ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Tommie Cray was 9 years old in 1947 when his father, a single parent with three sons, brought home a new companion who was raising three boys of her own. Annie Mae had a sweet Southern drawl and an easy laugh, and an emotional bond took hold right away.
“She brought everybody’s spirit up, she was so lovable and friendly,” reminisced Cray, now 72, as he sat on the edge of his bed in a cluttered studio apartment adorned with fading family portraits. “From day one, I loved her.”
After a 38-year hiatus, twice-convicted sexual predator Willie James Kimble, 78, a native of Sarasota, is headed to trial March 3 on charges of bludgeoning to death Cray’s stepmother at her home on Oct. 29, 1972 -- the week before Richard Nixon was re-elected president.
Her death would be one of the nation’s oldest cold-case murders to be solved by DNA.
Kimble, distantly related to the Crays, had lived in Rochester most of his life but hurriedly left town in 2009 while the slaying was being re-examined.
That summer, police Investigator C.J. Dominic -- the son of a detective who had questioned Kimble as a potential suspect in 1973 -- obtained a DNA match from a semen-stained blanket that had somehow survived an evidence-room overhaul. After a lengthy search, he tracked down Kimble in Sarasota.
Kimble was extradited last spring, pleaded not guilty and was being held without bail. If convicted of murder, he could draw a life sentence. He’s already spent two decades in prison, including seven years for the attempted rape of a 6-year-old girl in July 1973 and 10 years for raping a 17-year-old girl in 1981.
Genetic profiling came into widespread use in crime detection in the 1990s. While DNA evidence has been used to overturn 86 wrongful murder convictions since 1989, it has become an equally vital tool in closing dozens of murders many years after they happen, said Lawrence Kobilinsky, head of forensic science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “Time doesn’t matter -- as long as the DNA is somewhat preserved you can generate information,” he said.
By age 52, Annie Mae had gone blind from untreated glaucoma, and was largely confined to home. She’d stopped working as a domestic and her husband, Ezra, a construction worker, was unemployed and struggling with alcoholism.
Police said she answered a knock on the front door at 6 a.m. that fall morning, evidently recognizing the caller’s voice because she was ultra-careful about strangers in a careworn city neighborhood. The intruder clubbed Ezra unconscious with a firewood log, then sexually assaulted and battered her to death.
Dominic, a 25-year police veteran, said his boss got an anonymous call about the murder in 2009 and had him check it out since Dominic’s long-retired father, Joe, was one of the original investigators. Uncovering Kimble’s criminal trail, police got him to come in and volunteer a palm print on the pretext of checking his sex-offender status. But his print couldn’t be conclusively tied to the murder scene.
Dominic thinks Kimble realized police were on to him because he left a 5 a.m. voicemail soon afterward saying, “‘I’m just letting you know I’m leaving Rochester and I’ll let you know where I land.’”
“At that point, the bells and whistles go off for me,” said Dominic, who promptly ordered an evidence search at a property clerk’s office.
“Years earlier, they consolidated everything and ended up getting rid of a lot of old homicide stuff,” he said. “In the Cray case, everything was gone except, lo and behold, one piece of property buried in a cardboard box that was still sealed.”
Inside was a dirty, beige blanket from the victim’s bed. Six weeks later, lab technicians called to say they’d recovered semen spots on the blanket matching DNA that Kimble, as a felon, had been compelled to surrender in the 1990s.
Ezra Cray, who died in 1990, told police he didn’t see his attacker but suspected Kimble, a nephew who lived a few blocks away. Even though the elder Dominic had poked holes in an alibi Kimble provided, authorities were unable to find physical evidence tying him to the attack.
“My father was drinking pretty heavy,” said Tommie Cray, his youngest son. “I more or less blamed him for not being able to defend her or himself.”
Raised in Georgia, the Crays moved in 1946 to Sarasota -- where they met a young Kimble through an uncle’s marriage to Kimble’s aunt -- and then to Tampa, where Georgia-born Annie Mae became part of their lives. In 1951, their newly enlarged family crammed into a 1949 Chevrolet and relocated to Rochester.
“I was so glad to be around her,” said Cray, one of two surviving children. “There was nothing I ever asked her for that she didn’t do. She treated me just as well as she did her three boys.”
In the 1960s, Cray ran into Kimble, who’d also moved north, and found him coldly distant in contrast with the fun-loving boy he knew briefly in Florida. Fired from a factory job for beating a co-worker, Kimble was acquitted of raping a woman in 1970. Months later, he was jailed for a year for drunken driving.
“He just had an attitude about him. He couldn’t get along with people,” said Cray, a lens technician at Eastman Kodak Co. for 25 years who remained close to his parents after his marriage in 1965.
“Our kids were crazy about their Grandma Mae,” said his former wife, Helen. “She would always give them money. And she was a joker. She would have people dying laughing.”
In January 2010, Kimble was arrested bicycling in a park in Sarasota. Dominic, who’d just flown in, went to interview him. He said Kimble denied ever having an affair with Annie Mae or sleeping in her house.
“We asked him, `Is there any reason your DNA should be in that house, at all?’ He said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ In the end, we basically said we have your semen in that house. That’s where he said, ‘You know what, maybe I should talk to an attorney.’”
Defense attorney Kevin Karnyski, a public defender, declined to comment.
Tommie Cray, who attended every pretrial hearing, said he’d be overjoyed to see justice prevail after years of dreadful anguish.
“When I heard that they caught him, ‘Oh Jesus, thank God, thank God!’” he said. “She was my heart.”