Cover story: Salmon investigation proves cold-cases can be solved

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The Salmon family

MTSU student Dan Goodwin treated his Sigma Chi fraternity "little sister" Laura Salmon to a movie five days before she was murdered in 1984.

The memory of the attractive MTSU student still burned in his mind 16 years later when Sheriff Truman Jones assigned then Detectives Goodwin and Lt. Bill Sharp to investigate Salmon's unsolved murder.

Sharp didn't know Salmon but posted her Oakland High School prom picture in his office as a constant reminder.

For the next six years, Goodwin and Sharp concentrated their efforts first on solving the case by an arrest and then by prosecuting a suspect. Their efforts paid off when a jury convicted long-time suspect David Kyle Gilley of first-degree murder last August.

Gilley is serving a life sentence.

Because of their experiences, Goodwin and Sharp empathize with sheriff's Detective Randy Groce.

Groce is the lead detective on the almost three-year-old unsolved murder of building contractor Dave Robertson.

Robertson, 56, was shot and killed April 6, 2004 while standing outside his Bradyville Pike home. His family and friends offered a $60,000 reward for information leading to the murderer's arrest and conviction — but the reward remains unclaimed.

"Like Randy, we know it's not a 10-hour-a-day job," Sharp said. "It weighs on his mind."

Salmon's murder Salmon, who worked at the deli at Kroger on South Tennessee Boulevard (now Middle Tennessee Boulevard), finished her shift the afternoon of May 31, 1984, and planned to swim at her grandmother's.

She never made it.

Her beaten body, covered with a pair of men's jeans, was discovered that afternoon off Twin Oak Drive.

Sheriff's detectives and Murfreesboro Police launched an investigation. Detectives questioned her family and friends, examined the crime scene and gathered evidence. Gilley, Salmon's estranged boyfriend, became a primary suspect, but there was not enough evidence to charge him.

Through the years, several detectives re-examined the case file.

In February 2000, Jones asked Sharp and Goodwin to concentrate on solving the case after they received new information. Other detectives picked up their caseload, freeing the pair to spend considerable time investigating the murder.

"If it wasn't for other detectives picking up our slack, it would have been much more difficult for Dan and I," Sharp said. "I can't stress that enough."

They began by reviewing the case file, talking to Salmon's parents, Lourene Mackey and John Salmon, and other witnesses. They sent evidence for DNA testing developed since the murder occurred, Sharp said.

"It was like a puzzle," Sharp said. "Each step was like laying brick for a foundation."

Because of the time lapse, they found people willing to talk and found other witnesses who didn't come forward because they waited for detectives to contact them.

A crucial break Sharp and Goodwin's first major break came on May 31, 2000 — the 16th anniversary of Salmon's murder — when the DNA testing showed Gilley's DNA on the jeans draped over Salmon's body.

Goodwin said the DNA results were crucial to their case because "it put Kyle Gilley at the scene."

Sharp agreed.

"Once we had his DNA at the scene, it was a good opportunity to make an arrest," Sharp added.

They kept building the case against Gilley with physical evidence, circumstantial evidence and witnesses' statements. They drove thousands of miles talking to witnesses and testing other men for DNA.

Because the case was their primary focus, Goodwin and Sharp found themselves thinking about the case while off-duty. Goodwin remembered waking up in the middle of the night wondering who else they could talk to with knowledge about the murder.

Their families lived it as well.

Goodwin's daughter, Heather, a seventh grader, listened to District Attorney Bill Whitesell's closing argument where he reviewed the case.

Afterward, his daughter told Goodwin she understood "why you did it."

Sharp said he called Goodwin at 3 a.m. to ask about different aspects of the investigation.

"It does affect you," Sharp said. "If detectives have a homicide case and it doesn't affect them, they're not human."

He always believed the case would be solved.

Goodwin said he motivated himself and Sharp daily by repeating, "Kyle Gilley's going to prison."

Salmon's mother, Mackey, also motivated them when they gave her updates about the investigation while she taught English at Oakland and Siegel high schools. Motivation Mackey knew Goodwin and Sharp were committed to solving the case.

"It became a personal mission for them and once we became friends, they realized that I could help them and they could help me and we could work together," Mackey said.

The detectives frequently asked her about names of witnesses, Salmon's habits or an incident with Gilley.

"When they needed my assistance, they would call me because they realized I had information they didn't have access to," Mackey remembered. "That helped solve the case."

They gave each other support and hope and knew they would never give up.

"We were partners in a sense," described Mackey. "She (Laura) was our driving force. Dan knew her. Bill looked at her picture every day and she was in my heart. She was the focal point. We all worked toward the same goal."

The arrest Throughout the investigation, they frequently discussed the case with Whitesell and Assistant District Attorney Paul Newman.

During a trip with the detectives in 2001 to Tampa, Fla., Whitesell reviewed the case and decided they gathered enough evidence to bring charges against Gilley.

Detectives arrested Gilley in November 2001 in his home state of Florida. Gilley was released on bond until trial. Preliminary motions and appeals to the Tennessee Supreme Court about witnesses delayed the trial four years.

During that time, Sharp and Goodwin returned to regular duties but still spent some time preparing for trial.

Six months before trial, Sharp and Goodwin were assigned to the district attorney's office along with MTSU criminal justice interns Sheila Freeze and Rachel Holmes.

Newman said Freeze and Holmes reviewed lengthy witnesses' statements and summarized the content for he and Whitesell. They scanned all the written statements and evidence and placed it on computer disks. Their work was invaluable in trial preparation, Newman said. Meanwhile, Goodwin and Sharp followed leads by traveling to Seattle and South Carolina.

During the 10 days of trial, they worked about 30 hours of overtime.

"It was hard work but it was something we believed in," Goodwin said.

Sharp was pleased Gilley's conviction brought some satisfaction for Salmon's family.

"But there's never any closure," Sharp said.

Mackey knows what the Robertson family experiences while waiting for an arrest and prosecution.

She shared many talks with David Picklesimer, Dave Robertson's neighbor who is married to Robertson's niece, Sharon. She accompanied them to the annual "Season to Remember" event hosted by Gov. Phil Bredesen and his wife, Andrea Conte, where murder survivors place ornaments of victims on a Christmas tree or wreath.

"I just hope they solve it," Mackey said.

Read more from:
Cold Case, Crime, Homicide, Kyle Gilley, Laura Salmon
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