1967 death of Coral Gables police officer remains a mystery.
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) -- Walter Stathers would be 85.
He would have retired from Coral Gables police with a pension. Weekends might have included fishing with son Wayne or time spent with his two granddaughters and two great grandsons.
He didn't live to see such days.
A mysterious prowler shot him dead 40 years ago on the lawn of a Coral Gables mansion, likely using Stathers' own pistol.
His death remains one of two unsolved police murders in Miami-Dade County history. The other: Leroy LaFleur, a black Miami officer shot dead in 1951 in the "Colored Precinct."
In a year when three South Florida officers have been shot dead, Stathers' saga has been largely forgotten by four decades of frustration.
Yet his death remains vivid for some: his surviving wife and son; Coral Gables officers and alum; frustrated Miami-Dade homicide detectives, current and retired; a private investigator pining for answers.
His wife, Ethel Stathers, told The Miami Herald years ago that her husband was a large, affable man who "was crazy about football, a boat he owned once and working in the yard."
Greg Smith, retired Miami-Dade cold case detective: "I had the file on my desk for 20 years. It was one of those cases you just don't want to put back on the shelf. It was just a horrible case. I would have loved to have closed it."
Coral Gables Assistant Chief Richard Naue: "It's always very, very upsetting this time of the year, for the family and for the Coral Gables Police Department."
Wayne Stathers, 59: "It would be nice to see someone held accountable. I really don't expect anything of it."
The murder case is still considered an active investigation. The lead detective is Miami-Dade cold case investigator Ed Carmody. The homicide bureau declined an interview request.
Walter Stathers joined the Coral Gables police as a young man in 1946. On the midnight shift, he patrolled the sprawling houses and rolling lawns of the Riviera zone.
He never called in sick. Most residents knew him well. Stathers monitored whatever -- or whoever -- moved in the night.
On the morning of Dec. 19, 1967, he was on his regular patrol. At 2:59 a.m., his final work sheet showed, he responded to a disturbance at 5740 San Vicente St. "Talked to the Hughes boy and another couple and asked them to keep it a little lower," he wrote.
Then Stathers spotted something. Requesting a K9 unit at 4:18 a.m., Stathers dispatched this: "Get me a dog car."
Stathers never gave his location. But Jim Harley, a fellow patrolman who would later serve as a Coral Gables police chief, and others rushed over, figuring he'd be outside the home of Anthony Abraham on South Alhambra Circle.
Abraham, who owned a car dealership, had decorated his home with a huge holiday lights display. Stathers had guarded it while on patrol.
"You knew if you went looking for Walt after 4 a.m., if there no other calls, he would be there keeping an eye out on it," Harley said.
First on the scene, Harley saw a set of headlights -- the newspaper deliveryman was coming.
Then he saw Stathers' patrol car, across the street from Abraham's house. The car was in drive, engine running, driver's side door open. It had wildly crossed the lawn, crashing into the patio in the back of the Kaaber house, 700 S. Alhambra Circle.
Harley found the 45-year-old burly cop, face down, on the wet lawn.
"It was pretty obvious he has been shot in the back of the head. It came out through his forehead. He was dead. No life in his body," Harley recalled.
The homeowner, Bent Kaaber, remembered: "I heard a big crash, and I looked out the window, and when I looked, I happened to see a blue flash and later on, I realized what that was -- it was actually when Walter got shot."
Kaaber's live-in maid, Bertha Droquett, rushed to her window. She told police a tall, thin black man wearing black pants, a white shirt pedaled away on a 28-inch English-model bicycle with a chrome fender.
Investigators speculated Stathers had surprised a prowler.
Perhaps he had jumped out, forgetting to shift the gear into park. Or maybe he had arrested the man, put him in the car but had stumbled out during a brawl.
Stathers' arm was bruised, twisted back. His .357 Colt Trooper, black stripes set against the white handle, was missing.
As the sun rose, officers hunted for the man on a bicycle but found nothing.
Dade sheriff's investigators, along with Miami police, launched a manhunt.
More than 100 tips came in during the first few days. The slug that killed Stathers was never found.
Former Coral Gables Maj. Richard Bannon, now retired, believes rivalries between Dade and Miami police may have hurt the case.
He believes there have been "strong suspects over the years, and they always come back to three or four people" from Coconut Grove.
"This should not be unsolved," he said.
"I'm satisfied they gave it everything they had," Harley said of the original investigation.
So does Smith, the cold case detective: "They did a bang-up job. They did a thorough job."
Within weeks of Stathers' death, however, the case grew cold.
Rewards were posted. Neighborhood women started the Citizens Committee for Walter F. Stathers Memorial Fund to provide for his family.
Years melted away. Ethel Stathers remarried. Those involved in the investigation were promoted. Many have since died.
Stathers' death proved frustrating for successive cold case detectives.
The reward last stood at $40,000. News stations covered anniversary after anniversary. Miami-Dade police conducted a detailed reenactment -- even borrowing an old Plymouth similar to Stathers' -- to spark interest in the case.
After one article was published, Smith sat at his desk with a stack of sheets ready to jot down tips.
"I didn't get a single call," he remembered.
Certainly, suspects were looked at in 1967. One teenager known as a criminal in Coconut Grove was found in Alabama and returned to Dade for questioning. With no evidence linking him to the crime, he was released.
One informant named Bubba told Miami Constable John Heywood that a 19-year-old street tough from Coconut Grove tried selling him Stathers' gun. He claimed Bubba confirmed serial numbers that matched Stathers' gun.
But the lead went nowhere. The gun was not recovered. Though it was widely known police were looking at the man, no one ever came forward to implicate him in the crime.
In recent years, the man -- now 59, living in South Miami -- has drawn the attention of private investigator David Bolton, who began looking into the case several years ago.
Bolton reinterviewed Heywood as well as the one-time suspect himself, who has repeatedly denied involvement.
"There are too many coincidences," said Bolton, who said a stolen bicycle was found at the man's home shortly after the murder.
Smith, the former cold case detective, frowns at Bolton's involvement. He believes Bolton's work could one day hurt the case by giving a defense attorney "a record of inconsistencies and conflicts."
"David, he's a very passionate guy, but like so many inexperienced nonpolice investigators, he's trying to put square pegs into round holes," Smith said.
Smith doesn't believe the Coconut Grove man is viable. The informant, Bubba, had zero credibility and his knowledge of the gun's serial numbers had, in fact, come from Heywood, the Miami constable, he said.
"I was in homicide for almost 23 years, and my instincts tell me he didn't have anything to do with the murder of Walter Stathers," Smith said.
For now, viable suspects remain unknown, Smith said.
The case suffered from an odd lack of tips, which could mean something more difficult for future investigators.
"I fear it was a random act. Somebody passing through," Smith said