Taking a crack at a Miami cold case
An intruder breaks into a Miami home late at night and kidnaps a 6-year-old girl from her bed. Within hours, her body is dumped on a desolate road in Coconut Grove. She had been beaten, strangled and sexually molested.
The 1954 murder of Judith Ann Roberts, just a month before her seventh birthday, was Miami's first media-soaked, high-profile murder of a child.
Call it South Florida's version of today's JonBenet Ramsey murder mystery.
The abduction and slaying of a little girl visiting her grandparents rocked small-town Miami, where folks until then thought nothing of leaving their doors unlocked at night. Across the country, headlines trumpeted news of a sex maniac on the prowl in sunny Miami.
More than half a century later, the unsolved murder case has been reopened by a band of detectives with the Miami Police Department's Cold Case Squad, which is tracking down old leads for suspects.
They aren't talking, but the lead investigator in the original case, Irving Whitman, now 85, spent three days last year telling a Cold Case detective all he knew.
Whitman, who lives in Palmetto Bay, still keeps copies of investigative material from the case in his home office. He declined to show them to a reporter, guarding their secrets. ''The case is still open,'' the former detective explained.
Whitman was among those who found Judith Ann's body under mangroves on a road leading to Biscayne Bay. It's now the north side of Kennedy Park, along busy Bayshore Drive.
''She was nude, her body beaten and wrapped in her own little girl nightgown,'' Whitman recalled. ``A tree branch had been used to sexually assault her, but that was a ruse. The killer wanted to make it look like a sexual crime, but it wasn't.''
In recent weeks, due to the stir in the JonBenet case, Judith Ann has been heavy on Whitman's mind.
``I still visit the site where we found her every year. This thing, it stays with you. It's the biggest case I worked, no doubt, and it's unsolved.''
Efforts to reach the surviving Roberts family members -- only Judith Ann's mother and sister are alive -- were unsuccessful.
Judith Ann's parents buried their child in Miami before returning home to Baltimore. The little girl would have turned 59 on Aug. 9.
The story of her death began on the evening of July 6, 1954. Judith Ann and her family -- dad James, his second wife Shirley and Judith Ann's 3-year-old sister, Betty -- were on vacation in Miami.
James, an attorney, union organizer and unsuccessful Maryland legislative candidate, had driven them all down from Baltimore for a two-week vacation with his in-laws, Harold and Dora Rosenberg.
The Rosenbergs lived in a modest duplex at 1234 SW 13th Ave., which today straddles Shenandoah and Little Havana.
The day before she died, Judith Ann frolicked at the Venetian Pool with her sister and grandparents. The girl had undergone several operations to remove a tumor from her throat and now seemed robust and healthy, her family told police.
They had come home that afternoon and made dinner. It was Tuesday and the girls watched Danger, a popular murder mystery drama on CBS.
By 11 p.m., everyone was in bed. Judith Ann lay down on the living room couch, by the front door, under a front window. Her sister was in the rear, sleeping near the back door. The adults were in bedrooms. The doors were left unlocked for James Roberts, the girls' father, who was out for the evening.
About 1 a.m., Dora Rosenberg, the girl's grandmother, was awakened by the sound of a car speeding away; she went into the living room. Judith Ann was gone. Frantically, she woke her husband and daughter.
Soon, they realized the Rosenbergs' car, a green 1952 Oldsmobile with a gray top, was gone. They also found Harold Rosenberg's pants by the front door. His back pockets, where he kept his car keys, were inside out.
The girl's mother called police.
Detective Whitman, on the midnight shift, remembers the call that would stay with him to this day.
With Judith Ann listed as a missing person and thinking she had been kidnapped for ransom, Whitman called the FBI. About 5 a.m., the first break came. A Miami patrol officer found the Rosenbergs' car off Kirk Street in the Grove.
Police officers and firefighters rushed to the scene, but it wasn't until almost daybreak when Whitman and others looked under a thicket in the wooded field and found the girl's body.
It was a gruesome scene. A handkerchief had been placed over her face. She had been struck in the mouth, a blow so severe the medical examiner said it jarred her teeth loose.
Her thighs and genitals showed bruising from the branch. The cause of death: strangulation.
News of the horrific murder spread fast.
''It was bizarre. It became a total circus. . . . I got calls from around the world,'' Whitman recalled. ``Everybody had a theory.''
Nearly 200 men, known sex offenders, were rounded up and interrogated. The police department was overwhelmed with tips from a hysterical public. Politicians, state law enforcement officials, even then-acting Gov. Charley Johns got involved.
Judith Ann's father's union activities in Miami -- he had tried to push communists out -- were first thought to be the motive for a revenge killing, but that was shot down. So was the theory that a stranger or burglar had murdered the girl. Detectives concluded the killer must have known the family's routine. And troubling new questions began to pop up.
How did the killer know which car would start with the keys taken from the grandfather's pocket? And why did the intruder ignore Judith Ann's little sister Betty, sleeping by the unlocked rear door, where the killer had likely entered? And why didn't Judith Ann scream?
Police started looking closer to home.
''All members of the family are under suspicion,'' announced a frustrated then-Dade State Attorney George Brautigan. ``This is a heinous crime. It had to be committed by someone who had knowledge of the house.''
First targeted was the girl's father. The night his daughter was abducted, he had been bar hopping with a female client.
Was that to provide an alibi?
Rumors flew he needed cash and staged his daughter's kidnapping to extort money from his in-laws. Except, the plot went awry.
Two months after his daughter's death, Judith Ann's father was arrested. He insisted on his innocence. By December, charges were dropped when a key witness was found to be lying.
Next to come under scrutiny was the girl's grandfather, a retired garment district merchant from New York.
Police knew the car seat of the Rosenberg's Oldsmobile was pushed up, indication that whoever drove it last was very short. Harold Rosenberg was under five feet. Maybe the grandfather had tried to molest the girl and she had cried out, the new theory went, but that, too, fizzled. Rosenberg charged that police made him a prime suspect because he had complained bitterly about the lack of leads in the case.
''We had a lot of supposition and conjuncture, but we could never get a case tight enough against anyone to take it to a jury,'' Whitman said.
Not everyone believes Judith Ann knew her killer.
Warren G. Holmes, then a Miami police detective sergeant in charge of the lie detector bureau, said the pushed-up seat in the Oldsmobile points to a young suspect. Holmes' pick is a 16-year-old questioned but released in the hours after the murder.
''I'm totally convinced he is the killer,'' said Holmes, 79, of Miami, who knew the teen while working as a beat cop along downtown Miami's red-light district. ``I think he saw the little girl through the window and had to have her.''
Holmes said the teen, who was living behind a drugstore near the Rosenbergs' home, admitted he peered into the Rosenbergs' window.
In 1964, a decade after the murder, Holmes said the teen's wife called police to say her husband told her during a violent argument that he had killed Judith Ann Roberts.
''I gave her a lie-detector test and she passed it,'' Holmes said. But when he gave the test to the man, he registered no emotion to questions, including whether he had killed Judith Ann. ``It's as if he had ice water in his veins.''
Holmes hopes new publicity about the old Judith Ann murder case encourages someone who knows something to come forward. But he's sticking to his theory.
''I know who did it,'' Holmes said. That teen would now be 70.
Whitman, however, maintains Judith Ann and her killer were not strangers.
Whitman said he shared his theory with the Cold Case detectives: ``They didn't say if they agreed with me or not.''
Just in case, Whitman has kept three details about the murder a secret, things only the killer would know. They could be crucial facts because little physical evidence is left of the murder scene.