Originally created 07/29/01

Search for a killer



AIKEN - Despite a $10,000 reward, 400 interviews, 80 DNA samples and two strong suspects, Aiken investigators still need one good break to help answer the question of who killed Jessica Carpenter.

"I think at some point there should be somebody out there that should lose enough sleep at night to come forth on this case - if they've got a conscience," said Aiken County Coroner Sue Townsend, who has watched Public Safety investigators pour their energies into the unsolved slaying of the 17-year-old Aiken girl.

"I have never seen anybody work any harder on a case, and yet it is a complicated case from the standpoint of what they have and what they don't have to work with," Ms. Townsend said.

What investigators do have to work with is DNA evidence found in the teen's Crosland Park home that they say matches the killer's.

What they don't have is a match with any of the 80 people who have given DNA samples. That includes the two men police say have been their strongest suspects, Reinaldo J. Rivera and Tonnie Nathaniel Baldwin - along with other potential suspects such as neighbors in Crosland Park, Jessica's acquaintances and registered sex offenders who live nearby.

It was Aug. 4 when Judy Carpenter came home from work and discovered the body of her youngest daughter.

Jessica was naked, and an autopsy showed the killer had strangled her and cut her throat. The official cause of death was asphyxia - a lack of oxygen to the brain - likely caused by the strangulation.

A year later, investigators continue on a roller-coaster as they search for the killer.

"It's certainly been an emotional ride for our investigators. They think they are to a point where they get something nailed down, and then it falls through," police spokesman Capt. Tom Galardi said. "It's like taking a puzzle and starting to put the pieces together, and when you are almost finished with it, it falls off the table."

Looking for clues

Immediately after the killing, police called in state investigators for help. They blocked off the road where Jessica lived and even called out dogs trained to follow scent. Authorities found no signs of a break-in.

After three weeks and no arrest, police got an interesting lead. Managers at a convenience store near the victim's home said a young man had been loitering there for several hours Aug. 4. Police took the store's video of the suspicious man, released it to local media and asked for the public's help in identifying him.

Detectives said the man on the tape wasn't a suspect, just someone they wanted to talk to. Despite making two sketches of the man and talking to several people who resembled him, he still hasn't been found, Capt. Galardi said.

"We're still looking for that person."

As the investigation dragged on, officers returned to Crosland Park, going door to door to interview residents. They even gave a neighbor a lie detector test and took DNA samples from a teen-ager who lived on Jessica's street.

As time passed without resolution, the mystery continued to take a toll on the Carpenter family. In November, Jessica's grandmother and great-uncle pooled their money and announced a $10,000 reward.

"My mother says she doesn't want to go to her grave not knowing who killed Jessica," said Jessica's father, Charlie. "We want the killer caught."

When four months passed without a break in the case, police set up a 24-hour hot line for tips. They eventually shut it down when the calls stopped.

Public Safety Chief Pete Frommer asked the FBI to scrutinize the agency's handling of the case and give them feedback. Aiken police also invited criminal profilers from Georgia and the Carolinas to rip through their investigation and offer suggestions.

The feedback led officers to conduct another canvas of the Crosland Park community, contacting about 500 people and asking them to fill out a five-page questionnaire, Investigator Dwayne Courtney said.

"That did develop some new leads, but nothing that has solved the case," he said.

Two high-profile suspects brought hope for resolution, but DNA samples from the men failed to match the crime-scene evidence. That didn't eliminate them as suspects; it just made an arrest impossible.

Possible leads

In October, authorities arrested Mr. Rivera and charged him in the sexual assault and slaying of four area women, but he denied any connection with Jessica's death.

Aiken police obtained a DNA sample and compared it with evidence collected in the Carpenter case. It didn't match.

The case's biggest break came in January when a jail-house informant said Mr. Baldwin, an inmate, had admitted to raping and killing Jessica. He was free when the teen-ager was killed and had been subsequently arrested and jailed on armed robbery charges.

The informant, Craig Gantt, said he was riding with Mr. Baldwin and smoking marijuana the night of Aug. 4 when Mr. Baldwin admitted to raping and killing a girl in Crosland Park earlier that day. A week earlier, Mr. Baldwin had reportedly told his friend he needed to go to Red Lobster to "check something out." Jessica worked as a hostess at a Red Lobster restaurant.

The statement by the informant seemed to be the strongest chance for police to pin someone to the crime. But the case shattered a few days later when a state crime lab returned negative results on a DNA match.

Senior Deputy Solicitor Bill Weeks has since theorized that the crime might have been committed by more than one person.

"It may come to pass Baldwin is the one, but right now we don't have anything that I would consider strong evidence," Mr. Weeks said. "I've certainly got a strong suspicion, but we don't have any strong evidence yet."

The informant's credibility is lessened because he also is a criminal, the solicitor said.

"We just haven't been able to corroborate anything. All we have right now is just a blanket statement," Mr. Weeks said.

Mr. Baldwin has been sentenced to 20 years for an unrelated robbery. He is still facing charges of killing a University of South Carolina Aiken student and robbing another man of his car. If convicted in either case, a judge must automatically sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Keeping the case alive

In the Carpenter case, Investigator Ray Scott, the lead detective, continues chasing tips. He is joined by other detectives, the Solicitor's Office and the laboratory experts at the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division.

As the months pass, police try to keep attention on the case, Capt. Galardi said. The more people talk, the better the chance that someone will remember something that could lead to the killer, he said.

"We need to keep it in front of people. We just don't want people to forget," he said. "We want them to remember that anything they hear ... we still need to know about it.

"In any crime, no matter where you are, you can always use a break. It might be something small or it might be something big that really turns it for us."

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 279-6895 or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com.

How to help

If you have any information about this case, call Investigator Ray Scott with the Aiken Department of Public Safety at (803) 642-7620 or Aiken County Crime Stoppers at (803) 642-1798.