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Mother’s push for justice ends

Eleanor Walker wasn’t able to hang on long enough to see justice done for her murdered daughter. Her 70-year old, disease-ravaged body finally gave up last week, on the very same day that a court hearing was scheduled to set a date for her deposition, one she’d waited 30 years to give.

But if there is any cosmic or karmic justice, or universal justice, maybe Eleanor will be looking down from some other ethereal plane when the hammer falls on the man who kidnapped and murdered her beloved youngster.

I remember the case as clearly as if it happened yesterday, for the simple reason that it was the first murder victim I had ever seen. It was May 1981, my first weekend working as a part-timer at KLAS TV. Police had been desperately searching for 18 year old Jamey Walker, an honor student, cheelearder, and beauty queen, after she’d been kidnapped from her home on what used to be known as “the West Side.” Jamey’s family was royalty within the African American community. Her grandmother was civil rights leader and businesswoman Sarann Preddy. Her parents James and Eleanor owned a popular lounge, and Eleanor had been active in the fight for civil rights as well.

Police believe the kidnappers used someone who knew Jamey to con their way into her house and snatch the young woman. Hours later, a call was placed to the People’s Choice Lounge and a voice that sounded like a black male told James Walker that he needed to pay $75,000 for Jamey’s safe return. For a variety of reasons, the payment was never made. On Mothers Day, May 10, 1981, a body was spotted at the bottom of a bridge on Northshore Road, out near Lake Mead. Someone had tossed Jamey off the side and she died when she crashed into the rocks below. The body was still there on the rocks when photographer Rich Travis and I arrived.

That image is a tough one to shake.

From the very first day after the kidnapping, Eleanor Walker always believed that one of the suspected three people involved in the kidnapping was a much-feared heavyweight boxer named Willie “The Cannon” Shannon. He lived in the neighborhood, had previously been sniffing around Jamey, asking questions about her, and had a reputation in the community as someone who had imposed his will on other young women who came into his orbit. Homicide detective Dave Hatch, who was at the murder scene, interviewed Shannon as a possible suspect but wasn’t able to tie him to the crime. In fact, Metro had too many suspects for one case, as numerous leads and theories poured in from people who knew Jamey.

But Eleanor was always sure Shannon was the culprit. As the years dragged on with no arrests, the investigation was passed along to the Cold Case team. At least seven different detectives worked it over the years, including Dave Hatch, who was reassigned to the cold case unit after his semi-retirement. And every one of those cold case cops heard from Eleanor Walker about her suspicions, about Willie the Cannon.

Eleanor was tireless when it came to keeping Jamey’s memory alive. She not only kept in touch with police, but she dropped notes and requests for help to local reporters, including this one. Over the years, I have written occasional updates on the case, and every time I would speak with Eleanor, she would give me new information about Shannon and where he might be living at the time.

About a decade ago, for one of our updates, we took Eleanor Walker out to Northshore Road to the spot where her daughter’s battered body had been found. It was the first time she’d been there and it was a very emotional experience for her, as you might imagine. It was pretty rough on the TV crew too because Eleanor broke down while standing on the bridge. There weren’t any dry eyes out there that day. It was a similarly emotional experience a few years late when we accompanied Eleanor and her son, James, during a visit to a Jamey’s gravesite on what would have been the murdered daughter’s 47th birthday. We aired another update, tried to keep the case alive and help the police gather any new leads that might still be out there.

Finally, thanks to a grant to Metro police, the homicide team had enough money to conduct DNA tests on some samples taken from the original crime scene. It had not been widely publicized at the time, but there was evidence Jamey had been sexually assaulted before she was thrown off the bridge. Detectives used some creative measures to obtain a DNA sample from none other than Willie Shannon, who was living in Florida at the time. Eleanor crossed her fingers and waited for months as the slow DNA testing was done.

It was a match.

The semen sample taken from Jamey’s body matched DNA from Willie Shannon. Eleanor’s suspicions seemed like they had been right all along. Shannon, who had served time for raping one girl and had been mentioned as a suspect in other sexual assaults, resisted extradition, but in 2011, Metro was finally able to extricate him from Florida. He’s been sitting in the Clark County jail ever since.

Buoyed by this development, Eleanor continued to pursue other leads, hoping to help strengthen the case against Shannon by finding witnesses who might corroborate the sketchy descriptions offered by the original eyewitnesses. But as the months passed, her body grew weaker. She wanted so desperately to hang on long enough to testify at a murder trial, and presumably to see Shannon convicted, but it wasn’t meant to be. There were the usual delays, not all of them by the defense. Eleanor was also a source of some delays. Her much-anticipated deposition had to be postponed a few times because her health continued to deteriorate.

Last week, she gave up the fight….on this ethereal plane anyway. Prosecutors will not be able to use Eleanor’s taped statements during the trial, assuming there IS a trial. But they should have plenty of opportunity to let the jury know what Jamey’s mother always suspected about Shannon because she made so many public statements about the case over the years, many of which are recorded forever.

Eleanor never gave up trying to bring her daughter’s killer to justice, and neither did Metro homicide. The DA’s office has made it clear that they understand the significance of having the Shannon ball in their court, and they are not going to let Eleanor down.

GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8.