Family keeps slain shopkeeper’s memory alive
James “Bud” Childress towered over his sisters and brother. (courtesy photo)
James “Bud” Childress became a number on Sept. 13, 2000 — when the 61-year-old shopkeeper expired in the intensive care unit of Baptist Hospital.
Despite the best efforts of medical staff, Childress never emerged from a coma induced two weeks earlier, after emergency surgery to repair extensive damage to his cranium. Somebody armed with something blunt had made a mess out of the broad bones of his face. His skull — a large part of his six-and-a-half-foot frame — had been smashed like a teacup, driving bone fragments deep into the soft tissue of his brain. And so his family gathered at his bedside, said goodbye and removed him from life support. It was 4 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon. At that moment, his nieces lost an uncle, his wife lost a husband, his sisters lost a brother, his children lost a father and Winston-Salem homicide Detective Mike Rowe inherited report #041450. Childress was the year’s 15th homicide victim. The case had already chilled by the time it landed on Rowe’s desk. Two weeks had passed since the attack, giving the perp plenty of time to distance himself from the crime. It hasn’t warmed since. As the Childress family prepares to observe the eighth anniversary of his murder, Rowe and his partner, Detective Michelle Lovejoy, are actively soliciting tips from potential witnesses, hoping to generate leads that never came in the weeks immediately following the attack. Earlier this year, Capt. David Clayton — head of the Criminal Investigations Division — tapped the two detectives to lead Winston-Salem’s Cold Case Homicide Unit. The Childress case is the first one they’ve reopened. “Some victims are more innocent than others,” Rowe said. “When you have a guy who is working in a business, trying to get by in life, trying to support his family, and something like this happens — that’s tough for anybody to swallow.” Childress’ relatives can’t remember exactly when he bought D&S Flea/ Consignment, only that he’d had the store for a long time, ever since he retired from his delivery job at a local bakery. The shop, which sold everything from furniture to old electronics and clothes, backed up to the campus of what is now the UNC School of the Arts on Waughtown Street. It was a favorite hunting ground for students and faculty alike, his family said. Childress’ shop wasn’t so different from the small businesses that surrounded it: a fishmonger, watch repair shop, auto body shop and transmission place. It was a close-knit, blue-collar district, and Childress was a neighborhood favorite. “He was good people,” said Scott Fortescue, owner of Crazy Fish. “He came from a poor family, nothing too fancy about ’em. Just real down-to earth people, you know.” Childress usually opened his shop around 10 a.m. and stayed until 5 or 6. Whenever Fortescue visited, the two men would trade small talk, and Childress might try to sell him some small piece of his inventory. Fortescue doesn’t remember much about the day of the attack, and the person who found him has never been identified. It was around 1:30 p.m. when police received the call, but the attack might have happened several hours earlier. The struggle had upended the inventory near where Childress lay in a lake of his own blood. The store, which was already a mess, was in disorder, and a table near the victim had been dismembered, family members said, yielding a table leg they suspect was used as the weapon. The killer must have caught him off guard, Choplin said, because it’s unlikely he was bigger and stronger than her big brother. Investigators combed the crime scene and made an inventory of the perpetrator’s take. The only thing missing was $30 petty cash. “If you would have asked him,” said Childress’ sister, Lilian Choplin, “if you didn’t have any money and needed some for something, needed something to eat, he would have bought you something.” Choplin and her children remember Childress as a joker, a man who lit up every gathering and heaped generosity on the members of his extended family. He piled Choplin’s four daughters into a truck when they were young and took them on their first trip to the beach. Childress even paid a visit to his niece, Tammy Jollay, on the first night on the job at Ernie’s, a restaurant on Waughtown Street where her mom worked. “He’s hollerin’ ‘Where’s my niece at?’” she said. “And when you hear that voice, you know you’re going to have a good night. If someone comes in and they’re not having a good night, then he’s gonna give ’em a good night because he’s gonna make ’em laugh.” Childress was a big man — well over six feet and ample, tipping the scales at 300 pounds. He never bothered to wear his dentures, usually wore denim overalls and smoked like a freight train, Choplin said. He turned his toothlessness into a joke, just like he did with everything else. Childress would sit at the end of the table at weekly family dinners and ask his sisters to raise the other end so the food would fall into his mouth. He loved the simple food he grew up on, beans, greens, potatoes and corn.
Childress was the oldest boy and the second out of five children born on Winston-Salem’s Southside. Like his older sister, he quit school after the eighth grade to help support the family. When he was a younger man, he got into a serious car accident that killed his girlfriend and left him partially disabled in his hips and legs. The old injury flared again in the month before his death. Arthritis kept him out of work for most of that August, the 29 th was his first day back after a long hiatus. Choplin, who works at K&W with her older sister, wasn’t at work on the day of the attack. Her manager called her at home to tell her that the police were trying to get in touch with her. She called the police, who told her there had been a robbery, that her brother had been hurt, and that she needed to get to the hospital. “I asked him if my brother was okay,” she said, “and he said he was stable. So I got in touch with my sister and two of my daughters and all four of us went to the hospital.” They arrived before Childress was wheeled into surgery and caught a glimpse of him before he was sedated. Blood spilled from every opening in his head. “There’s just no way to describe it,” said his niece, Angie Pope. “It was just awful, awful, awful. I remember the doctors telling mama that every bone in his face was so broken that they
couldn’t put him back together, no matter how many plates they put in his face, they couldn’t put him back together.” Hishead swelled to the ends of his broad shoulders and became a calico ofcontusions. “It was every color but skin color,” Choplin said. Sixmonths after he died, his wife Essie, who had been suffering fromcancer, passed away. It was a big blow to a family that still, for themost part, lived and worked together in the same Winston- Salemneighborhood where they grew up. They anchored each other in theaftermath and still meet at least once a month for big family dinners. Newfamily members have joined the Childress fold since then, includinghusbands, fianc’s and children who would have been Bud’s great-niecesand nephews. Choplin still manages the office at K&W whileher older sister Sissy works the line. And Sissy still lives in thehouse next door to the one Childress shared with his wife. After hisdeath, Fortescue collected about $500 from merchants on WaughtownStreet to give to the family. The K&W family also came togetheraround Bud’s sisters and put together a collection for his wife. Buteven as people came forward with financial help, the wheels of justiceground
toa halt. Choplin thinks about her brother every day. His violent removalfrom the family fabric has left a wound that can only heal with theconviction of a culprit, she said. So Choplin and her children havekept the case in the public eye — from working the detectives to makingwanted posters. They held a candlelight vigil last year on theseventh anniversary in a traffic circle that was constructed afterChildress’ murder, on a block transformed by construction and turnover. The store that used to be D&S Flea is now a Hispanic grocery. It’s next door to a hair salon that also caters to Hispanics. CrazyFish is still down the street, in the same storefront it’s occupiedsince 1991. Since Childress’ murder, that section of street has beenpretty peaceful, Fortescue said. Since the creation of the cold caseunit, Childress’ family members have renewed contact with Rowe andLovejoy, who featured the case on their website and in the media. “Ihave a lot of faith and hope in Detective Lovejoy and Mike Rowe,”Choplin said. “I’ve been knowing Mike for a lot of years, and he’salways gotten whoever he went after. I just still have hope, I won’tever stop having hope. I’ll go to my grave having it.” Rowe and Lovejoyhave decades of investigative experience between them and a number ofhigh-profile convictions under their collective belt. Lovejoy, in herprevious role as an adult sex crimes investigator, led an investigationthat led to the capture and conviction of a serial rapist responsiblefor a string of crimes across the Triad. Rowe collared WillardBrown, who killed Deborah Sykes, and Paul Tyrone Mitchell, who wasconvicted in 1999 of a 1993 murder. The two detectives believe they cancrack the case — that DNA or eyewitness testimony might surface andlead to a suspect. But the case has its challenges, Rowe said. “Therobbery guys worked it and processed the scene,” Rowe said, “and theydid a good job. But until he did pass, the homicide guys didn’t getinvolved. So we were already behind the cueball.” Because therobbery team handles a higher volume of cases than homicide, theirmethods of processing a crime scene differ substantially. It ispossible the robbery team missed something — a shoe print, a drop ofblood, a fiber — that might have closed the case. But time openswindows just as surely as it closes them. Relationships change,marriages fail and stories get out. Whoever committed the crimeprobably didn’t keep it entirely to himself. A witness unable to comeforward in 2000 might be willing to talk today. “I’ve knownMs. Choplin for more than twenty years,” Rowe said. “I hope one day I’mable to call her up in the middle of the night and tell her we got ’em.But realistically, it’s a tough case. There are minimal leads, nowitnesses and it’s completely changed over there.” Childress’family members are people of abiding faith. Although they’d like to seejustice served on the earthly plane, they believe justice will happenregardless. The murderer knows what he did, Jollay said, and he liveswith it every day. “We may not ever find out in our lifetime who didthis,” said Jollay. “But they will one day meet their maker and thatperson will be punished. We may not see it, but they will be punished.” To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at firstname.lastname@example.org.