A 55-year old homicide case has been the recent interest of Oberlin police officer Bashshar Wiley.
Windom Durham, 77, was found dead around 1:25 p.m. on Nov. 2, 1962, at 249 Lincoln St., where he lived. His body was discovered when a neighbor requested a welfare check due to suspicious conditions.
At 7 a.m., a neighbor went to drop off some wood at Durham’s home. He knocked on the door and heard Durham moan, but figured he was asleep and was groaning for him to go away.
The neighbor checked on Durham a few hours later. When he saw the wood still sitting at the front door and when no one answered his knocking, he called the Oberlin police. Officer Rudy Neumann saw the back door of the house appeared to have been forcibly opened.
Durham was dead in his bedroom, severely beaten, bound, and gagged. The Lorain County coroner ruled death by asphyxiation at approximately 8 a.m.
More than 1,000 man-hours by Neumann and officers Norm Schmidt, Eugene Barlow, and Michael Kelly went into the case. Upward of 30 residents were interviewed but no one has ever been charged with the murder.
There was also a $1,000 cash reward at the time for information, which when adjusted for inflation would be $8,242 today.
“I think a lot of high-profile cases were lost because of bad evidence collection techniques and contaminated evidence,” Wiley said during a WOBC radio broadcast at Oberlin College.
He was interviewed by Anessa Wyman, president of the Oberlin African-American Genealogy and History Group, during an oral history segment.
Wiley said evidence collection has evolved drastically, even since the 1990s. He has a list of everything that was collected during the investigation but doesn’t know whether the items were carefully handled the way they are today.
“Nowadays, if we were to collect something, we have what we call a chain of custody,” he explained. “Anytime someone touches it, enters it into evidence, takes it out of evidence, takes it to a lab, picks it up from a lab, it’s all written down and documented. It’s the most detailed paper trail you could imagine.”
Years ago, officers told reporters they suspected the murderer was someone local, and Wiley agrees. There were rumors that Durham had “a ton of money to the point where he had it hidden in his house,” Wiley said, and everybody in town knew he would answer his front door with a gun in hand.
All witnesses, including his family, knew Durham owned a handgun, a shotgun, and a rifle. The original police report only mentions recovering a shotgun, which means the other two weapons are still missing, Wiley said, and it never mentions money found in Durham’s house.
“It was 1962 and this guy was in his late 70s. He probably didn’t have a bank account,” Wiley said. “So that money he had was probably all the money he had to his name.”
Deemed unlivable, Durham’s home was bulldozed. Today it’s just an empty lot.
“Looking at it as a cop in 2018, it had to have been somebody who knew who he was,” Wiley said. “They knew that if he answered the door, he was only going to prop it open and he was going to have a gun, so they waited until he was in bed.”
Wiley guesses the back door was kicked in when Durham was in bed. Then the perpetrator tied and gagged him and grabbed his guns and any cash lying around.
Wiley said he was hung up on one aspect of the case, chasing it until he realized he wasn’t letting himself be open to other options.
“What I was stuck on the most is the fact that when they left, he was still alive,” he said. “If it was somebody he knew, you would think they would have killed him before they left — but at the same time, maybe they knew he had asthma and that he would suffocate and they didn’t have the guts to kill him so they were going to let him suffocate like he did.”
Wiley has witness statements, the initial report, crime scene photos, and a list of evidence but he said he needs more information to come to any kind of conclusion.
Sometimes, solving a cold case requires the passing of time, he said. Relationships change and a spouse becomes an ex-spouse or a best friend becomes an ex-friend.
“Is 55 years too much time? I don’t know,” Wiley said. “…it’s a case some older people in the community probably remember. I’m hoping if it’s brought to their attention, it’ll trigger a memory from the past.”
“The Oberlin community deserves for this to be solved. Whether there’s family left or not, the community deserves closure,” he said.
Anyone with information is asked to contact Wiley at 440-774-1061 or firstname.lastname@example.org. All information will be strictly confidential and can be left anonymously.
A self-proclaimed “history nerd,” Wiley also helped give state and national honors to Oberlin constable Franklin Stone, whose 1881 line-of-duty death had been forgotten.
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.