On March 21, 2015, 32 year old Eric Cates and his beloved dog, Gypsy, were found murdered behind the old Empire School in the tiny Walker County town of Empire, AL. Hunters found their bodies burned in the cab of Eric’s truck. Their murders remain unsolved even though the crime is rumored to have been witnessed by a large crowd of people. In Season 2 of Secrets True Crime, Amber and private investigator, Michael Fleming with Echo 7 Foxtrot, LLCwill be digging into this case to help find who murdered Eric and Gypsy.
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Welcome to the 1st episode of season 2 of Secrets True Crime, The Eric Cates & Gypsy Story. I am your host, Amber Sitton. What is done in darkness will eventually come to light. That is the purpose of this podcast...to shine light on the story of Eric Cates, his beloved dog, Gypsy and the town of Empire, AL. Listener discretion is advised. The subject matter may involve violence, sexual content, murder and adult themes. It’s not suitable for younger listeners. Before we dive into the story, I have a quick announcement. This podcast is an independent podcast. That means that everything that goes into making this podcast is done and funded by me. All of the investigative tools and resources are provided by Echo 7 Foxtrot. The tragedies we highlight and investigate have had a tremendous impact on the victims' loved ones and friends. We don't burden them with additional expenses to cover their cases--we donate our time and talents because we want to help and hope to find the answers they need that are long overdue. We are launching a Patreon membership group. For as little as $5 per month, you can receive exclusive access to members only photos, videos, early access to episodes and much, much more. By becoming a patron, you too are helping us help these families. Your support as a patron of Secrets True Crime Podcast helps us cover the expenses associated with producing a high quality podcast, traveling to conduct fieldwork and interviews, and obtaining the tools and equipment needed to conduct a thorough investigation. In short, your support as a patron allows us to do MORE for these families. Become a patron of Secrets True Crime Podcast today and let’s solve these cases TOGETHER. www.patreon.com/secretscrime. I’ll also post the link on our Facebook page.
On March 21st, 2015, 32 year old Eric Cates and his faithful 4 legged companion Gypsy were found burned in the cab of Eric’s white Chevrolet S 10 pickup truck behind the old Empire school in the tiny little Walker County town of Empire, AL. To date, their murders remain unsolved.
Before we go any further, for you to understand the story you are going to hear, we have to talk about Walker County, Alabama. It is located in the northwest part of the state and is approximately 22 miles from Birmingham. You can’t talk about Walker County without acknowledging the major drug problem that is plaguing the county. The Washington Post obtained startling data from the DEA regarding opioid pain pill prescriptions. It’s the first time the DEA has made such detailed information available. The amount of data obtained by the Washington Post is extensive and they’ve set some parameters to make this information available to other journalists because the information they obtained is so important. On August 1st, 2019, the Montgomery Advertiser published an article titled Avalanche of opioids: Why are millions of pills prescribed in rural Walker County? This article states that the DEA data pinpoints Walker County as the epicenter of Alabama’s crisis, and as one of the worst counties in the nation for opioid abuse, with just a dozen or so counties in the nation with a higher pill-per-person rate. Per the data obtained from the DEA by the Washington Post, from 2006 to 2012, there were 66,421,493 prescription opioid pain pills filled at pharmacies in Walker County, AL. That’s enough for each person in all of Walker County to receive 140 pills per person per year. David’s Discount Pharmacy in Sumiton, AL received the highest number of opioid pills. They received 9,017,650 opioid pills which is at least double every other pharmacy in the county except for 1. Hospital Discount Pharmacy received the 2nd highest number of opioid pills in the county at 5,225,710. AL.com used the DEA data provided by the Washington Post to write multiple news stories and one of them noted that 4 of the top 10 Alabama cities or towns for opioid rate are in Walker County. I’m sharing all this so that you can fully grasp the struggle Walker County is facing. There are many places fighting drug problems but the DEA data proves that there are few places in the United States with a drug problem more severe and widespread than Walker County. The drug epidemic is part of what makes Walker County such a unique place. From all we’ve learned and what we’ve seen during our trips there, I think it’s safe to say you’d have a hard time locating someone in the county who’s life hasn’t been significantly impacted by the drug epidemic in one way or another. And there are many good, hardworking, salt of the earth people in Walker County enduring the drug haven it has become. Prescription opioids are only part of the problem. Meth is quite prevalent along with some heroin and cocaine.
In 2018, the people of Walker County elected a new sheriff and January 2019, Sheriff Nick Smith took office.
Nick Smith: (36:51)
I mean I'm 30, I'm youngest year from the state of Alabama. I beat an incumbent sheriff, it's hard to beat a beat, an incumbent,
Nick Smith: (36:01)
we have a lot overdoses. We have, uh, you know, we were listed as a number one in the state for drug-related deaths, 5th in the country. Um, those numbers seem to be coming down, but you know, at one time, I mean, we were about 2017 when you were right at the top.
Sheriff Smith made many promises of change in his campaign but one of his biggest was his promise to the people of Walker County to get the drug dealers out of their communities and the drugs off the streets. It seems he is working towards living up to that promise. The Walker County Sheriff’s Office just released the stats for the 1st 3 quarters of the year for drug arrests. In 2019, they’ve made 595 drug related arrests.
Another thing to note is that Walker County has an abundance of missing people and far too many unsolved murders.
Nick Smith: (15:20)
Um, you know, um, there's, we've probably got, like I told you, 30 or 40 missing people, you know, you, if you start talking about the last, just probably the last 15 years.
Nick Smith: (36:45)
but people really don't understand. Um, and we're getting ready to do a series with, with the mountain Eagle on all the missing people that we have in Walker County. And there's a lot that just don't have attention. There's some that I don't even know about, you know, that I'm not aware of that we haven't really had a chance to sit and dig in because not only are they having, you know, we're dealing with current events and I would take me somebody having someone full time. I hold a vision. I didn't, I would need to be staffed for the whole division of nothing, but people who just went and investigated cold cases, that's how many that we have. Um, we'll never financially get to there. Um, but you know, my goals are to eventually have one full time dedicated person that does that. Right now we just hired someone part time that's been working here for a couple of weeks. It's starting to do that. And my oldest, the goal is to convert them into a full time position.
To give a little perspective, I wanted to see how many missing people there are in other Alabama counties and compare the populations. Walker County has a population of just over 64,000. Shelby County has a population of almost 217,000 people and it has 5 missing people dating back to 1975. Jefferson County has 659,000 people and 34 missing people. Elmore County has a population of almost 82,000 people and 6 missing persons. One of Walker County’s neighbors, Blount County has a similar population of 58,000 people and has 5 missing persons. The huge number of missing people in Walker County is NOT within what I’d consider to be anything even close to a normal range when compared to numerous other Alabama counties. Once we heard just how many missing there are, Michael and I began to look for a complete list but we quickly came to the realization that there isn’t one. At least not that we’ve been able to find. The majority of these missing people have never been added to the NamUs database and only a handful of them are listed on the Charley Project website. We began to build a list of our own and asked for help to get all the names of the missing. We still don’t have a list that is anywhere near complete but have been able to compile the names of at least 20 something missing persons so far.
I’m sure some of you are wondering why I’m talking about missing people when this podcast is about Eric Cates and Gypsy and they aren’t missing. Well, Michael and I didn’t get too far into this case before we realized that quite a few of these missing people could be related to the murder of Eric Cates in one way or another.
Nick Smith: (09:21)
you know, there's a certain area in there in East Walker County and, um, uh, and I don't, I don't know why it's that way, but, um, it seems to be a hotbed the area over an empire. I mean, there's a lot of current missing people that have disappeared from, from empire and for whatever reasons they haven't been located. You know, I don't know if it's because it's access to the river there. I don't understand, you know, but I feel like there's a circle of individuals there that are all involved in the same activity. Um, and they, and they are to some extent that, that that circle in that one area right there in the middle of all of it
As we get further into the story, you are going to hear a lot about the town of Empire and you’ll often hear it referred to as the east walker county area when they are including the town of Sipsey. Both towns have significant problems with drugs and associated crimes but from an outsiders view, Empire IS the hotbed. Empire has a population of less than 2,500 people. You’ve all heard that saying big things come in small packages? Well in Empire, big crimes happen in this tiny, little town. Drugs, murder, assaults, and arson are pretty common occurances. I’ve had more than one person tell me that if you make the wrong person mad around Empire, they will burn your house down. Here is what Sheriff Smith told us.
Um, and I think they're all tied together and that one corner section of the empire community. And I think that, you know, I think you have, I, you know, I mean, it's difficult to say, but you've got certain individuals that's responsible for multiple deaths. I believe that. And it's all in that one little corner there. But, you know, I think at some point, uh, it's going to break loose. And when it does, I think a, you're gonna find out that there are certain individuals that are responsible for multiple deaths.
Walker County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Jason Bridges primarily works this east area of the county. We had the opportunity to speak with him on a couple occasions and we talked a good bit about Empire.
Hard to grasp that, that there's that many missing people that you just can't find.
That should give you a Testament to the dangers of the community. Yeah. Oh yeah. There's no doubt. I mean, because there's people that will smile to your face and we'll make you disappear the moment you turn your head. Yeah. I mean, and they're there. Every one of them. Every one of them. Everyone of them out there is dangerous.
I have no doubt that Empire is very dangerous. Just reviewing the names of the murdered, missing and even the suspicious deaths in that area make that evident but it is still hard for me to wrap my mind around how so many people can go missing in Walker County and never be found.
There’s also a considerable number of unsolved murders that go back decades. As soon as we announced on the podcast facebook page that Eric Cates and Gypsy are the case for Season 2, we began receiving comments and private messages about other unsolved murders in the county. The number of people that contacted us about their murdered loved ones was overwhelming. Most of these murders had occurred many years ago and all were unsolved. I don’t need to pull data to know that these numbers are also going to be well above the numbers for most other counties in the state of Alabama but Michael did the research anyway. There isn’t one place to go to and get the information regarding the number of murders and the number of cleared murder cases. Michael had to pull the information from the websites of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and the Alabama Department of Public Health and then combine it. He pulled 10 years worth of data and immediately noticed a discrepancy. The number of murders reported from the Alabama Department of Health was higher than the numbers reported by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. What Michael found is that most years, there hasn’t been a huge number of murders in the county. It seems the biggest problem is that very few of the murder cases are being solved and resolved so the number of unsolved murder cases just keep stacking up. From 2008-2017, the data reported indicates there was a total of 43 homicides in Walker County. In that same 10 year period, ALEA only shows 5 cleared murder cases which results in a clearance rate of just 12%. We found these statistics to be astounding! How can this be? Many of these family members and even the residents of the county appear to have no hope that these cases will be solved. We’ve received many comments bluntly stating that this is just how things are in Walker County. Missing people aren’t found and murders aren’t solved. I’m very much a glass half full kind of person and I struggled with these comments but after Michael’s research, I do now have a better understanding of the frustration and hopelessness that has been expressed to us. Sheriff Nick Smith recognized the issue and addressed it during his campaign for sheriff. He posted a photo of he and his wife with Eric Cates mom, Tobbie Stover. The post reads:
I met the lady on the right while campaigning over the past year and a half. Her story about losing her son Eric Cates and his dog Gypsy to murder here in Walker County has stuck with me ever since. I was aware of the case, but until I stood there and saw the pain in her eyes as she talked about her son and his dog. How she struggled daily knowing the people responsible were still out there really drove the nail home for me. That’s why I promised her that if I’m elected, I will bring in as much help as I can to work on her son’s case. Along with assigning a cold case detective to Eric’s case, I plan to appeal to ALEA for assistance from their top investigators as well, along with any assistance from neighboring counties that we may need. I would also like to make that promise to any other family still suffering from unsolved murders or missing persons in Walker County. While I can’t promise that we will solve those cases or find those people, I can promise that we’ll look at each case with a new set of eyes and try our best to bring justice to them. When District Attorney Bill Adair took office, he opened up several cold cases from his office and was very successful in providing justice to several Walker County families. Justice they were seeking for many years and justice they deserved. I hope we can do the same at the Sheriff’s Department. If we can’t, it won’t be for a lack of trying. #justiceforericandgypsy
In just a little over 30 days after Sheriff Smith took office, he did ask ALEA to review and assist with Eric’s case. He also just hired a part time cold case investigator to investigate these cold cases and the investigator Mike Cole is already working on Eric’s case and more.
Nick Smith: (00:13)
the Cate's case is still an open investigation. The sheriff's department, um, it was a case that I was made aware of when I was running for office running for, for Sheriff Walker County. I've met Eric's mother at one of the political rallies. Um, she told me that, you know, what she felt had happened and I told her that, you know, I couldn't make her any promises. I couldn't promise that we would ever be able to solve that case. But one thing that I would do, um, if I was elected and that would be contact the state and have the state come in and kind of review where the sheriff's department was at on the case and uh, let them kind of take it, take the investigation from there.
Nick Smith: (01:03)
Um, so the state, when I did take office, the state has come in, they have reviewed the case file. Uh, right now we're currently waiting on, um, some search warrants that have been sent to um, Google maps, Google earth and some different things and technology wise that it's available. Um, that I'm not sure that we necessarily knew existed. Um, some geo-fencing type stuff that we're going to be able to maybe kind of pull a geo fence of who was around at the time the crime was committed and there's going to be big W it's going to take some months to get that back. But once we get that data back, we'll kind of be able to see a location of who was around the area whenever the incident happened.
As we begin to share Eric and Gypsy’s story with you, please keep in mind that much of what you will hear, good and bad, took place prior to Sheriff Nick Smith taking office. Most Walker County residents have high hopes that Sheriff Smith is going to bring about great change. We hope so too. I don’t purport to know how or why there are so many unsolved missing and murdered cases in Walker County but I do know that the people there deserve much better results than have been delivered in the past. I can’t understand why anyone would think that a 12% clearance rate would be acceptable.
In August, one of Eric’s family members sent me a message asking me to call Eric’s mom, Tobbie Stover. I get a lot of messages especially from people with missing or murdered loved ones. I had already selected a case for season 2 and I was getting ready to jump on the case with both feet but I did call Tobbie. We briefly discussed what happened to her son and Gypsy. I wanted to help her but I’d already chosen a new case. I explained that to her and we decided that I’d contact her again when it got closer to time for me to make a selection for season 3. But Tobbie, Eric and Gypsy kept popping back into my thoughts and I found myself rereading news articles and scrolling through the Justice for Eric Cates facebook page. The next morning, I called Michael Fleming, a private investigator and owner of the firm Echo 7 Foxtrot. Many of you who’ve listened to season 1 will know Michael. He jumped in on the missing persons case of Susan Osborne and Evan Chartrand and dedicated an enormous amount of time and resources to investigating what happened to them. And he still is. I told Michael about my phone call with Tobbie and described what I’d learned about what happened to Eric and Gypsy. A couple hours later, Michael contacted me back and told me he too couldn’t get Eric and Gypsy off his mind. He’d been reading and researching ever since we’d hung up the phone hours earlier. At that point, I felt like we were being led to Eric and Gypsy’s case and it was meant to be the focus of season 2. I called Tobbie back that afternoon and it quickly became official. Michael and I would be taking on this case together.
We went to meet Tobbie and Eric’s brother, Chris, one morning at Tobbie’s home and we sat with them for many hours while they told us their story. Eric’s and Gypsy’s story. Eric’s dad, Wayne Cates, was still living at the time of Eric’s murder but he has since lost his battle with cancer.
Michael and I both wanted to know about Eric, what was he like.
Eric was a funny, yeah, he always had to have something go and he was out. Why he's smiling.
11 to Poole, pranks, playing with his dog. What was his dog's name? Gypsy. What kind of dog was gypsy? She was a, uh, a bulldog. Half American, half English. How long had he had gypsy? Oh, he had had her since she was just a few months old.
that was his baby. He told me that would be the only granddaughter I would ever have. What was Eric like when he was growing up? He was always wanting to know why. Always in to something. My first one didn't prepare me for him. If Eric ever got quiet, you needed to go check on him. but he was just your normal kid growing up. What kinds of things did he like to do?
ride the four wheelers, three wheelers. swim. He liked taking things apart.
normal kid growing up. What kind of hunting? Deer hunting. He liked trucks. He liked racing, dirt track
Yeah. he was a fun loving young guy.
In the weeks since we started on this case, we’ve spoken to many people who knew Eric. We’ve learned he was always a hard worker and is described by everyone as someone who would give you the shirt off his back. When someone dies, people tend to speak publicly about the good traits of the person. It didn’t take us long to realize that Eric was different. He was exceptionally kind and thoughtful. He went above and beyond to help others and would literally give anything he had. Eric was driving down the road one day and saw an elderly lady trying to put dirt around her mailbox. He stopped. She told him that because the ground around her mailbox had washed out, the post office wouldn’t deliver her mail until it was repaired. Eric told her to go inside...that he’d take care of it. He brought gravel back and filled in the ruts for her. He picked up people who ran out of gas. He gave his iPhone to someone who had an ill child because he knew she really needed it. This act of generosity that was absolutely Eric left him without a phone. He didn’t complain though. He told his mom that his friend needed it much more than him. He saw a man walking down the road with holes in his shoes. Eric stopped his truck and gave the man the boots off his feet. Eric was a defender of women. He despised domestic violence. Eric would intercede when he heard about it or saw it and he had been known to give some abusers a taste of their own medicine. Could it be that one of Eric’s good deeds led to his and Gypsy’s murder? The rumors of this began almost immediately after Eric was found. You see, just a few months earlier, in December, Eric had come across a woman who was a victim of domestic violence and the rumors say that the help Eric gave her led to his death and to Tobbie receiving that earthshattering call that is every parents’ worst nightmare.
So tell me about the, what you remember about the day before. Um, you got the call about Eric? Uh, the day before, um, I had worked. Eric was coming to the house on Saturday to help put up a gate and, um, um, it's just working around that afternoon when I got in from work.
getting things ready for him to come the next day. It was a normal day. The last one I've ever had.
where was Eric going that Friday night?
He had told me on Monday that he was going to a barbecue at some friends. Um, and he must have trusted this place because he took gypsy with him. He didn't normally do that,
but he didn't tell you who's barbecue, whose house? No. Did he tell you where it was?
At noon on March 21, 2015, a 9-1-1 call was received. The caller stated they’d been turkey hunting on the acreage behind the old Empire school. As they were on their way out of the woods, they found Eric’s burned truck with his and Gypsy’s remains inside. The caller stated he recognized the vehicle as Eric Cates’ truck. The 1st responder was an Alabama state trooper.
I got a call, a phone call instead from his dad saying that his truck had been found behind Empire school and they thought that he and Gypsy were in it and they were coming to get me, him and my son Chris.
you went to the school?
We did. We went to the scene. Um, there were a lot of people there when we got there. Um, the scene wasn't roped off or anything. There were people down around where the pickup was and when we started to go down, they asked us not to go.
So they didn't let you go down any further that day? No. Were there people there? Do you remember who? Was there people that you knew or recognized?
Oh yes. There were several paid people there that we knew. Um, some of his best friends at the term Daniel Smith was there and he was one of the ones that caught my attention.
This is Eric’s brother, Chris Cates.
Daniel is actually the one that called my dad and told him about Eric's truck.
he had been down to the scene and saw Eric and Gypsy in the vehicle and he kept walking around saying he was crying and saying they didn't have to do him this way. They didn't have to do him this way.
and I asked Chris in Wayne, I said, are y'all hearing him? They said, no. I said, listen to him.
And he kept saying that they didn't have to doing that way. And I can't remember if it was Wayne or Chris that asked Daniel, who were they? And he wouldn't say. It was about that time
I think Wayne and Chris both were standing there when the chief deputy came up who was in control of the scene at the time.
at the time.
and told Daniel, that one of the investigators needed to talk to him and pulled him away from where he was.
oh, there were so many there. Several of the deputies there were from um walker, canny, Chuck Tidwell, the one that was the lead investigator on the case. Um, but there was another group of people that were there, females and males. Uh, I had seen them before but didn't know them.
Tobbie told us that there were A LOT of people at the scene of Eric’s death that day. She knows now who was there and provided us with their names. Unless and until those names become important, there’s no need to mention them here.
Do you have any idea how those other people that were not law enforcement
what was going on or knew that something was happening?
Supposedly, um, the ballengers, were going Turkey hunting and came across the truck behind the school. Um, at that initial contact, they did not go up and look in the truck. When they came back from hunting, they walked up to the truck, they, it was smoldering and that's when they say that they noticed the body in the vehicle and they called the sheriff's office. And between that time, um, several people had come to the scene. So how they found out about it, I don't know. I know earlier in the morning, um, before Sun up, a mail carrier had said that they had seen them smoke come in from that area. Um, but how the other people found out I don't know, we were told they were cameras hunting cameras up. Um, I had asked more than once what was seen on those cameras and I was never told. The Walker County sheriff's office has those cameras, from my understanding. Yes. What about, um, wonder about those litter cameras? Were those in place at that time? They weren't working. The ones that I had to ask about were not working at the time.
One of the 1st things I noticed when Michael and I went to Walker County the 1st time was all the litter cameras. There’s a lot of them and I noticed one on the road to the Empire school. It was disappointing to hear it wasn’t functioning.
we waited, um, on the tow truck to get there, to pull the truck out with the bodies in it. The truck had been parked over a mud hole. Um, so they didn't want to do anything until they got the tow truck there to back the truck out.
While we were waiting on the tow truck chief deputy bridges, he kept saying, I don't know how we're going to get this case worked. I don't have enough men. All of the investigators are going to classes next week. I just don't know what I'm going to do. And he kept saying that numerous times. And finally I told him, I said, chief, I can get you some help. I said, Eric's from Walker from Cullman County. I said, Matt gentry knows Eric. He's the sheriff there. He will be more than glad to help you. And at first he was very, accepting, you know, he, he wanted to help and he said, he said call him and tell him I need help. And I did. And while I had them, the sheriffs department on the phone, um, Mr. Bridges, chief bridges said that he would call him. He was on the phone with the sheriff at the time of Walker County, Jim Underwood. And he said that he would call him back. At that point, the sheriff's department, from my understanding in Cullman County were getting ready.
it started to drizzle rain and I asked the chief deputy if he was going to, um, bring in tarps or to cover the scene or tents and he said no, that he would be taking the vehicle to a garage, the county garage for lockup, and that they would process it there at the garage when the tow truck got there and they pulled a vehicle out, they wouldn't let us go behind there to watch them.
So the wrecker driver or the rollback guy, we've known him for years. And uh, so when he got there to pull out the truck, we knowed who was taking the truck and knowed he'd do what he's supposed to with it you know. But when he left with the truck the truck wasn't covered.
The truck when they did take the truck. Oh, it is. Like I said, it started to drizzle rain and um, I remember the gas lid on the truck being open and um, I remember asking the chief deputy again, I said, what garage are you taking his vehicle? And he said the county garage on airport road. And so there was um, a friend there and I asked them would they follow
the tow truck? And they did.
The tow truck driver took the truck and set it off in the yard and at nine o'clock that night that truck was still in the yard uncovered where it had been dropped by the tow truck driver and every day for three weeks, that truck was being watched. It never went into the garage. Yeah. How can you process a vehicle out in a yard.
Did it continue to rain that day? And throughout that three weeks, a lot of rain. Enough to contaminate everything.
While the family had legitimate concerns about Eric’s truck and the potential evidence it contained not being protected from the rain that day, their list of concerns grew significantly once they were allowed behind the school where Eric and Gypsy were found. Join us next time to hear what they discovered.
If you have any information that could help in solving the murders of Eric and Gypsy, please call the Walker County Sheriff’s Office at 205-522-6112. You may also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call our confidential tip line at 205-282-0740. If you are enjoying this podcast, be sure to follow or subscribe in your podcast player of choice and by giving us a 5-star rating and review in Apple Podcasts. I’m active on social media and often share photos of Eric and Gypsy. Follow Secrets True Crime on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. @secretscrime. If you are left still wanting even more content, please check us out on Patreon. We have it filled with great information about Susan and Evan and will be regularly adding new content about Eric and Gypsy. This episode was co written by me and Michael Fleming. This audio production for this podcast is by Kane Power at precisionpodcasting.com