GEORGETOWN, Texas (KXAN) – Carla Ritchey sensed a sinking feeling in her body as an ambulance rushed by, headed in the direction of her family’s rural home in Shiloh. When Ritchey arrived at a roadblock on her way home that Saturday night March 5, 1988, the feeling of dread returned.
“A gentleman came to the car, and he said, ‘Ma’am, you may want to go around, this is going to be blocked for a while,’” Ritchey recalled. When the officer told her an elderly man was airlifted to the hospital, she explained who she was, his face changed immediately.
It has been 29 years since the night her grandparents were attacked while unloading groceries in their driveway in the 2100 block of County Road 479.
Her grandmother, Ethel, survived but was unconscious when first responders arrived at the scene and was unable to identify the attacker. Her grandfather, 77-year-old S.E. Ritchey, was hit with a blunt object and underwent surgery to treat his fractured skill. But, the elderly man never recovered. The assault case turned into a homicide investigation 17 days later when S.E. Ritchey died in the hospital.
No one has ever been caught in their attack. Eventually, the case went cold.
Now, a dozen retired law enforcement officers are volunteering with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office to focus on Ritchey’s case and a handful of others in the area still unsolved.
‘Not just faces’
Eleven photos line the wall of a secure room inside the sheriff’s office. Nine homicide victims and two missing persons. All cold cases those volunteers are helping the county investigate.
“Every time you look at those faces, they’re not just faces, those are living human beings behind those faces before they were murdered,” said Rick Shirley, a volunteer working the Ritchey case. “Family members [have] been dealing with the unanswered deaths for many, many years, this particular case for almost 30 years.”
Shirley retired a year ago from the Austin Police Department, where he worked for more than three decades.
He said most murders today are solved within the first few hours or days after they occur due to increased activity and resources, including physical evidence recovered at the scene or eyewitnesses and informants who provide law enforcement with solid leads. Without those factors, he said, cases can remain unsolved until new information surfaces.
In the Ritchey case, Shirley said the rural location of the attack likely means there were fewer witnesses to question and less evidence available to pinpoint a suspect.
“When you go back to look at cases that have been stagnant… you may not be familiar with a case at all, so you have to really comb through every bit of information that is available to really familiarize yourself with what is taking place and what might have been done differently or what still needs to be done,” Shirley said. “There may be improvements and forensic science and other technology that you can utilize that weren’t available to investigators when these things occurred.”
Newly-elected Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody said he solicited a dozen retired law enforcement officers now living in the area to take part in the Cold Case Unit.
The volunteers, who began last month, include a retired Houston police officer and former federal agents. They work twice a week, focusing on those 11 cases, which all occurred between 15 and 38 years ago.
“We have a wide variety of experience that’s coming from across the nation that I couldn’t pay to get without paying for extensive training,” Chody said. “We’re going to need that experience because a lot of these cases have a lot of time that has elapsed so it becomes even more challenging.”
The new unit also allows deputies more time to focus their efforts on crimes that are currently affecting the community like burglaries and theft, while the volunteers will use their decades of experience combing through old cases to look for new leads.
The county will soon create a dedicated phone tip line and has already created the email address email@example.com for any new clues from the public.
The agency is also partnering with New York-based Hit + Run Creative, Inc., for a possible television program featuring the unit, according to a department spokesperson. The company is currently producing a trailer, with the hopes that a network will pick up the show.
“We’re trying to be proactive, creative and utilize the resources we have available to us,” Chody said.
‘We’re going to find you’
As Shirley begins sifting through S.E. Ritchey’s case, his granddaughter continues to fight for answers. Every day on her way to work, she drives by a large tree overlooking the old Taylor laundromat where her grandparents worked. It’s the same tree where the elderly couple parked their car and ate lunch together every afternoon. In high school, Carla Ritchey worked a part-time job across the street and often joined them for lunch.
Nearly 30 years later, the shop has changed. But the tree is still there — a painful reminder of a life cut too short. Ritchey believes her grandfather’s case went cold the day he “hit the ground.”
Still seeking answers in her grandfather’s murder, Ritchey reached out to Chody during his campaign for sheriff.
“Sheriff Chody is the first sheriff in over 29 years that has ever spoken to me or my sister,” Ritchey said. “The pain of having to fight what happened to our grandfather, this sweet, precious little old man, has been hard enough, but we’ve also had to fight having cooperation and feeling like we were important to the law and the ones investigating it.”
Now, she feels comfortable putting her trust in the Cold Case Unit, but so far, the volunteers can’t say what kind of progress – if any – they might have made.
“When you conduct a crime, we don’t care how much time has gone,” Chody said. “If you’re a suspect and you’re hiding and you’re worried about a case because you’re involved as a suspect … even though it may be 15, 20 years later, we’re still looking. This isn’t a podunk town. We’re going to find you and you’re going to get justice for the crime that you committed in this county.”
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