Pictured above: Happier times: Murder victims Kenneth and Suzanne at Christmas.

 

There are strangers among us, and some of them are evil. As we go about our busy lives, they slip into our communities unnoticed. Then they watch. Theirs are not crimes of passion but of opportunity. And what better opportunity for a crime than a small-town jewelry store at closing time?

 

The family behind Staton’s Jewelry were people of quiet grace and unrelenting determination. Rheumatoid arthritis dominated Kenneth Staton’s life. Marrying him, he had warned Ruth, would not make for a fairytale. Undaunted, she said her vows and, in better and worse times, she remained his wife for 30 years. That is, until the strangers came to town.

 

Even after he became wheelchair-bound, Kenneth was determined to provide for his family. Despite unrelenting pain, he became proficient in watch repair, a skill that led to owning a jewelry store. A true family business, Ruth and two of the couple’s daughters often worked alongside him. None of them were naive to the dangers that such a store invited, especially at closing time. But Kenneth just could not bring himself to buy a gun.

 

Then they came – two strangers who pulled off Highway 64 into Van Buren’s Cloverleaf Plaza Shopping Center. They did not wander into Staton’s store at random, but casually looked around and lingered in the store for a bit. Today would not be the day for their crime. Instead, they turned back onto the highway, heading to a campground on Beaver Lake near Horseshoe Bend.

 

By the time Damon and Loralei Peterson pulled into their campsite, that old Cadillac of theirs was about to give it up. The young guy at the next campsite looked like he was too. Camping was not really Rick Anderson’s thing – drinking and drugs were.

 

Anderson and his girlfriend had been working a carnival which was reopening soon in Fort Smith. For now, all they had was a Harley-Davidson, two sleeping bags and very little money. Damon Peterson made sure none of that was a problem, sharing food, beer, weed and even his pop-up camper with the couple.

 

After a few days of Anderson steadily taking his bait, Peterson gave the line a good yank. I’m doing a jewelry store heist, Peterson said. How about you help with that? Anderson immediately realized that Peterson’s tone meant it was not really a question.

 

The two men headed to Van Buren, this time parking at Safeway directly across the highway from Staton’s. Anderson might have been a novice at this, but Peterson certainly was not. There was still prep to be done, including Anderson going into Staton’s to see the store’s layout. Then late in the day, Peterson called out to a woman crossing the simmering blacktop of the parking lot, “Hey, do you want to get some beers together?” It began that way – the woman joining them for beers at the Terry Motel. Anderson was usually catnip to women, but it was Peterson who she took home for the night.

 

Peterson was all business when he met up with Anderson the next day. In the motel room, he laid out guns and a silencer on the bed, telling Anderson to grab a couple of washcloths to gag their victims — just to keep them quiet, Peterson told Anderson. They rode back over to the Safeway, watching and waiting. Soon it would be closing time. They crossed the highway on Wednesday, Sept. 10, 1980.

 

Those who came upon the scene later saw the robbery was the least of it; Kenneth Staton and his youngest daughter, Suzanne, had been shot execution style. The cops had a crime scene, Ruth Staton had a husband and child to bury, and two couples up at Horseshoe Bend had a party, complete with a jewelry show.

 

Peterson moved methodically the next day, burning the price tags and ring holders in the fire pit, trading the Cadillac for an inconspicuous four-door older-model Plymouth, and storing the Harley and the camper in a storage unit. Then, high on uppers, the strangers slipped out of town.

 

In Atlanta, Peterson had friends who could make stolen goods disappear. Business was not over for Peterson though. You kill Loralei, he told Anderson. I’ll take care of the other one.

 

Anderson had been blindsided once, but now he quickly put his girlfriend on a Greyhound for home. Loralei also lived to make another stop – Jacksonville Beach, Fla.

 

A little over a week after the Staton robbery, the money, like the road from Van Buren, was in the rearview mirror. Peterson had another jewelry store targeted and, like before, the thieves hunkered down in a sketchy motel complete with a honky-tonk next door.

 

Standing in the parking lot one night, drunk beyond reason, Anderson began to make target practice of the bar. Hearing gunfire, Peterson rushed out of his room, blasting away. Responding officers were not amused, putting him down with one shot to the shoulder.

Convicted murderer Eugene Wallace Perry, executed in 1997.

The question now became just who had the officers nabbed? The so-called Peterson, 35, had a four-page rap sheet that came complete with a list of aliases: Damon Malantino, Jim Jackson, Eugene Wallace Hubbard and Marvin Allen Williams. Already setting up his dodge, the man claimed he was not Peterson, just someone who fenced jewelry for him. Eugene Wallace Perry was his name.

 

That part was true, as was the fact that in Alabama he had an ex-wife, two teenage daughters and devoutly religious parents whose prayers for him never got answered.

 

Anderson, the son of a high-level IBM executive, first got in trouble at age 13, getting expelled from his Seventh Day Adventist boarding school for doing drugs. By 16, Anderson was a runaway. At the time of his first arrest, he was 23 years old, a father once and a husband twice. When the last wife decided she could pimp herself, thank you, he was reduced to working odd jobs, the last of which was at the carnival.

 

Anderson had no rap sheet, but Perry’s past gave cops the itch to learn more. The men’s names, aliases and descriptions went out on teletype, and they got rapid responses from Arkansas and Georgia law enforcement. These two men were in high demand.

 

The morning after the Staton murders, a frightened but determined woman in Van Buren came to police. She was the woman who had taken the man who said his name was Peterson home with her the night before the jewelry store robbery. Before he left that morning, her one-night stand had asked if she had a gun in the house. No, she said, her intuition leaving her unnerved.

 

Afterward, she made the crucial connection, what with Staton’s store being directly across from the Safeway. It was a critical tip; had she not come forward, the Staton murders might very well have joined the multitude of cold cases across the country.

 

Instead, the information she provided had a domino effect on the investigation. Armed with their names, descriptions and details of the Terry Motel stay, officers compiled evidence that built capital murder charges. They found unburned price tags at the campsite, the car lot which traded another vehicle for the Cadillac and even the storage unit.

 

Then there was this: three weeks prior to the Staton murders, Perry, then traveling under the alias of Jim Jackson, had killed a woman and her son execution style at a Tyrone, Ga., campsite. Originally Anderson was also charged with that crime as well.

murder mystery

A news photo captured Anderson following his murder conviction.

Perry was in Florida’s custody, but Anderson ran for Canada, always staying on the move. In January 1981, Canadian authorities in Vancouver arrested bank robber Ivo Shapox. His ID was Canadian, but his accent was not. Not that he was talking much. For the duration, he was given a jail cell, complete with a roomie who was an undercover officer. While Shapox did not reveal his true identity to the man, he did talk of murders, the jewelry store and Arkansas. It was enough. Soon, Anderson (aka Shapox) was heading south.

 

Perry’s case was tried separately in July 1981. Despite the testimony of his desperate family members who claimed he was in Alabama at the time of the murders, the jury gave swift justice for the Staton family. In eight months, Perry was to be executed. Determined to stay alive, he filed multiple appeals, all the while maintaining he was not Damon Peterson.

 

Also on death row was a highway killer by the name of Mad Dog Pruitt. He had committed murders across a wide swath of states before Arkansas took him down for the killing of Fort Smith convenience store worker Bobbie Jean Roam Robertson.

 

Conspiring with Perry to create more delays, Pruitt swore to authorities that he and Anderson were behind the Staton murders, Perry just being their fence in Atlanta. That story had a short flight; as it turns out, Pruitt was being interrogated by the FBI in New Mexico on that particular September day in 1980.

 

His avenues for appeal finally exhausted, Perry was executed in 1997 while the Staton women stoically watched.

 

“Tonight wasn’t as bad as what Suzanne had to watch,” Ruth said. “[Perry] forced Suzanne to watch as her father was shot, all the time knowing that she was next.”

 

In October 1981, Anderson was sentenced to life in jail with no chance of parole. It would be almost 10 years later that Canadian authorities would connect him to the murder of a businessman in Vancouver. He has never been tried for that case.

 

Meanwhile, Georgia authorities tracked down and convicted Cindy Sue Brown as an accessory to Perry’s campground murders. Once she served her time there, she was then convicted of conspiracy to commit robbery in the Staton case. Who was this woman?  Raised in Alabama by her grandmother, she was a kid who became easy prey due to her drug habits. Eugene Wallace Perry created for her the alias of Loralei Peterson, but she was never anyone’s wife.    

 

Years later, at a signing for her book “Blind Rage,” a woman approached the author, Anita Paddock. It was Ruth Staton, and she wanted Paddock to write about her family. The book, “Closing Time,” was released in 2017 and is the basis for this article. And yes, it is all Ruth could have hoped for, as it goes beyond the murders to reveal some strange twists that occurred later.

 

After Anderson’s trial, one of his defense attorneys, Sam Hugh Park, was implicated in the murder of his own mother, the case detailed in Paddock’s “Blind Rage.” Anderson’s father, who, in retirement, had moved to Arkansas to be near him, was bludgeoned to death during a robbery of the business he had established. The killer slipped away.

 

There was another robbery at Staton’s Jewelry, but those thieves escaped justice. In June, 90-year-old Ruth Staton died, having outlived her husband, three daughters and one murderer. She was a woman who had long lived with a truth etched in her soul: evil often wears everyday faces. Strangers slip in among us. Beware.

 

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