Friday, March 6, 2009

The Christopher Stanback Murder

The following is from a series of articles originally published November 24th & 25th, 2008:

Chris Stanback's MySpace profile lists his age as 31, but his photograph is that of a 17 year-old boy, the age at which the Colbert County teenager died. The accompanying short bio prominently features the $20,000.00 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case, evidence of the desperation haunting the Stanback family for the past 14 years.

The summer of 1994, Christopher Stanback, known to his friends as Chris, returned from his home in Idaho to spend the summer with his mother Teresa, brother Harold, and sister Tara. On August 2, 1994, Teresa Stanback reported her son missing. Four days later, two children playing in a wooded area near the Carver Heights housing project found a body.

Speculation that the body was Chris' spread throughout the West Florence neighborhood, and soon a crowd of over one hundred spectators had gathered to watch Florence Police retrieve the remains. Many in the crowd of predominately young males tossed rocks and bottles at the authorities as they tried to move the body without disturbing any forensic evidence. Helicopters hovered overhead, their presence having no discernible effect on the crowd that was rapidly growing into a mob.

It had been less than three months since Florence Police officers had conducted a nighttime raid on the black neighborhood, arresting numerous drug dealers in what then Florence Police Chief Rick Thompson had dubbed Operation Copy Cat. To most of the gathering mob, Chris Stanback's death was just more proof that the police couldn't be trusted.

Fortunately, local black leaders managed to control the growing crowd when authorities couldn't. Once the barrage of rock and bottle missiles halted, police retrieved the body and secured the scene.Those who saw Chris Stanback's body realized that more than four days of summer sun had left an imprint on the murdered youth. What an autopsy later determined to be the results of a combination of beating and mutilation, the police took to be evidence that the body had been burned before it was disposed of.

While their initial finding may have been easily explained under the circumstances, it only served to enforce the black community's opinion of the Florence Police Department: Truth was the last thing on their minds.

Results of the initial autopsy indicated Chris Stanback had died of head trauma, but offered few clues as to the murderer. Many speculated that the mutilation included castration, making it a very personal crime. Chris' brother Harold, nicknamed Rudy, was a known drug dealer. The two brothers bore more than a slight resemblance to each other; was it a case of mistaken identity?

Just two weeks before his death, Chris had been apprehended in Cullman with a group of older drug dealers. Since Chris had refused to claim the confiscated drugs, was his murder in retaliation?

Perhaps the most bizarre rumor concerned the involvement of prominent Florence officials. It had been widely reported that Chris was dating the daughter of a high ranking city employee. Everyone close to the situation knew this single father had expressed grave concerns about the relationship. Had this official recruited police chief Rick Thompson to help him dispose of the problem?

Weeks turned into months, and there was still no answer to the mystery of Chris' death. Various local officials offered a $10,000.00 reward in the case, and Chris' uncle promised a matching amount if anyone could help solve the crime. Eventually local police asked the FBI to investigate, calling it a possible hate crime. Years passed, and officials were still no closer to an answer.

The Stanback family remained determined to bring the murderer to justice. Hearing that Chris' age classified the crime as a child murder, they asked the Center for Missing and Exploited Children to enter the case. In April 2003, Chris Stanback's body was exhumed for a second autopsy, but the results offered no new evidence. Several Florence police officers took polygraph tests at this time; all of them passed. The investigation was back to square one.

Currently, the Alabama Bureau of Investigation is in charge of the Stanback murder, considering it one of their top priorities. Teresa Stanback still places reward posters around the area and hopes that someone will come forward after fourteen years. She laments that her son's grave has been repeatedly vandalized. Some days it's hard for her to find the strength to go on, but she has never given up hope.

This case has often been compared to that of Emmitt Till, the young black man murdered in 1950s Mississippi. Emmitt's murderers were eventually found; let's hope Chris' are too.