Determined investigator nabs 1978 slaying suspect Family that never gave up hope sheds tears after Walterboro man is arrested

Victim Gwendolyn Elaine Fogle and suspect James Willie Butterfield

Nearly 40 years ago, a 26-year-old Walterboro lab technician was raped and brutally killed when she apparently walked in on a burglary in her apartment.

The family of Gwendolyn Elaine Fogle never gave up hope that her killer would one day be found. They broke down in tears Tuesday when police announced they had made an arrest.

James Willie Butterfield, 59, of Walterboro is charged with murder, first-degree criminal sexual conduct and first-degree burglary.

The keys to the arrest were preserving evidence collected at the crime scene until technology caught up with it and assigning a dogged investigator to sift through it until he could nail a suspect.

Fogle’s blood-covered body was found around 1:45 a.m. May 28, 1978, in her home at 210 S. Lemacks St. She was last seen at a convenience store about 11:20 p.m. May 27. Investigators suspected she was killed after she walked in on a burglary. She was beaten on the head with a fireplace poker and then strangled with it pressed against her throat.

Family members were called to the station Tuesday to be told about the arrest.

“We just sat there in silence for a few minutes,” said Fogle’s first cousin, James Fogle of Barnwell. “We’ve been waiting on this for 37 years. The reaction was just tearful. It’s not about us. It’s about Elaine.”

Elaine Fogle graduated from nursing school in Orangeburg and moved to Walterboro to work at a hospital.

“Elaine was a good person,” James Fogle said. “She didn’t have any enemies. It’s just a shame this happened to her. I know it’s not over until he’s in the slammer, but we can have peace of mind now.”

After years of false starts and dead ends, Chief Wade Marvin assigned the case to Investigator Gean Johnson in May.

“A lifelong resident of Colleton County, I was familiar with the horrific homicide that occurred in 1978,” Marvin said. “With the upcoming anniversary of the homicide, Gwendolyn’s family contacted our department inquiring about new leads.”

Johnson said he lost track of the hours he spent at night going over the old case files.

“I’ve been in law enforcement for 23 years, and this is the first time I’ve ever had to take home so much work,” he said Wednesday. “But I felt I owed it to the family. The case just needed a new set of eyes.”

He pored over the original case files and talked to anybody connected with the case. He resubmitted evidence that had been collected at the crime scene for new analysis by the State Law Enforcement Division. He declined to say what particular evidence led him to Butterfield.

A SLED spokesman also said he couldn’t be more specific.

“Recent advancements in technology and forensic testing allowed additional detailed information to be obtained that was not possible in 1978 or even in 2010, when SLED last performed significant work on this cold case,” Agent Tom Berry said.

Johnson worked closely with Rita Shuler, a retired forensic photographer for SLED who lives on Johns Island. She had catalogued the evidence from the scene and helped keep the case alive. She included the case in one of several books she has written on crimes in the state, “Small-Town Slayings in South Carolina,” published in 2009. Johnson said he consulted her when he took over the case.

“Thank God we preserved the evidence,” Shuler said. “We have been looking at this case over the years. It’s an amazing feeling. I’m still shaking over it. We just had to develop the technology to catch up with it.”

Butterfield was never the prime suspect until the case was reopened, according to investigators and the family.

“Numerous interviews and extensive hours of investigative tactics were conducted to exclude other persons of interest,” Officer Amy Stivender said. “However, it was through evidence collected from the original crime scene that Investigator Johnson was able to determine James Butterfield as the suspect.”

Between the time of Fogle’s slaying and Butterfield’s arrest, he was arrested at least 10 times under various aliases, according to SLED and court records. Charges included burglary, assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature and first-degree criminal sexual conduct in 2010, although the rape charge was dropped.

Butterfield also went free after being charged in April 2010 with unauthorized removal of a dead body. Police said Butterfield and a woman put the body of an 83-year-old man in the trunk of his Mercury Grand Marquis and drove off with it. Willie Singleton of Cypress Pond Road was reported missing, and his body was found inside the trunk of his abandoned car. An autopsy was inconclusive and there were no obvious signs of trauma.

Reach Dave Munday at 843-937-5553.