Special Report: Murder Mystery Lingers Decade Later
Updated: Monday, February 25 2013, 01:03 PM EST
It is a mystery that haunts a city a decade later. Three elderly women found dead just months apart, under strikingly similar circumstances, but only one called a "homicide".
One night August of 2003, no one answered the phone at 85-year-old Lottie Ledford's small, white Elm Street home.
Her worried niece went over and found the door ajar. She called police and, when they went inside, they found Ledford in her nightgown, on the bed, dead.
"I kind of got hit with a curveball right at the beginning," said Clay-Barnette Funeral Home Director Eric Bester, who prepared Ledford for burial. "Her nephew had asked me, 'had I noticed anything unusual with the body?', and I thought for a moment and said 'Well I'll just go check."
Bester said, looking at the body that day: "Things became very clear at that point something wasn't correct."
Bester believes Ledford was murdered, in what would be the first of three mysterious deaths in Shelby in a span of weeks.
"There were markings on her nostrils and on the bridge of her nose - almost to the appearance as if it was pinched, and there were heavy bruising on the corner of her mouth - like where a hand would have been pressed over her mouth." said Bester, recalling what the body looked like that day. "And a scratch almost like a scratch that came down the side of her face, as if it was her own hand that tried to pull a hand off of her face."
The autopsy report listed the cause of death as heart attack and police say there wasn't enough evidence to call it murder.
"My concern was, if she was struggling, it wouldn't have taken much for her to have a heart attack if she was being - in a struggle at that point," said Bester.
In September, four weeks later, another death, at a home on Railroad Avenue - just blocks from Ledford's home.
Seventy-nine-year-old Margaret Tessener was also found dead in her bed, a pathologist concluding that she had been raped, beaten and likely suffocated.
And then two months later - a third death.
"I hadn't seen her in a couple days and the newspapers were piling up here, so that's when I got suspicious," said Leon Thurman Sr., who had lived across the Street from 87-year-old Lillian Mullinax.
Thurman says he worried when he didn't see her out watching kids board the school bus and noticed the front door left cracked open for days and he called police.
When the officer arrived he told Thurman that Mullinax was laying on her bed, dead.
In all three deaths the phone lines were cut at the homes, and the doors left cracked open.
"She don't let no one in the house, that's why I thought it was real suspicious when I see him come out the front door," said Thurman standing in Mullinax's front yard.
Thurman said he saw Donald Eugene Borders - man he recognized as a regular around the neighborhood - walking off of Mullinax's porch days before she was found dead.
"I asked what was he doing over there, and he didn't say nothing," said Thurman. "He ... went walkin down the street."
As police investigated the deaths, they noted the similarities but didn't notify the public.
Bester says Ledford's nephew put a notice in the paper: had there been any other mysterious deaths?
"When we saw that there were two others with very similar circumstances, it all started adding up - it really did," said Bester.
Now it was out in the open - haunting the streets of Shelby.
"People were talking about being afraid, and keeping the doors locked," says Billie Rizhallah, who was born and raised in Shelby.
"I think everybody was worried about it because you know, somebody got killed in your neighborhood and you don't know who done it," said Sherwood Gill who lived just around the corner from Ledford's house.
Six years later, Borders was arrested.
But not in Lillian Mullinax's murder - where he was spotted on the porch.
His DNA matched a sample taken from the crime scene of Margaret Tessneer.
"The jury concluded that he was guilty of first degree murder," said Borders' attorney David Teddy. "I respect the jury's decision."
Borders was convicted in January. While the Tessener case is now closed, the Ledford and Mullinax cases are cold.
"Any normal person would look at that and say 'The similarities are so close, the similiarities are so close that we feel certain this individual is responsible'," said Shelby Police Department Captain Rick Stafford. "But in the court of law, we have to go and prove that beyond [a doubt], and right now we just can't."
"I know what I saw, and I think the coronor knows what he saw, and I think the family knows what they saw," says Bester. "And I think sometimes things are unexplained - but I think sometimes the unexplained tells a story in its own."
For a link to The Shelby Star reporting, click here:
By Ashlea Surles
Follow Ashlea on Twitter @AshleaSurles