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a true victim
Story by George Knapp
For 33 years, the murder of Jamey Walker has haunted her family — and one journalist who covered it.
“I feel like I’m letting my daughter down if I don’t find out what happened,” Eleanor Walker told me back in 2004, her voice cracking, sobs working up into her throat. “I need a way to tie these loose ends together.” By then it had been 23 years since her daughter, Jamey Walker, an 18-year-old beauty queen and honor student, had been kidnapped from her home and murdered. Eleanor had spent those decades working tirelessly to bring the killer and kidnappers to justice.
That interview with the still-grieving mom was one of the toughest sessions I’ve ever had as a journalist. Eleanor, frail and ill, showed me Jamey’s scrapbooks, page after page of honors, awards, silly photos and frilly mementos — exactly what you would expect from a high-school student in the pre-Facebook era. “She was the first black prom queen and the first black homecoming queen. Danny Tarkanian was her king,” Eleanor remembered. “This is her Sweet 16 party. She was on the executive council at Clark High School. Head cheerleader. I used to hear her at 3 in the morning, practicing her cheerleading, and she would tell me, ‘Mama, I’m going to be the best.’
“She was very religious, read her Bible. Leader of the NAACP youth. She would help the less popular kids, too. Girls told me afterward that Jamey used to meet them in the bathroom to help fix their hair and makeup and such.
“I still think about her every day,” she said, then started to weep.
That was 10 years ago. This month, a suspect is scheduled to go on trial for Jamey’s murder. Thirty-three years is a long time to wait, but while Jamey Walker’s family hopes they will finally see justice done, they are reluctant to put too much faith into it. They’ve been disappointed before.
On a Sunday morning in May 1981, a crackling voice on the police scanner notified listeners that a body had been found out near Lake Mead. Photographer Rich Travis and I jumped into a news van and sped toward the scene. When we arrived at the bridge that spans a wash on North Shore Road, we saw a large contingent of homicide detectives and police officers milling about.
Jamey’s body lay 47 feet below, at the bottom of the wash, splayed atop the rocks and hard dirt. Someone had tossed her off the bridge the previous night, crushing her skull and mashing her bleeding body. It was horrible to behold and burned a hole in my brain.
There are two reasons why these memories remain so clear. It was my very first weekend working as a part-time reporter at KLAS Channel 8. And it was the first murder victim I had ever seen.
One of the detectives on the scene that day was Dave Hatch, a grizzled veteran, hardened by the dozens of dead bodies and sometimes-gruesome corpses he’d seen over the years. Jamey’s case got to him.
“She was a good kid,” he told me years later. “Just a beautiful little soul. She was well-known and very popular, and someone takes her out and murders her? What caused her death is nothing she did. She’s a true victim.” Hatch and his homicide colleague Bob Hilliard believed the kidnappers killed Jamey, then tossed her body off the bridge. (Cause of death was a fractured skull.)
“I think the suspects were trying to throw her into the water,” Hatch recalled in a 2004 interview. “It was dark. They could hear that water running. They didn’t think the body would be found, and they would still get their money. It didn’t work out that way.”
Jamey had been out on a date the night of Friday, May 8. She returned to her home in a part of town known as the Westside, a primarily African-American neighborhood. Her family was Westside royalty: Her grandmother, Sarann Knight Preddy, was a prominent civil rights leader and had been a champion for local African-Americans through the turbulent ’60s. Eleanor was also active in the civil rights movement, served on numerous civic boards, co-owned her own businesses and sold insurance. Her father, James Walker, owned and operated one of the area’s best-known bar and restaurants, The People’s Choice, on West Owens Avenue. People generally assumed the Walkers had a lot of money.
Jamey disappeared from her home in the early morning hours of May 9. She left without putting on her shoes. Eleanor believes that someone Jamey knew talked her into opening the door, which allowed other kidnappers to enter and snatch her.
Hours later, James Walker received a call at his nightclub. A male voice that Walker said sounded African-American demanded $75,000 cash for Jamey’s safe return, money James Walker said he didn’t have. According to the case files, Walker tried to buy time, telling the kidnapper that the banks were closed for the weekend. The caller proposed that Walker sell his Mercedes. During a second call, a different African-American man suggested that Eleanor’s then-boyfriend might have the money. Whoever placed the calls knew plenty about the Walker family. A third call, placed hours later to Jamey’s brother, included a few words from Jamey herself, saying she was okay, and then an odd statement from one of the kidnappers that Jamey was the wrong girl, that she had been taken by mistake and would be returned.
At first the family followed the kidnappers’ instructions and didn’t call the police. But after Eleanor telephoned a family friend who worked at the DA’s office, Metro was notified and a frantic search began. Her body was found that Sunday morning by three Marines assigned to Nellis Air Force Base. She’d been missing a little more than 30 hours.
In the weeks that followed, the police received harsh criticism from the African-American community. Articles in the Las Vegas Sun alleged the cops didn’t start looking for Jamey until 10 hours after the initial call. The case files reveal one factor that might have slowed the cops: a persistent rumor that members of the Walker family were heavily involved in drug trafficking, an allegation that was never proven and which the Walkers strongly disputed.
Jamey’s disappearance and murder was a huge story at the time. According to homicide Lt. John Connor, it was the first-ever case of a kidnap for ransom of an African-American in Nevada. Several thousand people attended Jamey’s funeral. Fundraisers were held to raise money for a reward, including a softball event hosted by the DA’s office.
ENTER 'THE CANNON'
The criticism of Metro appears unfair in retrospect. It might have seemed that police were dragging their feet, but the voluminous case files paint a much different picture. They show that detectives looked at some 55 potential suspects, conducted dozens of interviews, staged about a dozen lineups and ordered several polygraph exams. If anything, they had too many suspects.
Tips, rumors and leads poured in, and no one provided more than Jamey’s mother. Eleanor wrote her own detailed memos about everyone who might have known anything about her daughter’s death, complete with her own suspicions and background tidbits about the individuals. Those carefully transcribed notes are part of the police files — dozens and dozens of single-spaced pages.
Although Eleanor gave police the names of several people, her attention from the beginning was focused on one name: Willie Shannon. Shannon, a 6-foot 5-inch, 185-pound ex-con, lived near the Walker home, and reportedly had been asking questions about Jamey, though the two barely knew each other. Shannon reportedly had an eye for young girls and a reputation for often having his way with them. According to statements given later to police, Shannon once referred to Jamey as a “snooty bitch.”
“The first time I met him at the club, Shannon told me that he always looked out for my daughter because there’s a lot of weirdos around,” Eleanor said. “Later, I was thinking he was the biggest weirdo of all. I had a weird feeling right away about him. He came to my house the day she was kidnapped because he said he wanted to sign some insurance papers. All of a sudden, he said he had to run an errand and got up and left.”
Shannon was a professional boxer and well-known figure in the neighborhood. In a December 2010 article in the Las Vegas Sun, veteran writer Ed Koch, who knew Shannon, detailed the rise and fall of the boxer’s once-promising career. Shannon’s nickname was The Cannon, for reasons that would become obvious. Shannon had served nine years in a Florida prison for a stupid robbery committed by a group of kids. He was 16 when he went in, 25 when he came out. Tall, muscular and angry, at 29 he started a boxing career and quickly developed a reputation as a ferocious beast in the ring.
By the time Shannon arrived in Las Vegas in 1979, he had a record of 14-0-1, with 11 knockouts. He won a title and became Nevada’s cruiserweight champion. At one point, he was mentioned as a possible opponent for Muhammad Ali in what would have been a storyline worthy of a Rocky film. At times Shannon appeared humble, reserved and devout, a man trying to overcome his youthful mistakes.
But there appeared to be another side to Shannon. As Koch reported, he showed up uninvited to a prominent wedding party, accompanied by a bevy of skanky prostitutes. In the neighborhood, he projected an image as someone who liked to teach neighborhood boys how to box, but some of those boys remember strange events seen at Shannon’s home.
Jamey’s brother James received boxing lessons from Shannon and spent time at his house. In a 2009 interview, James told me that Shannon routinely frightened neighborhood girls into doing things they might not otherwise want to do.
“He would take young girls to his house, and he had these big dogs. He would threaten the girls with the dogs, like sic ’em. And he would say, if you tell anyone what I made you do, I’m gonna get you.”
THE CASE DRAGS ON
Metro detectives took a hard look at Shannon, in part because Eleanor kept insisting he was the killer, and in part because the police felt Shannon had lied to them about minor details during initial interviews. But they didn’t have enough evidence to charge him, or anyone else.
Because it was the first murder I covered in Las Vegas, I also maintained a strong interest in it. In 2004, I received a call from Eleanor, asking if I had ever heard of the Jamey Walker murder case. KLAS had covered the story periodically over the years, but it had been a long time since I had written anything about it. Eleanor had no idea that I had been on the bridge the morning Jamey’s body was found. We started a friendship that lasted nine years.
On the 24th anniversary of Jamey’s death, KLAS broadcast a story about the efforts of cold-case detectives to solve the mystery. By that time, Dave Hatch was in semi-retirement but still working certain cold cases — including Jamey’s.
“The answer is right there in those files,” he told me. “The person who did it is right there, and all we need is a little help from the public.” When I asked whether Shannon was a key suspect, he acknowledged that Shannon’s name was at the top of his list. At least nine other cold-case detectives pored though the Walker files over the years, and Shannon was at or near the tops of their lists, as well.
After Jamey’s murder, Shannon’s boxing career disintegrated. He wasn’t the same man in the ring. He was listless in his next fight, though he was matched against a lowly regarded opponent. In the fight after that, he received a beating so powerful the referee stopped it in the third round. In October 1983, he failed to show up for a weigh-in because he’d been arrested that very day for raping and assaulting a teenage girl, a crime for which he was sent to a Nevada prison.
In preparation for the 2004 story, I invited Eleanor out to the crime scene, thinking it might be a good way to demonstrate to the public the emotional impact the crime had wreaked on the Walker family. It was a terrible call on my part. Eleanor had never gone to the bridge, in part because no one else would go with her, fearing she might break down. She did. In fact, there were no dry eyes on the bridge that windswept day. Eleanor peeked over the side to see where her daughter’s body landed. It was a gut-wrenching moment.
That story caused a buzz and reignited Metro’s interest in the case. A few new leads came in, but nothing solid enough to warrant charges. As the years passed, we aired periodic updates. In all, 10 cold-case detectives worked on Jamey’s murder, and every one of them took a personal interest in it. In 2009, homicide Lt. Lew Roberts said the Walker file topped his list of some 200 cases he considered solvable. His principal detective at the time, Dave Culver, said the best hope for catching the killer might be with new technology that would allow for DNA testing.
What had not been reported previously was that Jamey had been raped before she was murdered. A small semen sample was retrieved from her underwear and was saved for decades in Metro’s vault. The police did not yet have the money to conduct the complicated testing, but they were moving in that direction.
Also in the files was new information about Shannon. An inmate who had served time with him in Nevada told detectives that Shannon had all but admitted his involvement with Jamey’s kidnapping and murder, that he conveyed details about the failed ransom demand, and almost bragged about what he had done. James Walker, Jamey’s brother, said he picked up the same information while he was in the slammer, which hardened Eleanor’s resolve.
Hardly a week went by without Eleanor sending new thoughts or information to me and to homicide detectives. My files contain hundreds of emails and thousands of tidbits. In 2009, on what would have been Jamey’s 47th birthday, photographer Matt Adams and I went with Eleanor and James as they visited Jamey’s gravesite. Another emotional moment.
As the years went by, Eleanor grew weaker and sicker. She could barely walk, was frequently hospitalized, but she never stopped crusading. In 2010, Eleanor was elated to learn that Metro had received a $500,000 grant that would allow it to conduct advanced DNA tests on evidence from several cold cases — including Jamey’s.
FINALLY, A TURNING POINT
Detectives had a difficult time obtaining DNA from Shannon. A Florida parole officer inadvertently tipped him off about one plan to get a sample. Eventually, however, they succeeded. The results of the tests indicated that Shannon’s DNA was found on Jamey’s body. Detective Jon Scott told me at the time that the odds are 11 billion-to-1 that it was Shannon’s. Detectives went to Shannon’s home in Florida and arrested him for her murder. When he was brought to Nevada, Shannon entered a plea of not guilty. After his arrest, we tried several times to get a comment from his lawyer but never got a return call.
In the end, justice moved too slowly for Eleanor. Shannon fought extradition, sought delay after delay, and so did the DA’s office, as each new prosecutor needed time to get up to speed. Shannon’s trial was rescheduled several times. Three and a half years after his arrest, it has yet to begin. As the months dragged on, Eleanor grew weaker. She began to realize she might not be around to testify.
Last October, on the very day she was finally going to give her deposition in the case, Eleanor died. She was 70. Those who knew her think the case kept her going for at least the past decade.
But the court still might be able to hear from Eleanor when — if — the matter comes to trial. There is now a substantial pile of information from Eleanor, in written form and on videotape, which could be introduced in court, assuming the trial date holds this time. Her sister, Yolanda, who lives in Atlanta, has traveled to Las Vegas to oversee the Walker estate and to be present for the trial. She told me in March that it has been disheartening to the family to see the trial pushed off time after time. “My sister prayed that justice would prevail, and that is my hope also,” she wrote to me in July.
In our last conversation, Eleanor put on a brave front, though she knew she was dying.
“How do you get over your child? I have tried to go on with my life, and I am not moping over it. I’m looking forward to that day when I can stop looking and be calm enough to try and not miss something. But it is so hard to forget because everywhere I go, people stop me on the streets to say that they miss her.”
If anything, Eleanor’s death has strengthened the resolve of nearly everyone who worked on the case, including me. It’s no longer just a matter of justice for Jamey. The promise we made to Eleanor to see it through is every bit as compelling as the terrible crime that brought us together. The events of that Sunday morning in 1981 have haunted me throughout my career. Even though I have pursued thousands of news stories and dozens of murder cases, this is the one I can’t shake. When the trial begins, I will be front and center in the courtroom. It’s what was promised to Eleanor.
Regardless of what happens at trial, there may never be closure for the Walker family and those who knew Jamey. Although they suspect Shannon was the ringleader of the kidnapping, at least two other people participated. Eleanor told me at the end that she feels it is someone she knows, someone who “grins and speaks and says hello, but who knows what happened to Jamey.”
I have a feeling Eleanor will be watching.
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