Wednesday, January 24, 2018
Public safety

Suspect in four-decade-old West Virginia triple murder captured in Tampa

TAMPA — On the morning of Aug. 2, 1974, groundskeepers in a West Virginia park discovered three bodies — one young woman and two young men — each shot in the head and badly beaten.

The triple murder was called one of the most notorious crimes in the history of Fairmont, a small coal-mining town, and for years law enforcement officials maintained the killer was behind bars but refused to confess.

The 38-year-old cold case turned hot last fall, though, and the official story has changed.

On Thursday morning, authorities from West Virginia, with the help of U.S. Marshals and Tampa police, arrested Eddie Jack Washington, 59, a janitor and sanitation worker who has lived in the Tampa area for more than a decade, on murder charges.

"Information had recently been developed identifying him as the alleged shooter," the U.S. Marshal's Office said in a statement.

"It's a great day for law enforcement, and for the people of Fairmont," said Ted Offutt, 60, a former Fairmont police chief who investigated the case years ago. "It sends a message that no matter how long it takes, justice can be served."

The news shocked Washington's friends, who called him a dependable man they never knew to cause trouble. And it left people formerly involved with the case like Offutt wondering what investigators found last fall that led to Thursday morning's arrest outside a neighborhood market in Tampa.

•••

On Monday, editors at the Times West Virginian, Fairmont's daily newspaper, got a phone call from Kelley Moran, the Fairmont police chief. Moran asked if, in the stories the paper ran about the triple homicide from 1974, there was ever any mention of a surviving child of the victims.

The paper didn't mention one, editor John Veasey said. He thought it strange the chief was suddenly interested in the old case, which always had more questions than answers.

Investigators never had developed a strong motive for what prompted someone to kill Guy Lester Phillips, 20, his wife, Wanda Jane Phillips, 19, and Billy Ray Cobb, 27, all of Fairmont. Some speculated it was a drug deal gone bad, according to Peggy Edwards, 74, who wrote about the case as a reporter for the paper back then.

Offutt, the former chief who worked the case as an officer, said police quickly developed two suspects — Eddie Washington, who lived near the victims, and another man.

The prevailing theory, Offutt said, was that the group, victims included, had been stealing copper, and that the other man had been cut out financially.

Washington and the man were both questioned several times, but never arrested. The man was later convicted of a double homicide and is serving a life sentence in Mount Olive Correctional Center.

When the Times West Virginian ran a story about the old case last September, Offutt told the paper the killer was behind bars, based on information from a witness he would only identify as "E."

Moran, Fairmont's current police chief, was unavailable for comment Thursday. The U.S. Marshal's Office did not specify what the new information is.

Fairmont police contacted marshals in September to locate Washington, according to Deputy U.S. Marshal Ron Lindbak.

Marshals quickly found him in Tampa and kept track of him while a warrant was obtained.

Fairmont police got the warrant Wednesday, and followed Washington on Thursday morning after he left his apartment. They arrested him outside the Friendly Meat and Grocery at 1910 N 34th St. about 11:30, apparently without much incident.

The staff at the market Thursday night was unaware a man had been arrested there earlier in the day.

•••

For the past three years, Washington has lived at 2409 E 17th Ave., Apt. B, according to Carolyn Louisma, 57, a friend who rented him a room. Louisma called Washington "Dad" because the man with a white crown of hair reminded her of her father.

"The man never did no harm to nobody," Louisma said.

Washington had worked for a variety of local waste management companies over the years, she said, and lately worked nights as a janitor. She trusted him enough to co-sign a car loan with him.

While friends never knew Washington to get in trouble with the law, he was convicted of a cocaine possession charge in 2004, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records, and served prison time.

Washington spent Thursday night in a Hillsborough County jail, awaiting extradition to West Virginia, where Offutt hopes he is convicted. There is a child of the victims, the old police chief said. He declined to give any more details.

"Hopefully, justice will be served here," Offutt said. "The prosecutor will have his hands full. Even in 1974 it wouldn't have been easy."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or [email protected]

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