‘She was the best of us’: The murder of Laura ‘Michele’ Dinwiddie and the anatomy of a cold case
ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - The Victim: Laura ‘Michele’ Dinwiddie
To her friends, she was known by her middle name, Michele. And life did not begin easy, as she had life saving surgery just three days after birth.
But then what a child she became.
“Happy and joyous,” said Pam Close, remembering her little sister. “You could not find a nicer kid.”
“She was this incredible kid, curious about the world,” added older sister Cheryl Andre.
The petite brunette with pony-tailed brown hair and brown eyes threw herself into everything she could find. Growing up in one of America’s most affluent areas in Greenwich, Connecticut, she read, played the piano and guitar, sang in the chorus, and performed in the theatre. By the time she finished high school in 1970, Michele was a National Honor Society student and a National Thespian.
“We called her the hippie without the drugs,” said Cheryl.
With the world in front of her, Michele headed to Denison University in Ohio, one of the nations oldest liberal arts colleges. After studying abroad in England and Austria, she prepared for grad school. But something inside kept bothering her.
“She was always searching for the underdog,” Pam said. “Somebody that needed help.”
Michele decided to volunteer with an agency called Volunteers in Service for America, or VISTA. It was a newly launched organization, a domestic version of the Peace Corps. VISTA focused on volunteers fighting poverty in the nations poorest communities.
Michele was assigned to St. Louis.
Her parents tried to talk her out of it. Grad school was waiting, a very good job would follow, VISTA didn’t pay anything, and she was heading into an unknown and possibly dangerous environment. Michele would have none of it.
“The underdog thing,” Cheryl said.
Michele had previously worked summer camps with handicapped cub scouts. She decided she wanted to work with blind and deaf children. Especially poor children. She told her parents the VISTA program was only for a year. She would apply to grad schools while she was away.
She packed her bags and headed west, landing first in the Soulard area. VISTA provided $200 a month for living expenses. Michele found used furniture. She refused help from her parents and friends.
Pam remembered hearing Michele’s voice when she called home.
“She was very proud of what she was doing,” Pam recalled. “She was making a difference in people’s lives.”
“This was exactly what she wanted to do,” said Cheryl. “She was the best of us.”
With her VISTA year almost over, Michele returned home for Christmas. She was thrilled about her experience in St. Louis.
“I remember we sat and talked all day,” Pam said. “She was so happy. Her VISTA time was up, and she was ready for grad school. Everything was in front of her. And then...” Pam paused.
“It was my last visit with her,” she said.
Because VISTA called again. Was there any way she could extend her stay in St. Louis just for three more months? They had not found a replacement for her yet, and she was so needed by the children. Michele couldn’t say no. Not to the children. Yes, she could delay life again and head back.
This time Michele would settle in the rough Hyde Park neighborhood on the city’s north side, where she was assigned to help children at the then Psychiatric Child Guidance Center, focusing on children with learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. She loved taking deaf children on field trips, teaching them to swim, and doing puppet shows.
Soon, summer would come to St. Louis, and Michele would head home. That was the plan.
It was a brutally cold March day. The temperature dipped to 17 degrees. When Michele didn’t report to work, a friend headed to 3933 North 21st street, Apartment A, second floor.
Inside was her body, dressed only with socks. Her throat was slashed and she had been stabbed twice in the chest and once in the abdomen. There was no forced entry, and nothing significant was missing.
Pam received the phone call in the middle of the night from her parents.
“I just remember screaming,” she said.
The case shocked the city, horrified that a young woman who traveled across the country to help our neediest children could be brutally murdered in her home.
St. Louis homicide detectives began working feverishly around the clock, but leads were few and far between. Soon, the case went cold. But it was never forgotten by St. Louis homicide detectives, who kept in touch with the Dinwiddie family, month after month, year after year.
“We knew they were doing their absolute best,” said Cheryl.
But then decades passed, and along with it, Michele’s father. As the family buried another member, Michele’s mom went to work. Twenty years after her daughter’s murder, she wrote an impassioned letter to the St. Louis Police Department, begging them to never forget the case.
It landed on the desk of Captain David Heath, then the commander of the homicide division. So much time had elapsed. Was there really any hope? Heath and his detectives went back to work.
Case file M-75-44 was handed to homicide detective Chris Pappas, who started from scratch.
The New Investigation
Pappas started tracking down the original informants in the case. One of the first was a young teenager named Nathan ‘Danny’ Williams, who told police in 1978 that he knew who killed Dinwiddie. Pappas went looking for Williams, and discovered he had served a seven year sentence for the rape and sodomy of a 10-year-old girl in south St. Louis in 1979.
In 1985, Williams was back in prison for robbery. And in 1989 he was arrested again, this time for raping a 10-year-old girl in south St. Louis. As a repeat offender, Williams was sentenced to 30 years and sent to the Farmington Correctional Center.
Which meant Chris Pappas would soon became a frequent visitor to Farmington.
Eventually, he was able to tie evidence found in the rape cases linking Williams to not just the Dinwiddie murder case, but to possibly many others. Eventually, Williams would admit to Pappas that he was there the night Michele was killed, but denied doing the killing.
But the erosion of time presented investigators a problem. Incredibly, Williams was only 14 when Dinwiddie was killed. Could someone so young have done this? Could a case, more than 20 years old, lacking witnesses and before DNA, be brought to a jury?
With Williams already behind bars for most of the rest of his life, and Missouri not having a death penalty when Michele was murdered, it became a moot point. For police and the family, Williams admitting to being at the scene was as close to a confession as they were going to get.
It was partial closure for the family, more than 20 years after Michele’s murder.
“The police department there never gave up,” said Cheryl. “We were very grateful.”
For the sisters, solving the case was a blessing, but it wasn’t quite closure.
Cheryl wonders if Williams knew Michele. Was he one of the young people she was working to help?
The sisters also remained shocked by Williams’ age. Had their sister been murdered by an 8th grader?
“It was very hard to believe that someone so young could have done this,” Cheryl said, echoing the sentiment.
And for Pam, there are other questions.
“I would like to meet him just once,” Pam said. “I would like to know why he picked her out. How could he hurt someone as kind as Michele? I would ask him what was his life like? Violence is impeded in upbringing. What caused this violent streak? I’m sure he has a story.”
Williams does have a story. Quite a lengthy one. KMOV reached out to Williams for his side of the story. He declined.
Today he sits in a Jefferson City prison, eligible for parole in 2039, when he turns 78, 64 years after Michele Dinwiddie was murdered.
But this story does not end here. Sadly, it only begins. As the years unfolded, Williams would come to be the prime suspect in numerous other murders.
Among them, Gina Dawn Brooks, who is profiled in our upcoming cold case story.
.........The men and women of our Homicide Division work diligently with the families of homicide victims each and every day in hope to bring justice and closure. No case is too old and no tip is too small. Regardless of the age of an incident, we always encourage individuals to reach out to our Homicide Division. It could be the missing piece to solving a case........
- St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department
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