By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian
The Windmill murders — a true mystery that has plagued Fairmont for almost 40 years — may have been solved with the arrest of a man in Florida in the triple execution-style slayings of three Fairmont residents.
Eddie Jack Washington, 59, was arrested without incident Thursday morning at a Tampa, Fla., grocery store by the U.S. Marshals Service, Florida Regional Fugitive Task Force, Tampa Office.
In the early morning hours of Aug. 2, 1974, groundskeepers at Windmill Park made a grisly discovery: Three individuals lay face up in the dewey grass, lifeless, each shot in the back of the head.
They were identified as Guy Lester Phillips, 20, and his wife, Wanda Jane Phillips, 19, and Billy Ray Cobb, 27, all of Fairmont’s Montgomery Avenue area.
Thursday afternoon, Fairmont City Police Chief Kelley Moran was releasing few details about the arrest.
“We’ve been looking at the case for the past four months,” he told the Times West Virginian from Florida.
Fairmont City Police issued an arrest warrant for Washington on Wednesday.
Moran contacted the Times West Virginian on Monday for information about surviving family members.
“We wanted to notify the victims’ families before the arrest,” he said.
Fairmont police worked with West Virginia State Police, U.S. Marshals from West Virginia, and law enforcement from Chapel Hill and Carrboro, N.C.
He declined to elaborate on how the North Carolina law enforcement was involved.
“We were asked by the U.S. Marshals Service in West Virginia to do a discreet locate on Washington, to make sure he was at the residence where we thought he was without his knowing,” said Deputy U.S. Marshal Ron Lindbak.
“In September, we identified him at that residence,” Lindbak said. “We periodically checked to make sure he was there until the arrest (Thursday) morning.”
He said he was unfamiliar with the infamous murder and didn’t know why Washington was the main suspect.
“I can only assume they developed information on him as a person of interest back in September,” he said. “It took that long to develop enough information for his arrest.
“We followed him from his residence in an undercover vehicle to the store where he was arrested.”
Washington is now being held in the Hillsborough County Jail. He is set to be arraigned on the triple first-degree murder charges at 8 a.m. Friday in Tampa to determine if he will face charges in West Virginia.
“We’ve been working with (officials in) West Virginia since September,” Lindbak said.
The “whole task force” was involved in the arrest, he said.
“We were delegated apprehension and responsibility for Mr. Washington.”
Moran and other representatives from the city and county were in Florida at the time of the arrest, he added.
The arrest warrant charges Washington with three counts of first-degree murder in the execution-style slayings of the three individuals.
Information had recently been developed identifying him as the alleged shooter.
At approximately 11:30 a.m. Thursday, Washington was followed via mobile surveillance from his residence at 2409 E. 17th Ave., Apt. B, Tampa, to the Friendly Meat and Grocery at 1910 N. 34th St., Tampa.
After being arrested, he was taken to the Tampa Police Department for further questioning by homicide detectives.
The arrest Thursday of Eddie Jack Washington in the Windmill Park murders was possible because of the commitment of law enforcement, said Fairmont Police Chief Kelley D. Moran.
“Although there is still more investigative work to be done, the successful outcome of this decades-long investigation was only possible through the hard work and dedication of many investigators, Marion County Prosecutor’s Office and law enforcement agencies,” he said in a press release.
“Hopefully this will help bring some closure to the Phillips and Cobb families.
“We never forget about unsolved murder cases and continuously seek out new technology and new leads to help us solve them.”
In the morning hours of Aug. 2, 1974, lawn keepers found the bodies of the victims in an open field inside the city park and contacted Fairmont police.
Over the years, countless interviews and re-interviews have taken place, but leads grew cold.
The Fairmont Police Department expressed its sincere appreciation to police departments in both Carrboro and Chapel Hill, N.C.
“Their assistance made today a reality. Aspects of the case continue to be investigated; therefore further comment on the case would not be appropriate at this time.”
“Chief Moran contacted me several months ago and discussed the case,” said Alex Neville, supervisory deputy U.S. Marshal for the Northern District of West Virginia.
“He advised me there were persons of interest he wished to have located prior to he and any other detectives traveling to interview or attempt to make an arrest.”
Neville offered the assistance of the U.S. Marshals office to conduct the discreet locate, he said.
“This is when our investigators locate the suspect or witness for police, or foreign country in some cases, so they are not aware they’re under surveillance.
“A few months ago we were able to positively identify and establish his residence, and provided that information to Fairmont police.
“Early this week, we reconfirmed he was still at this location. The U.S. Marshals Task Force in Florida met investigators from Fairmont police at the airport and drove them to (Washington’s) residence.”
After Washington was arrested without incident at a Tampa grocery store, U.S. Marshals transported him to the local police station, Neville said.
There he was processed and interviewed. He will be arraigned at 8 a.m. Friday to determine if he will waive extradition to West Virginia to face triple first-degree murder charges.
“He was processed as a fugitive from justice. If he waives his right to an extradition hearing, he’ll be on his way back to Fairmont within the next few days.”
Apprehending a fugitive from justice in a cold case “is one of the most rewarding things,” he said.
“They assume they’ve outsmarted the law. They take on new identities, new Social Security cards, new driver’s licences.
“And then we show up — 20, 30 years down the road — knock on the door and put them in handcuffs.
“It is rewarding to carry out justice.”
But this case in particular has struck close to home for Neville, a Marion County native.
“I recall my parents talking about the murders when I was a small child. I read the Times West Virginian article that profiled the case.”
Entitled “Gruesome discovery: Triple slaying at Windmill Park remains unprosecuted,” the article was published Sept. 3, 2012.
Part of the “Marion County’s Most Notorious Crimes” series, the article detailed one of the county’s most infamous crimes.
“Not long after that was published, Chief Moran approached us for assistance,” Neville said.
“I reminisced with him memories about that event, listening to my parents around the dinner table, talking about this heinous crime.
“It was shocking to a small community like Fairmont.”
He gives Fairmont City Police full credit for the arrest.
“I was happy to assist them. We played a small role in this. I have to hand it to the investigators and the detective bureau and Chief Moran.
“They did not allow this case to sit on a shelf and fade away. They worked diligently, piecing together information.
“Most of the cops working on the original case have retired or passed on for decades.
“The amount of work and their diligence were quite impressive.”
Peggy Edwards was still new to the reporting world when the Windmill Park murders shocked Marion County in 1974.
“I was in Washington, D.C., when they happened,” she said.
West Virginian City Editor Kate Bloom covered the breaking news that shocked Marion County that early August morning, Edward added.
“I came back the next day and took it over from there.”
Although she was never on scene, she’ll always remember details from those days following the murders.
“I remember it was really weird for Fairmont. We had never seen anything like that. People thought it was a gangland killing. They speculated it had something to do with a drug deal.
“That’s what people were thinking. Whether it did or not, I have no idea.”
She’d never covered any news like this before.
As the paper’s crime reporter, Edwards gathered arrest reports for the daily log, covered hearings and even a murder trial.
But sthis was not an average crime in Fairmont, she said.
“It was something new for Fairmont. Every year after that, we’d ask the chief of police at least once a year if there was anything new about the murders.
“But there was never anything new. It was always an ongoing investigation. I suppose you could call it a cold case.”
A Fairmont man arrested in another homicide was a prime suspect, she said.
Those later murders were similar to Windmill Park.
“They were in the same area, in a spot where no one could hear the gunshots. They speculated he could have been the (Windmill Park) murderer, but he was never charged with that,” she said.
“And it could have been one of those things, like, ‘Why don’t we blame him for this?’ But it didn’t stick.”
Edwards retired from reporting in the early 1990s. But this is one story she’ll always remember.
“It’s wonderful,” she said of the arrest. “I hope this is a valid arrest because someone should be held responsible. I’m curious as to what the circumstances were, why he did it.
“It is probably a valid assumption it was drug-related,” she said.
“We all wondered about it. People wondered how this person got away with shooting these three people one by one by one in a row without someone running away or tripping him.”
Even after almost 40 years, police never gave up on the case, she said.
“They never closed the books on it, but after a while, people stopped asking about it because nothing was happening.
Ron Musgrave, who resides in Indianapolis now, was a photographer with the West Virginian in 1974 when the triple murder at Windmill Park took place.
He was naturally shocked to be called about his memories of that case Thursday afternoon.
“I really don’t remember much about it,” Musgrave said. “I heard the typical comments about who people thought had done it.
“But it was just gossip.
“I believe we first heard about it on the police scanner,” he said of the day the shootings took place. “I remember going out to Windmill Park. There were a lot of police cars there. I remember this one policeman took his foot and drew a mark on the ground, and he said I couldn’t go past that mark.
“But as far as the picture was concerned, I couldn’t see anything. We didn’t have any long lenses or anything like that then,” he said. “So I came back to the office. I knew Bill Wilcox had a 400mm lens. It was the longest lens I had seen at that time. At least it was the longest lens I ever had used.”
Wilcox was a former advertising manager for the Fairmont newspapers. He probably used his long lens to photograph nature scenes that he would use with his outdoors column that he would write a few years later.
“We were fortunate that Bill had the lens in his car and didn’t have to go home for it,” he said. “So I went back out and set it up. The same officer asked me if he could use it to see what I was seeing. I told him no. I was mad. So I took the pictures and left. I wasn’t out there very long,” Musgrave said.
Editor John Veasey also contributed to this article.