Fear grips Tennessee town after post office slayings
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
HENNING, Tenn. (AP) — Older folks don’t walk the streets as much as they used to in this tiny West Tennessee town. Residents lock their front doors more often. And the cut-ups who used to hang out outside the coin laundry next to the post office are mostly gone.
It’s been a month since two female postal workers were fatally shot while at work in Henning, Tenn., and the town of 1,200 nestled between Highway 51 and a line of often-used railroad tracks may never be the same. People are afraid and frustrated: Investigators have hinted that the killer or killers may be among them, and authorities say with certainty that someone in the town must at least know what happened.
They want to move on and again be remembered as the boyhood home of “Roots” author Alex Haley, not the place where two postal workers were killed in cold blood.
“In a small town, we know each other by name; we live and we work and we interact with each other on a daily basis,” Henning Mayor Michael Bursey said. “We cannot live, and we will not live, with this ominous cloud in our community.”
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service and relatives of the slain women — 33-year-old retail clerk Paula Robinson and 59-year-old rural letter carrier Judy Spray — have begged for information from people in and near Henning. Authorities won’t talk about who may have killed them, nor why. A $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest remains unclaimed.
The drive through Henning, about 45 miles northeast of Memphis, doesn’t take long. A sign welcoming visitors sits at the turnoff from Highway 51, across a large field. Blink and you’ll miss city hall to the right hand side. Down farther, after the Henning Deli and Grill and “Mom’s” coin laundry, stands the red brick post office where Robinson and Spray were killed.
Investigators say that the women were shot between 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. Oct. 18, and that the killer or killers likely drove away. Investigators won’t discuss much more — such as the type of car the assailants may have been driving — though several people driving burgundy cars were searched in the days after the shooting.
Information that surfaced early in the investigation suggested the women were shot during a robbery, but authorities won’t confirm that.
Investigators have scoured the post office for evidence. The building remains closed and surrounded by yellow crime-scene tape, and the blue mailbox in front is taped shut. The American flag still sits at half-staff, and a law enforcement command vehicle is still parked on the side of the building. Residents receive mail services from a mobile facility parked nearby.
Just steps away from the post office lies what appears to be the town’s busiest place, the gas station and market where Mary Hammock cooks some tasty fried chicken.
Hammock went into the post office just before the shootings and noticed it was not as busy as usual. Hammock said she knew something “didn’t feel right because it was real quiet.” She returned to the store and heard police sirens about 15 minutes later.
On Thursday, Hammock took a break from cooking to talk about the investigation. She asked “Why not? What’s going on?” when told no one has been arrested. She said shoppers still talk about it every day.
“Every day I wait for news, every day, hoping ... I wish it would hurry up,” Hammock said. “I want them to get justice for those two ladies.”
At least two area residents have felt the weight of investigators. The attorney for Sammie Lee Haley and his wife, Latasha, sent a cease and desist letter to authorities after the couple said they were shadowed and harassed by postal investigators for more than a week earlier this month.
Attorney Robert Hutton told The Associated Press that Sammie Lee Haley voluntarily took a lie detector test and provided investigators with a DNA sample and a piece of clothing.
But Haley, who is on probation for a felony conviction, was troubled that investigators “in full police swat type uniforms with bullet proof vests” kept following him, the letter said. They tailed the Haleys to Jackson, Tenn., where they visited a sick relative, and to the Kmart where they went Christmas shopping.
Hutton said it appears investigators wanted Haley to use his past contacts to find out information, but Haley knows nothing. Hutton said investigators apparently have stopped following the Haleys.
“Mr. Haley wants them to catch whoever did these terrible murders just like everybody else,” Hutton said.
At the Henning Deli and Grill, owner Keith Alston shares the same feeling.
The deli was roped off in the days after the shootings. Alston’s business suffered, but it’s slowly getting better.
Alston’s noticed subtle changes, especially among older residents. Fewer people are walking around the town. More people are locking their doors. People are more alert, paying more attention to unfamiliar faces.
“When we opened up in the morning, we’d find five or six people just over there in front of the laundromat, sitting out talking, laughing, cutting up,” said Alston, 45. “That hasn’t come back yet.”
When it will is anyone’s guess.
People are cooperating, though authorities know there is someone who didn’t shoot the women but has firsthand knowledge of the killings, said U.S. Postal Inspection Service spokeswoman Yulanda Burns.
That’s part of the town’s “unresolved fear and unending anger,” the words used by Spray family spokesman Robert Lipker at a news conference Thursday. It was the first time Lipker, a retired Army sergeant, and other friends and relatives of the women spoke publicly since the killings.
“These armed murderers are still on the streets, maybe at the same store with you, maybe at work with you, or in the same house,” Lipker said. “We need to plea for your help.”