THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL
Thursday, June 3, 1993
AUTHORITIES WONDER IF 6 KIDS' DEATHS IN EAST ARK. ARE RELATED
By Rob Johnson The Commercial Appeal
Her 78-year-old face furrowed like the fields surrounding her white-block house, Hattie Cross approaches her visitors and offers her right hand. She smiles and invites them into her shady carport.
She bows her head when they mention Gardenia Jones Cross, the great- granddaughter she raised.
"Gardenia passed last year," she says. "Yes, my Gardenia was murdered. She didn't come home one day, and somebody called and said they'd found a body over there. I knew right then, in my heart, that it was Gardenia."
Her lacerated body was found Oct. 14 along Mohr Road outside Wynne, a puncture wound in her left temple.
It has been a difficult two years in East Arkansas. During that period six youngsters have died mysteriously in one corner of the state. Investigators say they don't believe the cases are related, but hedging, they concede they've been checking the possibilities.
The investigation on Cross County 16-year-old Gardenia Cross - like those of Christina Pipkin, 9, Geneva Smith, 13, and now West Memphis 8-year-olds Michael Moore, Steve Branch and Christopher Byers in neighboring Crittenden County - remains open. A seventh death, that of Forrest City 13-year-old Lance Graham, who was shot to death last year, also remains unsolved. But police say they have leads in the case and the circumstances do not appear as mysterious as the other deaths.
Cross County Sheriff Ronnie Huey says city, county and state detectives have been working every angle in the other six child deaths.
"You keep scratching and clawing and digging," he said. "These kinds of cases are different because these are kids. We've been backwards and forwards. It's been very frustrating."
The frustration began May 9, 1991.
Christina Marie Pipkin had been selling costume jewelry door-to-door in Hickory Ridge, a small community in northwest Cross County. When she didn't come home, searchers began combing the area.
Almost 5 miles away, in Jackson County, a man out for an after-supper stroll saw her body in a shallow creek as he passed over the Ark. 42 bridge.
The 9-year-old had drowned, Huey said.
"There were no marks on her, no scratches, no trauma, nothing. But I think it's foul play. Somebody caused that child to be in that ditch way out there."
Deputies haven't found her jewelry order forms, or the pencil she was using to fill them out, Huey adds. No one has been charged.
Hickory Ridge residents say the child's parents have since separated and moved away.
"That's a lot of pressure for a couple to bear," Huey says. "I've lost touch with them, though."
Wynne police got the Geneva Smith case a year later, in May 1992, when the 13-year-old girl was reported missing. On June 1, 1992, a body was found in the St. Francis River.
"We're almost 99 percent sure it's Geneva," said Wynne Police Chief Lynn Rodgers. The skeletal remains were found amidst driftwood that had floated down the river into St. Francis County. The corpse had on shoes and a shirt like Geneva's.
He says medical examiners may never know the cause of death.
DNA tests have been unable to prove conclusively that the body in the river was Geneva's, Rodgers says, and there were no dental records to compare with the young corpse's teeth.
Police plan to send the skull, jaw and Geneva's photograph to Knoxville, where University of Tennessee forensics experts hope to reconstruct the head and see if it matches Geneva's.
"We were going to do it sooner," Rodgers said, "but the UT people have been down in Waco," where investigators are identifying bodies from the Branch Davidians' Texas ranch. "If the UT people are good enough for Waco, they're good enough for us."
In October 1992, Gardenia Cross's body was found along a road outside of Wynne. The body, wearing only a brassiere, was discovered by a man picking up cans beside Mohr Road. The wound in her temple could have been made by a screwdriver, investigators believe. She was five months pregnant.
"That girl was murdered, plain and simple," Sheriff Huey says. No one has been charged in her death, and detectives have said since October that they believe her death is unrelated to the Geneva Smith case.
His department is also keeping abreast of the triple homicide investigation in nearby West Memphis. "I guess anything is possible. We've certainly talked to them about it," but he says he can't offer anything to suggest that the cases are related.
Almost two years to the day that Christina Pipkin was found dead, the three West Memphis boys were discovered murdered in a boggy wooded area near their subdivision. They never came home from an evening bike ride on May 5.
Like Christina's body and the body believed to be Geneva's, the bodies were found in water. And like Gardenia's, their deaths were particularly brutal.
The West Memphis boys were beaten to death, the lead investigator says. Inspector Gary Gitchell has also said the boys were bound, hand and foot.
Predatory serial killers often stick to the same gender when choosing victims, law-enforcement officials say. In East Arkansas, police are faced with the deaths of three boys and three girls, one of them a few years older than the others.
West Memphis police, who have remained very guarded about their highly publicized case, say that the killer could have been a traveler from nearby Interstate 40.
But Gitchell has said that nothing suggests the killer may be the same person who committed a similar double homicide recently in San Diego. Gitchell has also said their investigation has focused on the possibility that the killer is a local person.
The FBI is assisting the West Memphis police, particularly in the development of a psychological profile, a highly educated conjecture about what kind of person could have killed the boys.
Detectives in Cross County, Wynne and West Memphis have been shuttling back and forth, law-enforcement officials say, on the chance that a troubling case in another jurisdiction might help them solve their own cases.
Back in Hattie Cross's carport, a 2-year-old girl stands shyly against her great-great-grandmother, snuggling into her hip. "This is Kiara. This is Gardenia's child. She's the only thing I've got now."
The woman says she thinks often of the other children who've died nearby. ''At night, in bed, I lay and lay and pray and pray. I hope they found out who killed these little boys and girls. And my Gardenia."
Illustration: photo (7): map (2)
By Karen Pulfer Focht
Hattie Cross's great-granddaughter was one of six youngsters who have died
mysteriously since 1991.
CAPTION: Christina Marie Pipkin, Gardenia Jones Cross, Geneva Smith, Michael
Moore, Steve Branch, Christopher Byers
CAPTION: By Deborah D. Young
The three boys murdered in West Memphis are among half a dozen cases -- all
of which remain unsolved -- of children killed in a four-county area in East
Arkansas over the past two years.
Christina Marie Pipkin
May 4, 1991: Hickory Ridge - Christina Marie Pipkin, 9, disappears while
selling jewelry door-to-door for a school fund-raiser.
May 9, 1991: Her body is found in a ditch five miles outside of town. She had
apparently drowned. The body had no signs of injury, but police believe her
death resulted from foul play.
May 21, 1992: Wynne - Geneva Smith, 13, is reporting missing. She left home to
catch a school bus and was never seen alive again.
June 1, 1992: A badly decomposed body is found in the St. Francis River.
Police believe it is Geneva's. The body was in such poor condition that cause
of death could not be determined.
Gardenia Jones Cross
Oct. 13, 1992: Wynne - The same day that Gardenia Jones Cross, 16, is reported
missing by her great-grandmother, the body of a girl is discovered near Wynne.
The body, wearing only a brassiere, was found by a man searching for cans
along Mohr Road a mile west of Wynne.
Oct. 14, 1992: The Mohr Road body is identified as Gardenia's. She was a
10th-grader at Wynne High School. She died of three puncture wounds and
lacerations to the face and neck. A puncture wound at the temple is believed
to have been caused by a tool, perhaps a screwdriver.
Michael Moore, Steve Branch, Christopher Byers
May 5, 1993: West Memphis: Weaver Elementary School students Michael Moore,
Steve Branch and Christopher Byers, all 8, are reported missing when they
failed to return from an early-evening bicycle ride.
May 6, 1993: Their bodies are found in a creek leading into Ten Mile Bayou,
the city's main drainage canal. Their bikes are in the bayou, 50 feet away.
The boys died of blunt trauma to the head.