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Daughter of victim looks back on Des Peres’ first brutal murder, decades later

“I saw Dale coming down the hall and a feeling of doom came over me and I knew in that moment something was very wrong ... "
Four decades ago on a quiet fall morning, horror rang out in our community, as four employees were gunned done at Pope’s Cafeteria.
Published: May. 6, 2022 at 10:41 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - Four decades ago on a quiet fall morning, horror rang out in our community, as four employees were gunned done at Pope’s Cafeteria, inside the West County Shopping Center. A family member of one of the victims opens her scrapbook, and her heart, as she relives her memories of that fateful day.

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“Memories of the day mom died made it seem like it all happened yesterday ... ”

Yesterday was 42 years ago now. October 23, 1980. For Sally Huitt, time stands still, forever remembered now in a scrapbook, where years ago she wrote down her memories of that horrible day, to be passed along someday to her children and grandchildren.

“I would drop her off at the mall, and she would sit inside and read a book until her manager arrived ... ”

Workers were supposed to be at work at 8 a.m. but some, like Sally’s mom Carolyn Turner, arrived early.

Carolyn worked at the Pope’s Cafeteria restaurant inside the West County Shopping Center, St. Louis’ newest mall at Manchester and Ballas in Des Peres, featuring the Duke and Duchess Wig Shop, Singer Sewing Center, Thom McAn shoes, Woolworth’s and Ludwig’s pianos and organs. Sally’s relationship with her mother was difficult at times, but on that fall day, everything was going well.

“I am so thankful that mom and I were getting along during that time and to have had a very pleasant last conversation with her ... ”

Around 7 a.m. that morning, three men entered Pope’s Cafeteria through a locked door. Four workers were already present: Manager James Wood, Edna Ince, Judy Cazaco, and Sally’s mother, Carolyn Turner. They were forced into Wood’s tiny 10-by-10 foot office and shot, execution-style in the head.

Another worker arrived just after 7:30 a.m., discovered the bodies, and flagged down a Des Peres police car.

A quiet community that had not had a homicide since it was incorporated in 1934, now had four at one time.

Sally Huitt and Carolyn Turner | Sally's wedding.
Sally Huitt and Carolyn Turner | Sally's wedding.(Sally Huitt)

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“My mother-in-law called and said she had heard on the radio that there was something going on at Pope’s Cafeteria ... ”

Police quickly determined there was no forced entry, and about $9,000 was missing from the cafeteria’s safe. Six shell casings from an automatic pistol were left lying at the scene, and one witness told police they saw three men in a yellow Ford driving out of the shopping center close to the cafeteria about the time of the shooting.

The bodies of the victims remained on the scene through the morning and were not loaded into ambulances until about 11 a.m. Employees of Pope’s Cafeteria stood weeping as the bodies were carried out the rear entrance. And while the cafeteria closed, other stores in the shopping center remained open.

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“I tried calling the cafeteria, after several tries someone answered, and I asked to speak to my mom. All they would tell me is to call the Des Peres public safety office ... ”

More than 30 police officers from the Major Case Squad worked the case for 10 straight days, before disbanding without resolution. As residents in the St. Louis area were horrified, detectives kept digging. They interviewed suspect after suspect but had nothing. But there was one person of interest they wanted to talk to, but could not locate: Maurice Byrd, who worked for an exterminating company in Earth City, which serviced the cafeteria. Byrd was assigned several times to work at Pope’s Cafeteria, but he could not be found. He reported for work that morning at 8 a.m., but later said he didn’t feel well and left for the day. He never returned and left his final paycheck behind.

_______________________

Meanwhile, Sally was busy working at a local hospital.

“I tried to concentrate on taking care of my patients. I avoided TV’s so I saw no news coverage of what was going on ... ”

After working at Pope’s numerous times, Byrd had established himself as a familiar face. He then hatched his plan: he left some keys on a desk in the business office, then called back asking if he could come in early one morning to retrieve them. And on the morning of October 23, he arrived. And then he disappeared. But police officers kept looking. They learned that he earlier worked as a campus security police officer at St. Louis University.

The break came eight months later, on May 26, 1981, nearly a thousand miles away, where Byrd was arrested in Savannah, Georgia after killing a liquor store clerk. In his possession was a fake ID badge with his photograph from the St. Louis Police Department. Savannah police said Byrd bought a car there just four days after the Pope’s Cafeteria killings. The car salesman said Byrd paid for it on the spot with money stuffed in a briefcase.

Des Peres police converged on the scene, interviewing everyone who knew Byrd. Finally, he confessed to the Pope’s murders.

Maurice Oscar Byrd was charged for killing four people at Pope's Cafeteria in 1980.
Maurice Oscar Byrd was charged for killing four people at Pope's Cafeteria in 1980.(KMOV)

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“I was just beginning to pass my 1 p.m. meds when I saw Dale coming down the hall and a feeling of doom came over me and I knew in that moment something was very wrong ... ”

_______________________

At his trial, Byrd changed his story. Now he denied killing the workers. The money? He said it came from a bank deposit pouch he stole from a car at the shopping center. The prosecution argued that Byrd had performed work at Pope’s Cafeteria while he was employed by the exterminating company, that he fled the St. Louis area immediately after the killings, and that he soon arrived in Georgia with a substantial amount of cash before he was charged with murder there.

And they had more, testimony from Byrd’s wife Sandra Sanders Byrd. She said Byrd told her he had killed three people to be with her and their baby in Georgia. And testimony from a second man arrested in Savannah with Byrd in Georgia. He claimed Byrd told him he had killed people in St. Louis. And then testimony from Byrd’s former brother-in-law who said Byrd confessed to him that he killed people at a restaurant robbery. And finally, testimony from a cellmate of Byrd’s in Georgia, who said the same.

Byrd was found guilty of four counts of murder. His sentence was death by lethal injection.

After the verdict was read, Byrd turned to jurors and blew them a kiss.

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“It took 10 years and 10 months for this case to close, and several years after that before I could look at this book ... ”

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Maurice Oscar Byrd’s last meal was steak and lobster. He visited with his family in his cell at the Potosi Correctional Center until 6:30 p.m. At 7:30 p.m., he took a sedative. As night fell, Byrd was led into the execution room, where he lay on a gurney with a white sheet over his body. Asked if he had any last words, Byrd shook his head no. Just after midnight, three drugs were injected into his body. Byrd yawned and stared at the ceiling. His time of death arrived at 12:13 a.m. on August 23, 1991, 11 years after the Pope’s Cafeteria murders. He was 37.

Sally Huitt returned to the mall, but never again set foot in Pope’s Cafeteria.

“I am thankful every day for that last morning with mom. She may not have been the best mom in the world, but she was mine. I loved her with all my heart, and I miss her ... ”

Maurice Oscar Byrd was executed for the Pope's Cafeteria murders.
Maurice Oscar Byrd was executed for the Pope's Cafeteria murders.(KMOV)