Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Mike Fletcher was a young investigator for the Arkansas State Police in 1976, when he was assigned to investigate the disappearance of Linda Edwards, a Garland County deputy sheriff.
Toby Edwards, the deputy’s son, was just 6 the next year when wolf hunters found his mother’s partially buried remains scattered on a wooded hillside several miles south of Hot Springs.
Toby was a cynic by 7. That’s when Lt. Thurman Abernathy, the chief narcotics officer for the Hot Springs Police Department, was charged with Linda Edwards’ murder. The following year, Toby’s mistrust became set in stone when the murder charge against Abernathy was dropped.
Today, 31 years after she went missing, what happened to Linda Edwards remains one of the most famous cold cases in Arkansas police history. As Fletcher recently put it, “It is somewhat unique in that the victim and the ‘person of interest’ both worked in law enforcement.”
Fletcher is a captain now, a troop commander in the patrol division of the State Police. He insists, “There has never been one moment in 30-some years that I thought this case would go unsolved.”
“As recently as a year ago,” he says, “we received a phone call that gave us some information about this case. Some important, very crucial information. Why did that person call? They said they wanted to get it off of their conscience.”
Lt. Glenn Sligh, the current commander of the Criminal Investigation Division, which maintains control of the case, elaborates: “We’re of a strong opinion that there are people out there who have been told critical information by the party or parties involved. And a lot of these people are getting close to the end of their lives. They may be thinking about not wanting to die without disclosing something that could be of help.”
“We’re betting on human nature,” Sligh adds. “Human beings have a need to confess. Whoever was involved in this is 30 years older, if they’re still alive. That’s a long time to carry a guilt that’s this heavy.”
While Toby Edwards considers Fletcher “a straight-shooter,” he’s far from convinced that other officials, to this day, want to see his mother’s killer brought to justice. Edwards suspects that the investigation into her murder was obstructed three decades ago and that it is still being blocked today.
Whether or not he’s right, extraordinary circumstances explain his bitter opinions.
As Edwards acknowledges: “Pretty much everywhere I went, everybody told me it was a cover-up by the police department. That does shape an individual’s mind.”
He remembers, for example, being in the fourth grade and going with a cousin to visit his mother’s grave. A patrol car eased through the cemetery and pulled to a stop near the boys. When the officer asked them what they were doing, Edwards nodded towards his cousin. “We’re going to visit his aunt’s grave,” he answered.
The response was reflexive.
“I didn’t know,” he says now, “if he was going to pull me up and cap me off like they did her. I didn’t trust any of them.”
Linda Louise Ockert Edwards was 29 years old, divorced and the mother of three in March 1976, when Garland County Sheriff Leon Barlow hired her as a deputy, to work as dispatcher. Until then, Edwards — 5-foot-5, about 110 pounds, with hazel eyes and dark blonde hair — had tended bar at Hot Springs nightclubs, primarily the Black Orchid.
“She came in and applied,” Barlow remembers. “She had kids. She wasn’t married. She had no income.” When her background check came back clean, Barlow says, “I told my chief deputy, ‘Tell her we’ll give her a week’s trial.’ ”