Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Shadow of a Doubt: The Clarence Elkins Story

Attack in the Night

Six-year-old Brooke Elkins woke to terrible noises in the middle of the night of June 7, 1998. She had just been to a birthday party for a cousin and was spending the night at her grandmother's house in Barberton, Ohio, near Akron.

Barberton, OH
Barberton, OH

She got out of bed wearing her grandmother's pink nightgown, opened the bedroom door, and went out to the living room, where she knew "Mamaw," who was 58 and legally blind, would be asleep on the couch. But she wasn't there. The terrible noise proved to be coming from the kitchen, where Brooke saw a man standing over her grandmother with a shiny implement in his hand. The child ran back to the bedroom and closed the door, but she'd drawn the intruder's attention. He entered, and she felt the impact when he struck her but then lost consciousness. The intruder strangled and assaulted her with an object, apparently leaving her for dead, but she woke up hours later, bruised and hurting. She slowly arose and went out to find Mamaw. She needed help.

But Mamaw—Judith Johnson—could not comfort Brooke or get her to a doctor, because she'd been murdered. Her body lay near the couch, covered in blood. Brooke cried out; and, when her grandmother failed to move, she shook her and yelled at her. "But she wouldn't wake up," she later said. She called a friend, who didn't answer, and a neighbor, who also did not pick up. Brooke realized she was in trouble and needed help, so she set out to find someone.

With a bloodstained nightgown and swollen face, she arrived at a neighbor's home, two houses away, as the neighbor, Tonia B., was making breakfast. She did not allow Brooke to come in. Instead, Tonia told her to wait on the front porch. (In an interview with 48 Hours, Brooke recalled that she stood outside around half an hour.) Finally, Tonia gave her a ride home. When Brooke related what had happened, by Tonia's account, she said the man who'd attacked them was her Uncle Clarence.

In shock, Brooke's parents took her to a hospital for a thorough examination and there she expressed some doubt about whom she had seen. Then she revised her account again and said it was Uncle Clarence — Clarence Elkins — who had killed her grandmother and hurt her. The police took her statement, and she affirmed it all again to the doctors and her relatives.

Judith was found beaten with a blunt object, raped and sodomized with a blunt object, and strangled. Apparently, she'd opened her front door to get some cool air, allowing her killer easy access. She'd broken a fingernail scratching him, and a bloody fingerprint had been left behind on the doorframe.

Clarence was swiftly arrested outside his home, 40 miles from Judith's house, despite his wife Melinda's claim that he'd been in bed. However, she admitted she had not been in the same bed with him so she could not say for sure, but she believed that if he'd left the dogs would have barked. The police seemed to treat her as if they believed she was covering for him. Thus, in quick succession, Melinda learned about her mother's brutal murder, her niece's assault, and her husband's arrest. But she remained firm that Clarence was innocent.

Only a year later, when Brooke talked with prosecutor Michael E. Carroll did she express uncertainty again. She said she wasn't certain about seeing her uncle, but the team coached and reassured her, and so she agreed to testify against him. She was, of course, the key prosecution witness. She had been there, she had seen what happened, and there was no one to contradict her.

While there was evidence that suggested the possibility of another perpetrator, with an eyewitness the police did not see the need to waste more resources on the case. Nevertheless, as many forensic psychologists know, cases with child witnesses can be tricky.

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