BLUEFIELD, W.Va. — Mary Osborne entered the sanctuary of the First Church of God the morning of Dec. 28, 1972, to set out the trash on garbage collection day in this southernmost West Virginia community.
A devoted parishioner, it was her house of worship. Her sacred ground.
But on this day, she was bludgeoned to death with a hammer by a mysterious assailant – until this week when the Mercer County grand jury indicted a state prison inmate for Osborne’s murder.
Police said they cracked the four-decades-old cold case by tracing a single fingerprint found on a church sink faucet handle to Tommie Lee Mollohan, who has been serving a life sentence since 1974 for a separate murder that occurred near Charleston two weeks after Osborne’s death.
County Prosecutor George Sitler said new biomatch technology traced the spigot fingerprint to Mollohan.
“This is really a remarkable thing,” Sitler said. “This crime happened when I was 5 years old.”
Osborne was described by family members as a “God-fearing church woman.” They said she stood 4-feet, 10-inches tall, and weighed “85 pounds soaking wet.”
She taught kindergarten classes at the church, worked two part-time jobs and, as a widow, took care of her three sons and daughter.
“Somebody that does something like this doesn’t realize the pain” it creates for family and friends of the murder victim, said son Ralph Osborne. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of this – and it’s been well over 16,000 days.”
Ralph, now 72 and living in Florida, said in a phone interview that gossip, rumor and innuendo haunted the murder of his mother over the years, making it a “big issue for our family”
Grandson Barry Blackwell had just turned 10 when the murder occurred. He recalled how the family would gather at Mary’s home every Sunday after church. He said her death “tore the family apart.”
The murder investigation said Mary’s death was violent and vicious. Her body was discovered around 10 a.m. by the church’s then pastor, the Rev. Neville Franklin Mozingo. He contacted the police, who assigned detective Sgt. Jim Dent to the case.
Dent’s report said he discovered Mary’s body lying face down in a pool of blood in a Sunday school classroom, a trail of blood leading from the church’s entrance and a light switch. He surmised she surprised her assailant, who was intending to burglarize the church, and the murderous assault occurred.
A hammer, its handle damp and wrapped in a towel, was found to be the murder weapon. Dent said the killer likely washed the hammer to remove the blood and fingerprints. But another single fingerprint was lifted from the left spigot handle in the wash basin and sent to the FBI crime lab in Washington, D.C.
That fingerprint became crucial evidence nearly 45 years later. Biomatch technology linked it to Mollohan, whose criminal record included two prison escapes and the Jan. 13, 1973, murder of Celbert Pauley in rural Kanawha County 100 miles north and two weeks after Mary Osborne’s body was found in Bluefield’s First Church of God.
The Osborne cold case investigation discovered Mollohan escaped from a West Virginia prison only a few days before Mary’s murder, and had taken a Greyhound bus to Bluefield, getting off at a terminal beside the church. Authorities concluded he broke into the church with the intention of burglarizing it and ended up murdering Osborne.
Ralph Osborne praised Bluefield police for pursuing his mother’s murder case all these years but expressed frustration Mollohan cannot be sentenced to death if he’s convicted of killing her.
“He’s in prison for life,” he said. “There’s no death penalty, so what the hell can he get? That’s the part that bothers me so much.”
Samantha Perry is the editor of the Bluefield, West Virginia, Daily Telegraph. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org