Armed with photo, police back on trail of 50-year-old murder case

Armed with photo, police back on trail of 50-year-old murder case

PORTLAND, Ore. - Detectives finally have an idea of what a suspect in the death of a woman nearly 50 years ago looks like – at least around the time of the murder – thanks to the work of some volunteer sleuths.

And for the first time Wednesday, the woman's sister, JoAnn Travis, spoke about the mystery of her sister's death.

"It's like a tear in your clothing," she said. You try to knit it back together (but) the string never knits back together and so that's what it is. It just never goes away."

On that tragic day, April 8, 1963, Travis found her own sister, Mary Francis Reid – known as Francis to her family – dead in her apartment. She was a Portland nurse.

Travis had gone to her sister's apartment when she didn’t show up to babysit Travis' two children. She rang the doorbell but no one answered. She found the bedroom window open, which she said was odd.

 "So, I opened up the window, climbed through the window, her bed was still made up, her light was still on in her room – the nightlight; the light in bathroom was on, her gown was still on the bed. I said, ‘Oh, there’s something fishy here.'"

That emotional day got darker as the case went cold without a suspect for nearly 50 years.

But in February, Portland police identified Johnny Lawrence as a suspect in the case but they had very little information about him. It wasn't until genealogy hobbyists got involved and dug up more information that detectives were able to find a photograph of Lawrence.

From her home in La Grande, Tami Murphy, a genealogy hobbyist, was drawn to Reid's story.

"They didn't have a date of birth; they didn't know a middle initial; they didn’t have anything," she said by phone Wednesday about the suspect.

So Murphy put her 15 years of experience and access as a volunteer research genealogist to work. Her sleuthing skills took her from to family search sites, public libraries, old newspapers, old city directories and, finally, to prison record information.

Through a process of elimination, she helped identify Lawrence based on a criminal history and booking photo from a 1943 arrest for robbery.

From that arrest record police say Lawrence at the time was 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 129 pounds. He was born Nov. 11, 1922 in Michigan.

His last known address in St. Louis, Mo. is now an empty lot.

"Now we need to find out what happened to him, where he moved to, and if he's deceased," Murphy said.

Still, Travis says she's one step closer to closure.

"My sister never had any children," she said. "She didn't get married. She wasn't able to live her life, but he was. So, they need to bring him to justice."

Travis said her sister was dating Lawrence at the time but she really didn't know much about him or even see him after Reid died.

Now, police are asking anyone who may know where he is, or his final resting place, to call Detective Jim Lawrence at (503) 823-0867.