ASTORIA, Ore. (AP) — Tony White Jr. was engaged to be married and working at Nygaard Logging in April 2005 when he took a nighttime stroll home from a friend’s place in Svensen.
White, who was also scheduled for deployment to Afghanistan with the Oregon National Guard, was trying to improve his life and leave a string of arrests in the past.
“He was a good kid. He had gone through a period where he wasn’t doing so good, but he brought his life back together,” said his mother, Dawn Edwards of Warrenton.
White walked along Old Highway 30 a few steps east of Svensen Market Road shortly after 1 a.m. No witnesses have come forward to describe exactly what happened next, but one thing is certain. A car hit him from behind, killing the 21-year-old instantly.
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With the crash now 13 years in the rear-view mirror, questions around White’s death persist. As Edwards’ grieving process continues, her son’s case serves as a stark example of how many criminal investigations turn cold.
“I just want to find out who killed him and why they didn’t come forward and how could they go on with their life and what happened that night,” Edwards said. “As time goes on, it seems like every year gets harder and harder.”
Appeals for help
The first known person to see White’s body — about three minutes after the crash — was a motorist who was driving to work and called 911.
For about 1 1/2 years, investigators spoke to more than 30 people, searched for cars with sudden, unexplained damage to the front end, executed other search warrants and sent forensic evidence to the Oregon State Police crime lab.
Investigators and White’s family made several requests to the public for help. The Clatsop County Sheriff’s Office created a special tip line, and White’s family offered a financial reward for information leading to an arrest. Nearly two weeks after his death, detectives revealed they were hoping to find a dark-colored, small pickup truck with a roll bar and tool box in the bed.
Based on the location of the incident, the driver who killed White may have been someone who lived nearby.
“It’s a little bit deeper in the community, so the odds that it was somebody in the community, I would say are really high,” Detective Ryan Humphrey said.
Several people were investigated, but leads were often anonymous and ambiguous. “Everybody thinks they know who did it,” Humphrey said.
Adding to the case’s complexity was the high rate of turnover at the sheriff’s office since White’s death, which is not uncommon at law enforcement agencies.
“There was a lot of work done initially,” said Humphrey, who was not with the sheriff’s office at the time but is now managing the case. “People leave or get promoted or change jobs within the agency and some of those cases kind of start to fall. They get put on the back burner and they get put in that cold case file.”
Once leads in a case taper off, investigators prioritize ones that are either more serious or have a tangible element that requires scrutiny.
Humphrey — the only detective at the sheriff’s office — has a load of 40 to 50 cases he plans to follow up on. Most of the cases involve sexual or physical abuse, but two are murders. He said he “couldn’t even begin to guess” how many cases have gone cold.
Fruitless leads are common in hit-and-run cases, especially ones with no known witnesses, Sgt. Jason Hoover said.
“I think what’s going to help us with this is, there’s definitely someone who knows, if not multiple people who know,” Hoover said. “Getting them to come forward is a difficult thing, I guess.”
Edwards has only recently confronted what happened to her son. She said other members of White’s family, including another son of hers, rarely talk about his death.
She remembers falling to the ground when she heard about the crash. The days and weeks afterward are blurry. The months and years involved a lot of denial.
“It’s not that I was trying to forget it,” Edwards said. “I didn’t want to believe that it was really true, so I tried to just put it out of my head like it didn’t happen, you know, and that he’s just moved far away and I’ll see him soon.”
But thoughts of his death roiled under the surface for Edwards, who was homeless for about a year at one point after the crash.
As she grappled with the circumstances of her loss over the past few years, Edwards has kept herself busy through housekeeping and by taking care of her grandchildren. She still holds on to memories of her son’s life. “You know what, he was exactly like me,” she said. “Just being funny. He just did the stupid things I did.”
In the middle of the night, she often has dreams of White that wake her up. She constantly thinks about the facts she’s heard and her suspicions. She hates April — the month her son died — and May — his birthday month.
“Sometimes I feel that, maybe, I haven’t really done the right grieving,” Edwards said. “I know there’s no right or wrong, but because I tried to just block it out for many years. Now it’s coming out and it’s been harder on me.”
Potential for closure
While White’s case remains unsolved, investigators say cold cases always have potential for closure.
Relationship dynamics — and loyalties — may change for suspects and witnesses. Technology could advance to provide further forensic evidence.
Hoover lives in the area where the hit and run occurred and often drives by the crash site, as well as the memorial for White that stands nearby.
“I think about it all the time,” Hoover said. “That’s always like the crowning achievement, being able to come back to a case years later — even decades later — and being able to arrest somebody for it or at least solve it even if that person is unarrestable.”
If an arrest were to happen in her son’s death, the suspect’s level of remorse would likely determine how Edwards would feel.
“It’d be easier to forgive them,” Edwards said. “I know they’re in their own prison right now.”
Her primary motivation, though, is honoring her son’s memory.
“It would let me know that he can rest in peace,” Edwards said. “He needs to know that I haven’t given up on him.”
Information from: The Daily Astorian, http://www.dailyastorian.com