28 years later, arrest made

Published 12:44 am Tuesday, November 25, 2008

For most people the murder of 18-year-old Katherine Foster is just another bold headline, but for Andalusia Police Chief Wilbur Williams the case is much more personal.

Williams, who worked as a sergeant for the Mobile Police Department during the time of Foster’s murder in 1980, said he never would have thought her lifelong friend, Jamie Kellam Letson, committed the crime.

“I never in my wildest dreams would have thought Jamie was involved,” he said.

A grand jury indicted Letson, now 47, after hearing three days of testimony. She was transported to Mobile County Metro Jail Friday from a Christian shelter in Jackson, Miss., and was being held Friday night on a $500,000 bond.

Williams recalls Foster’s murder as an event that consumed the city of Mobile and the University of South Alabama.

“Everyone in the city was familiar with it because it was such a high profile case,” he said. “Of course, being an alumnus of the University of South Alabama, it affected me in more than just one way. The simple facts as we knew it at the time attracted everyone’s attention. You had a young female with no obvious enemies who just went missing.”

Williams explained that Foster went missing sometime between 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. Thurs., Feb. 21, 1980, and Letson was the last person who had seen her alive.

“She supposedly, around 10 a.m. 10:30 a.m., left her dorm room and went to meet Jamie Kellam Letson,” he said. “Katherine said she had to go do something and told Jamie she would meet her at the car.”

Williams said Letson stated she finished preparing and then went to the car in the downstairs parking lot but Foster never showed. Letson stated the group then left campus, assuming Foster had bumped into her boyfriend at some point and possibly had gone out to grab a bite to eat. Letson stated that she became concerned when the group returned several hours later and Foster was still nowhere to be found.

The search picked up substantial steam the next day and Foster’s body was eventually located in the early hours Sat., Feb. 22, 1980. Foster was found lying on her back, Williams said, in the same clothes witnesses confirmed she had been wearing the day of her disappearance. She had two gunshots to the head, one to the side of the head and one behind the ear, and appeared to have been there a long time.

“She looked like she had been there a few hours,” Williams said. “The autopsy was performed and the pathologist said, in his opinion, she died sometime around midnight to 2 a.m.”

A massive investigation ensued in an effort to bring Foster’s murderer to justice, but Williams said he believes the initial investigation was handicapped.

“One of the major fallacies of the case at the time, I believe, was the people who were chosen to handle the investigation,” he said. “There was a captain, a lieutenant, a sergeant and two investigators. Of the five involved not a single one of them had attended a college class in their life. They had never been on a college campus as a student. They had never, that I know of, set foot inside a college dormitory.”

Williams said he believes investigators initially became too consumed by things that should have been overlooked as a natural part of everyday college life.

“Campus life is not like everyday life on the street. They became infatuated with who was sleeping with who and casual, recreational use of marijuana,” he said. “There were people who went and retained lawyers because they were afraid they might be indicted for smoking marijuana. I always referred to them as ‘bulls in the china shop.’ They had no understanding of campus life.”

The initial investigation presented no substantial suspects for the Foster murder case and, over time, the case went cold.

Williams said the next big break for the case occurred on Feb. 18, 1983, after the apparent suicide of a USA security guard.

“While we were working the suicide we found a treasure trove of information in his home,” he said. “We found a detailed copy of the autopsy on Katherine Foster he had obtained. He had gone through the autopsy and highlighted certain portions of the report. He would write comments like ‘stupid’ or ‘ignorant error.’ It could have been interpreted as mocking or it could have been interpreted as ‘this murder happened on my watch and I am going to do everything to get to the bottom of it.’

“We also found he had written a number of articles pertaining to Foster’s murder and her life on campus,” he added. “He wrote poems about her. He had exhibited a very unusual interest in the case. It caused us to be real suspicious.”

Williams said investigators also located a “chamber” in the attic space above the guard’s garage that contained a cage, a mattress, pillow and was padlocked from the outside. The find generated a great deal of interest.

Interest in the findings was quickly lost when records revealed the guard had been on duty at the time Katherine was supposedly murdered. However, another interesting piece of information was discovered while investigating the security guard.

“A uninvolved female resident on campus had a severe asthma attack,” Williams said. “Early Saturday morning she had an asthma attack at 2:35 a.m. She got up to open the window, looked at the clock to note what time it was and she hears two pops.”

Williams said that reports indicated the two security guards at the center of campus heard the same noise, but were unsure of exact time.

“They estimated it to be sometime after 2 a.m.,” Williams said. “They thought it was someone shooting fireworks over at the ROTC repelling tower training grounds so they raced to that location to check it. They found nothing and thought nothing else about it.”

Williams said the investigation continued to pop up each year during his more than 28-year career at the Mobile Police Department, but no arrests were made until now.

“Not long after that there were some things apparently that happened and this lifelong friend has now been indicted and charged with Katherine’s murder,” Williams said. “I am not privy to a lot of it. I am just so thankful there was someone there to pick up the case and not just allow it to lay dormant.”