Of one thing Bert Mudd was certain: His brother Thad would want him to find his murderer. So one morning last month, Bert woke before dawn in his Clearwater apartment, hung some shirts and slacks in the back seat of a rental car, tossed back a cup of strong coffee and set off for Richmond, Va., where he and Thad had grown up more than 60 years ago.
The first day he made it as far as North Carolina, before the glare of headlights in the rear-view mirror began to blind him. He spent the night in a motel and was back on the road at first light. Pulling into Richmond at midmorning on a crisp Thursday in October, Bert Mudd crossed the city line into suburban Henrico County to reach his brother’s home on Azalea Avenue, a busy four-lane road lined by towering pines.
The yellow plastic “Crime Scene” ribbons that had ringed Thaddeus Mudd’s modest brick ranch house on the day of his funeral in August were gone now. On the porch, a young, blue-jeaned carpenter was replacing the splintered front door jamb so he could hang a new door.
Inside the house, the bullet holes in the bedroom hallway had been filled with spackle and painted over. In Thaddeus Mudd’s bedroom, a painter was touching up the wallboard installed to replace the sections cut out by police. But faint bloodstains still clung to the linen closet door and the front threshold. In the living room, an aqua mattress, stuffing oozing from its sides, leaned against a vinyl headboard with deep holes gouged in back, battered survivors of the hunt for ballistic evidence.
His loafers echoing on the bare floors, Bert Mudd walked through the house, past trash bags bulging with Thad’s books and stacks of his foreign language records. In the library, he traced a finger along the spines of books lining the floor-to-ceiling shelves, volumes of history, law, encyclopedias – a last testament to the vigor of Thaddeus Mudd’s intellectual hunger. Paint fumes and the whine of the carpenter’s drill hung in the air. He walked through the kitchen, where the cabinets and refrigerator stood empty, and stepped outside.
In the side yard, William Mudd, at 75 the oldest of the three Mudd boys, toiled in the sun with his wife Alma, pulling out overgrown honeysuckle and cutting back the tall hedge bordering the property. “They want to put it on the market before the winter sets in,” William said.
Bert Mudd, 70, the baby brother, has not come 800 miles to do yard work. He came back to Richmond to see whether he could solve the mystery of his brother’s murder. As he put it before he left the Florida home he retired to seven years ago: “I’m going to drive up and do a little investigating myself.”
In the last days of his life, Bert Mudd’s 73-year-old brother, Thaddeus, lived in fear of being robbed.
Every window in his house had a lock on it. The front door had four, including two dead bolts and a chain. He also had two safes, including one bolted to the bedroom closet floor where he kept a valuable coin collection. There were dead bolts on several doors inside his house as well,barring the way to his bedroom and his library.
Since 1986, Thaddeus Mudd had rented out a spare bedroom and bath across a narrow hall from his own for $ 75 a week. But late on the night of Aug. 21, 1987, Mudd was alone in his house when someone battered his front door hard enough to splinter the jamb and tear the lock screws away from the wood. “Whoever broke in was in a rage. There’s no question about that,” said Bert Mudd’s nephew, Richard.
Someone mad enough to kick in the front door also had the fury to kick in three more locked doors along the narrow hallway off the living room. One led to the spare bedroom, one to the library, the third to Thaddeus Mudd’s bedroom.
Thaddeus Mudd had a gun, a .38-caliber snub-nose revolver registered to his wife, Dorothy, who had died of bone cancer five years before.
Bullet holes in his bedroom door made it clear that he had blasted away at the intruder from behind his locked door. The trail of blood smears from the hal to the front door left little doubt that some of his shots found their mark.
The locks and gun failed Thaddeus Mudd in the end. His bedroom door was kicked in, and he was shot down. Thaddeus Mudd died on the floor, shot through the chest.
Thaddeus Mudd was buried alongside his wife in Richmond’s Forest Lawn Cemetery. A tall, portly man, he was a retired land surveyor remembered by family and friends as an intellectual of boundless curiosity about language, history and law with a special interest in parliamentary procedure, or rules of order. Even as a boy, Bert Mudd recalled, “we used to call him the walking encyclopedia.”
Bert, who had flown north for the funeral, stayed on to help with the painful task of clearing out Thad’s house. Furniture was divided among relatives or sold. A bookseller emptied most of the library shelves. Two nephews were appointed administrators of the estate; poring over their uncle’s checkbooks and diaries, they were surprised to learn about Thaddeus Mudd’s tenants, something he had kept to himself.
From the Henrico police, they learned something even more startling: Two weeks before someone kicked in Thaddeus Mudd’s door and shot him to death, one of those tenants had kicked in the front door of Mudd’s house.
The tenant was Kevin Wilkerson, 27, a supermarket clerk and housing project custodian who shared Thaddeus Mudd’s spare bedroom with his girlfriend, Terrace Gary.
On Aug. 8, Wilkerson and his girlfriend had a lover’s quarrel.
Wilkerson left to cool off. When he returned, he found his clothes and his share of the rent money in a bag on the porch. Gary wouldn’t unlock the door; Wilkerson kicked it in. Thaddeus Mudd summoned the police, who questioned Wilkerson but left without making an arrest.
Then there was the letter. The police didn’t tell the Mudd family about that.
They learned about it by accident when they contacted Thaddeus Mudd’s insurance adjuster about damages that occurred the night of the murder. Thad had sent the adjuster a copy.
Five pages covered with Thaddeus Mudd’s spidery handwriting, the letter was sent Aug. 15, 1987 to Commonwealth Attorney L.A. Harris Jr., Henrico County’s prosecutor.
Point by point, the letter outlined what Thaddeus Mudd called a “startling turn of events”: On Aug. 9, Mudd wrote, he went to the Henrico County courthouse and filed a vandalism complaint against Wilkerson for kicking in the door the day before. A magistrate issued a warrant on the misdemeanor charge. Mudd listed two addresses where Wilkerson worked: a Super-Fresh market and an apartment complex.
On Aug. 12, Mudd called the magistrate’s office with more information about Wilkerson’s address. At first, the clerk refused to take it. She said that nobody at the Super-Fresh market had ever heard of Wilkerson and chewed Mudd out for giving “false information.” Several calls later, Mudd conveyed the correct information to a supervisor at the courthouse. She told him that an Officer Reynolds was handling the case.
Mudd then received a telephone call from Wilkerson, who said a Henrico police officer had told him that “he was much annoyed by (Mudd’s) calls to the county.” Mudd didn’t believe it and left a message at the courthouse for Officer Reynolds.
When Reynolds returned the call, the officer was abusive and threatening, “cutting me off every time I attempted to speak” and “ordering me not to contact the county any more,” Mudd told the prosecutor.
“It was as if,” he ended his letter, “I had been suddenly transported back a thousand years to the Dark Ages, where the law of the tooth and claw prevailed and every man made up his own law as he went along.”
Six days after he wrote this letter, Thaddeus Mudd was shot to death in his home. Terrace Gary, who was living by herself since her boyfriend Wilkerson had been evicted the week before, found the front door kicked in and called police. Less than five hours later, Kevin Wilkerson was arrested on his landlord’s vandalism complaint at his sister’s house in Richmond. Police examined him for bullet wounds: He was unhurt. Two days later, he was released. The vandalism charge was dropped by the Commonwealth Attorney’s office because the complaining witness, Thaddeus Mudd, was unable to testify.
After his brother’s funeral, Bert Mudd returned to Clearwater. Amon the effects Bert brought home was a photo of the two brothers, taken at a Virginia beach more than 50 years ago. Thaddeus, tall and strapping in the tank top suit of the era, carries his little brother on his shoulders.
Bert Mudd also had Polaroid snapshots he had taken of his brother lying in his flag-draped coffin. Sitting at home, he took them out and stared at them. He reread the letter his brother wrote the Commonwealth Attorney. His nephew Richard kept in touch with the Henrico police, but he didn’t have much to report. “We could never get any information out of them. ‘It’s all confidential,’ they would tell us,” said Bert Mudd.
A police official assured Richard Mudd that the police had investigated Thaddeus Mudd’s letter before he was killed; they said hey had even spoken to him. The mix-up about the warrant was attributed to a quirk of Virginia law: Henrico County and the city of Richmond are separate jurisdictions, and county police couldn’t physically arrest Wilkerson, who lived in Richmond. Instead, Wilkerson was told he could turn himself in at the county courthouse to answer the vandalism charge, but he never did. Richard Mudd said the police told him, “Everything got straightened out.”
Bert Mudd didn’t believe it. As the weeks went by, he had begun to suspect that the authorities weren’t interested in Thaddeus Mudd’s murder, or worse, were trying to cover up their own inaction. “Nothing was done until after my brother’s murder, and then they arrested him the next day and let him loose.It’s a complete cover-up,” Bert Mudd said.
“This was an execution, an assassination. This was not a robbery. Nothing was taken,” Bert Mudd said. The safe containing his brother’s coin collection was unopened. Thad’s half-dozen cameras were left untouched.
The police published an appeal in a local newspaper’s “Crime Stoppers” column for anyone with information about Thaddeus Mudd’s murder. “Police believe his assailant may also have been shot, requiring medical attention,” the notice said.
By late September, when there still had been no arrests of Thaddeus Mudd’s killer, Bert Mudd’s grief had given way to anger and frustration. He had to do something; he owed it to Thad. If Thad could talk from the grave, Bert was certain his brother would urge him on: “He would say, ‘Full speed ahead, get the sons of bitches.”‘
Bert Mudd has a Virginia accent that stretches words like taffy.
When he agrees with someone, he is apt to say “Co-rect.”
On this October afternoon, he wears tan loafers, gray flannels, a sleeveless white sweater over a blue striped shirt, a tie and a blue blazer. His silvery hair is combed flat, but his mustache stands at attention. Bert Mudd plans to be a shoe-leather investigator, a look-’em- square-in-the-eyes kind of guy, just the way he used to hunt down tenants who moved out without paying the rent when he owned apartments in Richmond before retiring to Florida in 1981. “Telephones are fine,” he explained, “but it’s a substitute. If you really want to get down to the nitty gritty, see the party in person.”
There are three parties he wants to talk to this afternoon: the Commonwealth Attorney his brother wrote to a week before his murder; a Capt. Clark, the man in charge of the Henrico police investigation; and Kevin Wilkerson, the tenant Thaddeus Mudd accused of kicking in his door.
The Henrico County government center is a modern complex of brick buildings, home to the county courthouse and, Mudd’s first stop, the Division of Police. Bulletproof glass shields the information desk on all sides: talking to the uniformed officer via a microphone is like ordering at a fast food drive-in. Mudd gives his name and asks for Capt. Clark.
“He’s out today and tomorrow.”
“Does he have an associate?”
“The lieutenants are in a meeting.”
The captain’s secretary will have to do.
“I should have given the name as Jones,” Mudd mutters. When the secretary arrives, he is surly. Giving his name, he adds, “I’m sure the name is well known around here.” But she doesn’t seem to recognize it and seems mystified when he tells her, “We’re going to get to the bottom of this.”
“Exactly what is this in reference to?” she says.
“My brother Thaddeus Mudd was murdered,” he says. Now the nam registers and she begins writing rapidly in her steno pad. She suggests he come back at about 4; perhaps the lieutenants will be out of their meeting. “I can’t promise they’ll see you.”
Mudd heads for the courthouse. At the magistrate’s office, he asks for the vandalism complaint his brother filed on Aug. 9. A clerk returns with a thin sheaf of papers.
“Is there any way to find out what happened to this?” Mudd asks.
“It was nolle prossed.” The clerk seems bored.
“It wasn’t prosecuted?” Mudd says, his voice rising. “Breaking down a
door? It doesn’t make sense.” He asks for a copy of the file.
The clerk returns, leafing through the paperwork. “Have you had a similar problem?” he asks Mudd.
“My brother filed this,” Mudd says. “Five days later he was murdered.”
Again the mention of murder gets a response; Bert Mudd is learning which buttons to push. The clerk looks at the file more closely now and takes Bert Mudd on the journey of Thaddeus Mudd’s complaint through the criminal justice system.
At 8:05 a.m. Aug. 9, Mudd set forth his complaint: “Kevin Wilkerson knocked the front door down and chased Terrace Gary, who locked herself in a room, and Kevin was about to knock that door down when I confronted him. Shortly thereafter the police arrived.”
“Okay,” the clerk says, scanning the page. “The warrant was issued on the 9th by the magistrate. It was executed, let’s see, Aug. 22 at 7:30 a.m. At 9 a.m. he was committed to jail.”
“My brother was killed at 11:30 at night on the 21st,” Bert Mudd says.
“He stays in jail the 22nd, 23rd,” the clerk continues. “On Monday the charge is nolle prossed on the Commonwealth’s motion, Mr. Mudd is not there to be the complaining witness to provide the evidence.” He looks up at Mudd. “I’m sorry.”
“Yes, it’s real bad because the man wasn’t protected,” Mudd says. “Somebody boo-booed real badly.” He slips the copy of the complaint into a file folder, turns to leave and then swivels back. “Say, where’s the Commonwealth Attorney’s office?”
Seconds later, he is climbing the stairs to the second floor.
“And your name is?” the secretary to the Commonwealth Attorney says.
She nods. “Norwood Mudd.”
But she has disappeared into an office. Almost immediately, her boss emerges. L.A. Harris Jr. is in his 30s, with the fresh-faced, shirt-sleeve look that often earns a politician the label “charismatic.” He invites Mudd into his office, takes a seat behind an immense desk and rests his chin on steepled fingers.
Bert Mudd gets right to it. “Are you aware of this letter?” he says, holding up the copy of his brother’s letter.
The prosecutor doesn’t have to read it. “I had gotten that letter and forwarded it to the police department,” he says promptly. Other than that, Harris isn’t much help. “I know nothing about the facts,” he says.
It takes just five minutes for the conversation to run out of steam.
“Wishy washy,” Mudd says, back outside the courthouse. “He’s embarrassed, if you can embarrass those bureaucrats.” But Mudd is satisfied with his first interview. “He did the job that he was supposed to do. He forwarded the letter over to the proper authorities.
They’re the ones that didn’t follow through.
Bert Mudd is back at police headquarters by 3:30 p.m. His reception is much warmer this time. The officer behind the bulletproof glass doesn’t even ask his name. “I just got a message to sign you in,” she says.
A plainclothes detective sergeant escorts him upstairs to meet with “Major Stanley,” head of field operations. “Well,” Mudd says to himself, “there’s been a little telephoning here.”
Major Henry Stanley Jr. is crisp, from the razor creases in his blue uniform to his closely cut hair. The men face each other across a round table in an office overlooking leafy trees waving against an azure sky. Once more, Thaddeus Mudd’s letter is brought forth. “My brother’s not here to testify. This letter has to do it for him. That guy was frightened to death for his life. Somebody really neglected their job.”
Major Stanley is polite – it’s “Yes sir,” this and “Yes sir” that – and patient, listening intently, chin in hand, to Bert Mudd’s comments and questions. Unlike the Commonwealth Attorney, the major seems to know the facts. He just isn’t about to share them.
He insists that Thaddeus Mudd’s murder is being actively investigated, but he can’t talk about it without jeopardizing the case.
The letter became the subject of an internal police investigation, launched “the day it came across my desk.” But he won’t discuss that either. Someday, he says, he’d like to sit across from Mudd and tell him the whole story. But not at this stage. “I just can’t give you the answers you want,” he says.
Mudd is like a dog with a bone. When the major deflects his questions, he lets it sit and then takes it up again, only to be rebuffed once more. He wants to get some things off his chest, and he isn’t leaving until he does. His brother lived in Henrico County for 25 years. “He should have been treated with respect.” He repeats the litany of his brother’s career: wartime service in North Africa and Sicily, civic involvement, business career.
He is rambling now, but the major doesn’t interrupt. “I want the culprits hung by the neck. I wasn’t for capital punishment 100 percent before. Now I am. Hang ’em. Hang ’em.”
Bert Mudd spends 36 minutes in Stanley’s office and doesn’t learn anything he didn’t know before. But Stanley’s insistence that the police are doing “everything humanly possible” and his sympathetic tone seem to penetrate Bert’s bitterness and quiet his suspicions. When he gets up to leave, he grasps the major’s hand. “I feel better having talked with you,” he says. “Don’t let it drop.”
“I can assure you; it will never drop. It’s a matter of time, sir, it’s a matter of time,” the major says.
“I want to see justice done in this case.”
“We do too, sir.”
“I’m amazed that so much was done in so little time,” Bert Mudd says. He
is munching his way through a mountainous Greek salad at Lefty’s Pizza,
mopping up dressing with thick chunks of bread. It’s after 5 o’clock; his
investigation has delayed his lunch.
Although he left police headquarters without any of the answers he had hoped to get, he seems content.
Driving north from Clearwater, he was convinced that his brother’s killing “was a complete, unadulterated cover-up.” Now he feels differently. Major Stanley was telling him the truth; he feels sure about that. The police might have dropped the ball, but he is convinced that
confronting them will change that. “They eased my mind for a while.”
The sun is beginning to set. Mudd orders another beer and talks about his brother. Bert is convinced it was a widower’s loneliness that prompted Thaddeus to rent a room to strangers. His brother’s marriage was good, and he sorely missed his wife after she died. “I think he was lonely.”
The food and drink revives him. He decides to drive to the Azalea Mall, home of the Super-Fresh where Kevin Wilkerson works. “I just want to introduce myself, tell him I’m the brother of Thaddeus Mudd, the one that was murdered. I want to see his expression.”
This detective business is getting easier for Bert Mudd. Leaning an elbow on the service desk counter, he doesn’t bother to introduce himself, just asks the manager in a friendly way where he can find Kevin Wilkerson.
He won’t get the chance. Kevin Wilkerson did work here, as a stock boy, the manager tells him. A month ago, he was let go.
Thaddeus Mudd listed another address for Kevin Wilkerson on his vandalism complaint: a low-income housing project where he is a custodian. Friday morning, after he visits his brother’s grave in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Bert Mudd drives to the complex. Wilkerson is in the middle of repairing a gutter. He and Bert Mudd come face to face in the warm sunlight outside the maintenance shop.
“Glad to meet you,” says Wilkerson. “Mr. Mudd talked a lot about you. I’m sorry about what happened to him.”
Wilkerson is a small, thin man in a long-sleeve sport shirt and blue work pants. Even with a wispy beard and mustache, his face is boyish. He toys with the head of the hammer.
“Yeah, he was my favorite. It’s a real tragedy,” Mudd says. His tone is icy, distant. “Hope you can give us some light on it.”
“I’ve been trying to help the detectives out as much I could,” Wilkerson says, twisting the hammer, shifting it from hand to hand. “I know it makes me look like a suspect for what I done to his front door.”
“Co-rect,” Bert Mudd says.
“I never had any beef with Mr. Mudd,” Wilkerson says.
“Do you have any idea who could have done that.”
“I don’t have any idea. Any idea at all,” Wilkerson says.
“It must have been somebody strong as hell,” Mudd says. He looks Wilkerson over. “You know, you’re a little guy.”
“Yeah,” Wilkerson agrees. “I’m just a little guy.” He seems nervous, eager to please.
Wilkerson brings up the vandalism incident that occurred before the murder. “I was in an argument with my girlfriend. The cops said I kicked the door in.” He shakes his head. “I took my shoulder and pushed his front door in. I’m sorry I done it. I told him I would pay for it and everything, but he was kind of upset. He took a warrant out on me. But that wouldn’t be any
reason for a guy like me to go and shoot a guy.”
Mudd thaws a bit. “No. No. To kill somebody for a warrant.” He shakes his head, dismissing the notion. He tries a different tack.
“And you really have no idea because I’ll tell you, there’s a $1,000 reward and we’re going to throw another $1,000 in for any nformation about the murder,” he tells Wilkerson. “And of course the person that gives us some information; no one will ever know who they are.”
“I’ve sat and thought and I really just come up with blanks,” Wilkerson says.
“Well, if you can help us in any way …”
“I will, believe me.”
“God bless you if you do,” Bert Mudd says. “There’s something going on that just doesn’t ring a bell with me, and to the day I die I’m going to put the pieces together.”
The two men shake hands.
I’m perplexed,” Bert Mudd says, back in his car after Wilkerson returned to work. “He’s a tiny little guy. Of course you can’t tell what he says. If he kills somebody, of course he’s going to…” He stops, shakes his head. “This thing gets more complicated as I go on.”
Thaddeus Mudd’s house is only a few minutes away. Under the carport, the workers have left the splintered door jambs, bloodstained carpet and other debris in a pile.
The carpenter has finished installing the front door, but it’s locked, and Bert Mudd doesn’t have the new key. The old door rests nearby with the two embossed messages Thaddeus Mudd had put on to remind boarders of his security procedures.
“Both locks must be used,” each says. “Both locks must be used.”
Driving back into the city, Bert Mudd says, “I really found out more than I expected in this short time. Of course I would have loved to have solved the crime, but I didn’t expect to.”
He gets stuck in construction traffic near one of Richmond’s new shopping centers. A cement truck blocks the lane. “I think the mystery is as I read in a book once, a whodunit.” Traffic inches forward. “I still have my suspicions of this Kevin guy.
“I have a feeling, a gut feeling, that this jigsaw puzzle is going to come into place. I think coming to Richmond is going to get the Henrico police on the ball.”
The light changes. Bert Mudd steps on the gas and shoots out into the intersection.
Two weeks later, Bert Mudd was sitting in his Clearwater apartment watching television when the phone rang. The caller identified himself as a detective with the Henrico County police. He said that two men had been charged with the murder of Thaddeus Mudd.
“I bet one of them was Kevin Wilkerson,” Bert Mudd said.
In January, a Henrico County grand jury will hear evidence against Wilkerson and his accomplice, a 38-year-old custodian named Jacob Kemp, on charges of murder and use of a firearm in a felony in the slaying of Thaddeus Mudd.
The motive turned out to be robbery after all, police told the family. The night of the murder, coins worth about $ 4,000 were stolen from a sock where Thaddeus Mudd had stashed part of his collection.
Police also believe that Thaddeus Mudd’s final act was to shoot one of the men who burst into his house to rob him on Aug. 21. When Jacob Kemp was arrested, at his apartment not far from Thaddeus Mudd’s home, he still carried a bullet in his wrist.
(Published in the St. Petersburg Times, Nov. 22, 1987)
Photograph by David von Diemar courtesy of unsplash.com