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A Killing in the Hills

For decades, the Spencer family fought for justice for Judy. But what if they got the wrong man?

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The Spencer family, from left to right: Judy, Betty, Jeanne, Paul (below), Glen, Mildred and Kenneth. - COURTESY OF THE SPENCERS
  • COURTESY OF THE SPENCERS
  • The Spencer family, from left to right: Judy, Betty, Jeanne, Paul (below), Glen, Mildred and Kenneth.

On Judy’s last Christmas with her family in December 1981, she donned a Santa Claus costume to ho-ho-ho for her nieces and nephews.

“That was Judy in the height of her glory,” recalls Jeanne Paris, her oldest sister. (One niece memorably inquired, “Why does Santa have blue eyeshadow?”)

Paris is now 62, but her resemblance to Judy’s photos is clear. They share a similar gaze and tip of the nose.

Paris was close to Judy, but being six years older, felt like her protector, too. She wasn’t thrilled with the guest Judy brought to Christmas that final year, Doc Nash. “He was very nice and civil,” Paris recalls, “but I can’t say I ever really liked him.”

Still, in the aftermath of the murder, neither Paris nor her parents imagined Nash could be involved — until they spoke with Dent County Sheriff Clifford Jadwin.

Jadwin was then in his second term as elected sheriff. He knew the Spencers. On the day Judy’s body was found, the sheriff descended to Ashley Creek to deliver the bad news in person. He didn’t oversee the investigation — it was the highway patrol’s case — but he sat in while patrolmen questioned people.

Before the funeral, Jadwin took Kenneth and Mildred Spencer aside. He said that, in his mind, the primary suspect was Doc Nash.

“I had him pegged from the very beginning,” Jadwin tells RFT . “I just never could prove it.”

Jadwin admonished the Spencers to act naturally around Nash, lest they tip law enforcement’s hand. So for a few Sundays after the murder, as Nash accompanied Judy’s parents to Montauk Baptist Church, they feared their daughter’s killer sat beside them on the pew.

“The law had already told us he was the one that did it,” Mildred Spencer said in a deposition. “Doc would never look us in the eyes. So I don’t know. We just had that feeling.”

So did the highway patrol. Two weeks after Judy’s death, they gave Nash a polygraph test. It lasted more than two and a half hours. The technician labeled his attitude “nervous” and his movements “extreme,” before concluding that “he was not telling the entire truth.”

The scrutiny was getting to Nash. On May 21, he called Janet Edwards to complain that Judy’s father and a local preacher had just urged him to take another polygraph.

Edwards invited him over to talk. By this time, Edwards too suspected Nash. She tipped off investigators, who outfitted her kitchen with a hidden microphone. Sheriff Jadwin and a highway patrol lieutenant hid in her bedroom, listening.

Nash arrived at 9:35 p.m. He did not confess.

“This whole damn town thinks I done it,” he said. “You can’t imagine, Janet, what I’m going through.”

“Is that why you turned to Della?” Edwards asked.

“Della is a friend.”

“Bullshit!”

By then, Nash was living with 23-year-old Della Wingfield, an acquaintance of his daughter. Nash had dated her the previous year, before he got serious with Judy. Once Judy died, Nash needed to vacate the couple’s house so that her conservative parents wouldn’t know they’d lived together. He needed a new place to live, and Wingfield did too, so they both moved into the same trailer.

“It hasn’t even been three months and you couldn’t even wait that long,” Edwards said.

“OK, Janet,” Nash replied. “I’m not going to argue with you.”

He did admit to some things in that taped conversation. He admitted to being a jealous boyfriend (“I was jealous because I loved her”). He admitted to being unable to clear himself (“I don’t have an alibi”). He admitted to hitting Judy once (“All I did then was slapped her jaw a little bit”). And he swore to stay unmarried — and to hire a private investigator to hunt down her killer.

Instead, he married Wingfield the next year. He never hired a detective. And he also quit speaking to the authorities.

“He lawyered up,” recalls Jadwin, “and that was the end of it.”

Nash didn’t slink into the shadows, though. He remained in Dent County and got elected president of his union, United Steelworkers Local 7447, which boasted 500 members. When they went on strike for seven months in 1984, Nash was quoted frequently in the Salem News as a negotiator. After the mine and smelter shut down two years later, he and his wife moved to Illinois.

Yet the Spencers kept on him. In March 1985, Jeanne Paris hired a private investigator to give the case a fresh look. Within months, he too viewed Nash as the culprit.

The Spencers bought ads in three area newspapers in early 1986 offering a $25,000 reward for info leading to the conviction of Judy’s killer.

“We believe we know who committed this crime but we need more evidence,” they declared. “Won’t you please help? Let’s put this person behind bars for what he did. Your daughter, sister or friend might be next.”

Paris always kept an open mind to other suspects, she says. “It wasn’t that we wanted to make just anybody pay,” she tells RFT. “We wanted her killer to pay.”

But she mailed many cards and letters to Nash.

“Have a happy March 10,” she wrote him in 1987. “Please know that my family will never let up on you until you are in prison and paying for taking Judy’s life.”

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