August 16, 2014 10:38:12 PM
Nothing ever seems to get thrown away on Downs Road.
Sofas, tables, tires, broken toys, long strips of waterlogged insulation, boxes and overstuffed black garbage bags -- all left to the weeds to obscure and nature to absorb.
This seems to apply even to some of the homes along this little street that connects Mike Parra Road and Land Road in north Lowndes County.
It is a neighborhood dominated by aging mobile homes, with a few small houses mixed in. About half of the homes appear to have been abandoned, their windows busted, their overgrown lawns crowded with debris. You are never quite sure, though. The buzz of an old window unit air-conditioner sometime confirms that someone is living in a trailer that you assume, given its condition, has been abandoned.
Just before the sweeping curve that emerges where Gwen Roberson was murdered in the early morning hours of Aug. 11, you see an old boat on an old trailer propped against an old mobile home. The boat and mobile home are waging a war with the weeds. The weeds are winning.
A lot of things are like that on Downs Road. Things are just abandoned and forgotten.
You wonder, too, if it is the same for some of the people who live here.
Abandoned, then forgotten.
And finally left to the weeds.
What does it matter?
Maybe I shouldn't write about this, I was told. There may be some things yet unrevealed about Roberson and the circumstances of her death that might cast the story in a less charitable light.
Drugs? I wondered, but it was hard for me to imagine that, given what I did know of Roberson. She was a 46-year-old woman whose only modes of transportation were her bicycle and her feet. Her only interests seemed to be her four cats, her three new kittens and the tomato plants she liked to grow in flower pots.
Not drugs, I was told. But she may have been involved with different men and that might have precipitated the murder. That didn't mean she had it coming, of course.
Even so, it would be easy enough to let go of the story. Aside from the morbid curiosity murders typically arouse, there is little about this ghost of a woman that anyone would be drawn to.
Roberson never married, never had children. She lived with her mom until she died in 2007. No one seems to know what happened to her father, where he is or if he's still alive. She has an aunt, Nancy Cunningham, who lives in a trailer about a mile away on Highway 373 near Columbus Air Force Base.
Roberson apparently had no close friends on Downs Road, either.
"She seemed like a friendly person," one neighbor said, but confessed that he knew hardly anything about her. "She liked to ride her bicycle," he offered. "That's about all I know, really."
Yes, it would be an easy story to forget about. There are plenty of other things, important things, to write about, after all.
Gwen Roberson's story? Does it really matter?
Initially, Roberson's death was assumed to be an accident.
Neighbors reported hearing an explosion around 3 a.m. on Aug. 11 and emerged to see her small mobile home engulfed in flames.
County firefighters arrived to extinguish the blaze, which had already consumed most of the structure. Roberson's body was found near the kitchen area, a few feet from the door of the trailer. There was never any mention of what happened to the cats.
Her body was taken to Jackson for an autopsy, which is standard procedure.
Two days later, Lowndes County coroner Greg Merchant released a statement that said Roberson had not died from burns or smoke inhalation. Her death was ruled a homicide, but no details on the manner of death were released.
"But I know," Cunningham says. "They wasn't supposed to tell me, but they did. She was stabbed. I guess they started the fire to hide the evidence."
Cunningham sinks wearily into the overstuffed sofa in her little trailer home. She's been turning over in her mind why anyone would kill her niece.
"I just don't understand," she says. "Gwen would give away the last thing she had. She was a loving person. She wouldn't hurt a fly."
Cunningham pauses to wipe a tear away with the back of her hand. "Then I keep thinking, if they was gonna do that awful thing, why didn't they let those little cats get out? She loved them cats like they was her babies."
"Lord, the things I think about," she says. "Crazy."
'Ain't got nobody now'
Nancy Cunningham, 65, is a big woman with a big smile, big brown expressive eyes and, here lately, a big breaking heart.
Roberson was her sister's only child, but she wasn't just Cunningham's only niece, she was her only friend.
"I ain't got nobody now," she says softly. "My husband passed three years ago. Since then, it's just been me and Gwen."
"She would just come over, about every other day," Cunningham says. "We'd watch TV, talk. I'd cook for her. We didn't do much. But she was always here."
For Cunningham, the companionship Roberson provided was everything. Listening to Gwen talk about her cats -- "she was always just messin' with them cats," Cunningham says, smiling -- helped ease the grief she felt over her husband's death. Cunningham and her husband, Joe, had been married 35 years when he died of an aneurysm at age 62.
Suddenly there was no one.
Cunningham doesn't know too much about Roberson's previous life, she freely admits.
She said Roberson suffered from bi-polar disorder.
"I guess maybe that put off some people," Cunningham says. "When she was on her medicine, she was fine. And she stayed on her medicine. I made sure of it. I'd take her to get her prescriptions. They wasn't nothing wrong with Gwen except for bi-polar."
Cunningham has heard the rumors, too. She dismisses them in a flat, matter-of-fact tone that suggests the stories about her niece are nothing more than malicious gossip.
"Some people let out that she was a street woman," Cunningham says. "She wasn't no street woman. I know that. She was here about every other day and when she wasn't, she was at another lady friend's house over on Highway 82.
"All she was about was them cats when she was home. She didn't depend on nobody for nothing. She didn't ask for nothing. She had three bikes and she loved her little one. She called it her two-wheel Cadillac. If she needed something, off she would go on that little bike -- Walmart, Dollar General. She'd say, 'I gotta go get my cats some food,' and off she would go on that little bike.
"Does that sound like a street woman to you?"
'I gotta feed the cats'
The rumors don't bother Cunningham, but something else does: If only Roberson had left the cats with more food, maybe she would be here today, probably sitting on the sofa watching the big TV or playing with "Coby," Cunningham's jet-black, long-haired dachshund.
On the Sunday before she died, Roberson surprised Cunningham by arriving at 9 a.m.
"That window behind you?" Cunningham says. "She always knocked on that window. She never knocked on the door. That was her thing.
"I hear that knock on the window that morning and I open the door and say, 'Gwen, what you doing here so early?' She just come on in. I cooked her favorite food that day and now I'm glad I did -- greens, speckled butter-beans with okra, yams and pigs' feet. She love her pigs' feet," Cunningham says, wrinkling her nose in a way that suggested she does not share her niece's affection for the pork product.
Roberson stayed all day and Cunningham assumed she would stay the night. She had a bed for her made up on the sofa.
"She got up around 10, 10:30, and said she was going home. I said, 'Why you leaving up out of here so late? Just stay on.'
"But she says, 'No, I gotta go feed my cats.'"
"I told her, 'You shoulda left them cats with enough food so if you decided to stay.'"
"But she didn't. And there wasn't no use arguing, not when it came to them cats."
Usually, Roberson would call Cunningham after she arrived home, but Cunningham didn't get that call Sunday evening.
"I went on, got my shower, went to bed," she recalls. "About 3 in the morning, I get a call and they was telling me about the fire.
"When I got down there, I knew she was in there, burned up. Her body was charred so, you couldn't recognize her.
"I passed out."
By Thursday, the Lowndes County Sheriff's Department had set up a mobile command unit in an empty field at the corner of Mike Parra Road and Downs Road, a sign that the department is aggressively investigating the murder.
At the other end of Downs Road, the charred remains of Roberson's trailer had been cordoned off with two lengths of crime-scene tape. From that perimeter, there is little that can be distinguished of the trailer's contents. The two I-beams that run the length of the trailer are visible in places where the fire burned through the floor. A refrigerator and stove lie at odd angles, doors open and like everything else, charred black. The kitchen sink is on the floor and it contains the only really recognizable items -- a couple of small dinner plates with a blue rose pattern in the center. You can spot the partial skeletons of bicycles if you look closely.
No one has left flowers or candles at the scene, which people sometimes do to remember the dead as sort of a memorial.
It's just a badly charred piece of wreckage. A long look along Downs Road and you know the trailer will not be cleared from the property.
It will share the fate of so many things on Downs Road.
It will be left to the weeds.
Cunningham says she's found it hard to sleep in the days since Roberson's death.
"I'm up and down, up and down, twisting and turning," she says. "The other night, I was finally asleep, I heard a knocking on that window -- Gwen's window -- and I jumped straight up. It wasn't nothing. It was all in my mind.
"Coby's been acting up, too. She knows Gwen's supposed to be here. She misses her, too, I guess."
Cunningham says she has no pictures of her niece. "She never was much for pictures," she says.
There was nothing she could salvage from Roberson's trailer, either.
She is asked if she has anything, anything at all, that belonged to Roberson that she can keep to remember her by.
Cunningham thinks for a moment, then retreats into another part of her trailer and emerges with a small stuffed animal that Gwen brought over one day. It is a cat, naturally. Coby's eyes quickly fix on the toy.
"Gwen would get this out and her and Coby would play with it all day long," Cunningham says.
Cunningham absently dangles the toy cat before Coby's attentive gaze, then catches herself and tosses it across the room, with Coby happily in pursuit.
"When my husband died, it liked to killed me," she says softly. "It took me so long just to deal with that. Now, here come Gwen. What I gonna do?
"I know one thing. I ain't never gonna let nobody get close like that again. It just hurts too bad."
So she has made a decision.
"From now on, it's just gonna be me without," she says.
"Me without a friend," she explains, her eyes moist with the tears she is struggling to restrain.
Something is growing around Nancy Cunningham's big, old broken heart, you realize.
Slim Smith's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.
1. Ask Rufus: Oysters, steamboats and Thanksgiving LOCAL COLUMNS
3. Our View: Charity should not be seasonal DISPATCH EDITORIALS
4. Leonard Pitts: Bill Cosby, serial rapist? That's a lot to forgive NATIONAL COLUMNS
5. Froma Harrop: End the game on immigration reform NATIONAL COLUMNS