Unsolved mysteries

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Daily JournaL

TUPELO – Capt. Bart Aguirre has been a Tupelo Police criminal investigator for 18 years. For most of those years, he's had the same question on his mind: “What happened to Leigh Occhi?”

Though Tupelo police have hundreds of unsolved cases, Aguirre said the Occhi mystery keeps calling to him.

“It just was a weird set of circumstances,” Aguirre said as he leaned forward in his chair, rubbing his forehead. “Aug. 27, 1992, Leigh Occhi's mother called and said she was missing. We went to her home and found a bloody gown and signs that a struggle took place, but there was no Leigh Occhi.”

Thirteen years later, Aguirre said they're no closer to solving the case than when it happened. He said “cold cases” like this one can drive an investigator crazy.

“It's hard when a parent or loved one asks you how a case is going and you have nothing to tell them,” Aguirre said. “It's something as an investigator you think about all the time.”

Not forgotten

With police having to deal with new crimes every day, many people think the old ones are forgotten, but Aguirre said that's not true. He said all of Tupelo's cold cases are active.

Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson inherited five murder cold cases from the previous administration. Despite several leads and arrests on some of them, they remain unsolved.

“After a case goes a while without being solved, it takes a lot of luck to solve it,” Johnson said. “Many factors can contribute to solving them. Sometimes people's attitudes change and they confess. Sometimes technology becomes more advanced, which leads to cases being solved.

“It just takes one little piece to put the puzzle together,” he said.

Puzzle pieces

Aguirre knows all too well how a missing piece can solve a puzzle, even if it's 13 years old.

In January 1998, Aguirre received a tip that the remains of John Edward Seals, a man police had been seeking for 13 years, were in the bottom of an Itawamba County well.

“Seals was last seen alive at the VA Hospital in Memphis,” Aguirre said. “When he was reported missing, we found his car in a median in Belden.

“We had absolutely no clues for all that time until one day someone called and said we could find his remains in that well. We know all these cases are solvable; we just need that one piece of information to get the ball rolling,” he said.

Cold Case Task Force

Because new crimes are committed every day, Aguirre and Johnson can't devote all their time to dealing with these old cases. Thanks to the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations, they don't have to.

About 16 months ago, MBI created the Cold Case Task Force to assist local departments in investigating these cases. Johnson said he has sent some case information to its headquarters in Batesville.

Task force director Steve Chancellor said sometimes an outside agency can make all the difference in solving a case.

“When we come in and investigate a case, we get to look at it independently,” Chancellor said. “We don't know any of the people involved, so we can look at the evidence without prejudice. Sometimes local officers know the area and the persons involved, which can cause them to overlook stuff.”

Chancellor said often something was overlooked in the initial investigation that would've help in the case, but luck is still the best tool to solving a cold case.

“As we say in our business, I'd rather be lucky than good.”

Aguirre is hoping for some of that luck in solving the Leigh Occhi case.

“We just have to stick with it,” he said. “Like I said, one little piece of evidence can break these cases; we just have to find that piece.”

Lee County cold cases:

1996 – Susan Collier's body was found partially decomposed in a Brewer community field. Her mother had reported her missing. Clifton Benson was arrested and charged in connection with the crime, but was never indicted.

1997 – Shannon Police Chief Bobby Spencer was found in front of City Hall at 4:45 a.m. with a gunshot wound to the back of his head. No one was ever arrested for the murder, but according to a county official, a man who was a suspect was killed by a sheriff's deputy in Pontotoc County.

1999 – The bodies of Pamela Reid and her infant son, Brandon Gliatta, were found at the bottom of a lake in the Palmetto community. The child's father reported them missing. Charles Walters was arrested and charged in connection with murders, but was acquitted at trial.

2000 – Bill Mattox was found beaten in his home in Verona. He died in the hospital from injuries sustained during the assault. Benjamin Yancy was arrested in connection with Mattox's death but was never indicted.

2003 – Steve Duggar was found shot to death outside his residence. No one was ever arrested for his murder.

2003 – Wendy Benson was found shot to death in her home. No one was ever arrested for her murder.

Tupelo cold cases

1988 – Jennifer Jackson Floyd was last seen at her job at Hancock Fabrics, from which she had departed after receiving a phone call. Her car was found a block away from West Main Street and Coley Road. She left behind a 1-year-old daughter.

1992 – Leigh Occhi's mother reported her missing. When officers searched her home, they found blood on a gown and signs of a struggle. Her body was not found. Several people of interest were interviewed, but no one was arrested.