It has Been 51 Years Since Coral Gables’ Only Unsolved Death of a Police Officer. It is a Case That Still Haunts the Police Department
By Mike Clary
In the 93-year history of the Coral Gables police department, eight officers have been killed in the line of duty. One was struck by a drunk driver, another died in a motorcycle crash, and six officers were gunned down. Only one of those six gunshot homicides – that of Officer Walter Stathers – remains unsolved. “It is part of our history and we can’t get any closure on it,” says Chief Ed Hudak. “Not to be able to apprehend someone or hold someone accountable for a cowardly murder… it’s what haunts us all.” Now, 51 years after the night Stathers was found face-down on the lawn of a stately home on South Alhambra Circle, police and the officer’s son are again talking about the cold case mystery they can never forget. If there is any chance that the killer – or someone who knows the killer – is alive, that chance is fading fast.
“I have a picture of my father on my desk, and I look at it every day,” says Wayne Stathers, a 19-year-old college student at the time of the slaying. “I have lived with a lot of questions. I have always hoped I’d get a phone call, and an officer would say, ‘We got him.’”
“Before I leave this world,” says Stathers, now 70, “I’d like to find out.”
In the universe of U.S. homicides, police killings are rare. Rarer still are unsolved homicides of police officers. “Usually these cases are closed at a high rate, and very soon afterward, because they become high priorities,” says University of Maryland criminologist Charles Wellford, who has studied police shootings. “So, when a case like this drags on, and is never closed, that is extremely rare.” The last hours of Officer Walter Stathers’ life unspooled on a Wednesday night in the week before Christmas, when most of the city slept. Stathers, 46, was a burly, affable Navy veteran who routinely worked the midnight shift, patrolling a residential neighborhood east of U.S. 1. That’s where he was in the early hours of Dec. 19, 1967, when at 2:59 a.m. he received a call about a disturbance in the 5000 block of San Vicente Street. “Talked to the Hughes boy and another couple and asked them to keep it a little lower,” he wrote in his work sheet.
A little more than an hour later – at 4:18 a.m. – Stathers apparently spotted something suspicious. “204,” he said over the police radio, giving his unit number, “send me a dog car to South Alhambra Circle.” Fellow officer James Harley – who would later become Coral Gables police chief – says that even though Stathers did not give his exact location, the veteran cop was likely to be near an elaborate display of Christmas lights at the home of car dealer Anthony Abraham.
“You knew if you went looking for Walt after 4 a.m., if there were no other calls, he would be there keeping an eye out on it,” Harley said later. As Harley rushed to the location, “I heard a faint gunshot,” he reported. He stopped an oncoming car, which turned out to be that of a man delivering papers.
As Harley rushed to the location, “I heard a faint gunshot,” he reported. He stopped an oncoming car, which turned out to be that of a man delivering papers. Harley circled several blocks before hearing a radio call about a car in the backyard of a house at 700 South Alhambra Circle. At the scene, Harley found Stathers’ squad car, engine running, driver’s door open, and wedged up against the house. And face down on the lawn, the body of his friend.
“Officer Slawson and myself rolled him on his back to try to find a pulse or heartbeat and after rolling him over we saw where the projectile had apparently gone in the lower right side of his neck and came out the upper left forehead,” Harley wrote in his incident report. “His eyes were rolled back in his head and there was no sign of life, whatsoever.”
I heard a faint gunshot. Officer Slawson and myself rolled him on his back to try to find a pulse or heartbeat…Fellow Officer James Harley writing in his report
A resident of the house at 700 South Alhambra told police he saw Stathers standing, and then “heard a pistol shot and saw a flash of fire,” according to Harley. A maid, looking out the window, told police she saw a tall, thin black man ride off on a bicycle.
Later that morning, Sgt. Leland “Monk” Pluto, a fellow officer who lived across from Walt and Ethel Stathers in Cutler Ridge, woke the couple’s only child, Wayne. “I don’t remember exactly what he said,” recalls Stathers. “But when he woke me up, I pretty much knew there was something wrong.”
Police focused the investigation on the reason Stathers called for a canine unit. “We know he had a prowler,” Chief William Kimbrough told reporters. “But we don’t know if he had him in custody or whether the man came up to him when he stopped. His weapon is missing – that’s all we know.” Over the next few weeks police questioned several young men who lived in nearby Coconut Grove. They went to Alabama to interview a possible suspect. They looked high and low for Stathers’ missing gun, a .357 Colt Trooper. It was never found.
In the years after the slaying, Wayne married, went into the Army, served two combat tours in Vietnam, and came home to raise two daughters while making a living as a mechanic. A grandfather of five, he now works as a dive master in Key Largo, where he lives. His mother, Ethel Stathers, remarried and died in 2011. Police have made several efforts to garner evidence or leads that might help crack the case. About 10 years ago, a detective with the Miami-Dade Police Department – which handles homicide investigations for Coral Gables – hand carried Stathers’ police uniform hat to a Washington D.C.-area forensics lab where new techniques could be used to pick up any traces of DNA. Nothing was found, says Wayne Stathers.
To call attention to the Stathers case in hopes of generating leads, there have been news stories on anniversaries of his death. In 2011 Stathers’ face was painted on the side of NASCAR driver Kevin Conway’s racecar at Homestead Miami Speedway as part of a plea for information. The following year police and Crime Stoppers of Miami-Dade County released a video reenactment of the crime.
Officially, the murder of Walter Stathers remains under investigation by the Miami-Dade police Cold Case squad. Decades have gone by with no new developments. The public has largely forgotten the case. But not so the family. In 2016, the Coral Gables Police Department’s K9 Roy, a 5-year-old Belgian Malinois, was fitted with a bullet-proof vest donated by the nonprofit organization Vested Interest in K9s, Inc. and the Stathers family. The vest is embroidered with the words: “To honor the memory of Walter F. Stathers EOW 12/19/67.” The EOW stands fo “End of Watch,” and is used by police to signify the date of death of an officer killed in the line of duty.
At the Coral Gables PD, the slaying remains fresh in the minds of fellow officers who were not even born when Stathers was killed. “When it’s one of your own, it’s personal,” said Hudak. “There is always going to be that hole in our department, that someone was killed and no one was held accountable. I think about it all the time.”
Hudak says he discussed the Stathers slaying several times with Harley before the former chief died in 2015. “He knew Officer Stathers, so it was always with him,” says Hudak. “Just like any cop who loses a partner, they re-live that day – the ‘What if, what could we have done better?’
“We’ll never forget,” says Hudak. “We’ll always be working on it… We make sure our new officers understand that it can happen anywhere.”