Police, P.I. reopen 36-year-old cold case of murdered cop

By Harve Jacobs  bio | email | Twitter

JAMES ISLAND, SC (WCSC) - A Charleston County police officer was gunned down inside a James Island grocery store and 36 years later investigators are still haunted by the fact the killers have not been caught.

The murder sent shockwaves through the local law enforcement community. Charleston County police officer William Cribb was shot and killed Nov. 15, 1974, while trying to stop an armed robbery at Sam's Red and White.

Somehow, Cribb's murderers managed to get away with it and no one has been able to develop a lead that led to any arrests. That also meant pressure was building on law enforcement to solve the crime.

"This is a perfect example of a case where there was tremendous pressure outside and internal pressure to find the people that committed this murder," said current Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon.

Cannon was a North Charleston cop at the time of the murder. Cannon and then-county police officer Mickey Whatley worked together on the Cribb case, but the case eventually went cold.

"The more time goes by, the more difficult it becomes," said Cannon.

But then private detective Howie Comen came in and has convinced Cannon to re-open the case and turn it into a high profile case with media coverage with the hope that it will jog someone's memory.

"There are a lot of loose ends that need to be revisited," said Comen.

Often, picking up a cold case means revisiting the original crime scene -- that's where Comen started his investigation.

The old store is vacant now, but with the turn of a key and a handful of eyewitness statements, Comen was taken back to the night of the crime where Cribb and another off-duty officer entered the store to do some shopping. Cribb was armed; the other man was not.

Police said then the scene turned from a casual shopping trip into a battle for life and death when two men armed with guns walked into the store.

A scream alerted the two officers to trouble and ran to the front of the store. "They confronted the individuals and they got into a fight there," said Comen.

A third suspect acting as a look-out shot Cribb. "He shot Bill Cribb in the neck and basically incapacitated him," said Comen. "He fell to his knees."

One of the other robbers shot Cribb in the chest. The 29-year-old officer was dead.

According to the old case file, the killers ran out of the store with cash soaked in Cribb's blood, never to be seen again. Composite drawings of the suspects failed to flush out any leads.

"The original case file from Officer Cribb's murder sits on Cannon's desk now, but soon a new generation of investigators will take over the case, delve into the files and try to solve a 36-year-old mystery -- with Comen's help.

"There's some old leads that go to different parts of the country that could be revisited," said Comen.

It's possible, said Cannon, the killers may have fled from Charleston to New York City. In the 1970s, many criminals in the Charleston area had connections to the Big Apple, he said. It's possible the men were part of a gang that was moving through town, which means the men may not have been from the area or returned since.

"It's hard to explain how they've gotten away with it for so long, any other way," said Cannon.

Even with many of the original investigators retired and witnesses gone or dead, detectives are still determined to catch Cribb's murder and give his mother some closure.

"Maybe I just think it's been too long  and I've accepted the fact that Bill's not coming back," said Winifred Cribb, the officer's mother.

But that has not stopped her from asking for help to close the long-open case.

A Mother's Plea For Help

In a rare interview, Cribb's mother thought back to the night of her son's murder. "I will never forget that night. It was the most horrible night," she said.

It's a night the 86-year-old woman remembers as if it happened only days ago.

"My son Jack called me and told me. He said, 'There's been a policeman killed at the Red and White and they think it might be Bill.' I said, 'Oh, no,' and he said, 'Yes.' I found out it was Bill and I'll tell you I have never forgotten that night, most awful night of my life was when that child got killed. I'll always remember him," said Mrs. Cribb.

She said she also remembers the last time she saw her son alive. "He had just been by my house. He talked and he said, 'I'll see you later,'" she said. "But I never got to see him later."

Battling the shocking, sudden loss of her son, she then had to muster the strength to tell Cribb's three-year-old daughter that her father was dead.

"She was standing right there on those steps and cried for Bill," said Mrs. Cribb.

The memory of that conversation with her granddaughter leaves her visibly shaken. "Oh, that broke my heart because I knew he was gone," she said.

Mrs. Cribb has been in mourning for 36 years, dealing with the added pain that no one ever had to answer for killing her son.

But Comen is convinced Cribb's murder can be solved, possibly through the power of prayer. He has written letters to clergy in the Charleston area asking for their congregations to pray for the Cribb family and the killer, hoping that it may lead to a confession.

"Thirty-six years these people have had this on their conscience, that they shot this man and killed him," said Comen. "If a minister started praying about it and offered salvation, the person might jump at it and might go ahead and confess."

Mrs. Cribb would like the opportunity to confront her son's killers. She said she wanted to ask, "Why would you do it? Why did you have to kill my son? Why?"

The questions have gone unanswered since 1974, but she and investigators hope to get answers someday soon.

©2010 WCSC. All rights reserved.