1965 - Who killed Alberta Jones, Louisville’s first black female prosecutor?
The prosecutor was pulled out of her rental car, beaten in the head with a brick until she lost consciousness and thrown into the Ohio River, where she drowned.
The brutal Aug. 5, 1965, murder of Alberta O. Jones, a civil rights activist and the first woman to become a prosecutor in Louisville, was never solved, despite fingerprints obtained from her car and witnesses who saw men tossing a body from a bridge.
“Because things were still so segregated in Louisville then, I believe, if she had been a white woman prosecutor, they would have turned over heaven and hell to solve this,” said Jones’s sister Flora Shanklin, 81, who still lives in Louisville. “But she was black. They didn’t do anything about it.”
Shanklin doesn’t want people to forget about Jones, a trailblazer who integrated the University of Louisville and worked as the first attorney for Muhammad Ali, who was then Cassius Clay, negotiating the contract for his first fight.
On Monday, a Hometown Heroes banner honoring Jones was unfurled in downtown Louisville, where she joined Ali; actress Jennifer Lawrence, and television anchor Diane Sawyer, among others.
Last year, Shanklin and Lee Remington, an associate professor of political science at Bellarmine University and prelaw program director, raised $8,000 to create the banner for Jones, which now hangs from the side of the River City Bank building.
Remington has been intrigued by Alberta Jones since 2001, when she was a first-year law student at Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville.
“In a hallway, they had portraits of Kentucky civil rights leaders,” Remington recalled. “She was the only African American woman on the wall. I stopped to read the inscription. It talked about her work with civil rights. At the bottom, it said she was murdered, and it was unsolved.”
Remington was incredulous that the slaying of a prosecutor would go unsolved after so many years. The image of Jones and the caption would stay with her for more than 10 years, through law school and graduate school.
When Remington became a professor at Bellarmine University in 2013, she immersed herself in research on Jones’s life. “I called her sister. I found her online. We became close. The more I found out about the case,” Remington said, “the more I wondered whether it was more than a book project.”
She combed through thousands of pages of files. She found evidence police seemed to have to ignored. She found living witnesses who police had told the family were dead.
The book project, Remington said, evolved into a quest for justice for Jones, a member of the NAACP and the Louisville Urban League who helped organize for the March on Washington and taught black people how to register to vote in voter training classes.
Jones, who was born in Louisville, graduated third in her class from the University of Louisville and fourth in her class from Howard University School of Law. Jones returned to Kentucky, where she was one of the first black women to pass the state bar exam.
In 1965, when Jones became the first female prosecutor in Louisville, she gave an interview to the Louisville Courier-Journal. She was quoted saying that after she returned home from law school, people told her: “
‘You’ve got two strikes against you. You’re a woman and you’re a Negro.”
Jones replied, “Yeah, but I’ve got one strike left, and I’ve seen people get home runs when all they’ve got left is one strike.”
[ Civil rights crusader Fannie Lou Hamer defied men — and presidents — who tried to silence her ]
As a prosecutor, Jones worked on domestic violence cases. “She was putting white men in jail for beating their wives,” Remington said.
Only months after Jones began working as a prosecutor, she was killed.
Jones, who lived with her mother and sister, rarely went out at night.
“When I went upstairs about 10 to go to bed, she was sitting on the couch reading about the assassination of President Kennedy,” her sister, Flora Shanklin, recalled in an interview.
When Shanklin woke up the next morning Jones was not in her bed. “I went downstairs and asked my mother where Alberta was. She said, ‘I’ve been laying in my bed the whole night wondering that.’ ”
Jones, her mother said, had received a call late that night from a friend named Gladys Wyckoff, who asked Jones to meet her to talk about a lawsuit against a beautician.
Jones told Wyckoff she was now working as a prosecutor and did not handle that kind of lawsuit.
“Gladys knew how to rattle her chain,” Shanklin recalled. “Gladys told her, ‘Since you have this job, you got uppity.’ Because Alberta was well educated, she didn’t want her friends to think she had gotten uppity.”
Jones decided to go out that night to meet Wyckoff. Wyckoff was interviewed repeatedly by police; she died this year.
“My mother asked did she want her to go with her. Alberta said she would be okay,” Shanklin said. “That was the last we heard of her.”
The next morning, when Jones had not returned home, Shanklin called Wyckoff’s house. “Her daughter answered the phone and said, ‘Mom’s downtown taking care of some business.’ No business was open at 7 o’clock in the morning in this city.”
“I said, ‘Alberta came there that night, and we haven’t seen her since.’ Gladys never called back,” Shanklin said. “So, by 8:30, I called the safety director of the police department and said Alberta is missing.”
Jones was 34, and at the time, “the media speculated she was dumped off the bridge into the Ohio River,” Remington said. “The police believed her body was dumped off a boat ramp. She drowned because she was unconscious. Her purse was found three years later hanging from the Sherman Minton Bridge.”
For years, police told the family there was not enough evidence to arrest anyone.
When Remington began her research in 2013, police told her witnesses in the case were dead.
A friend of Jones’s family gave Remington police records he had obtained from an open-records request.
“In 10 minutes, I found two major discrepancies,” Remington said. “In the records, they said all the detectives who worked on the case were dead, which is not true.”
She immediately located one of the detectives, Carl Corder, who had collected evidence in 1965.
“I called him. He was very much alive. He invited me to his house,” Remington said. “I got to sit down and interview him. He was a young detective at the time and had overseen much of the collection of evidence.”
In 2008, the FBI matched a fingerprint found inside Jones’s rental car to a man who was 17 years old at the time of the murder. A detective interviewed the man, who submitted to a polygraph test. “The polygraph examination revealed that deception was indicated” when the man was questioned “regarding the circumstances surrounding the murder of Alberta Jones,” according to a police report.
But the prosecutor decided two years later he would not pursue the case, citing loss of evidence and the deaths of investigators and other key witnesses.
Last year, Remington sent a letter to the chief of the Louisville Metro Police Department, requesting the department reopen the investigation.
“A tremendous amount of evidence was collected in this case — fingerprints, vacuum samples from every inch of the car by the FBI, blood samples, her purse and all of its contents (found three years later with credit cards and checks still inside), her dentures, cigarette butts from the car, her shoes, her clothes,” Remington wrote.
Remington asked: “The evidence is now missing. Misplaced? Lost? Thrown Away? Destroyed? Where did it go?”
Sgt. Josh Carr, who works in the Louisville homicide unit, said the case is still active.
“Homicides remain open until there is an arrest made or a clearance of some sort,” Carr said in an interview with The Washington Post. “Over 50 plus years, that case has been worked by multiple detectives. There are detectives who have worked tirelessly on that case. The case is not closed.”