A woman who waged a nearly four-year fight to gain access to the Arkansas State Police investigation into her grandmother's 1963 abduction and killing will have access to the file under an Arkansas Supreme Court decision issued Thursday.
Heather Bates first requested the file under the state Freedom of Information Act in 2013. Bates, the granddaughter of Ruby Stapleton of Searcy, said in an interview Thursday that she wanted closure for her mother.
"My mom has lived with this for 54 years," she said. "She was a young college student that had come home from studying, and my grandmother never came home. She [her mother] was the one who had to call the police. And she's getting older. I wanted some type of resolution for her."
No one was ever charged in the case.
In testimony and court files, the state police, represented by the state attorney general's office, said murder had no statute of limitations and disclosing the file would hamper the investigation.
The agency invoked an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act in saying the file pertained to an open and ongoing law enforcement investigation.
The Arkansas Supreme Court rejected that argument Thursday.
"In challenging the circuit court's ruling, [the state police] directs us to various documents in the case file that, according to it, show an active and ongoing investigation," Justice Rhonda Wood wrote in a unanimous opinion. "Yet every action that [the state police] highlights as evidence of an 'ongoing' investigation took place after [attorney Kevin] Keech filed the lawsuit in this case."
Kevin Keech of the Little Rock-based Keech Law Firm represented Bates.
"The importance of the Freedom of Information Act is the opportunity to see government act in the open," he said Thursday. "Being able to see and get the information is important so our government is not operating in an opaque manner and we actually can see what they've done."
Bill Sadler, a spokesman for the state police, said Thursday he was preparing to release the investigation file to Keech, but said he needed to review it and some redactions could be necessary.
He said the initial request was denied because investigators were following a new lead in the case.
"It met the criteria for using the undisclosed investigation exemption because there was a trail of recent activity in the case and only days prior to the initial request, there had been some information of a potential suspect [possibly] living out of state," he said.
Asked about the apparent discrepancy with the Arkansas Supreme Court opinion -- which said state police cited evidence of an ongoing investigation only after Keech filed the lawsuit -- Sadler said he would need to speak to counsel in order to come back with a timeline.
General Counsel Greg Downs was unavailable Thursday afternoon.
Bates, who lives near Nashville, Tenn., said rumors have swirled around case over the past 50 years. She wants to read how investigators handled the investigation, though she doesn't expect anyone to be charged at this point.
"It's not open and ongoing nor should it be. It's 50 years old," she said. "I would hope that the Arkansas State Police are better using their resources."
Fifty-four years ago, Stapleton, 59, put her the laundry of her son's family into the car to take to a nearby laundromat, because the home's washing machine had broken down.
Her son and daughter never saw the Harding College professor alive again. Her daughter -- Bates' mother -- reported Stapleton missing three hours later, at midnight.
White County sheriff's deputies, Searcy police and the Arkansas State Police conducted a house-to-house search near the laundromat on U.S. 67. More than 500 students at what is now Harding University hunted for her. Classes were dismissed for the day.
Nearly two weeks later, a squirrel hunter found her nude body in some woods near Beebe, 20 miles south of Searcy. It was so ravaged by decomposition that Stapleton had to be identified through dental records.
She had been strangled, an autopsy showed. There were deep scratches on her chest, and a fist-size wad of cotton had been forced down her throat. A search of the area turned up only one bit of clothing, a piece of belt.
Though no one was ever charged, perhaps a review of the file could lead the family to a reasonable conclusion in the abduction and killing of Stapleton, Bates said.
She first had the idea while she was watching Cold Justice on TNT during her maternity leave. She thought perhaps the show could investigate her grandmother's death.
Bates contacted the White County sheriff's office and Searcy Police Department, who she said were willing to work with her, but they told her that the state police had jurisdiction over the case.
She contacted state police, which denied her access to the files in 2013, though the agency had allowed the family to inspect them 20 years earlier, in 1993.
Bates called Keech for help. The two never suspected that the matter would lead them to the state's highest court after nearly four years of effort.
"My mother had come to see this as the only day in court my grandmother would have," Bates said. "When I got the news today from Kevin that we won, I just cried. To my knowledge, this is it. They can't appeal it. They're done. We won and that's it. It's just a relief to have it over."
There is some family strife about looking at details of the killing, Bates said, and she doesn't plan to take the investigation to Cold Justice, which is now on the Oxygen channel.
"There may be some painful things in the file," she said. "I'm prepared for that. I just want to know. I just feel that the truth is always better than the lie."
Information for this article was contributed by John Lynch of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Metro on 04/21/2017
Print Headline: Justices: Release case file on killing; Searcy professor murdered in ’63