- SPD Sgt.Doreen Valadez
James Eacker, of Fairbanks, was convicted of murdering Toni Lister, a 29-year old Seward mother of four, by a Kenai Superior Court jury March 10th. She was killed sometime around March 6, 1982– almost 28 years to the day of the verdict. Listers body was discovered April 17 of that year near the Seward Dump, stabbed with a screwdriver more than 20 times in the heart, chest and head.
At the time, the unsolved case shocked the Seward community, unused to gruesome murdersor any murders at all. But the local police never made an arrest, and many questions remained unanswered. Was Listers killer Tonis husband Calvin, who fought with her in a local bar during the early hours of the morning after she had danced with Eacker? Was it Jimmy Eacker, with whom Toni had been having an affair? He had driven with Lister to the dump after the barroom fight with her husband. If it had been him, why did the clothing Eacker had worn contained so little blood?
The jury was reportedly unanimous from the start of their 12 hours of deliberations, after a grueling trial that lasted almost five weeks, under Judge Anna Moranbut it capped more than four years of painstaking investigation by veteran Alaska State Trooper investigator Timothy Hunyor, now working with the AST Cold Case Investigations Unit, (CCIU) in Anchorage. Hunyor had assistance from the units two other CCIU investigators James Gallen, another retired state trooper sergeant with 28 years of experience, and James Stogsdill, a retired trooper sergeant with more than two decades of experience, who works out of the Soldotna AST office. Hunyor also worked with Sgt. Doreen Valadez with the Seward Police Department, who brought important DNA evidence to his attention.
In 2006, after the evidence custodian left the police department, Sergeant, Valadez took over the task of organizing and supervising the evidence room. The small room, piled high with boxes, contained several older evidence boxes that were still sealed by the Federal Bureau of Investigations who had examined them. A perfectionist by nature, Valadez decided that every box had to be gone through, and their contents properly categorized and labeled. The sealed boxes with the Lister murder case evidence were familiar. The police had periodically revisited her file, and Valadez remembered seeing it in the chiefs office. Opening the boxes, she discovered that they contained carefully preserved pieces of evidence, including blood gathered after the murder, but before the days of DNA testing, which only began being widely used in Alaska in the late 90s. It was an exciting find. First, Valadez had dispatch run the principals name to see if he was still aliveEacker was alive and living in Fairbanks. Then she sent several pieces of evidence to the state crime lab to be testedand waited. Four months later, Valadez received a call from Hunyor inquiring about the case after one of the involved parties had contacted the cold case unit. As a matter of fact, the DNA evidence is in your building, in the crime lab next door, Valadez told him. Hunyor promised to have the lab put a rush on it. Valadez also sent him several more pieces of evidence.
The DNA results found on Eackers clothes and hers, linked Jimmy Eacker to Toni Lister, and played a crucial part in helping convict him in her murder, Valadez believes. Hunyor agrees. What really helped out on this case was the development of DNA testing, and that all of the evidence was stored properly, and was well preserved by the Seward Police Department, so we were able to gather evidence off that that would lead to a conviction, Hunyor said.
After turning the case over to CCIU in 2006, the remainder of Valadez role in the case would be attending Eackers trial four years later, and testifying to her involvement in uncovering the evidence, and assuring that its chain of custody was intact. Supervising seven men at SPD herself, and answering routine calls, theres no way she could have rounded up all the witnesses from North Carolina, South Dakota Oregon, and done all the investigative work herself, Valadez said. So shes thankful for the CCIUs help. Im relieved, Im pleased and very proud that I had, albeit a small part in the whole case, and that I did have a hand in helping convict a murderer, Valadez said. And I do believe that the family will now be able to have closure.
When the CCIU began in 2003, there were 101 unresolved homicides cases within ASTs jurisdiction that had occurred between 1961 and the present. Following seven successful arrests, there are now about 74 cold cases under investigation, and the unit is being called to assist in other agencies cold cases. Several of the cases have been resolved in just the past few years, or are on their way to completion, said state trooper spokesperson Beth Ipsen.
- (Photo: CCIU’s Timothy Hunyor with a search warrant for another case)
The most critical time to solve murder is within the first 72 hours, because the evidence is fresh, suspects and witnesses are easier to find, and they remember what they saw, Hunyor says. But some of the cases reach back as far as the 1960s. Alaska being such a transient state means most of the people involved, the witnesses, suspects, and even police investigators often have left the state. So the investigators have a great deal of traveling to do to find and interview them.
Often, the people involved in cases have died, are ill, or have forgotten thingsmaking the investigation even more difficult, Hunyor said. The 1982 Lister case was no different. Robert Bladorn, Seward Police Departments lead investigator in the case, lives in South Dakota. Calvin Lister lives in Montana. Tonis four daughters all live out of state, and one daughter is currently deployed in Iraq.
But the cold case investigators would re-interview everyone they could and examine all the evidence with fresh eyes, with the benefit of three lifetimes combined worth of experience and ever more sophisticated crime lab techniques. For instance, the jury received expert testimony that a screwdriver stabbing might not actually have produced large amounts of blood, as investigating police might earlier have concluded. And some of the witnesses remembered, or mentioned things that they had not mentioned before. A Seward friend whose truck Eacker had borrowed the night Lister went missing said that Eacker had left with their truck in the early morning hours to give a woman a ride, and had returned at 9:30 a.m. the next morning having washed the inside of the truck, which was extremely soaked.
Cold case work is exceedingly slow, and questions often go unanswered while investigators must wait for test results, or search for witnesses whereabouts, Hunyor says. The three-member unit investigators work 40-hour weeks, and generally focus on three or four cases at a time. But although it can be stressful for men who feel theyre on the brink of a discovery to have to wait for lab test results, or to locate an important witness its worth it when all the pieces fall together, and an arrest is finally madelike in the Eacker case, Hunyor said. You enjoy the workhelping family members, he said Its a great feeling knowing that the family can finally put this to rest.