We continue to investigate the most common theories in Eric and Gypsy's murders and we go through the timeline of Eric's last day. Huge thanks to Podcorn for sponsoring this episode. Explore sponsorship opportunities and start monetizing your podcast by signing up here: https://podcorn.com/podcasters/
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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 5 of a serial podcast and they are designed to be listened to in order.
In the months before his murder Eric Cates had a job working for a local business in the city of Sumiton. Eric worked for a man we are going to call John. On February 5, 2015, 43 days before Eric and Gypsy were found murdered, John was arrested.
Here is Sumiton Police Chief TJ Burnett.
In reference to Mr. *()*()*) )((*)&*&^*&% , the Sumiton police department received a tip concerning that Mr &%$&%*^ was suspicious in nature sitting on the side of the road. It appeared, the caller appeared, said it appeared that he was impaired on something. Officers were dispatched. They located Mr. &%%&$%. And after they conducted their field interviews, Mr. (^*&%*&^ was taken into custody, transferred to the Walker County jail later.
Do you know if he was conscious when the officer arrived?
He was conscious, yes. From what the officers interviews, he was impaired, but he was, he wasn't passed out. But he was conscious. Yes.
The Daily Mountain Eagle interviewed the arresting officer with the Sumiton Police Department, Kris Price. Price is no longer with the Sumiton Police Department. In his interview with the Daily Mountain Eagle, they said that Officer Price stated someone reported that John’s vehicle was stopped in the road near his place of business. John was sitting behind the wheel inside the vehicle. Price told the Daily Mountain Eagle that he smelled alcohol as he approached the vehicle. He asked John to exit his car and he was given a field sobriety test. At some point during his arrest, John kicked off his boots and crystal meth fell out. The Daily Mountain Eagle reported that Officer Price stated that John claimed the crystal meth wasn’t his and that he was just holding it...in his boots….for an employee. At this point, the Sumiton Police Department called a neighboring department, the Dora Police Department and asked for their assistance. Dora responded and brought their drug detection dog. The dog did alert and police found approximately 200 methadone pills for which it was reported that John did not have a prescription. The police continued to search the vehicle and the search yielded some very interesting things. We obtained a copy of the complaint filed against John and here are some of the items that were found in his vehicle or on his person. $14,800 in US currency, 8 different mobile phones, a shot gun, 6 pistols, a silencer, a lot of ammunition, a digital scale, moonshine, and a ledger with drug prices. Those things are alarming enough on their own but that’s not all that was found. The remainder of the items found with John in his vehicle left me speechless. They found sheriff’s office gear from another sheriff’s office in Alabama. For the record, it was NOT from the Walker County Sheriff’s Office. They found a sheriff’s office police officer badge, a set of handcuffs, a sheriff’s office coat, a sheriff’s office hat and a sheriff’s office ballistic vest. I’m sorry. I try not to repeat myself too much in this podcast but I think this is important enough that it needs to be repeated. This man was found potentially drunk, high or maybe even both sitting in a public road with a shot gun, 6 handguns, a silencer (aren’t those highly illegal too?), a fat roll of cash, hundreds of methadone pills, a digital scale, moonshine and a ledger with drug prices. What good or legitimate reason could there be for him to be in the possession of a sheriff’s office police officer badge, a set of handcuffs, a sheriff’s office coat, a sheriff’s office hat and a sheriff’s office bullet proof vest? I can answer that. There’s not one! This is outrageous and while these things in his possession weren’t related to any Walker County law enforcement agency, this is another example of the things that happen there that contribute to the general distrust in law enforcement.
These details were not reported by any news source that I’ve been able to find and I can’t find where this arrest was ever reported on by anyone other than the Daily Mountain Eagle. It was just another drug case in Walker County so I doubt anyone looked all that hard at it. If we hadn’t obtained the complaint filed against John, we would’ve never known these details either.
The Daily Mountain Eagle stated in their news story that John was released from the Walker County Jail on $50,000 bond shortly after his arrest and that he was required to wear an ankle monitor. Chief Burnett told me that in 2018 John was convicted of 3 felony drug charges related to this arrest. I don’t know the exact terms of his sentencing but I know this much. John is currently running the same business where Eric worked in 2015.
At the time I also called the US Marshal's office because there had been an arrest of a man that Eric worked for that had been arrested just a couple of weeks prior to this. And rumor had it that he was going to get Eric. Rumor had it that Eric had been working undercover for the US Marshals.
We don't know if this was true or not. Uh, there was a lot of things going on at the time.
You said you made a call to the US Marshals office. Did you have already have a contact there, did you have a business card for someone or how did you know about, about their potential involvement?
The way I had a contact for the US Marshals is that as a nurse in SICU, I had taken care of a patient. The US Marshal that was over this district was a friend of he is, and he came and saw my patient and just in that is how I had met him over the course of a couple of days. And it's kind of strange. He had given me his number and then a week later I need it.
Had Eric ever talked to you about that case?
Tobbie 3: (01:05:01)
Eric was supposed to have met me for lunch and he didn't show and he didn't call. And at this time I knew that the phone that I had given him to use, he had given to someone else that he thought needed it more than he did. So my niece and I, I went to where it worked, um, 78 highway and, um, *^&%&$&$$ &%^%&%^& shop. I pulled in
Tobbie 3: (01:05:34)
and I asked a guy who introduced himself as *^%%$# if he knew where Eric was and he said, who are you. And I said I'm his mother. And he said I don't know where he is but if you find him or if you see him before I do you need to tell him that he needs to come see me. And I said, okay. And we left. And it was the next day, Eric was at his dad's and he called and I think I went down there and Eric. Eric was there. I ask him where he had been and he said that he got tied up and I said, well, why didn't you go to work? And he looks at me and he says, what do you mean why I didn't go to work? I said, I went by $%$%^^ and you weren't there. He became, I mean, I've never seen Eric act like this. Never. He, um, made me promise that I would never go back there. That I did not know what was going on, that it was dangerous and that for me to please promise him I'd never go back. And at one point I asked him, I said, Eric, what is going on down there?
Tobbie 3: (01:07:16)
And he said mom, you've been in law enforcement. He said you don't ask questions like that. And I looked at him and I said, Eric, what's going on there? Are you doing something you shouldn't be doing? He said, no, just don't ask any questions and don't ever go back.
So you did call Marty Keely?
And he took your call?
He did. Yeah. Um, I told him that I was there in Empire and that my son had been killed and I wanted to know if he was working for them.
What was his response to that?
Tobbie: He did not know, but he could find out.
Did he ever get back with you on it?
Wayne and I had to go and give a digging a samples and chuck Tidwell asked me that day if Eric was working for the US Marshals and I had not said anything to him at the time about Eric working for the US Marshals.
Before Eric’s death, Tobbie already had her own suspicions that Eric could be an informant for someone but she wasn’t sure.
Do you think it's a possibility that Eric was acting as an informant?
When you would ask Eric he'd say momma, you know, I can't talk about things like that and just kind of laugh it off.
Eric’s response to his mom might be just enough to heighten most parents’ suspicions but Tobbie told me that when her boys were young, she worked for a sheriff’s office. Eric would sometimes ask her questions about her work. Her response? Eric, you know I can’t talk about things like that. So Tobbie was left unsure if Eric was working as an informant or if his response was just some good natured teasing.
Eric’s brother, Chris told us that their dad bought something from this business.
We started hearing stuff about &^$%^$ and, uh, daddy and Eric had uh got into it, kinda about Eric working over there. Daddy told him he wanted him out from over there, you know, and Eric kinda...Eric Kinda, well, I don't know. He, he kinda acted like he kind of acted like He didn't want to quit because he liked that job,
it almost seemed like he couldn't, he couldn't quit, you know.
Well, my dad, he asked him, I asked him, you know, two or three different times, asked chuck Tidwell, and I was there with him on plenty as Chuck. What about the *&%&^%$ guy? Did he, did he tell him anything and he told him he couldn't talk to him about it a separate case. And he said, so you're saying that it ain't got nothing, nothing to do with Eric's case? And he said, he said, well, he said, I'm not saying that. I'm just saying I can't, I can't talk to you about it. So we just we thought we'd hear some back, but we never did.
There has been much speculation that Eric was responsible for John’s arrest and a great deal of talk about Eric being an informant
The call that came in reporting him on the side of the road. Did Eric Cates make that call?
No, not to my knowledge.
Do you have any reason to believe that Eric Cates was related to that call coming in, in any way?
Not that I know of.
I was able to locate the person who did make the phone call that resulted in John’s arrest. He told me the story of making the call that night and why he made the call. I’m not going to share the details but what I can tell you with certainty after my conversation with this man is that Eric Cates had no involvement in his boss’ arrest in February 2015. Of course, this doesn’t mean that John and others still didn’t think Eric was the one responsible.
There have been several people that have contacted me to tell me that they met or saw Eric at the Walker County Sheriff’s Office. All of their stories are almost identical. When you walk in the front door of the sheriff’s office, there is a window to your left. This is where you go for many things related to inmates in the jail and it’s where you would go if you wanted to visit an inmate. There are chairs scattered throughout the long and wide entryway that leads to a set of stairs and an elevator. We’ve accessed those stairs several times. They take you to an upstairs waiting area with a window where you go to obtain your concealed-carry gun permits and also where we’ve gone when we had appointments to meet the Sheriff and investigators. It has been reported to us by numerous witnesses that Eric was often seen in this downstairs waiting area...the one where you would wait if you were visiting an inmate. When we received the first report of this, it caused us a bit of confusion. We couldn’t figure out what Eric was doing there and who he could’ve possibly been going to visit. One of the people told me they assumed Eric was waiting to visit someone in the jail. But then came the 2nd and 3rd reported sightings of Eric there. They actually knew Eric and chatted with him until a Walker County Investigator came down to get him. Eric wasn’t waiting to see an inmate. He was meeting with Walker County Sheriff’s Investigators. One person reported to us that they specifically saw Chuck Tidwell come down to get Eric. The question is why was Eric meeting with investigators and why did Eric’s family never hear about this after his death?
On March 20, 2015, the day before Eric & Gypsy were found murdered, Eric was seen numerous times at the Blue Store. The Blue Store is kind of like the town hub. It’s the closest place for the residents of Empire to buy gas and pick up your typical convenience store purchases. It’s also a gathering place for locals, especially in the morning hours. The grab breakfast and coffee and sit on the bench at the front of the store. We quickly found when we needed to locate someone, if we stood around the Blue Store for a few minutes someone would come by that could help us.
At the time of Eric & Gypsy’s murder, the Blue Store was leased to Tonya Mauldin. You’ve heard from Tonya in previous episodes. To give you a little background, Tonya is married to a cousin of Eric’s mom, Tobbie. We met with Tonya pretty early on in our investigation and we talked about that Friday at the Blue Store. Tonya told us that the owner of the store was there working that Friday and he had a guy there that he hired to help him.
Jamie is my brother's friend. He was down there supposed to help. We’d just opened a kitchen up and we, the health department said we needed a guard to keep the public from being able to reach over and stuff like that. So he was building a wall down there. But I never seen my brother with Jamie and Jamie spoke with him with Eric for quite some time. Mom’s going to ask my daddy to see if we can get his last name because I just know him as Jamie and he's got a scar down his face.
Tonya did provide me a last name for Jamie but I couldn’t find anyone by that name. After some pretty extensive searching for this Jamie, I messaged Tonya and asked if she could tell me where he lived or any other information that might help us locate him. She’d told me he was a friend of her brother’s so I figured this should be pretty easy information for her to obtain. She responded the next day and provided me a different last name for him and said that he lived in West Jefferson. We spent a great deal of time looking for this guy too and we still came up empty handed. I made a call to the owner of the Blue Store to see if he remembered who he hired to work that day. He told me he was certain that the worker was hired by Tonya but he didn’t remember who it was. A couple weeks later, we showed still shots from the surveillance video of “jamie” to another store employee. This employee remembered that day. She stated there were 2 workers and she identified them on the still shots for us. The first worker’s name is not Jamie and he doesn’t have a scar on his face. The 2nd worker that day was Tonya’s brother.
Eric was in and out of the Blue Store and back and forth past it all day on that Friday. Fortunately, the Blue Store had surveillance cameras and we were able to obtain the footage from that day. Not only does the video show Eric when he’s at the store but it also captured his vehicle as he drove by the store various times that day. This has been very helpful in trying to reconstruct Eric’s movements and activities that final day. I’m about to share a great deal of details regarding Eric’s movements on that Friday. If you aren’t very familiar with the area, a map will be very helpful in following along. I have posted one for your convenience on the Secrets True Crime facebook page.
Eric’s truck was first spotted at 8:24 AM. He was traveling north on Hill Rd and he made a right turn onto Little Vine. I have spoken with a man who lives in Empire who told me that Eric helped him clean out one of his trucks that morning. This is the timeframe he told me Eric was with him and you would get to his house by traveling down Little Vine. I believe that was his destination. He told me Eric seemed happy and normal. He also noted he did not appear to be under the influence of drugs. He said while they were cleaning out the truck, Eric found some fishing hooks and suggested they go spend the day fishing. He wistfully told me if he’d only known then what he knows now that he would’ve jumped on the offer to fish with Eric that day.
At 10:20 AM, Eric is spotted again. His truck was seen traveling west on Little Vine and he turned left and headed back up Hill Rd.
At 10:29 AM, Eric is shown coming off Hill Rd and headed north on Coon Creek. He passed in front of the store before he made a u turn and pulled up to one of the gas pumps at the Blue Store. Eric was at the store for approximately 39 minutes and he talked to numerous people that came and went from the store. He retrieved the Blue Store’s garbage cans that had been at the road for pickup and he put them back in their regular spot. He also appeared to check a tire and inspect something on a vehicle for a female in the parking lot. At one point during this visit to the Blue Store, Eric is parked so that you can see the bed of his truck. It was empty. He leaves the store at 11:08 AM heading east on Little Vine.
Eric’s friend Daniel told me he saw Eric on the side of the road shoveling gravel in the Camp. If Eric did shovel gravel that day, it had to have been something quick, like maybe shoring up a mailbox. Tonya told us about another stop he made that day and we believe it also happened in this timeframe.
A year ago Friday, my cousin was murdered and her mother told me that she knew a lot of information on Eric. I don't know how true that was, but Monica Cooper, she was found with John Softley or Monica Graves. Supposedly she was working as an undercover. I mean she told me that Eric stopped by there that night and seen her.
Monica Cooper & John Softley were found shot in Softley’s vehicle under an I-22 bridge on September 24, 2018. Monica was 31 years old. She was a gorgeous blonde who has been described to me as smart and a loving mother and friend. Tobbie has told me that Eric and Monica were friends. John Softley was a town councilman in the Walker County town of Parrish. He was a law enforcement officer for decades in Walker County. He’d been an investigator with the Walker County Sheriff’s Office and he was also an investigator with the District Attorney Bill Adair at the Walker County District Attorney’s Office. While he’d recently retired from that position, he was still employed as a part time investigator at the Jasper Police Department at the time of his death. The investigation into their deaths is reported to have determined that Monica was murdered and Softley committed suicide. I spoke with Monica’s sister and mother. They did confirm that Eric did come by to see Monica the Friday prior to being found murdered himself. They told me Eric pulled in their yard and never got out of his vehicle. They said that he came by to check on Monica and that she and her mom and dad stood around Eric’s truck and chatted with him for approximately 30 minutes that day. They believe it was around noon when he came by. I asked if Eric came to see Monica often and they both told me that this was the one and only time.
At 11:49 AM, Eric’s truck is seen again on the cameras. This time, he is headed north on Hill Rd and he took a right on Little Vine.
At 12:16 PM, Eric is headed west on Little Vine. He pulled back into the parking lot of the Blue Store and parked at the pump. You can now see there are things in the bed of his truck. He walked into the store and made a purchase. As you watch the video, you can see he interacting with others at the store. He pumped gas for 18 seconds which Michael has calculated to be approximately 3 gallons of gas. He got back in his truck and drove south on Coon Creek at 12:20 PM but he appeared back in the view of the camera a few seconds later and headed down Little Vine. The video from the Blue Store shows that it started raining at 1:02 PM that day.
At 1:35 PM, Eric's truck traveled west on Little Vine Rd and followed the curve to head north on Coon Creek Rd.
We believe this is when Eric went home to wash his truck, take a shower and get dressed for the BBQ he’d planned to attend that night however, this wasn’t the most direct route for him to take to get home. It is likely that he made at least one stop along his way.
At 4:22 PM, Eric’s truck traveled west on Little Vine and he backed into a parking spot at the Blue Store. Again in this video, you can still see that there is stuff in the bed of his truck. He walked around the parking lot, picked up trash and threw it away. He waved and spoke to people outside. He went into the store and the video shows him talking and smiling at other customers and workers. During the days that Michael was pouring over this video, he told me it was surreal watching Eric and knowing what was going to happen to him in just mere hours. He told me that he could see how friendly, nice and helpful Eric was to everyone he encountered. The video shows Eric picked up a stack of empty boxes and walked outside the store. He removed trash from the back of the store owner’s truck, put it in the boxes and then he put the boxes in the back of his truck to haul off for him. He left the store headed east on Little Vine at 4:31 PM.
Michael spent countless hours pouring over this surveillance footage examining every minute detail of it. It is around this point that he noticed there is 36 minutes and 12 seconds of video missing. There is no video footage of the Blue Store from 4:52 PM to 5:28 PM. We don’t know why this footage is missing.
During one of our trips to Empire, we met with a man named Perry Selman. He told us Eric came by his house that afternoon. Based on his description, I believe this would’ve been when that occurred as well. Perry will be central figure in future episodes.
At 7:57 pm, Eric entered the view of the camera again, headed west on Little Vine to Coon Creek and he pulled up to a gas pump at the Blue Store. Eric went inside the store and then back outside and he appeared to pump some more gas into his truck. There were a couple other men near the gas pumps that Eric appeared to interact with a bit. He left at 8:03 PM and headed south on Hill Rd.
Tonya and Crystal have always maintained that Eric came back to the store to make sure Crystal was able to close up safely because there was some concern about another store customer that had been in earlier in the day. Michael saw the noted cause of concern while watching the surveillance video. A man entered the store and as he walked through the door, he jumped in the air and appeared to click his heels. As he walked back towards his vehicle, he slid and flipped across the hood of his vehicle.
He got a drink and gas, went back to the truck, pump the gas and then come back in the store because that's when the ^$%^%$ &%&^%^ boy, like he got food and he went back out, spoke with Jamie and then come back in when the $^$% %&^&^% boy there, if you'll pull that part up on that video, you can see how spun out that boy was. And he's the same boy later that night Eric stayed for with crystal.
Eric left the Blue Store at 8:03 pm and headed south on Hill Rd.
Most of the surveillance video footage from that Friday seems to corroborate the timeline and stories people have provided but Michael discovered there was more footage from later that night...footage that calls a lot into question and nobody seems to remember now that it's been found. You won’t want to miss this episode.
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 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. Our next zoom call for Patreon 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. 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. 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. This audio production for this podcast is by Kane Power at precisionpodcasting.com.