RALEIGH — On Sawyer Road south of Downtown Raleigh, a church stands where Alma Jones once lived.
Her family, who gathered there on Thursday, can’t remember when the church bought up the land. They can’t remember when her wooden house was torn down, or when the brick building took its place.
But they know the house stood near the edge of the road, where the hedges now grow. They know that’s where Jones, 77, was murdered more than four decades ago on Dec. 24, 1977.
The next day, on Christmas, the family learned she had died, said Jacqueline Evans Watson, Jones’ great-granddaughter. Watson was 15 at the time.
Forty-four years have passed, and Raleigh police say they’ve identified Jones’ killer, giving her family a semblance of closure they never thought possible.
“It’s good to have some answers, some closure and a name,” said Kenneth Evans, one of Jones’ grandchildren, now 66.
“It was such a big gap, and not knowing or hearing anything, you just thought it would never be solved,” he said.
On Wednesday, Raleigh police said DNA helped them identify Paul Crowder as the man who raped and murdered Jones in her home. He was 35 then and died in 2015 at the age of 72.
Thursday, members of Jones’ family returned to Sawyer Road to remember her devotion to her family, community and faith, and to rave about the blackberry pies and vegetable soups she had loved to make in her life.
“I will never forget Grandma Lil Sis,” Watson, 59, told The News & Observer. She said they had called Jones that because she was the youngest of her siblings. “The way she carried herself. She was truly a lady.”
‘A brutal crime’
For a long time, Evans thought of his grandmother’s murder as a cold case sitting in a box in a basement, like the kind you’d see on TV.
But police said Thursday they solved the case after a saliva sample taken from one of Crowder’s living relatives matched DNA evidence left at the crime scene.
The case had been revived in 2011 when detectives discovered it in a search of old case boxes that predated electronic filing.
“It was just a brutal crime,” Detective Jerry Faulk told reporters on Thursday. “Every murder is a terrible crime... but this case stood out.”
He said Crowder, who had previously served time in Massachusetts, was not a suspect in the case until recent weeks, but he “was in the case file.” Faulk said police had questioned him at the time of the murder.
“He was on a long list of people who were talked to,” Faulk said.
Watson added that Jones and Crowder’s grandmother were neighbors.
“I wish he was living, so he could be charged,” she said. “I wish his family could feel what we feel.”
When asked how Crowder became a suspect this year, Faulk said only that it was a result of police following up on DNA evidence in the case.
Laura Hourigan, a police spokeswoman, said the department has roughly 75 unsolved homicide cases dating to the mid-1960s.
The family thanked Faulk and the Raleigh Police Department for solving the case.
“She can rest in peace now,” Evans said. “We all can.”
‘A phenomenal woman’Grandma Lil Sis. Alma Fellers. Alma Evans. Alma Jones.
Watson said her great-grandmother went by many names, but no matter who you asked, no matter when they knew her, she said you’d hear the same praise attached to each one.
“She was a community-based woman,” she said. “She was the lady in the church. She was very well known.”
Watson said Jones would be honored to know that her land now belonged to a church.
Jones attended First Baptist Church on Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh, Watson said. It has since been renamed First Cosmopolitan Baptist Church, and moved to Cross Link Road, she added.
Evans said Jones was an active member of the community, with friends and family throughout the neighborhood, and involvement in local organizations like the Safety Club.
Since the family learned the case was solved, he said the phone has not stopped ringing.
But when asked what he remembers most about her, Evans laughed.
“The homemade soup,” he said.
“We used to love being kids, when the phone would ring and she would say she was cleaning out her refrigerator,” he said. “She made the best soup.”
Evans said he remembers going to her house often. It had a screened porch, and she kept a cabinet full of dishes in the living room.
On family birthdays, Deborah Evans, 57, said her great-grandmother would invite them over for Jell-O and cookies.
Sawyer Road was a country road back then, outside of the city limits, and she remembers picking blackberries, plums and other fruits just down the road.