1. Who you gonna call?
It looked like any other homicide scene. Bright yellow scene tape with the warning “POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS” surrounded the area around the house. Outside of the tape were scores of people, including the usual types: concerned neighbors, rubberneckers, news media. Uniformed Officers kept everyone back and held the scene securely. After seven years of police experience, I’d seen death scenes numerous times. But this was only my second homicide as a detective.
Death is always different. Rapes were horrible. Robberies left terrified victims. But death was final, and as I was already learning, it wore you down as an investigator.
We already knew this would be atypical. Most homicides involve one body. But shortly before midnight on Nov. 1, 1985, we got the call. “Homicide at 35 South Ardmore with multiple victims” the dispatcher said.
As I approached the scene, a veteran officer looked at me and said, “It’s bad.”
His warning resonated. Work as a police officer for any length of time and you’ll get used to seeing some pretty nasty stuff. To survive, you adapt, shrugging off the ordinary horrors that would traumatize the average civilian. But every so often, you will see things that no officer, no matter how seasoned, can ever get used to.
If this veteran officer thought it was bad, I knew it had to be horrible. But I didn’t know how horrible until I stepped inside.
The house itself looked like something out of a horror movie. An old two-story structure, it had dirty windows and a leaky roof. Every floor was damp and as you walked through the house your shoes sank into the filth. Roaches were everywhere. These were “Dayton roaches,” as we called them – roaches that weren’t afraid of lights or people. In most houses the roaches would scurry away if you turned on the lights. Not Dayton roaches. They ran toward you.
To add to our misery, there was no power in the house except that supplied by an extension cord strung between neighboring houses. The “borrowed” electricity powered a small television on the first floor. There was nothing on the TV but static and it cast an eerie dim glow into the room.
The only uninjured victim was 4-year-old Daniel Talbott, found wandering around the dead on the first floor. In the darkness he had somehow gone unnoticed by the murderer.
Using flashlights, we began assessing the scene. Through the limited range of our lights, the home looked more like a haunted house than a crime scene. You would walk through the moldy filth, shaking roaches from your pant legs, until your light spotted a victim. Then you would stop, jot down your observations, and move on. The scene was immense. There was blood everywhere, seeping into the already damp floor. Sometimes there would be a pool of blood but no victim. There were numerous victims, and most were children. Due to conditions, it would take us considerable time to tally the true numbers. The officer outside was right. This was a bad one, maybe one of the worst.
Each victim was diagramed and photographed. We took measurements to show where each one was found. We collected blood samples, and anything of interest was photographed and collected. We took long-range photos to show where that victim or item of evidence had been found. A close-up photo of a shell casing on the floor meant nothing without a long-range photo to show where it was in the house as well as where it was in relation to the victims.
Our victims ranged in age from 2 to 46. In total, there were nine victims, three who survived their injuries, five who died, and one lucky 4-year old.
Glenna Green was the homeowner. Her 23-year-old daughter, Lana Green, was the first victim we encountered. Lana was on the first floor leaning against a chair. Well dressed in a black dress and bright white shoes, Lana had been shot in the head. Blood emanated from the wound and seeped into the black dress. Her eyes and mouth were open and looking upward at us as if to ask: “what happened?”
I wish I knew, I thought to myself.
Lana’s 6-year-old daughter, Violana Green, lay near her. She too had been shot in the head. As the girl lay on the floor, the blood seemed to disappear. It appeared as if she were taking a nap near her mother’s feet. She was so small and so young.
What could she have possibly done to deserve this? I would ask myself variations of that question several more times that night.
In a bedroom upstairs, we spotted a pool of blood next to the wall. Paramedics had found 7-year-old Daytrin Talbott there. Despite intense efforts to save him, Daytrin died at a nearby hospital. The blood here was different, though. At the time, blood pattern interpretation was rarely used and none of us were trained to do so. But even without formal training, it was obvious. In the center of the blood was an absence, a round area where there was no blood. And the blood splattered up the side of the wall, away from that absence.
Picture a melon lying on a floor next to a wall. Now take the butt of a rifle and smash the melon. The juice fans out and goes up the wall. But the area where the melon sits is shielded by the melon itself. This prevents the juice from getting on the floor beneath it. That is the absence in the pattern. But this was no melon. This was the child’s head. He had been beaten to death.
In the same room 6-year-old Datwan Talbott lay on his back on the filthy floor, roaches crawling over his body. A bloody cloth covered his face. He had been shot in the head. I don’t recall who placed the cloth on his face and I didn’t care. The boy looked peaceful, since you couldn’t see where the bullet had ripped through his head. I needed that by this point.
We found Glenna Green upstairs in her bedroom. She lay on the floor beside her bed, clad in her nightgown. She, too, had been shot. Glenna was the oldest victim, the mother of Lana, and grandmother of the children. She lost her life and her family in one very violent night.
In the corner of this same room sat a blood-soaked couch. Dayron Talbott, 11, had been removed from here. Shot and beaten, Dayron would survive. Unknown to us at the time, he would be instrumental in solving this case.
Two more of Glenna’s grandchildren had been assaulted but were still alive. Glenna Talbott, 2, had been beaten so badly that hospital officials were unsure whether she’d been shot as well. Tia Green, 5, had been shot through her right eye. Amid all the chaos, they, along with Dayron, had been whisked away by medics to an area hospital. Somehow, they survived.
This was the worst scene any of us had ever experienced. I was the new guy on the team and I was hoping it didn’t show. I talked to one of the veteran detectives.
“How does something like this happen?” I asked.
He told me not to focus on that, because however it happened, the circumstances would still baffle me, even if we uncovered every single fact possible. I knew he was right.
I already knew there was no answer, or at least no answer that made sense. People kill for lots of reasons, sometimes for no visible reason at all, or for bizarre reasons that exist only in their troubled minds. I’d already seen people killed over loud music, a parking space, a two-dollar debt, and more.
In a way, it doesn’t matter. In a domestic violence homicide, which this would turn out to be, the immediate reason isn’t what the killing is all about. It’s just the trigger. Domestic violence is about control. The trigger is often something that no reasonable person would be angry about: a spilled glass of milk, or a baby that won’t stop crying. It could be someone exerting the slightest bit of independence, in thought or action – which then threatens the psyche of the abuser. By nature, domestic violence isn’t rational or reasonable.
Still I had to wonder: what is the trigger that leads to a massacre?
We soon learned that there was someone else who lived at the house but was not among our tally of victims: Glenna’s boyfriend, 31-year-old Samuel Moreland. As we worked the wretched crime scene and interviewed friends and neighbors of the deceased, Moreland was curiously absent. We would later learn that, during this time, he was having a few drinks at a friend’s house, as if nothing had happened.
Through interviews, we learned that Moreland had been at the house earlier that evening, arguing with Glenna. The argument wasn’t complex. Moreland wanted money for alcohol and Glenna wouldn’t give it to him.
That’s all it was. A fight over wine money led to five dead and three critically injured, many of them children. My veteran colleague was right. The immediate reason, the trigger, was absolutely underwhelming.
We put out a broadcast for Moreland. A broadcast was not an arrest warrant – we didn’t have enough evidence for that yet. But we needed to find him, and quickly. We didn’t know if the night’s bloodshed was over.
Strangely it wasn’t hard to find him. He wandered home, appearing oblivious to the chaos he found. When officers quickly moved in and arrested him, Moreland told them “You’re too late.”
There wasn’t much notable about Moreland. He was of average size and somewhat unkempt, scruffy. The kind of guy who’d been on the street, but nothing about him suggested danger. He was not at all physically imposing. Of course, now he was dealing with a group of armed adults on their turf, not a houseful of children.
Moreland did not even attempt to feign surprise or shock over the slaughter. He was defiant, cocky, and obviously street smart. As we questioned him, Moreland was gauging our questions, trying to determine what we really knew, and making sure his answers matched what he thought we knew. Moreland was smart enough not to volunteer information but would respond to what we would say or ask, changing his story quickly to suit new information or questions.
For example, we asked him to submit to a gunshot residue test. The test, called a GSR, looks for components used in ammunition that aren’t normally found on one’s hands. Moreland told officers the test would do them no good, because he had been shooting at a range earlier in the day. But when asked questions about the range, he changed his story. Now he had been shooting down by the river. I quickly prepared a court order and got a municipal judge to approve it. Moreland submitted to the test, and the results were positive.
Moreland’s story, or stories, continued to wander. You can only bluff for so long. Ultimately, he invoked his right to remain silent.
“The Fifth Amendment is made for guys like me,” Moreland said defiantly. “You got nothin’ on me and I’ll be damned if I’ll help you.”
Of course, Moreland was no lawyer. He didn’t mean the Fifth Amendment. He meant his Miranda rights – the ones you hear read to suspects on televisions shows all the time. Either way, he didn’t sound innocent. Despite his error, Moreland knew his way around the system – as we’d expected. We quickly tracked a history of violence and domestic abuse. He was unemployed and in recent years, had gone from house to house, leeching off of others until they tired of him.
Moreland had lived at the Talbott residence for more than a year, yet he showed no concern for his girlfriend or her family, who had been slaughtered. But even if he was done talking to us, he’d talked to someone else.
Moreland made a veiled remark to the friend he had been drinking with, that the police were probably at his house looking for him. He had also said he had fired a gun and “the bullet went in little but came out big.” Our weapon was a .22 caliber long rifle cartridge, a little bullet.
But we didn’t have that rifle. Moreland was definitely our man, but for a successful prosecution, we would need more.
That came from Dayron Talbott the following day, after he’d recovered enough from his injuries to talk with us briefly. Dayron told us that he watched “Sam” shoot his grandmother, and then Sam shot him. After that, Sam smashed a rifle butt into Dayron’s face, causing him to pass out.
The contrast between Moreland and Dayron was unmistakable. Moreland had been almost nonchalant about the slaughter of several people in his home. Dayron showed all the expected signs of psychological trauma. Even after he left the hospital, the little boy was very quiet and withdrawn. He didn’t make a lot of eye contact, and when he answered our questions, he usually just offered one-word answers. He wasn’t trying to be difficult. Dayron was clearly, and understandably, in shock.
As we booked Moreland into the county jail, he remained defiant. Moreland wanted his phone call and he wanted it now. A deputy sheriff working the jail glared at Moreland and responded, “Hell Sammy, who you gonna call? You killed everybody you know.” It was true.
We all went to the viewing of the deceased. Shiloh Baptist Church was prominent in Dayton’s black community and they had offered their services. Shiloh was a large church and it was packed. The people of Dayton were horrified by these crimes, and responded, with some standing in the street outside the church, just to be close to what was happening. The news reporters estimated 7,000 people attended, though it felt like even more.
I will never forget those five caskets stretched end to end across the front of the church. To this day, I have nothing to compare it to. Reverend Henry Parker told of how the community had opened up their hearts, and pocketbooks for the family. One man donated $5,000. Another gave all that he had: 21 cents. During the service, the choir sang the hymn “He knows just how much you can bear.” I hoped that was true.
It would be a year before Moreland was tried before a three-judge panel. Facing the possibility of a death sentence, Moreland waived his right to a trial before a jury of his peers.
We knew we had a witness, little Dayron, who could identify Moreland as the killer. We hoped it would be enough. We had a tremendous amount of circumstantial evidence but Dayron’s testimony would probably be our strongest piece of direct evidence. We were haunted by what we didn’t find and couldn’t present, particularly the rifle.
But life is strange, and when you work homicide, it’s often stranger.
News media descended on the trial, starting from the first day. It seemed everyone was watching. One person in particular was watching because he knew something we didn’t. After viewing a news broadcast, he realized how important his information was, and he called the police. Dispatch then called us.
“Got a guy you are definitely gonna want to talk to,” the dispatcher said, giving us the man’s name and number.
The caller, an employee of a local tree-trimming company, had been part of a crew working the Ardmore Street area the week of the homicides. The day after the slayings, a co-worker found a discarded .22 caliber rifle. The co-worker took the rifle home and boasted that he had the weapon used in the killings. The caller, who could not keep this secret any longer, gave us the name of the co-worker.
Three of us left the trial, driving quickly to the offices of the tree trimming company, leaving two other colleagues behind to continue assisting prosecutors at the trial.
At the office, we found a supervisor who told us the employee we were seeking was on a day off. The employee lived near Ludlow Falls, about 30 minutes from Dayton. It probably took us only ten minutes to get there as fast as we were driving, but it seemed like an eternity.
We approached the residence with caution and enthusiasm. After we pounded on the door for a short while, the tree trimmer opened the door. His look told me he knew why we were there. After a brief discussion, he surrendered the gun.
It was a well-worn, cheap .22-caliber rifle. The man had crudely refinished it, but otherwise, it appeared unaltered.
We raced back to the crime laboratory. The tool mark examiner looked the weapon over. The checkered pattern of the butt plate matched perfectly the impressions left on the crushed skulls of Moreland’s victims. When the examiner removed the plate, he found blood had seeped into the gun’s wooden stock.
Guns often leave markings on bullets they have fired, markings usually as distinct as a fingerprint. But this rifle was in horrible condition. Making a match to the bullets recovered from our victims could be difficult.
Difficult, but apparently not impossible. The technicians at the crime lab quickly matched that rifle to the bullets that killed or injured nine people in the hell house on Ardmore, then led us to yet another victim.
The gun also matched a bullet taken from the body of Ulysses Russell, an elderly man who lived in Glenna Green’s neighborhood. Russell had been shot to death just days before the Moreland massacre, though until now, no one knew the two scenes were linked.
It made sense. Moreland had probably taken the rifle from Russell, shot and killed him, and then used the same rifle on his victims on Ardmore. We had our murder weapon: there was no doubt this was what was used to kill Glenna and her family. We couldn’t forensically put that rifle in Moreland’s hands – the tests only showed the gun was used, not who used it. But Dayron could, and he did.
The little boy, who was small for his age, appeared so tiny in that witness seat. He was our star witness, and he delivered. You never know how well small children will testify, but Dayron’s testimony was particularly strong. He told the jury exactly who had assaulted him and killed his family members: Samuel Moreland.
We hoped it would all be enough. We had a living witness, tremendous circumstantial evidence, and at last, the murder weapon.
Not that you necessarily needed to have a murder weapon to successfully try a case. In many cases the weapon is never found. But when you have it, it becomes an important symbol. Judges or jurors can look at it, touch it, and hold it. It brings them closer to the crime, making the slaying less of an abstraction. Prosecutors love to hold up the murder weapon during their closing arguments.
“This defendant took this rifle and cold bloodedly killed five innocent people, and tried to kill three more,” the prosecutor told the judges.
It was more than a prop. It was the edge we needed.
Samuel Moreland was convicted and sentenced to death for the Ardmore murders. Through a series of appeals, Moreland has remained alive, but the convictions still stand. The latest appeal was filed in March 2015. Though he has been on death row for almost three decades, time will eventually run out for Samuel Moreland.
Even still, Moreland has lived in prison far longer than most of his victims, and he has apparently gotten away with at least one other homicide: Moreland was never charged in connection with Ulysses Russell’s death. There were no eyewitnesses and little evidence to work with. There is little doubt that Moreland killed Russell, but we could never prove it.
The Homicide Squad kept in touch with Dayron and his mother Tia for a few years. By then, Dayron knew us and was more outgoing. Always friendly and always polite, he no longer showed outward signs of trauma, and we didn’t probe deeply. Once the trial was over, we never again discussed what happened on Nov. 1, 1985. Instead we talked about his life: school, and as he got older, the kind of jobs teenagers take. You had to admire his poise, given all he’d been through.
We were grateful to that brave little boy and his important testimony. As the years went by the contacts became more and more infrequent until they stopped altogether. I would not see Dayron again until the summer of 1997. It would be a heartbreaking reunion.