A woman’s "blood-curdling scream" wailed across the lagoon at Pinhook Park in South Bend, Indiana, startling a seven-year-old girl named Paula, alone with her two-year-old brother at a campsite. In the dead of night on June 24, 1988, Paula said, she heard the woman pleading for her life, followed by more screams.
A couple of hours earlier, Paula’s mother, her mom’s boyfriend and her other sibling, six-year-old Bobby, had left the campsite to buy some food, according to a recently filed criminal complaint in Indiana’s St. Joseph County. When the trio returned, Paula "vividly remembered that all three were covered in blood." After burning the blood-soaked clothes and cleaning up thick crimson stains from the boyfriend’s van, Paula and her family departed Pinhook Park, she recalled.
About six days later, in an embankment near the lagoon, searchers discovered the body of Miriam Rice, a 28-year-old suburban mom of a three-year-old child who was four months pregnant. The same night Paula heard screams, Rice had gone missing during one of her evening walks with her dog. A coroner determined someone had killed Rice with multiple and blunt force trauma to the head.
Rice’s brutal slaying remained a mystery for nearly three decades—until last month, when St. Joseph County Prosecutor Kenneth Cotter charged 77-year-old ex-con George Kearney and 56-year-old Barbara Brewster, his former girlfriend and Paula’s and Bobby’s mother, with murder. Kearney had been in custody for weeks, and on Monday, a judge ruled Brewster be held without bond following her extradition over the weekend from Weaver, Alabama, where she was living. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Her children, now adults whose names are Paula Brooks and Robert South, are the key eyewitnesses whose statements helped cold-case detectives find probable cause against Kearney and Brewster. It’s an unlikely breakthrough for a homicide case that has been dormant for so long, according to crime experts—one made all the more complicated and unlikely given the familial ties at play.
"Most of these cases are solved through connections of DNA techniques and recanvassing the cases,” Jason Dickinson, a Montclair State University psychology professor specializing in child and adult eyewitness testimony, told me. “Insofar as cold cases being solved by eyewitnesses who were children at the time the crime took place, something like that is a rare occurrence."
Michael Benza, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University and expert on criminal procedure, agreed. "Normally, we don’t see eye witnesses coming forward this long after a crime," he said. "You have other kinds of issues as well. Like, how reliable is the testimony, especially when the witnesses were children when the murder took place. People have trouble remembering key details."
Dickinson added that investigators will obviously do what they can to bolster eyewitness testimony by corroborating as much of it as possible. "Those details will increase the credibility of the witnesses’ memories," he said. "As an investigator, I would also look to see if there is anything influencing their testimony and what is the reason they are now coming forward as adults."
Still, this one looks pretty cut-and-dried.
Speaking via phone from her home in Middleboro, Kentucky, Brewster's sister Helen Patrin said her family has been living with the deep dark secret of Rice's murder for almost 30 years. "Both Paula and Bobby were traumatized," Patrin told me. "Bobby was in really bad shape. I ended up raising both of them because my sister just does whatever she wants to do. She disappeared in 1995 and I didn’t see her again until 2009, when my husband died."
According to the criminal complaint, Patrin was interviewed by investigators this year, and told them Brewster and Kearney dropped off Paula at her house after leaving the campsite. "Paula told her of the screaming and the blood," the complaint states. "[Patrin] stated that she did not know what to believe at ﬁrst. However, she stated that later that day, she saw on the news that Miriam Rice was missing."
Patrin also told detectives that she contacted Crime Stoppers—a program utilized by police departments across the country that allows people to provide anonymous information about unsolved crimes—the day Rice disappeared, and again when the body was found, to report what her niece had witnessed. A spokesman for umbrella organization Crime Stoppers USA did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.
"Helen Patrin opined that perhaps she wasn’t believed because of Paula’s age," the complaint states. Records confirmed that Helen Patrin contacted Crime Stoppers with the information.
Patrin added that her sister and Kearney were both on probation when Rice was murdered and were questioned by their probation officer about the homicide. "It didn’t do any good," she said. "He let them go and that was the end of it." (An online search of St. Joseph County’s clerk of courts records under Brewster’s maiden name Flowers and two other last names she has used did not turn up any criminal convictions against her prior to 1988).
Tim Corbett, the headline-generating commander of the St. Joseph County Metro Homicide Unit, conceded that police "looked at" Kearney and Brewster in 1988, but told me they were not considered prime suspects at the time. "The thing is with these unsolved cases, we get calls all the time," Corbett said. "We get pulled in a lot of different directions."
The Rice case was bumped around from one agency to another, further complicating the investigation. It was originally assigned to the South Bend Police Department. In 1993, the case was reassigned to the special crimes unit in St. Joseph County, where it languished for 22 years, per the complaint. In 2015, St. Joseph’s newly-formed cold case unit took over the investigation and went to work revisiting leads, according to Corbett.
"We developed this squad with some guys who were retired and probably bored of sitting on their asses," Corbett said. "It has been very successful and we have solved several cold cases."
According to the complaint, the first break occurred on March 9, 2016 when Kearney gave a voluntary statement to cold-case investigators claiming he wanted "to clear the air' after receiving letters in prison from Brewster’s daughter Paula Brooks questioning his involvement in Rice’s death. In 1989, Kearney was hit with a 40-year sentence following his conviction for felony child molestation, according to Indiana’s online offender database.
During the police interview, Kearney recounted how he, Brewster, and her son Bobby were in his van when they saw Rice running along Pinhook Park's pavilion. Kearney said Brewster "got something out of a black bag and ran after the woman."
He lost sight of his female companion and the woman, but heard her scream, Kearney told investigators. "When Brewster returned, she had blood on her hands," the complaint reads. "He further stated that Brewster washed her hands off in the lagoon."
Investigators subsequently interviewed Brooks, her brother Robert South, and their aunt Helen. Brooks, now 37, gave her account, including the screams she heard, the trio returning to the campsite covered in blood, and how her mother made her clean blood off the van’s interior. Her brother, however, provided detectives with key details about Rice’s final moments on earth.
The 35-year-old South said Kearney pulled the van over and grabbed Rice, who fought back. "Kearney smashed her head into the side of the van and then forced Miriam Rice into the van," the complaint states. "Kearney began yelling at Brewster to kill Miriam Rice."
South then saw his mother "continually beat Miriam Rice about the head with some tools" while "a substantial amount of blood was splashing about the van, including upon him," according to the complaint. Traumatized by the murder his entire life, he never spoke to anyone about the murder because Kearney had threatened to kill him if he did, South told investigators.
On February 15, cold case detectives tracked down Brewster, who admitted that she was present when Rice was killed. However, she denied any direct involvement in the murder, insisting Kearney overpowered Rice and rendered her unconscious in the van. "Kearney then drove her and her children back to Pinhook Park and dropped them off," the complaint says. "Miriam Rice was still unconscious in the van when Kearney left with her. Roughly 15 minutes later, Kearney returned without Miriam Rice," according to Brewster.
But Patrin, Brewster’s sister, believes both of them had a hand in Rice's demise. "If you ask me, I think my sister is guilty," she told me. "So is George. She is really something. And that man is pure evil."
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