For survivors, cold case investigators and the public, solving old homicide cases offers the perfect win- win situation. Beyond the altruistic benefits, though, cold case squads provide a goldmine of good ink for law enforcement agencies. So what's the ultimate bad ink? Botched investigations. Lawmen will go to great lengths to hide their dirty laundry – such as Harris County Sheriff's Office Case No. 84-137640.
When Joe Floyd Collins awoke on October 12, 1984, he was exactly six weeks shy of his 46th birthday. Life expectancy tables generously offered him another 32 years on earth. On that autumn evening, as the sun sank over the Southeast Texas prairie, the squeeze of a trigger instantly changed the prospect of a long life into the reality of an early grave.
For the middle-aged man some knew as Floyd and others called Joe, luck was fast running out. But the robber who shot him had the unexpected good fortune to gain the oddest bedfellow — the Harris County Sheriff's Office.
Fumbling and stumbling from the outset, Texas's largest sheriff's department all but guaranteed a killer would get a free pass and Joe Floyd Collins's murder would wind up quickly — and quietly —in the cold case bin.
Even a quarter of a century later, Sgt. Eric Clegg said he had searched all of the Harris County Sheriff's Office’s cold cases from the 1980s. He couldn't find records of the one-of-a-kind robbery-murder at a liquor store in Huffman, a mix of suburbs and farms at the county's far northeast corner. In 2009, Clegg was one of two sergeants assigned to the cold case squad.
A year later, presented with the victim's name, a date, crime details and the actual Harris County Sheriff's Office case number, 84-137640, the sergeant acknowledged the case's existence and reopened the investigation.
Over time many reasons emerged to explain why Clegg would seek to keep the cold case locked in the deep freezer and out of public sight. And he may have inadvertently revealed in a 2011 news story that most likely he knew the case's status and whereabouts all along.
Today case files and other official records detailing Joe Floyd Collins's murder remain off limits to this writer's eyes. But a review of the few available documents, along with recent witness recollections, provides ample information to lay bare the string of Harris County Sheriff's Office blunders that torpedoed and sank the investigation into the liquor store owner's death.
The Murder of Joe Floyd Collins
On that fateful fall day, it was mere chance that Joe Floyd Collins was working at all. Usually an employee ran his store. But Floyd had recently fired the clerk and could not find a stand-in for that Friday.
So he worked alone at his County Line Liquor, aptly named because the store occupied a 12-by-24-foot maroon portable metal building beside Farm-to-Market 1960 in far northeast Harris County, just 90 feet from neighboring Liberty County.
In the 1960s and 1970s, “Nineteen-sixty” was truly the Promised Land for the Houston area's unbounded opportunity and explosive suburban growth.
But that explosive growth had never spread east of Lake Houston. So County Line Liquor remained a forlorn outpost on a weeded postage stamp-sized lot squeezed between FM 1960 and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.
It shared far more with nearby bucolic Dayton, 12 miles farther east in Liberty County, than bustling urban Houston, 30 miles to the southwest. Although the nearest business was at least a mile away, it still seemed the ideal location for attracting thirsty customers from neighboring Liberty County's dry Precinct 4.
County Line Liquor's isolated location also made it a perfect target for a predator to strike with little fear of detection. For Collins, the shotgun he kept hidden behind the counter seemed to level the playing field. So he took his chances.
Despite Floyd's buckshot bravado, an emboldened gunman fired a single bullet into his stomach, grabbed the day's receipts — $30 or so — and abandoned the bleeding victim on the floor of his store.
In Huffman on that Fridayin October, the sun set at 6:53 p.m. In the twilight just after 7 p.m., customers Henry Zarsky and wife Norma from Liberty County's nearby Eastgate Community stopped by County Line Liquor. They were heading home after inspecting one of Henry's soybean fields.
Henry entered and walked to the cooler, grabbed a six-pack and hoisted it onto the counter. To his surprise, he spied Floyd lying mortally wounded on the floor in a spreading pool of crimson.
Hurrying to the door, Henry frantically summoned Norma. She called the Harris County Sheriff's Office.
Then the bleeding liquor store owner asked Norma to call his wife. So Norma dialed again. She passed on the urgent news to the victim's wife at her home in the Tanner Settlement near Hull in far northeast Liberty County. The message touched off a desperate race — a race that would have no winners.
Patricia Ann Collins, the wounded man's wife, dashed more than 30 miles diagonally across most of Liberty County, driving through three townsand countless traffic signals, to reach the liquor store.
She arrived to find no ambulance, no emergency medical technicians, no patrol cars, and no lawmen. Just a trio of somber onlookers. And a dead husband.
Somehow, when getting the address right meant life or death, the Harris County Sheriff's Office apparently dispatched emergency responders to an area almost 10 mileswest of the liquor store.
Such a dispatching error would spell disaster for paramedics and investigators alike — and for Joe Floyd Collins who would bleed to death awaiting help.
All along, that help had been available no more than four minutes away at Houston Fire Department Station 65, just 3.43 miles from County Line Liquor and the dying Joe Floyd Collins.
If Station 65 had gotten a call to the crime scene, emergency technicians might have been able to stanch the loss of precious blood, infuse vital fluids, minimize the effects of shock and summon a Life Flight helicopter.
So Floyd mighthave had a chance to live. Those chances can't be independently assessed now because the HCSO, through the Texas Attorney General's Office, blocked release of Collins's autopsy results.
Deputies were not at the liquor store either. So the crime scene was not secured in a timely manner, possibly allowing onlookers to contaminate the store's interior and exterior areas.
But a single clue recovered at Floyd's autopsy — the bullet that took his life — should have been a real game-changer. It offered both a path to solving the crime and a second chance for the snake-bitten Harris County Sheriff's Office. This thimble-sized glob of lead promised to be the Holy Grail needed to unravel the mystery of the murder of Joe Floyd Collins.
Yet the tattletale clue was only half of the puzzle. Solving the riddle required finding the weapon that fired the fatal bullet.
Cracking the Cold Case
Collins's murder case had lain frozen for 25 years when, in 2009, an informant contacted the Harris County Sheriff's Office cold case squad to offer information about the case. He described the nature and location of the crime and identified a person of interest who had the means, motive and opportunity to commit the robbery-murder. That person had left the area about the time of the crime and made a telephone call to discuss the robbery-homicide.
And the informant revealed exactly where investigators could find the possible murder weapon, a revolver still available for testing decades after Floyd's murder.
Would a simple ballistics comparison mate the fatal bullet to the suspect weapon and unmask a killer? Would Joe Floyd Collins's long string of bad luck finally be coming to an end a quarter of a century after his murder?
Bad luck maynot have beenJoe Floyd Collins's best friend, but it was most certainly his lifelong close companion.
A Bad Luck Joe
In the 1970s and early 1980s, he would learn the fickle alchemy guiding his fortune and misfortune. While bad luck sometimes seemed to turn magically into good, more often than not Floyd's good luck took a dark turn.
Dorothy “Dottie” McMichael lived through those flip-flopping fortunes with Collins, whom she called Joe. She married Joe in the summer of 1977. Now more than 30 years divorced from Collins, from her Arkansas home Dottie shared information about her ex-husband. After suffering several strokes, Dottie searches carefully to find the right words to convey those memories.
Hailing from northeast Liberty County, Joe was the son of an abusive alcoholic father. After attending Hardin schools, Joe served in the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam.
The tempo of Joe Floyd Collins's tango with good and bad luck quickened in California in 1979. Married to Dottie for two years, Joe was involved in a car crash that would cripple him for the rest of his life.
“Around midnight he was drunk and driving on the interstate to his girl friend's house,” Dottie remembered. “Another drunk driver crossed the median and hit him head on.”
“Joe was hospitalized for a long time and bedridden for several months at home,” she said. “He ended up with a stiff elbow and a stiff knee that forced him to walk with a limp and a cane. He had little range of motion in his right shoulder. He was no longer capable of hanging drywall.”
Idled from work and enduring painful injuries, Joe turned increasingly to alcohol for relief. “He took to drinking all the time,” said Dottie, “usually a quart of Jack Daniel's every day.”
Collins sued the other driver. “While waiting for his lawsuit to come to court,” Dottie said, “Joe decided he wanted to live in Liberty County. We packed up everything and moved to Texas.”
In June of 1980, Collins won a $250,000 settlement in his lawsuit, minus $50,000 paid to his first wife for back child support.
According to an online inflation calculator, his share of that settlement would be worth $714,000 in 2012 dollars. Feeling that he had struck it rich, Joe went on a spending spree.
“He purchased a house in Hardin, a house full of furniture, new vehicles and two boats,” Dottie said.
Back in his native Liberty County, Joe and wife Dottie befriended entrepreneur Eddie Elliott and wife Phyllis of Dayton. In 1975, Elliott had seen a need and opened a new business in a portable building in Harris County just outside of the Liberty County line. He named it County Line Liquor.
“In 1981, Joe started working for Eddie at the liquor store,” Dottie recounted. “He was drinking continually and became more and more violent. I finally called it quits in 1982.”
That's the year Joe Floyd Collins struck his deal with friend Eddie Elliott. “The store was making good money,” recalled Elliott, who owns several real estate parcels and operates a septic tank business in Dayton. “Joe had been working there a year. He knew there was good money to be made.”
Collins jumped at the chance to spend some of the remaining money from his accident settlement to purchase Eddie's County Line Liquor. Eddie Elliott kept title to the tiny parcel of land, but Joe Floyd Collins owned the liquor business. Eddie sold the lot in 2012.
Dottie saw Joe one last time in September of 1984 after he asked her to join him for a drink. Apparently, she said, he just wanted to brag to her that “the bigwigs” wanted to induct him into their clique.
“Some of the things he said didn't make a lot of sense,” Dottie recalled. “He told me he was being checked out as a prospect to join 'the club.' He was on top of the world.”
As if on cue, three weeks later, on October 12, 1984, good luck once again changed to bad. Instead of living the additional 32 years cited in lifespan tables, Joe Floyd Collins would take a fatal bullet to his gut and tumble from the “top of the world” into a bottomless death pit.
A simple headline on an inside page of the Houston Chronicle's October 14, 1984 Sunday edition read: “Liquor store owner slain.” Three brief paragraphs followed.
The story caught my attention because I lived in the country perhaps 10 miles from the little liquor store. I had shopped there a few times for beer and spirits. Over the decades, I forgot many of the story's details. I would not set eyes on the story again for 27 years until I located it at the Houston Public Library in late 2011.
A former news reporter and editor, I understood the rhythm of crime stories — arrest, charge, indictment, trial and punishment. I expected the saga to unfold and conclude over time. But I never saw any follow-up. Still, I got an unexpected reminder that very day. In mid-afternoon, my telephone rang.
A Person of Interest
“Hey, Jim,” said the caller. I recognized the voice of a family member, L.R. “Matt” Matthews. “Have you heard anything about someone getting killed in a robbery at the liquor store out on Nineteen-sixty?” Matt asked. Like me, he was obviously familiar with the store.
“Yes,” I replied. “I just read about it in the newspaper this morning. Isn't that something? You still staying at your mother's?”
“No,” he said. “I'm back home in Pasadena.”
After a little more small-talk, werang off. Almost immediately I began to feel a vague uneasiness about the call. Matt, a confirmed 36-year-old alcoholic awaiting trial and sentencing for his first driving-under-the-influence charge, had been staying for perhaps two weeks at his mother's home near Dayton.
Once again he had been banished from his own home in Pasadena for threatening the lives of his wife and children during a drunken rage. And now he had returned suddenly and unexpectedly to that home close on the heels of the liquor store robbery-murder.
Even with little to buttress my suspicions, I realized he could have been the robber who murdered the store owner. Motive-means-opportunity is a starting point but qualifies, at best, as circumstantial evidence and certainly can't prove guilt.
Matt had the motive — he was usually broke and always craved alcohol. He had the means — a .38-caliber pistol that once belonged to his deceased policeman father. And he had the opportunity — staying just eight miles from County Line Liquor. The closest liquor store to his mother's house, it was likely where he bought his Canadian whiskey.
And when he drank, he took on an overriding aura of superiority. Was he calling me to gauge whether the murder was getting its due publicattention?
From that moment, L.R. Matthews became my “person of interest.” My thoughts boiled down to a simple notion: Contact the Harris County Sheriff's Office and lead them to the suspect weapon. A ballistics test would easily determine if the revolver had fired the bullet that killed the liquor store owner.
If it matched and my suspicions proved correct, the case could be solved. If not, the HCSO could keep searching for the killer. And I would have done my civic duty.
But, having little more than a vague hunch, I demurred. I still hoped for information about the crime. Years passed, then decades. News about the fatal crime was as dead as the victim. Yet, it dogged my mind. Had it been solved? Had I simply missed the news?
From the mid-1980s and through the 1990s, Matthews continued to amass DUI charges, threaten the lives of family members and get banished from his Pasadena home. He became a regular guest of the Harris County Jail and Texas Department of Criminal Justice prisons.
When not incarcerated, he bounced from job to job, frequently working for meager commissions at fireworks stands during the Fourth of July and Christmas-New Year’s holidays.
Finally, in 1999, Matt was arrested in Williamson County near Austin for his eighth DUI. He would soon learn why Williamson County has a reputation for refusing to coddle drunk drivers. He was held in jail until 2000 when the court sentenced him to 35 years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Paroled in 2006, he stayed for a time at a half-way house, then moved once again into his mother's house. By the end of the year, she would be dead and Matt would share in her estate.
In early 2008 when Matt chose to sell his share of his mother's farm, I volunteered to drive him to Liberty County to arrange for a real estate agent's services.
Knowing our trip would carry us past the liquor store site, I casually recounted my memories of the crime. Of course I didn't remind him of our long-ago telephone conversation or mention my suspicions about him. I timed the story to finish just as we passed the now-empty lot.
At the instant I finished, without even a one-second pause between my voice and his, Matt said: “Well, I can guarantee you that's one liquor store I've never been in.”
It was clear that instead of truly listening to my story he had been forming a diversionary answer and sprang it at the earliest opportunity.
To me, the speed of his response jolted me from the plausible and possible squarely into the probable. Matthews had expressed no sympathy or empathy for the murder victim and survivors. Instead, he seemed bent on tailoring his reply to distance himself from the crime scene— and from the crime.
But I recalled that he and I had once stopped at the liquor store to buy beer. And I clearly remembered that long-ago telephone call zeroing in on the liquor store robbery-murder. His hasty disclaimer set off alarm bells in my head.
In that instant, I resolved to carry out my plan to contact the Harris County Sheriff's Office and bare my suspicions. In this unscripted crime saga in which Matt had long ago emerged as the person of interest, I would finally become the informant.
Elected to his first term, Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia reactivated the department's cold case squad in 2009.Garcia named Sgt. Eric Clegg to the squad. In November of 2012, Harris County voters re-elected Garcia to a second term, and the squad remained active.
In 2009, fulfilling the pledge to myself, I shared with Sgt. Clegg what I could remember about the murder.
- The crime was a robbery-homicide.
- It occurred at a liquor store.
- The location was the Harris-Liberty County line on FM 1960.
- It happened in the mid-1980s.
- The victim was the liquor store owner.
- I supplied the name, address and vital statistics of Matt, my “person of interest.”
- I also gave the current location of Matt's .38-caliber revolver.
Here are the facts I didn't recall:
- The victim's name.
- The liquor store's name.
- The store's address.
- The exact date of the crime.
In a follow-up phone conversation, Sgt. Clegg said: “I searched all cold case records from the 1980s, and I can't locate this case. Call me if you find additional information.”
It was as if the sergeant was saying the crime had never occurred. But I knew better. My memory may not have been perfect, but I certainly didn't have a history of inventing or imagining events. His lack of interest perplexed me, and I vowed to ferret out the information he said he couldn't find.
Over the next year, I spent uncountable hours searching the Internet and Harris County records and talking to Huffman old timers for any mention of the robbery-homicide at the liquor store. The result? Nothing. It was if Joe Floyd Collins and any memory of him had simply, well, vaporized.
Finally, in June of 2010, a full year after I first contacted Clegg, I placed this personal want ad in the Liberty Vindicator, a weekly print and online newspaper serving Liberty County: “Seeking info on mid-80s liquor store robbery/murder at Harris-Liberty County line on FM 1960. Need to know victim's name, store name, approximate date of crime, whether solved.” The ad included a phone number and an email address. I paid for the ad to run an entire month.
The ad produced near-instant results. On the first day it appeared, on June 10, 2010, a title company manager from Liberty responded to the ad and telephoned me. Although caller Angela DeDear couldn't recall the exact date of the crime, she knew the name of the murdered liquor store owner.
The victim was her step-father, Joe Floyd Collins. He had owned County Line Liquor at exactly the location I had described to Sgt. Clegg. And Floyd's wife was Angela's mother, Patricia Ann Collins, who had made that futile cross-country dash to her dead husband's side so many years ago. Angela and her mother had always called him Floyd.
Armed with these revelations, I immediately searched Internet sites to verify the information and find the date of the crime. The RootsWeb site quickly produced the victim's name and the crucial date of his death — October 12, 1984.
Passed on by phone to Harris County Archivist Sarah Canby Jackson, C.A., the date of death and a name led her quickly to a handwritten entry in the Harris County Medical Examiner's intake log for October 12, 1984. It read: “Joe Floyd Collins. WM/43. GSW of the abdomen. Hom.” Translation: White male, 43 years old. Gunshot wound of the abdomen. Homicide.
The entry also revealed that a single .38-caliber slug was removed from Collins at autopsy and turned over to HCSO Homicide Detective R.S. “Ronnie” Phillips. Thus began the evidentiary chain of custody, a critical milestone in criminal investigations.
For me, the medical examiner’s log gave the first revelation that the murder weapon indeed had been a .38-caliber pistol, the same type of pistol available to Matthews, my person of interest, that I had described to Sgt. Clegg a year earlier.
Ms. Jackson also forwarded a one-page document titled, “Medical Examiner's Investigation.” Although far short of investigators' full case files, it summarized the crime details:
According to Detective Phillips, the decedent was the owner and operator of a liquor store at the above location (Identified as the 5000 block of FM 1960 East at the Huffman-Eastgate Road). The decedent was found on floor behind counter still alive with gunshot wound to abdomen at 7:05 p.m., by a customer, Norma Zarsky, who called Harris County Sheriff's Office. The decedent expired in the presence of Ms. Zarsky and two unknown Caucasian males while waiting for ambulance. The cash register was open and all folding money was missing from register.
Angela DeDear would tell me 25 years later that the killer got perhaps $30 for his efforts.
The report also contained the Harris County Sheriff's Office case number — 84-137640. I immediately telephoned Sgt. Eric Clegg and relayed the newly uncovered information. I forwarded him copies of the documents Ms. Jackson had unearthed.
Given these documents detailing the robbery-homicide, Clegg excused his earlier failure to locate the case's records, saying: “I didn't have an address.”
At last, gifted with the case's critical information, Clegg had an address. But it was the wrong address. There is no 5000 FM 1960 East in Huffman.
Re-Opening Cold Case No. 84-137640
So,confronted in June of 2010 with the Harris County Sheriff's Office case number and no longer able to deny the case's existence, Sgt. Clegg agreed to reopen the robbery-homicide case. He assigned Homicide Detective Anthony J. Kelly to the investigation.
Immediately I felt a tremendous sense of relief. At long last I expected a quick resolution to my suspicions. Either the bullet recovered at Joe's autopsy would match L.R. Matthew's .38 revolver. Or it would not.
The first two monthsof therenewed investigation into Joe Floyd Collins's death passed quietly. Then, in September of 2010, in a phone call, Detective A.J. Kelly dropped a bombshell: The bullet that killed Floyd, removed at autopsy soon after his murder, could not be found.
In a flash, my optimism changed to despair. The solution I sensed so close at hand suddenly seemed remote, light years away. A black hole had opened and swallowed forever any chance that the Harris County Sheriff's Office had the ability to thaw and solve this frozen murder case.
Without a doubt the fatal bullet was the Harris County Sheriff's Office’s most important clue in its investigation of Joe Floyd Collins's murder. How could such valuable evidence disappear? I was stunned.
Kelly's Harris County Sheriff's Office homicide division didn't have the bullet, but the detective did have a story. In 1984, Kelly said, the Harris County Sheriff's Office — the state's largest sheriff's department and third-largest in the entire nation — didn't possess its own ballistics testing water tank. Instead, he said, the sheriff's office relied on the Houston Police Department's tank.
Kelly said Harris County Sheriff's Office Detective Ronnie Phillips received the bullet from the Harris County Medical Examiner's office, now the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. He passed it to the HPD crime lab. And the HPD crime lab, he said, promptly lost the bullet.
“I'm sure you've heard on TV that the Houston Police Department's crime lab has had a lot of problems in the last few years,” Kelly ventured.
But the Houston Police Department's Lt. Alan Harris wasn't nearly as anxious to let his office get thrown under the bus for losing the bullet. In 2011,Harris headed the HPD's homicide evidence room.
And after reviewing his department's records, he offered a far different outcome in the short-lived history of the Harris County Sheriff's Office’s mysterious .38-caliber slug.
Yes, he said, Detective Phillips delivered the evidence to the HPD not long after Collins's autopsy. Then Phillips picked up the bullet the very next day. Phillips retired at age 73 from the Harris County Sheriff's Office on December 31, 2008 and could not be located for comment.
Wherever the fault for losing the evidence ultimately lies, one of law enforcement's most basic investigative tools — the chain-of-custody protocol — was violated. Big time.
This rule requires documenting and cataloging evidence and its movement from the time it is first gathered until it is used in investigations and trials and beyond through the appeals process. This precaution ensures that evidence remains untainted and can fend off legal challenges.
Lost within days of the crime, the missing bullet meant that, short of an unlikely confession from out of the blue, Joe Floyd Collins's killer likely could never be called to account. This cold case had become frigid.
And it appears that Sgt. Clegg tried to make sure the Harris County Sheriff's Office would never be called to account either. His claim to me in 2009 that he had searched all Harris County Sheriff's Office’s cold cases from the 1980s without locating the Collins case proves, at best, to be shaky.
In a Houston Chronicle story in December of 2011, Clegg praised cold case squad clerk Rebecca Sweetman for keeping track of all the squad's 541 cold cases. “She knows those cases,” Clegg told Chronicle reporter Anita Hassan. “She's just a wealth of information.”
Most likely neither Sgt. Clegg nor Rebecca Sweetman could have overlooked a crime so unique that no similar crime had occurred in the Harris County Sheriff's Office’s jurisdiction in the 1980s.(Houston Chronicle, “Cold case unit clerk an integral part of the team,” Dec. 9, 2011.
However, the Collins crime closely matches a similar case that occurred in 1986 just one and a half miles from the Pasadena home of Matt, my person of interest. An unknown assailant mortally wounded and robbed liquor store owner Eang Peng Ngov, taking $1,000 just two days before Christmas. That case also remains cold.
Questions about the unsolved case brought an odd response – and little interest – from the Pasadena Police Department's cold case squad Detective R.R. Rogge.
Two weeks after revealing that the bullet that killed Floyd had been lost, Detective A.J. Kelly sent me an email on October 22, 2010 closing the investigation into Matthew's possible role in Joe Floyd Collins's murder. It read:
There has been no further development in regards to this investigation. Additional research has not provided any additional information or evidence which links (Matthews) to this homicide. I, along with SERGEANT CLEGG have discussed this case as well as the new information provided by you and concluded that the only way to proceed, if at all, would be to approach (Matthews) cold. Without any additional information or probable cause this may be more detrimental to the investigation than good. The new information has been included in the case file, and if in fact (Matthews) is in anyway involved, hopefully another avenue will present itself to investigators . . .
The email made no mention of the missing crucial evidence, the phantom slug that killed Joe Floyd Collins.
Suspect Dies of Overdose – Questions Remain
In another two weeks, in the early morning of November 5, 2010, at age 62 Matt would be pronounced dead at Montgomery County's Conroe Regional Medical Center. Attending physicians said his death was caused by mixing alcohol and a powerful prescription pain medication. Given his many addictions, his death came as no surprise.
Many questions remain, but a few cry out for answers. Were there other serious blunders or omissions in the investigation of Joe Floyd Collins's murder? Although records aren't public, other sources offer a glimpse into the case.
Angela DeDear, Collins's step-daughter who responded to my personal want ad andprovided the initial information that resulted in reopening the murder case, noted a potentially huge lapse.Investigators at the crime scene didn't gather the customer tabs that Floyd kept. The names on those credit slips should have been checked by investigators. Could Matt's name have been on one of those slips?
Angela also recalled that her mother, Patricia Ann Collins, told her that husband Floyd's shotgun, found with him in the liquor store, had been fired. Supporting that assertion, the last sentence in the Chronicle story of October 14, 1984 reads: “Collins is believed to have shot at his assailants but it was not known whether anyone was hit . . .”(Houston Chronicle, “Liquor store owner slain," Oct. 14, 1984.)
Asked about the shotgun, Detective A.J. Kelly pleaded ignorance. Had the shotgun been fired and had the assailant indeed been wounded, providing blood evidence that, properly preserved, could have revealed the killer's DNA decades later? Are the remaining case files still intact?
Norma Zarsky, the customer who first called the Harris County Sheriff's Office and then phoned Patricia Ann Collins, had remained with husband Henry at the liquor store during the investigation. In an interview from her Eastgate home, she said she saw the shotgun in a patrol car at the scene.
She also said that Harris County Sheriff's Office homicide investigators never contacted her or husband Henry for follow-up interviews.
So what are the chances that Joe Floyd Collins's murder, plucked randomly from 540 or so cold cases, could be the only Harris County Sheriff's Office case bungled into oblivion? A handful of cases? Or many? Odds greatly favor the notion that other cases lie hidden from public review deep in the cold case freezer for similar embarrassing reasons.
Finally, what internal checks and balances exist in the Harris County Sheriff's Office to police and punish its own? Could the department's right to seal records from public scrutiny also conveniently shield the Harris County Sheriff's Office from lapses in the quality of its investigations?
Whatever the answers, the botched investigation into the robbery-murder of Joe Floyd Collins leads to at least one inescapable conclusion: In a homicide case so riddled with careless miscues and missteps, the Harris County Sheriff's Office rendered itself totally impotent to uphold its sworn duty. Did Floyd's fickle luck or the Harris County Sheriff's Office’s gross negligence cause this law enforcement debacle?
Guess how Joe Floyd Collins would answer. If only he could.
Code of Silence
Robbery-homicides are rare at liquor stores in the greater Houston area. A check of archived stories in the Houston Chronicle turned up a single liquor store robbery-homicide from 1985-1990. (Houston Chronicle, “Murder suspect sought,” Dec. 25, 1986.)
And it occurred in Pasadena just a mile or so from the home of L.R. Matthews, the person of interest in the Joe Floyd Collins robbery-murder case.
In 1986, just two days before Christmas, a gunman entered P & H Liquor Store at 7341 Spencer Highway, shot owner Eang Peng Ngov in the head and took about $1,000 from the cash register. A Life Flight helicopter flew Ngov, 36, to Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston where he died from his wound.
Just as in the Joe Floyd Collins case, a customer found Ngov bleeding on the floor behind the counter. The Cambodian native had operated the store for 10 years. Besides his widow, he was survived by a 4-year-old child.
And, like the Collins case, no follow-up news stories of Ngov's death ever appeared, signaling that the case had gone cold.
In an attempt to learn if the two similar cases were related, this writer contacted the Pasadena Police Department's Detective R.R. Rogge, who alone made up that agency's cold case squad in 2011.
The writer explained his interest in the case and related details about Collins's murder to the detective.
At the beginning, Rogge proved helpful, noting that an initial check failed to turn up evidence in the Ngov case. He promised to look deeper.
When contacted a few weeks later, however, his attitude had taken a one-eighty. His hostile comments indicated he had talked to an unnamed Harris County Sheriff's Office cold case detective about the Collins case.
Referring to both the Collins and Ngov cases, he admonished the writer that both cases were very old. Dredging them up, he said, might upset survivors. And Matt, the person of interest, had died and could never be prosecuted anyway. Rogge also said that it might be impossible to locate survivors.
At the time, the Pasadena Police Department's Web site featured four cold cases, three of which were older than both the Collins and Ngov cases.
And far from upsetting survivors, a basic premise of cold case squads is to solve old crimes and bring closure to survivors. If cold case squads held back due to concern over upsetting survivors, the squads would probably lose the public's confidence.
As for closing cold cases only through prosecution, any resolution is preferable to no resolution. And finding the likely address and phone number of Ngov’s widow’s took a 10-minute search of an online directory.
Ngov's autopsy report revealed he had been shot in the head, the bullet passing “through and through.” So the fatal bullet was not found during the autopsy. Detective Rogge would not reveal if the bullet was recovered at the crime scene or whether it remains in evidence files today.
Perhaps the Ngov case shares yet another similarity to the Collins murder. Like Collins, Ngov too may have been killed by a disappearing bullet. And, like Collins, he may have been the victim of a botched police investigation.