Editor's note: This story originally published in The Greenville News on Sunday, October 5, 1999. It is the third part of a five-part series — click here to read the full series.
A sparkling autumn day turns grisly
The last day of Alice Ryan's life dawned without the slightest hint of the sultry Southern haze that had hung over the city most of the summer. The sky sparkled.
That Saturday, she woke to the clatter of St. Francis Hospital. Alice was ready to go home. Two nights in the hospital for chemotherapy were almost more than she could bear. One more round and she'd be done.
Her children had settled into a routine for her care. Rhoda Proffitt, married to builder Graham Proffitt, took her mother to the hospital and stayed most of Thursday. Joe Ryan, president of the family textile business John J. Ryan & Sons in Greenville, visited Thursday night. Katherine Stribling, who lived in Columbia with her husband, builder Cherry Stribling, was to pick up her mother from the hospital and stay with her at her mother's house until Monday morning.
As the morning chill faded, Katherine, then 51, hopped into her car to run errands before she was to pick up her mother around noon. She had her car inspected at a service station at McDaniel Avenue and Augusta Street and returned to her mother's house.
She pulled into her mother's long, winding driveway, where she and Rhoda had practiced driving long ago. Her mother's 1967 Ford Fairlane sat in its customary place in the narrow garage. A victim of too many parking squeezes, the chrome on the sides was held in place by electrical tape.
The white, wide-bodied car was as old as some of Alice's grandchildren, yet had only 20,000 miles on it. At 80, she drove like a "bat out of hell," her son said. Once, she was ticketed for passing a stopped school bus and told the officer the vehicle was going "too damned slow," Joe Ryan said.
Katherine pushed past flowerpots, fertilizer and a wheelbarrow and reached into the Fairlane's back seat, where she knew she'd find the leash for Sassy, her mother's cocker spaniel. She wanted to get Sassy from the veterinarian's office so she'd be there when her mother arrived home. The dog was her mother's constant companion.
Mother and daughter drove to the house and entered through the back door, walked through the mud room and into the adjoining kitchen. Katherine said she settled her mother on the sofa in the den, the first-floor room farthest from the kitchen, to watch the Dodgers-Mets playoff. They weren't Alice's favored Yankees or Braves, but they'd do.
Katherine talked briefly to Rhoda, then 48, on the telephone. The sisters hung up when they realized their conversation was making it difficult for their mother, who was hard of hearing, to hear the game.
At 2:30 p.m., Katherine decided to go get something for lunch. Alice said she'd go upstairs to unpack.
Katherine picked up a hot dog and onion rings at Como Pete's on Augusta Street, bought some apple muffins at Strossner's Bakery across the street, and then purchased some Kibbles and Bits for Sassy and some soup and ham for her mother at the 8 O'Clock Superette.
Around 3:10 p.m., just 40 minutes later, she wheeled into her mother's driveway. As she neared the back door, she said, she saw the pane nearest the doorknob was shattered. Confused, she inserted the key in the lock, and pushed the door open without noticing whether it was actually locked.
As she entered the kitchen, she saw her mother, motionless, on the floor. Her white silk turban, now spattered with blood, was more than three feet away, leaving her bald head exposed. Her brown trousers were in place, but her pink turtleneck and brown sweater were raised, revealing darkened wounds on her abdomen.
"I think I was scared to death and just ran to get somebody to help. ... I just wanted somebody there," she said in a recent interview.
Katherine stumbled through the back yard to a house on McDaniel Avenue, but saw no cars. She spun toward a next-door neighbor's, but again found no one. So she raced down the sloping front lawn and flagged down a white Jeep.
Driver Raymond Schroeder said he urged Katherine to get in to find a phone. But she refused, and headed for another neighbor's.
"Don't go back in that house!" Schroeder recalls shouting as he sped off to the 8 O'Clock Superette. His call to 911 was recorded at 3:19 p.m. A dispatcher sent an Emergency Medical Services crew a minute later. Katherine's call to 911 from a house on McDaniel Avenue was recorded at 3:21.
Breathless, Katherine stammered, "I think somebody's been shot. The house has been broken into."
The dispatcher said a unit was already on its way, the 911 tape shows.
"Oh, wonderful!" Katherine gasped. "I just went to the grocery store. When I came back, the back door glass had been broken out. I opened the door. Mother's on the floor in the kitchen. I left and ran out because I didn't know where the person was."
By the time Katherine got back to her mother's driveway, Schroeder and his 6- year-old son, Chad, were there, watching the house. They didn't see anyone leave, they said.
In a few moments, an ambulance squealed up and pulled past Schroeder's Jeep into the driveway. EMS personnel won't enter a crime scene until police secure it, so the paramedics waited outside. The first police units arrived at 3:28.
"Then everyone was there," Chad Schroeder remembers. "News trucks, TV trucks, detectives."
Police encircled the exterior with yellow crime scene tape. Inside, people gathered: two EMS workers, 11 police officers, two coroners, a victim's advocate and then-Deputy Solicitor Matt Hawley, who was routinely called on homicides to advise investigators and to gather information for future prosecutions.
The Rev. Dennis Maynard, then rector of Christ Church, drove by on his way to the church to meet, coincidentally, Rhoda's son and future daughter-in-law for premarital counseling. When he saw the police cars, he called Joe, who was working in his yard. Joe rushed over, joining Katherine on the porch, well away from the kitchen.
"It was just kind of mass confusion," Joe said, "a lot of people in and out trying to take pictures, asking questions."
Katherine said she told police about the stranger in the pool house, while a trembling Sassy, the cocker spaniel, stood guard near her owner's body. The dog had suffered shallow stab wounds, but was alive.
The house appeared undisturbed save for two open drawers, one for knives in the kitchen and the other in a living room end table, police photos show. Forensics specialists quickly determined Alice had died from stab wounds. An autopsy would later show that four thrusts to her back and abdomen were fatal, but that she was additionally struck 33 times in the head, neck and shoulders.
"Overkill," said Parks Evans, then a rookie deputy coroner and now the coroner. Overkill, detectives and coroners say, indicates the attacker acted while enraged, in the heat of passion.
Police asked Joe and Katherine to determine whether anything was missing. Nothing, they said, as far as they could tell. At some point, the two realized Rhoda did not know about the murder.
Katherine called Rhoda's house off Roper Mountain Road, where she was cutting the grass, the children recall. She and her husband raced downtown, but when they reached Cleveland Forest, they couldn't even get onto her mother's street because of the jumble of cars. Rhoda jumped out a block away and ran down the street and into the house.
Meanwhile, a few streets away, Knox White was pulling into his mother's driveway. Only a month remained until the election and he'd been campaigning hard for the 4th District congressional seat, recalled White, now Greenville's mayor. His mother ran to greet him, shouting that something had happened to his great-aunt Alice. He drove over hurriedly.
As a city councilman for five years, White knew the policeman on duty and was waved under the crime scene tape. He walked up the driveway, passed the open garage, and immediately pulled Deputy Solicitor Hawley aside.
"Her car is missing," White recalls saying.
Hawley relayed the information to officers. Did Mrs. Ryan have a car? one asked Joe and Katherine.
"Yes," Joe told them. "It's out in the garage."
But when they went to look, the Fairlane was gone.
To this day, Katherine says, she blames herself for not noticing if the car was there when she brought her mother home. If she had noticed, she said recently, perhaps the police would have pursued the car sooner. And she's not sure if the car was there when she came back around 3:10. If it was, the murderer could have been crouched behind it or still inside the house.
It's not clear from police records what time police realized the car was missing, but at 4:30 p.m., a resident of Fernwood Lane, a narrow, winding road nearby, called the Law Enforcement Center.
A 1967 Ford Fairlane was in the middle of his street.