, Johnson said. Critchfield had leased a place at 1111 Fournier Avenue in Gulfport earlier that month.

She didn’t own a car. She walked wherever she went or got rides from friends.

She enjoyed going to clubs.

“Karaoke and singing,” Mitchell said.

“She wasn’t a drinker. It was coffee or Coke.”

What happened

Critchfield had gone to Chris’s Lounge on Courthouse Road in Gulfport on a Saturday night. She was last seen there about 10 or 10:15 p.m.

Whatever happened in the next couple of hours led to her death.

About 1:15 p.m. the next day, a motorcycle rider at the dirt pit saw the body.

No one knew who she was at first. Her wallet and the scattered contents of her purse were soon found near the dirt pit. A pair of pantyhose was on the side of the road.

Then-Assistant Sheriff George Smith told the Sun Herald she was partially clad. He identified her as a North Gulfport resident. Fournier is now considered part of west Gulfport.

A coroner’s inquest

Then-Coroner Edgar Little Jr. told the Sun Herald her body was about 100 yards from the highway. He said “very, very little” evidence was found there.

A coroner’s inquest was convened. Back then, a three-person panel reviewed deaths to determine if there was foul play or suspicious circumstances. The panel ordered an autopsy.

Johnson found the coroner’s inquest report a year ago while searching through boxes of inquest reports in the circuit clerk’s office.

Critchfield’s autopsy was performed in a tucked-away area of Gulf Coast Community Hospital, which later closed.

The coroner determined she had died about midnight, about two hours after she left Chris’s Lounge.

The death paperwork indicates Critchfield fought back. She had defensive wounds.

Leads go nowhere

Investigators followed up on leads.

She wasn’t known to frequent north Harrison County or the club across the highway from where her body was found, Mitchell said.

“They checked all the bars south to Gulfport,” he said. “They talked to bar owners and bar maids. They talked to family members and neighbors who had last seen her.”

No one remembered seeing her leave Chris’s Lounge. She had been seen at the club a couple of days earlier talking with two men of Slavonic descent; it didn’t appear she knew them. Investigators never found out who the men were.

She hadn’t been with anyone in particular that night, as far as investigators know, and she wasn’t known to have men coming and going from her house.

Critchfield was wearing a black dress that had been torn and a silver bangle or cuff bracelet with a Virgo sign.

Investigators were told she didn’t own a dress or bracelet like that. And she wasn’t a Virgo. She was a Scorpio.

Her name was added to a list of the county’s 22 homicides within a 5-year period. Today, that number would be a yearly average.

Several pieces of evidence were sent to a crime lab. The tests came back inconclusive.

Opening the case file

The sheriff’s office in recent years has been assigning cold cases to each detective. Johnson, with CSI expertise, is helping with 49 cases.

It could have been solved

Mitchell and Johnson opened a banker’s box marked with Critchfield’s name and date of death. It contained mostly reports that were handwritten or typed on a manual typewriter.

It also contained the Virgo bracelet, the pantyhose and her purse and its contents.

The black dress was missing. So were crime-scene photos and a standard sketch that would have shown the location of her body and belongings.

The missing items apparently were lost through the years. Or they could have been placed in an evidence vault. Evidence in the vault from the 1970s and earlier had been destroyed over the years, Johnson said.

Some of the evidence in Critchfield’s box has been sent off for testing.

DNA profiling didn’t become a crime-solving tool until the mid-1980s.

Some of the evidence CSIs would collect today was not collected when Critchfield was killed, Johnson said.

“The case could have been solved back then if they had the technology we have today,” she said. Initial investigators “didn’t know much then and we don’t know much now.”

How could it happen?

Was there anything that put Critchfield at risk of becoming a homicide victim?

“Maybe the need to catch a ride,” Johnson said, “not having a vehicle, the need to get in a car with somebody from point A to point B.”

She and Mitchell believe the killer was a man, and that where her body was found had nothing to do with Critchfield. They believe the killer decided to dump the body in the dirt pit because he was familiar with it, Johnson said.

How can people help?

Anyone who knew her can share information that could make a difference, investigators said.

For instance, did someone loan her the black dress and Virgo bracelet? Had she talked about plans for that Saturday night? Had she made new friends recently? What else did she do for enjoyment?

To give a tip, call Mitchell at 896-0657, Johnson at 896-0664 or the Criminal Investigations Division at 896-0678.

Or contact Crime Stoppers anonymously: Call 1-877-787-5898, text CSTIPS plus your message to 274637 (CRIMES) or go online at www.mscoastcrimestoppers.com.

“There’s something about this case,” Johnson said. “I just would really like to see it solved. We want all of them solved. But she was young, a mama of four. She was finally getting her life back when she was killed.”

___

Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com

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