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Nov. 20, 2019

The House Fire

The House Fire

Eric's family began to receive tips about what happened to Eric and Gypsy the same day their remains were found.  One of the first and most interesting tips is about a house where a BBQ was held.  Join us as we explore this lead and more.

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Welcome to 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.  This is episode 3 of a serial podcast and they are designed to be listened to in order. 


Eric Cates was a good guy.  Anyone who knew him and many who didn’t will all tell you that.  Eric was a protector and never hesitated to sacrifice his personal comfort, convenience and well-being to help others in need.  But like every other human being on the planet, Eric had his own problem.  Eric struggled with addiction.  Could Eric’s case still be an unsolved murder because of his addiction?  What is the value of a life?  Is the life of one more valuable than another?  Is the life of a doctor who possesses the skills to save other lives worth more than the life of your average Joe?  Is the life of your average Joe worth more than the life of someone with a drug addiction?  This is a deep subject and debate.  I only want to delve into this issue as it might apply to Eric and the other Walker County murdered and missing.  Walker County has so many missing people and lots of unsolved murders.  A large percentage of these cases have a common thread.  Many of these victims struggled with addiction just like Eric did.  Is it possible that because these victims were addicts, they and their families have been viewed by some as less important than other victims and other crimes?  Not only has this been suggested to me by many of the victims’ families, it has been brought up by some current and former members of law enforcement in the county.  That makes this possibility quite hard to ignore.  There has been evidence for decades that the murders of drug addicts, prostitutes, homeless people and others who would be considered to be high risk victims go unnoticed.  That is why these groups of people have often been the targets of serial murderers.  In October 2019, the FBI released new information about Samuel Little that likely makes him the most prolific serial killer in US history with a suspected number of victims believed to be over 93.  To date, he has confessed to murdering 93 people.  Many of these deaths were ruled to be overdoses and other death determinations that didn’t require a criminal investigation.  Some of the deaths were ruled undetermined even though there were significant suspicious circumstances that suggested otherwise which some law enforcement used as a weak crutch to justify a lack of investigation.  On October 8th, 2019, The New York Times published an article titled How Did a Serial Killer Escape Notice? His Victims Were Vulnerable and Overlooked.  They interviewed Jessie Lane Downs, the sister of one of Little’s victims, Martha Cunningham.  Martha was murdered in 1975 and her death was classified as unknown despite the facts that her clothing had been removed, her body was bruised and her purse was missing. The New York Times quotes her as saying ““The police department did not ask the family any questions or anything when this happened. They could’ve settled this, and look at all the people that got killed.”  I believe if it isn’t already, this is going to be a familiar sentiment around Walker County one day.   How many people have already died because of the failure of others who chose to not do their job? Every human life is important and should be treated as such but more importantly, they have families and friends who loved them unconditionally.  These people are grieving.  Some are desperately searching for their missing loved ones and some are searching for answers and justice.  I will post a link to the full New York Times article on the Secrets True Crime facebook page.  


We met with Sheriff Nick Smith and discussed much of this.  The reality is Sheriff Smith has only been in office since January 2019.  Most of what we are discussing are problems and cases that he has inherited.  While he was not in office when most of the things we are discussing occured, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s now all on his shoulders to clean it up and in my eyes,  he appeared to embrace the challenge.  Sheriff Smith promised Tobbie that he’d ask the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency for assistance on Eric’s case and he did.  I asked him if the Walker County Sheriff’s Office is still the lead agency.


Nick: (03:09)

We're still the lead. Uh, I wanted them to just kind of come in and review what investigators prior to my administration had kind of done with the case. And they have done a lot, you know, the prior administration had done a lot of leg work on the investigation. They interviewed a lot of individuals. Um, I think that, uh, there was lack of cooperation between Cullman and Walker county that could have probably helped the investigation along if there would've been that cooperation. Uh, I feel that today we have that cooperation. Um, during my campaign, I met with the Sheriff Gentry and we talked about two cases in particular. Um, which was Eric Cates, Eric Cates case, and also the Jordan Wilson case. It was a missing person out of Coleman county that we feel like met foul play, uh, in Walker county. Um, and then Eric Cates Case, that's two cases that we kind of talked about that Sheriff Gentry and I felt like were really solvable cases if the two agencies would work together. 


I’m a member of a lot of missing persons groups online.  When Sheriff Smith was elected, I watched many connected to Walker County celebrate his win and what it would mean to the families of the missing in the county.


Nick: (36:21)

And I know that.  You know, I mean, I’m 30.  I’m the youngest sheriff in the state of Alabama.  I beat an incumbent sheriff.  It’s hard to beat an incumbent 


Nick: (36:50)

`but, uh, like I tell everybody it, whether it's a property crime or what we, no department anywhere is going to solve, every crime. And a lot of people don't understand the processes that it takes to get to that level of arrest. And like you said earlier, you get to that level of, okay, you've got enough probable cause to make an arrest, but then it turns into do you got enough to convict them? And that’s where we're at on some of those cases is we know we need a body. We definitely could make some arrest if we can find out the location of a lot of these missing individuals here in Walker county would be a big start.


Nick: (37:42)

Um, and I think they're all tied together and that one corner section of the Empire community. 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. Um, but, uh, you know, I just want to give people hope. I want people to know that their cases haven't been forgotten. Um, that it is important, uh, so important to me, uh, to try to find some family closure. Um, you know, like I said, we've exhausted a lot of manpower since I've been in office, which with zero results. But I want people to know that we're doing everything we can. If we've got to drain ponds we will drain bonds. If we've got to dig dirt, we'll dig dirt. 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.


Nick: (38:51)

Are you glad there's not?


Nick: (38:58)

This is a pond we just drained drained.



How deep was it?



About 12 foot.  We actually took cadaver dogs. We took them out on the boat.  Dogs indicated right around this area.  Divers, one of the divers, when he was feeling around he grabbed something and yanked on it and he pulled up the corner piece of a tarp.  And we took that tarp to Jefferson County and just hid it in the woods and I can indicated on, on the can. And so we felt really good at that point about draining it and we drained it and dug it. I mean, dug all the way to the bottom. And, uh, nothing And that's, that's the high wall.


Nick: (40:43)

We thought you know it was the most promising spot, but, uh, then they came back, said dog might've been hitting on some kind of methane gas or something, and , I don't know. Um, we had seven different dogs and every one of those dogs hit in that spot.



Were they able to recover the DNA off the tarp?



We still got the tarp. Uh, I don't know what, what they're going to do with it from this point. Um, but, um, we just wrapped this up about a week ago. Um, and like I said, I do know, you know, we've got a new guy over our evidence, um, Carl Carpenter, and I know you sent off some bones that were recovered


Nick: (41:34)

at some point when they were diving some ponds under the last administration that hadn't been sent off. So, um, you know, they just looked at it and said it was animal bones. So, and we don't really know without somebody, a professional, you know, making that determination,

Nick: (42:40)

We need to be putting more effort, more emphasis on finding these people so that we can hold somebody accountable.


Nick: (42:53)

And I know if they've got a really good spot. You know, we've heard all kinds of legends. You know, we've heard that they fed people to pigs and we've heard that they've dumped in the river. We've heard wells, we’ve heard so much and uh, we've checked out a lot of the stories, but it's, you know, nothing has come, come to be true right there. And we've heard mines, we've checked out. We actually got to our east side investigator or new East side investigator. He pulled out a grid map of uh, all the, the mines, you know, he's had been checking, a lot of those areas. Part of me feels like, you know, you look at the Denton Hill case. I think a lot of that one and a lot of new investigators feel that way too. I think a lot of the information we get is diverted information to divert us away from where it's actually at. And that's why we felt so good about that location was because it was one that had never surfaced before. 


Nick: (11:06)

You know right now, just in that area, you know, you've got, uh, Jordan Wilson, which is a missing persons case. Ms. Farley that is a missing persons case out of Jasper. And that area was last place that she was seen, uh, you have Maxine Bieberbach, which is a missing persons case. And the last place she was saying was in that area. And almost every one of them have the same suspect and a lot of these cases, you know, you look at the Jordan Wilson case, that case, I feel like we're pretty much there, but we're not going to be able to move forward until we have some remains or we find a body. You know, we have, uh, one that we're actively working now. Um, it's a, uh, Jeremy Thompson is a new one. It's in June. Um, he reported missing in June. So we're currently looking for him and it's gonna on the east side of the county as well. Um, we've, uh, went out to several different locations. We've, you know, we've looked, we've taken cadaver dogs, search dogs. Um, we pretty much know who done it and, and, and what happened. But again, it's, we've got to find where they're putting these bodies.


Nick: (58:59)

you know, I don't know where to start.


Nick: (59:05)

I mean there's so many places they can then go. I still think that, you know, wherever these crimes are actually committed. I mean, I just can't see them being far from it. They just got a good to spot. I think they, maybe they were feeding them the pigs. I don't know.


While I wholeheartedly agree with Sheriff Smith that there needs to be a focus on finding these missing people so they can hold those responsible accountable, I must point out that there are unsolved murder cases where the bodies aren’t missing, like Eric’s.  With a focus on solving Eric’s and other cold cases, you could achieve the same result.  Locking up this handful of murderers running amock in East Walker County, putting them in a prison cell where they belong and getting it done before more lives are lost.  


Tobbie has told us that Eric was planning to go to a BBQ the night he was murdered.  He’d told her about the BBQ earlier in the week but he never said where the BBQ was.  Eric mentioned this BBQ to others on the Friday before his death.  When Eric’s family discovered Eric had been murdered, that was one of the biggest questions in their mind.  Where was that BBQ that Eric planned to attend?  Even though Empire is such a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business, no one seemed to know.  Or if they did know, they weren’t willing to tell.


Tobbie: (02:54:45)

Saturday night after we had found the truck with Eric and Gypsy in it at the empire school. We got a call later that night. We got several calls giving us tips. One in particular was the house, the ########## House, York mountain where, um, they were there cleaning out. They were there washing the yard in the porch, in the house with the water hose that there was a lot of blood there. Um, we needed to get somebody to check it out. Um, the people did not leave their name and it was a, um, a call that the caller was blocked. We couldn't see the number. Uh, I immediately called Chuck Tidwell and told him at the phone call asking could we get someone there? Um, the next day or the next, the next day when they went out, uh, the house had been burned.


Tobbie: (02:56:02)

I asked for a copy of the fire marshal's report. If there's any way I could get it. Um, and at the time, and that was not long after it happened. Um, if that, you know what happened and nobody would tell me there was ever a reportthat ever showed up.


Chris: (01:41:36)

the  ######### House that burned it burned the night after. They called and told us about area on Saturday. Well then on Sunday morning when we got up it's when we heard the Washington place it burnt that night.

Chris: (01:42:55)

just said when they pulled up there to interview them the fire trucks was in the yard. Still putting out far.


We felt this was such an important tip that we have gone over and over it since our first meeting with Tobbie and Chris.  Michael quickly made a request to the fire marshal to request a copy of any reports they had on this fire.  Michael received an email response from the state fire marshal’s office.  It stated very simply that they did not work a fire there.  We were confused.  We wondered could Eric’s family have the date wrong of when the fire actually occurred.  We speculated..maybe there was no insurance.  Or maybe if the house had been burned intentional to cover up a murder, the owner chose not to file an insurance claim.  Michael responded to the email to ask the fire marshal’s office if there had been a 100% loss structure fire there on another date.  They never responded so we decided to approach it in a different manner.  We knew the fire department responded to the fire so at a minimum, they’d have a dispatch report.  Before we could send a request for the report, we ran into one of the family members who was rumored to be the host/hostess of the BBQ that night.  We will call her Mary.  We asked Mary if they had a BBQ that night and she told us they did not.  We also asked when the fire occurred at that home.  She told us it occurred a couple weeks before Eric was murdered.  Mary was a friend of Eric’s and the family who owned the home that burned...they are cousins of Eric’s.  A few days later, I called Mary.  I asked again about the timing of the fire and told her about the tips Tobbie had received.  She seemed to be shocked by this and adamantly insisted that they did not host a BBQ that night and that the home in question had burned well before Eric’s death.  Michael did send the FOIA request to the Corner Fire Department but before we received it, Mary went to the fire department to pick up a copy of it herself.  She immediately texted me a copy of the report.  Per the report Mary provided me from the Corner Fire Department, the house fire in question occurred on February 10th in 2015, 39 days before Eric and Gypsy’s murder.  


Mary was upset to discover that Eric’s family had suspected her family of being involved in Eric’s murder for all these years.  Why did the investigator tell Tobbie that the fire was still smoldering and the fire department was on the scene on March 22nd?  Why had he let Eric’s family believe that there was merit to this story all these years?  Every single tip that the family received over the years had been weighed against that story.  It was hard to discount a tip of blood being washed out of a home where a BBQ had been held especially when said home supposedly burned to the ground the very next day.  Sheriff Smith spoke of his belief that they are being given tips that are intentional diversions from the truth.  Michael and I set out to try to eliminate as many of the unfound theories as possible and I’d say this one can be tossed to the side now.  You do have to wonder though why the family was intentionally mislead.  We discussed Eric’s family’s frustration and some of the issues they’ve encountered when we met with Sheriff Smith.


Nick: (47:17)

You know back to corruption question, I'm not necessarily thinking that it was a lot of corruption. I just think it was lack of transparency and instead of just


Nick: (47:30)

telling somebody and being honest and just ignoring the situation makes their wheels start turning and think that you're trying to hide something instead of just being being honest


Nick: (47:44)

and up front. 


Amber & Michael:

I'll be honest, she, when she told her full story to us yesterday, I mean there were moments that were really hard for me to even hear. No, they bothered me on a very deep level. When I hear things like coming down here and talking to an investigator about something, four days after Eric died and then mentioning to the investigator where she was going afterwards and she gets there and people tell her yea I got a phone call about 20 minutes ago that you were on the way.


Nick:  um hmm


Amber & Michael: (48:22)

Yeah. Why would you do that? Right. That makes, that's the kind of stuff that bothers the hell out of me. Um, no, the story that got me was threatening to arrest them because they were there asking questions.


Nick: (48:42)

Well I mean this there, I mean this their right to, to ask questions and you know, men you give them, I understand there's, when there's a open investigation, there's certain things that you, maybe you can't say at that time but right. But when you try to ignore the situation and you try to push out outside counties that are wanting to help and you're pushing them out, it makes you wonder, but, you know, I don't so much just going back now what I remember the files, I did see last year if did send out a lot of directives and memos to the investigator, assigned the case to check out certain things. Whether he properly checked those things out or if he even checked 'em out at all. You know, that's still debatable,


Nick: (01:01:36)

Whatever we can do to try to get people talking, let them know we haven't forgot about it. I think it's good thing. I think Tobbie's story together will draw interest, will draw people though, you know, hearing her story. Any Momma out there that hears her story. You know, their hearts won't go out to her. Uh, just what she's had, I won't forget. Uh, I was at the a they did a candlelight vigil. It mean she give the sheriff and the district attorney the business.


Nick: (01:02:25)



Nick: (01:02:28)

So she wasn't shy about her displeasure. And I, you know, to the degree I get our district attorney, I mean, he, he's not gonna go out on limb without body only any cases. Um, on the Eric Cates case, you know, I mean, you know, there is a body, it's just a finding out who done it and he's, uh, his hands are tied. It’s the sheriff's department that’s got to take the case to him.


By just hearing what is a small piece of Eric’s family’s story, I don’t think there are many who don’t understand Tobbie’s displeasure and I believe many of us feel it too.


On the day Eric & Gypsy were found, before Tobbie left the scene, Chief Deputy Dayron Bridges asked her to come by his office that afternoon at 6 pm.  By the time Tobbie arrived, she was already aware that Eric’s truck had been put outside in the rain at the County Garage.  She inquired about it to Deputy Chief Dayron Bridges and he told Tobbie they were having to move some things around to make room for it inside and that they had security present watching the truck.  Little did he know that Tobbie had someone there watching the truck and she was well aware there was no security present.  She asked him if they could put a tarp over the truck to protect the evidence from the rain.  Chief Deputy Dayron Bridges assured Tobbie that the weather would not play a part in damaging evidence.  With what we know now, that’s a pretty ironic statement.  One of the questions he asked her that afternoon was if Eric was working undercover for anyone.  Tobbie asked him who he meant and he said the US Marshalls, FBI or anyone else.   A couple days after Eric was found, she had a similar question from Investigator Chuck Tidwell.  


Tobbie: (41:41)

Wayne and I had to go and give DNA samples and Chuck Tidwell asked me that day if Eric was working for the US Marshals


I wonder what prompted both the chief deputy and an investigator from the Walker County Sheriff’s Office to ask the mother of the victim if he was an informant and more specifically and undercover agent for the US Marshalls.  The reality is, this is just the tip of the iceburg with Eric & Gypsy’s story and one of many things that are going to make us all wonder.  Eric’s family received many calls and tips the day Eric and Gypsy were found.  The accusations behind one of those tips would even lead to a drive by shooting in the tiny town of Empire.  

After Eric’s family was threatened with arrest for asking questions about the status of their son’s murder investigation at the Walker County Sheriff’s Office, things continued to go downhill. 


Tobbie: (03:18:12)

I think Wayne got a couple of calls. He needed to let it die.  I had gotten messages that I needed to be quiet. Stop doing interviews.


If you’re like me, you hear things like this and it just seems crazy, right?  Who warns a murder victim’s family to be quiet and stop doing interviews?  I have independent corroboration of this.  Until this podcast, Eric’s family and specifically Tobbie, never publicly criticized the sheriff’s office.  You can easily locate these news stories through google and what you’ll find is the family expressing hope and confidence in the sheriff’s office.  Efforts to silence them are just another crazy puzzle piece that just doesn’t seem to fit unless your intention was to never solve the murders of Eric & Gypsy.  Join us next time to hear more.


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 secretstruecrime@gmail.com 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 Eric and Gypsy.  We had our 1st zoom call for Patreon last week.  While it was intended to be a 30 minute call with supporters of the podcast, it ended up being 3x that long.  Our next call is scheduled for December 10th.  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.  This audio production for this podcast is by Kane Power at precisionpodcasting.com.