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Eric Walber’s killers may go free

When the 21st Judicial Court convicted six men for the 1998 robbery and brutal murder of 16-year-old Eric Walber, the victim’s friends and family in Albany expected those found guilty to either die by lethal injection or spend the remainder of their lives behind bars. Those expectations grew stronger each year as judge after judge denied each of the convicted’s appeals.

Then, three years ago, those expectations began to die.

Since 2016, the homicide case the United States Supreme Court said resembled “a house of cards” has continued to collapse, and in time, all of those convicted in the case may be set free.

Last week, a state district judge ruled that James Skinner and Darrell Hampton—two of the six jailed in the case—could seek new trials following events of 2016, when the high court overturned the first-degree murder conviction of Michael Wearry, the accused instigator of the crime.

Skinner and Hampton are serving life, along with Shadrick Reed, each convicted of second-degree murder. Two others, Sam Scott and Randy Hutchinson, earlier pled guilty to manslaughter in exchange for reduced sentences and release dates.

Back in 2000, the state’s case against the six hinged primarily on the testimony of a convicted cocaine dealer and a 10-year-old boy. The 2016 court saw this as a flimsy case and cited the state for not sharing all they knew with the Defense. The drug dealer had changed his story multiple times. In his earliest interviews with detectives, he named the wrong location for the attack on Walber and stated that Walber’s red car was gray.

In May of 2018, the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, a nonprofit civil rights law firm in New Orleans, filed a federal lawsuit on Wearry’s behalf accusing investigators of coercing the 10-year-old, Jeffrey Ashton of Springfield, into giving false testimony.

The prior November, Ashton, then 30-years-old, testified that a now-retired detective with the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office coached him to lie, insisting that he witnessed the murder in Springfield at a time when he and his family were attending the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival. Ashton’s attorneys also claimed that investigators bounced him from jail to jail to prevent him from meeting with Wearry’s attorneys.

Wearry’s lawsuit remains active today and accuses investigators of having “intentionally and deliberately coerced and intimidated Ashton, a minor, into fabricating false evidence implicating Wearry in the Walber murder.”

To understand how the case got to this state, we must reexamine the crime scene and the events of that fatal evening.

The horrible news broke at approximately 9:30 p.m. on April 4, 1998, when police found the body of a teenage boy lying face down alongside a dark gravel road in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana.

Police searched the area surrounding Crisp Road, but they could find no vehicle, only the victim’s corpse covered in blood. A short distance away, a large puddle of blood formed the imprint of a body in the gravel, and near the imprint, police found a receipt for a pizza delivered that night to a woman named Mary Ann Davis.

The autopsy of the 5’11”, 190-pound victim found substantial injuries to most of the body’s surfaces with investigators finding the worst injuries on the victim’s head and face. The pathologist logged multiple lacerations on the victim’s scalp and face extending down to the skull, including a palpable skull fracture. The pathologist also noted brush burns on the victim’s face, cheeks and on the point of his chin with additional lacerations found inside the victim’s lips. Extensive cuts and abrasions covered the body, including the victim’s arms and shoulders.

The examiner initially believed the body resembled someone who had sustained a motor vehicle accident, ejected from the car onto asphalt, concrete or gravel. However, a closer examination of the head proved that a homicide had occurred. Pathologists found no broken bones beyond the victim’s skull and determined that the victim died at the crime scene.

In the early morning hours of April 5, 1998, Cherie Walber identified the body as that of her son, Eric Walber, a 16-year old honor student at Albany High School, who worked part-time as a delivery boy at Pizza Express in Albany, delivering food after school in his red Ford Escort.

Eric Walber
Eric Walber

Walber worked the night of April 4, 1998, making his last pizza delivery to Mary Ann Davis on Blahut Road in Albany. Davis said Walber arrived sometime around 8:15 p.m. and left six minutes later.

Cherie Walber said her son had been wearing an Albany High School class ring and a watch. She also described his car and its contents. She told investigators that Eric did not wear a uniform while working and that his vehicle had no decal or other identifying feature that would have indicated he was delivering pizza.

She said Eric had intended to leave on a ski trip the next day with friends and that his wallet had approximately $200 in cash for the trip.

In his car, the high school football player kept a policeman’s nightstick for protection. He had just bought a new set of car speakers still in their packing box on the backseat. For his ski trip, he brought with him a backpack and smaller fanny pack.

The Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office’s initial investigation of the location discovered long skid marks in the gravel of Crisp Road and blood where the skid marks terminated, along with splotches in other areas.

A grid search located Eric Walber’s car on April 8, 1998, behind an abandoned school between Albany and Springfield in Livingston Parish, and the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office sent the vehicle to the crime lab for processing.

The lab technicians found a sizeable blood-stained area in the vehicle’s hatchback and more droplets throughout the car. DNA testing matched all of the blood samples to Eric Walber. They also identified several partial fingerprints or smears but none suitable for identification.

The Tangipahoa Parish and Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Offices both collected leads and information from several persons. Following one of those leads, detectives questioned Michael Wearry as a possible suspect, but multiple witnesses saw him at a wedding reception in Baton Rouge the night of the murder.

By the year 2000, police had no leads left to investigate. Even with Crime Stoppers offering a significant reward and three nationally televised crime shows spotlighting the unsolved homicide, the tips stopped coming in, and the case grew cold.

Then, in the Fall of 2000, police developed two new leads. A Springfield school teacher phoned the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s office to say she had overheard one of her students discussing the case, and Sam Scott, a prison informant at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, recounted for detectives the night he participated in the attack on Eric Walber.

More next week…

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