Sailor's slaying case reopened: Was cop many feared involved in 1969 death?

Leonard Le Crowe (left), Danny Kelly (right)

The gunshots went unnoticed, muffled by the pillow pressed against Danny Kelly's head.

One bullet pierced his skull. Then, four more, the spent cartridges clattering to the floor beside him.

The young sailor slumped across his bed and died, his blood soaking the sheets around him in the West Ashley apartment he called home.

Forty-two years have passed since that warm October evening in 1969 when a gunman took Kelly's life just a few hours shy of his 26th birthday. The killing remains unsolved, an enduring mystery from an era of unrest.

Mike Gordon, a cold case investigator for Charleston police, is hoping to change all that. He recently reopened the investigation at the urging of Kelly's family and is looking hard for answers.

It's no easy task. Investigators never found the murder weapon, eyewitnesses or a motive in Kelly's killing. And many of those involved in Kelly's life have died or disappeared.

But some intriguing investigative avenues remain, including Kelly's acquaintance with a former Charleston County police officer suspected of being a hit man who murdered several people while wearing a badge.

That officer, Leonard Lee Crowe, was one of the last people to see Kelly alive and his name has been linked in state investigative documents to the killing. Crowe, who went on to work as a Hanahan police lieutenant, long proclaimed his innocence and he was never charged with any of the slayings of which he was suspected. He died last year in Oklahoma.

Gordon said he is chasing that lead but keeping an open mind. At this point, the investigation could take any turn. "We would just like to bring Danny Kelly's family some closure," he said.

Larry Kelly is grateful police have reopened the investigation into his younger brother's death. The retired civil engineer from Ohio has long struggled to cope with Danny's murder. He still chokes up when he talks about it more four decades later.

"I just can't seem to get past it," he said. "For me, it's almost like it happened yesterday."

Searching for happiness

Danny Michael Kelly grew up in Ohio, the son of a telephone operator and a railroad man turned machinist. He joined the Navy after high school and ended up in Charleston, where the young petty officer was stationed aboard the nuclear submarine Lewis and Clark.

When he wasn't at sea, Kelly lived in a tidy apartment at The Palms off Orange Grove Road in West Ashley. He worked part time tending bar and shot pool in his off hours to relax.

His brother Larry last saw him during a return visit to Ohio in early 1969. Danny seemed captivated by his brother's doting wife and new baby son. Not long after returning to Charleston, Danny called his family one day and announced he had gotten married as well.

The news came out of the blue. His family had never heard of his new bride, 22-year-old Susan Diane Ledford, who went by her middle name. They didn't know where she came from or how they'd met. Still, Danny seemed happy and acted like the married life suited him.

But his bliss didn't last long.

A date with death

On the afternoon of Oct. 3, 1969, Kelly and a buddy went to Kelly's apartment and found Diane chatting with Crowe, a county cop who befriended the couple, Gordon said. Crowe had reportedly dated Diane before her marriage to Kelly six months earlier, he said.

The group sat around talking for a bit and then Kelly went off with his buddy to shoot pool and celebrate a promotion the friend had received. Diane headed out as well, to get her hair done at a beauty shop.

When she returned home around 6 p.m., she found Kelly sprawled across their bed in his underwear, the right side of his head blasted with shots from a .22-caliber gun.

Police had little to go on, and no one who knew Kelly could think of a reason why someone would want to kill him. "He was a good boy," Kelly's wife told an Ohio newspaper after his burial in the Buckeye State. "He was serving the Navy as best he could. He loved life. His work was everything."

Police retraced Kelly's steps and learned that he and his buddy shot pool in North Charleston for a while that afternoon. His friend left him there, and Kelly caught a ride home with someone else. He'd had no trouble during the outing and arrived home safely. But sometime after -- roughly between 4 and 6 p.m. -- he came to a gruesome end.

His wife fleshed out some of the details in a statement to police, but then she got a lawyer and stopped cooperating with investigators, Gordon said.

Kelly's family soon lost touch with Diane as well, his brother said, and no one is sure what became of her.

A possible suspect

Crowe, the county cop, emerged as a possible suspect more than once, and investigators looked hard at him in the mid-1970s, but no solid evidence emerged, Gordon said.

Still, Crowe's name surfaced again after he became a central figure in an Oklahoma court case concerning a triple-homicide. The case dealt with a man who had been wrongfully convicted of gunning down three men beside a motel pool in Oklahoma City in 1980. Records that surfaced in the proceedings showed South Carolina's State Law Enforcement Division investigators suspected Crowe of committing the murders as well as Kelly's slaying.

The court documents described Crowe as a crooked cop who provided protection to prostitutes and ran with members of the Dixie Mafia organized crime group. His travel plans often coincided with homicides in other states, including the killings in Oklahoma. SLED reports quote an agent as saying Crowe "has an extremely high temper and that he believes Lee is capable of killing anyone for money."

The SLED reports also described how a man involved with one of Crowe's ex-girlfriends had ended up shot in the head five times with a small-caliber pistol. When investigators asked Crowe to produce his gun, he said he had lost it, court documents state.

Crowe told The Post and Courier in 1986 that he knew Kelly and his wife well, but denied any dispute with the sailor, much less involvement in his death. Crowe, who was working as a truck driver in Oklahoma at that point, said he had been targeted by SLED agents who didn't like him and that their unfounded allegations had left his life in ruins.

"How would you feel," he asked, "to have your reputation and, essentially your life, destroyed right in front of your eyes?"

Moncks Corner Police Chief Chad Caldwell is a former SLED agent who was involved in the investigation of Crowe. He said investigators felt they were close to bringing him to justice at several points, but their evidence just wasn't solid enough. Caldwell described Crowe as "extremely intimidating." "Everyone was terrified of him," he said.

Charleston County sheriff's Deputy Reggie Sharpe, who is writing a book about the now-defunct county police department, said some former officers he interviewed were still frightened to talk about Crowe, even after learning he was dead.

"It was genuine fear," he said. "I've never seen that before when someone is talking about another cop."

The hunt for closure

Gordon is hoping that the passage of time will make people feel more comfortable with coming forward with information on Kelly's death, whether Crowe was involved or not. He just wants to provide some answers to Kelly's family.

Among those he would like to speak with is Susan Diane Kelly, if that is still her name. So far, he's been unable to track her down, but he still believes she has insights to offer.

Larry Kelly remains hopeful is well. His brother's death haunted his parents until their deaths, and he felt the ripples of grief, guilt and frustration in his own life as well.

His young daughters encouraged him to make one more push for the truth after he broke down during a recent visit to his brother's grave in the family's Wheelersburg, Ohio.

"The girls said, 'Daddy, it's time to do something about this,' " his wife, Robin Kelly said. "So this is our last attempt to do make that happen. We have to do something. There has just been too much unspoken pain for too many years."

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556.