- Associated Press - Sunday, December 4, 2016

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) - If walls could talk, the stories the house could tell.

On Robinhood Road, a stone’s throw from Shattalon Drive, the once blood-splattered walls of one home are the only witness to a horrible, heart-wrenching secret, one that has baffled experts and investigators for decades - the brutal 1969 killing of Elizabeth Hilts Grant, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office’s oldest unsolved homicide.

Grant, a widow who lived alone, was savagely stabbed 54 times in her house one night in July nearly a half-century ago.

Investigators were never able to derive a motive or even a concrete suspect in the case.

The Winston-Salem grandmother, who was 55, was prominent in the community, running the newsstand at the now-demolished Hotel Robert E. Lee downtown. She had planned to visit her daughter in Connecticut the week of her killing. Instead, her daughter came to Winston-Salem for the funeral.

“She called me from the filling station a few days before and I sort of sensed there was something amiss,” said her daughter Alice Grant Chambers, now 76.

“Like maybe she had a feeling someone had come to the house.”

The facts

After a long day working at her second job as a Twin City Club bookkeeper on July 28, 1969, Grant went home one last time.

She stopped at a grocery store about 10:30 p.m. to buy a 59-cent half-gallon of milk.

Grant had just enough time to carry in her groceries through the back door that led into the kitchen before she was ambushed by her attacker.

Her back window had been pried open, leading police to believe the attacker had been lying in wait. The window screen was never found.

After Grant was attacked, she fought her way through the house, leaving a trail of blood before dying on the bedroom floor.

“She put up a tremendous fight,” said former Sheriff Ron Barker, who worked on the case under then-Sheriff Ernie Shore. “Best I can tell, somebody was awful mad at her or started panicking when she fought back.”

Four bloody knives, including a 16-inch-long butcher knife, were found by her side.

It was unclear whether Grant had used one of the knives to defend herself.

A pair of clean, gray suede desert boots, size 9.5 and not belonging to Grant, were tidily placed on a rocking chair in the bedroom.

Investigators were mystified that the attacker was able to leave without tracking any blood across the floor, disappearing into the soggy night.

Grant had been killed in the midst of a rainy streak and footprints could be tracked to the lawn mower in her garage, where police theorized the killer may have sought shelter from the rain.

An unidentified neighbor, who was waiting for his wife to return from the hospital, reported that he heard a car door slam about 10:30 p.m. and went to the porch to see if it was his wife. A man called out to him, sheathed in darkness, and asked if there was a filling station nearby.

Roughly a half-hour later, the neighbor heard a car door slam again and a car zoom away, he said.

But the neighbor never heard the screaming that was sure to have pierced the quiet night as Grant fought her way through four rooms of her house. The guard dog at the nearest house, 100 yards away, never barked.

A mystery

When Grant didn’t show up for work the next morning, her sister went to her house and found Grant’s body lying in a pool of blood. Her keys were still in the house door and car ignition, the milk still on the counter and the lights on. Blood was splattered as high as 6 feet on the walls.

The house did not appear to have been searched, and the only thing that was missing was her white straw handbag, containing a meagerly stocked wallet.

An anonymous call was made to the newsstand that morning by a man who said he had Grant’s wallet and wanted to return it. The man, later identified as Kenneth Dodd of Walkertown, said two little boys had found the wallet and brought it to his barber shop nearby on 11th Street.

Police at the time questioned whether it had been planted intentionally as a red herring in the playground, in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, where it would almost certainly be discovered.

It would be five months before construction workers would find Grant’s white handbag near a creek on 10½ Street.

Detectives with the FBI recovered 15 sets of fingerprints in the house, which were sent to a lab in Washington, but extensive testing turned up nothing.

“Things were done differently back in those days, and DNA testing was still in its infancy,” Barker said, “not like we have today.”

Barker began work as a sheriff’s deputy the week before Grant was killed. Now 83, he is the only person still living who worked on the case when she was killed, he said. He prided himself that in the 12 years he was sheriff, from 1990 to 2000, the sheriff’s office solved every homicide case within 48 hours.

But although he made the Grant case a priority, it is one that haunts him to this day.

“All these years later,” Barker said. “I’m still having a real problem with why.”

A motive

Investigators discounted robbery as a motive as Grant had little cash and two valuable diamond rings were still on her fingers when her body was found that Tuesday morning. There were no signs of sexual assault, either.

Theories swirled as law enforcement officials struggled to find a suspect fast, fearing they had a deranged serial killer on their hands. Did the suspect go to the wrong house? Was the suspect insane or on drugs? Who was the person who killed a defenseless woman in cold blood?

An eerie call from a woman to police declared: “It wasn’t a man; it was me.”

Police didn’t give the call much weight, as crank calls were all too common and they were sure the killer was a man.

“We never had a very strong suspect. Or at least there was never much proof,” Barker said. “We were never able to figure a motive other than some type of revenge … because of the large number of stab wounds and the sheer brutality.”

A few weeks after Grant’s killing, a man came forward with the allegation that he saw a white man toss Grant’s small brown pleated wallet from his car into a small playground at 11th Street and Dunleith Avenue about 11:30 p.m.

The man said the car was an old green Falcon with the license plate in the rear window instead of on the bumper. The driver was middle-aged, with long, light-colored hair brushed back on the side.

But a hair found on Grant’s stockings conflicted with his story, after being identified by crime labs as belonging to an African-American man. Whether the hair was on her stockings before the incident, perhaps belonging to a patron at work, or whether it was definitively linked to the killer could not be determined.

Of all the possibilities, police believed, almost certainly, the killer was somebody she knew.

A prominent New York psychiatrist, James A. Brussel, who often helped police solve cases by creating psychological profiles, echoed the theory. He said the killer would be a mentally unstable white man between the ages of 30 and 50 who knew Grant and went to talk to her, not kill her.

“All this stabbing is more than a fury; it’s a deep-seated hatred. He had some long-standing grudge and not necessarily against her,” Brussel said. “He was not there to kill; he was there to plead or argue something.”

The four knives came from Grant’s kitchen, reinforcing the idea that the attacker didn’t go to her home intending to kill her. The attacker knew her habits, like when she would be home, Brussel said, adding, “It has to be someone from Winston-Salem.”

Investigators later deduced that the gray boots, likely left behind in the bedroom by the murderer, were worn by a man who was between 140 and 165 pounds, right-handed and was flatfooted with a slight limp.

Brussel saw the boots as a sinister and triumphant symbol: “I win.”

Grant a ‘very nice person’

The killing caused hysteria throughout the neighborhood with frequent, yet not necessarily substantiated, calls to police about attempted break-ins and prowlers. The local paper boy had a gun pulled on him three times by frightened residents.

No one could understand why a sweet woman, like Grant, whose friends called her “Lib,” would be the target of a brutal killing.

Grant, a dedicated Moravian, lived alone with her four cats and a white pigeon, Hamlet, who she had taken in when she found him with a broken wing years before.

She was a mother of two adult children, who lived far away, and a grandmother to a 2-year-old.

Grant cherished music, especially musicals by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, buying their records for her daughter.

After graduating from Salem College with a business degree, Grant worked for the American Automobile Association, around the corner from her soon-to-be husband, H. Leroy Grant, who ran the Lee hotel’s newsstand.

Although he was about 15 years her senior, the two bonded over a mutual love for horseback riding and married in 1938.

Alice Grant Chambers was born a year later.

“My mother was a very nice person. Everybody liked her and she liked everybody,” said Grant Chambers, a 1958 graduate of Reynolds High School. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today without her attentive upbringing.”

Her parents ran the newsstand until her father’s untimely death in 1953 from kidney disease, she said. He died at age 55, the same age his wife died.

By the time Elizabeth Grant died, the stand had been in the family for a half-century. She worked seven days a week, 365 days a year without fail.

“And if there had been eight days in a week she would have worked eight days,” friend Betsy Buford said in a July 31, 1969, article. “That’s just the kind of person she was.”

Grant was nothing if not routine, drinking coffee every single day at the hotel coffee shop for years to fuel her 14-hour workdays.

“She was always helping other people,” said Bob Barker, the Lee hotel’s office manager at the time. “She helped several employees in the hotel. She would give them credit when they needed it.”

After working at the newsstand in the mornings, Grant would work at the old Twin City Club, a members-only club, as a bookkeeper and secretary.

Grant Chambers said there were theories that her mother may have been targeted because she ran the club’s finances, but it was another idea that never took hold.

“I asked her to move many times, but she never got around to it,” Grant Chambers said. “I always felt bad. It may have saved her.”

Investigation yields few results

When Leroy Grant Jr. left for the Vietnam War in 1968, he bid his mother goodbye, torn at the thought that it might be the last time he saw her, that he would almost certainly perish in the violent war.

He never imagined it would be the other way around.

“I’m still too emotional to talk about it. I break down and cry like a baby at just the thought of it,” he wrote in an email, adding that he only hopes he lives long enough to see his mother’s killer brought to justice.

The case remains open to this day, but investigators don’t necessarily have the resources at the sheriff’s office to give some of the older cases the time they deserve, Chief Deputy Brad Stanley said.

“We try to revisit some of the older cases when we can with new technology, but it depends on whether the evidence was preserved in a fashion that we can further examine,” Stanley said. “We would love to be able to go back and look at older cases, but it comes down to resources.”

In 1969, the case was stoked by a whopping $6,100 in rewards for information, but no one ever came forth with anything viable.

With inflation, that reward would equal more than $40,000 today.

In November 1971, reports emerged that a man who had been dead for more than a year may have killed Grant and was her suitor. The man was not from Forsyth County, although he had a police record in Winston-Salem. The man’s name was never disclosed, and sources close to Grant denied the two ever dated

“I remember there was a man who had since died and was believed to have done it,” Barker said.

“It never panned out. There was never any proof he did it.”

Another lead came in 1972, when a couple from Stokes County was killed in a hauntingly similar fashion to Grant. They had been stabbed repeatedly by a man lying in wait.

The man accused, William Otis Stewart, had an extensive criminal history of rape, larceny, kidnapping, assaulting his employer and another first-degree-murder charge.

But he would have only been 17 at the time of Grant’s death and investigators didn’t know if he had even been to Winston-Salem, having amassed charges in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. It was another search that yielded no answers.

It would be 25 years before the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office received a concrete tip, coupled with new DNA testing, that reignited the investigation, reopening the case for at least the fifth time.

A suspect, who knew Grant from her newsstand, was interviewed by the department in 1997. The man, whose name was not released, was in his mid-50s, lived in Winston-Salem with his wife and had no criminal record, according to investigators at the time.

When he was called in for questioning, he was asked, “Do you remember anything from 1969?” He responded, “That was the year the lady was murdered,” Leroy Grant relayed through his wife, Anita.

“Why would he say that?” Anita Grant said. “Why would he say that unless he did it?”

A theory

It fit the bill for the story the family was always told: A man, age 18 to 19, who came in contact with Grant through her work at the newsstand killed her after she had him fired.

“They felt sure this was the guy who killed her after she reported him, but it could never be proved,” Grant Chambers said.

The man fit the age bracket, and if the playground witness is to be believed, the long-haired driver of the green Falcon who discarded the wallet could have been the suspect’s father covering his tracks.

It could explain the footprints in the garage and the window screen that was never found.

“They told us this guy’s father was trying to protect him because he was feeble-minded and tossed the wallet to take the microscope away from his son,” said Grant Chambers, who now lives in Maryland.

Grant Chambers, the spitting image of her mother, said she offered to confront the man 10 years ago with police to see if they could elicit a confession.

The idea never came to fruition and to this day, no one has been tried or convicted in Grant’s killing.

It still weighs heavily on her mind every day, Grant Chambers said.

Whenever she comes back to town, she visits the two-story house.

It’s the house she and her brother grew up in. The house her father slaved away to build for his new bride in the 1930s.

It remains to this day.

And so does the mystery.

___

Information from: Winston-Salem Journal, https://www.journalnow.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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