Editor's note: This feature is the opening installment of a 10-part series on the landmark criminal justice case of the South Side Strangler, which marked the nation's first use of DNA to catch a killer. Listen to the podcast in the player above, or click here to subscribe to episodes on Apple Podcasts or Google Plus. And here is a direct link for people with iPhones and iPads to subscribe on iTunes.
The car had been running all night.
When mechanic Arnold Ellis woke up on the morning of Saturday, Sept. 19, 1987, the little Renault Alliance that had been parked in front of his Forest Hill Avenue house was still sitting in the same spot where it had been when Ellis got home around 1 a.m. And in the daylight he was able to discern that its motor was running. The keys were in the ignition and there was no sign of the car's driver.
Assuming it was an abandoned vehicle, Ellis called the police. An officer arrived and discovered the car was registered to a Debbie Dudley Davis, age 35, who lived about one street over and a few blocks down on the ground floor of an old, large, brick apartment building on Devonshire Street.
The officer drove to the building and knocked on Davis' door but got no response. An elderly neighbor came out to check on the commotion and gave the officer a key.
Inside, the patrolman would find a nightmare that would haunt and terrify Richmond for months to come.
Debbie Davis' dead body was lying face down across her bed, her head hanging slightly over the side. She was topless, wearing only a pair of cutoff jean shorts. Her right arm was tied tightly behind her back with thick bootlaces. Her left arm was tied beneath her. The killer had tightly twisted a thick, black, woolen sock around her neck using a 16-inch metal vacuum cleaner tube attachment like a tourniquet. The whites of her open eyes were dotted red from ruptured blood vessels, a telltale sign of prolonged strangulation.
Davis' kitchen window was slightly open. A rocking chair the killer had stolen from a nearby porch was leaned against the wall beneath the window outside, demonstrating how the killer had entered the apartment.
This would be the first murder in Richmond committed by a serial killer who would come to be known as the South Side Strangler. The series of horrific murders would go on to become one of the most consequential landmarks in the history of the American criminal justice system, as it would mark the first time a murderer was brought to justice on the basis of DNA evidence. And that murderer just happened to be a serial killer right here in Richmond.
This summer marks the 30th anniversary of that momentous case, which happened almost seven years before the O.J. Simpson trial and long before pop-culture television hits like "CSI" and "NCIS" would popularize the idea of DNA as a criminal investigation tool.
In this 10-part series, running in connection with the podcast Southern Nightmare: the Hunt for the South Side Strangler, former Style Weekly staff writer Richard Foster tells the complete story of how the Strangler terrorized two Virginia cities 100 miles apart while homicide detectives, prosecutors and FBI agents raced behind the scenes to stop him before his next murder.
- Style Weekly’s accounts manager at the time of her murder, Debbie Davis was the office housemother, a kind woman known for bringing in cookies and decorating for holidays. She also worked part time a few nights a week as a bookstore sales clerk at the now-demolished Cloverleaf Mall.
That Saturday morning in September, the last weekend of summer 1987, Style Weekly founder and publisher Lorna Wyckoff was at her Monument Avenue home, preparing for a short trip. It had been just five years since she laid out Style's first issue on her kitchen table; now the magazine was the city's scrappy, popular alternative weekly tabloid, with an office near Virginia Commonwealth University and dozens of employees.
There was a knock on her front door. It was two Richmond police homicide detectives, Ray Williams and Glenn Williams. No relation, but the two grew up together and everyone in the Police Department called them the Williams Boys. They asked Wyckoff if Debbie Davis was one of her employees.
"I said yes and was told that she had been murdered," Wyckoff recalls. "It was something out of a movie. … I think I fainted."
Debbie Davis had worked as Style's accounts manager since 1985. An only child, she grew up around Lynchburg and had a brief marriage after high school that ended in divorce. In the early 1980s, Davis followed her cousin, Judy Fiske, to Richmond and moved into the apartment on Devonshire Street in Richmond's Westover Hills neighborhood, less than two blocks away from where Judy lived with her husband Eric and their two young sons, who knew Davis as Aunt Debbie. Judy and Debbie grew up playing together and were like sisters, riding ponies and having Sunday lunches at their grandmother's house.
"The thing I remember most about Debbie was her laugh. She had such a great laugh." says Eric Fiske, now a retired senior assistant state attorney general. "Also … I loved her honesty."
"She didn't pull any punches," agrees Judy Fiske, laughing. "If your dress was ugly, it was just ugly."
And "she loved Style," recalls Judy, now the minister of music and worship at Tabernacle Baptist Church. "She was really excited to work at Style. She'd worked for moving companies since she graduated high school, so it was a really different atmosphere. And she loved entertainment and she loved movies and she liked being where the action is."
A pop-culture fan who enjoyed Bruce Springsteen records, Davis had been an extra in the Mary Tyler Moore HBO movie "Finnegan Begin Again," which was filmed in Richmond. An avid mystery novel reader, she also worked a couple nights a week at the Waldenbooks store at Cloverleaf Mall in Chesterfield County, about 10 minutes from her South Side apartment.
Style "was like a big garage band of people who had good intentions. Not really a lot of knowledge but again, we would figure it out. And Debbie was this wonderful housemother. She was warm and friendly, a good worker," says Wyckoff, who recalls that Davis particularly relished chasing down debts from delinquent advertising clients and would high-five Wyckoff when she came back with $25 or $50 from a tardy restaurateur or shop owner.
She also remembers that Davis always had her nose buried in the latest bestseller or whodunit. "We were both enchanted with John le Carré … and detectives and spies and stuff," Wyckoff says, "and to me, it would turn out very ironic that Patsy Cornwell's first major hit, 'Postmortem,' was based on Debbie's life. … It was bizarre poetic injustice."
- The South Side Strangler stole a rocking chair from a nearby porch and propped it up outside this kitchen window to gain entrance into Debbie Davis’ apartment.
The night before her murder, Davis and a co-worker, Deona Landes Houff, took a road trip to Virginia Beach to see a performance by "Saturday Night Live" star Dana Carvey, who at the time was best known for his breakout Church Lady character.
Rushed for time because they wanted to walk on the beach before the show, they left money on the table at the restaurant where they ate dinner, instead of waiting for the check.
"They were annoyed with us because they knew we were leaving. We left cash," Houff says with a shrug, laughing. "It was important to us to walk on the beach and I'm very glad we did — based on what happened, of course."
Later that night, Houff dropped Davis at her apartment and waited to drive off until she was safely inside.
"I remember seeing her. I could see her hand, you know how you wave out the window? 'Yeah, I'm in, I'm fine,'" she recalls. "And of course later I remember wondering, 'God, was he watching that happen? Did he watch me drop her off that night?' Because I think they thought he watched. … He knew who she was."
- An extra in the HBO film “Finnegan Begin Again,” Davis was a pop culture fan who enjoyed Bruce Springsteen records, “Saturday Night Live” and mystery novels.
The night of her murder, Davis was tired and not feeling well. She had been to the emergency room a few nights before with abdominal pains and as she was preparing to settle down that Friday night with a book, she called her parents to talk about getting her gallbladder taken out in Lynchburg so she could recover at their home.
The South Side Strangler was already in her apartment listening to the entire conversation, says Williams, the retired homicide detective.
"I think he was hiding in the hallway closet. Her eyeglasses were in the hallway, so was the toothbrush. She was probably going to the bathroom to brush her teeth when he grabbed her."
When police found her body the next morning, sitting next to the bed on Davis's nightstand was the latest bestseller, mystery novelist Scott Turow's debut novel, "Presumed Innocent," which revolved around a bondage murder.
"It was sitting right on her nightstand where she'd been reading it," Williams says.
There were no fingerprints, no witnesses. Nothing had been taken, as far as investigators could tell. And they had no obvious suspects.
"We knew he was smart. Very seldom does a crook do that kind of damage and spend that much time with his victim and not leave a bunch of clues. But he left nothing," Williams says.
Through his interviews with family, co-workers and neighbors, Williams rapidly pieced together a picture of Debbie Davis's life. And those pieces didn't add up to homicide. Debbie led a quiet life. She wasn't dating anyone. She hadn't seen her ex-husband in years. She didn't use drugs. She didn't hang out in bars. She wasn't a prostitute. She tended to dress plainly and was a little plump. As best as he could tell, she was a kind, bookish lady who lived a somewhat lonely life in an apartment with her two cats.
- Scott Elmquist
- At first, investigators theorized that the killer may have been targeting Style Weekly founder and former publisher Lorna Wyckoff, who later delivered the eulogy at Davis’ funeral.
At first, Williams theorized that perhaps the killer was someone who held a grudge against Style Weekly, or maybe the killing had been a case of mistaken identity and the publisher, Wyckoff, had been the intended target.
"We had police around our home," recounts Wyckoff, who had posted a $10,000 reward for information leading to the killer's capture and conviction and would later deliver the eulogy at Davis' funeral in Lynchburg. "It was a very frightening time, to have someone knock on the door and tell you that someone you know has been murdered and that it could have possibly been meant for you. It was a pretty alarming situation."
- On Sept. 29, 1987, Style Weekly offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Davis’ killer.
In the weeks following the murder, the Williams boys would come by Wyckoff's house late at night and talk over theories. Sometimes they'd show her crime scene photos.
"I saw a lot of things that I wish I'd never seen and continue to this day to be a nightmare for me. … It got darker and deeper and more upsetting," she recalls. The state medical examiner's office, she was told, had determined that Davis, the sweet lady who doted on her cats and kept candy on her desk and liked baking cookies and decorating the office for holidays, had been raped and tortured to death for hours. The killer had let up on the strangulation over and over, bringing her to the brink of death and letting up again, until she finally expired in fear, pain and exhaustion.
"She regained consciousness again and then he would start to strangle her again, so that there was some degree of torture," Wyckoff says, "like she was an animal, a young bird or a little thing that he was watching die. He enjoyed watching her die."
Meanwhile, at Style Weekly, the atmosphere was one of shell shock as Davis's friends and co-workers struggled with their grief and fear.
"Debbie was beloved by all and not anyone you could ever imagine had enemies, let alone someone who wanted her dead, which left some of us thinking it was just some sick, deranged wretch who could have done it before and might have done it again," remembers author Frances Schultz, a former editor who would later be the host of the cable TV show "Southern Living Presents."
- Scott Elmquist
- Retired Richmond police Detective Ray Williams studied serial killers with the FBI’s storied Behavioral Science Unit shortly before Debbie Davis was murdered.
"It shook everyone. … We were just shaken beyond belief because Style in those days was a very close-knit family," says former creative director Kent Eanes. "It just spooked everyone. … I would start taking baths instead of showers because I could hear if someone was, you know, coming into the house or at least I thought I could. … That's the point of paranoia I reached."
Reporter Lisa Antonelli Bacon started working as a staff writer just after the murder. She would later report on the killings.
Davis "had been killed like two weeks before I came to Style. It was really odd to come to this place," Bacon recalls. "Everybody is very close and I was the outsider. It was like, it was really strange. People were walking around like zombies because it was a brutal murder of someone that they'd spent every day with."
"Everybody had their own sense of tragedy or sadness," Wycoff says. "It was very, very hard, very hard. And then it turned into panic because this guy was roaming around murdering people."
At first, Houff, says, there was an unvoiced fear among the staff that perhaps the killer was someone they knew in the community — or, God forbid, even one of their co-workers.
But within two weeks of the murder to the day, it would become apparent that Davis's killing had nothing to do with the newspaper.
"Once there was another murder … I started realizing it was something else bad going on in the city," Houff says. "It had to do with her neighborhood, not where she worked."
Thirty years later, Judy Fiske and her husband still live in the same house, a block and a half away from where her cousin Debbie Davis was murdered.
"There's a sadness that goes with you all the time," Fiske says. "Because she lived so close to us, you know, you ride by the house all the time. I often wonder who lives in that apartment and how they live there. It's like, 'I don't want to tell you what went on there.' But somebody lives in it." S
For more of this story, you can listen to the weekly Southern Nightmare podcast for free on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Alexa, Stitcher, TuneIn and other platforms. For information about how to listen to the podcast on your smartphone or devices, visit