New clue found in unsolved murder

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 22, 2004

The charges Willie Hodges originally faced while sitting in a Florida jail may be the least of his concerns now.

Incarcerated recently for burglary and criminal mischief in Escambia County, Florida, a mountain of evidence stacked up tying Hodges to the slaying of a 58-year-old woman at her Pensacola, Fla., home. Hodges was soon charged with the murder of Patricia Belanger.

After the arrest, police in Cincinnati obtained information that Hodges may have been involved in nearly 50 robberies of elderly Ohio women.

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Now, Greg Griggers, district attorney for the 17th Judicial Circuit, believes Hodges may be tied to an unsolved Sumter County murder that happened nearly two years ago.

While Griggers has yet to complete an investigation, he is in the process of obtaining a search warrant to take a sample of hair from Hodges. In the past weeks, Griggers finally received evidence from the unsolved slaying of Winnie Johnson, who lived in Sumter County and was found dead in her home. That evidence, caught in the backlog at the Alabama Department of Forensics, is a sample of hair taken from the scene of the Sumter County scene.

“There are a lot of similarities in our case and some of the others,” Griggers said.

Apparently, Hodges had lived in the Sumter County area and may have been there during the time of the Johnson murder.

“We don’t have much, but I’ve been assured that if we can get this evidence from Florida, forensics will run a test on it quickly,” Griggers said.

While prosecution of Hodges likely will take place in Florida where there is more evidence to convict the suspect, law enforcement in Cincinnati also has a strong case against Hodges.

According to a story in the Cincinnati Post, the suspect would engage elderly women in light conversation and cut away their purse straps with a knife. Other times, the Post said, Hodges would follow the women to their homes, push them inside, and steal their purses before he fled.

In the Florida case, the Pensacola News Journal reported that two of Belanger’s relatives saw a masked man climbing out of her window when they picked the victim up for a holiday trip.

Upon arriving at her home, Belanger’s relatives found her dead inside the home and medical examiners ruled she died of “blunt force trauma.”