Avenging Elaine

It took 22 years, but Euclid police finally solved her murder.

The Family Man
Jackie Lynn began to feel sick. Something wasn't right.

She talked to Elaine every day. They had a routine: Since Elaine lived in Euclid and Jackie lived near Case Western, Elaine would stop by each day before they both went to work. But Jackie hadn't heard from her since Wednesday. It was now Friday.

Jackie drove downtown to see if Elaine had gone to work by herself. That's when she saw Andy, standing on the street outside a bar. If anyone would know where Elaine was, he would. Elaine was one of his girls. But he hadn't seen her either.

Jackie said she was worried, that she was going up to Elaine's apartment. Andy said he'd go with her.

When they got to Parklawn Apartments, they noticed Elaine's car, a Ford Torino, was parked in its regular spot.

Then Jackie noticed the kitchen curtain. Even from where she stood outside the building, it looked odd, hanging off to one side, as if someone had tried to rip it from the wall.

They knocked on Elaine's door. No answer. They found the manager, who refused to open the door for strangers. Instead, he called the police.

"Oh boy," Jackie heard the officer say as he entered the room. The only thing she could see was a small foot. It looked purple.

It was around 6 p.m. when the Euclid Police Department's Detective Bureau got the call: apparent homicide at the Parklawn Apartments.

Sergeant Patrick Newkirk was on duty that night. During his time on the force, he had seen plenty of dead bodies, but this scene was more gruesome than most. "There's murder," he says dryly, "and there's murder."

There's not much doubt in which column this one belonged. Inside the apartment's short hallway, the body of 21-year-old Elaine Lovett lay face-up, her corpse already starting to decompose in the 84-degree heat, her limbs stiff with rigor mortis. A telephone cord snaked around her left leg, up the side of her body, wound twice around her neck. She'd been strangled with such force that deep furrows were carved in her neck. She had been beaten over the head, stabbed 13 times in her chest, abdomen, back, and arms.

There was blood all over the living room and hallway, smeared on a closet door, on the carpeting, on a pillow. One of the crushed-velvet chairs in the living room had been slashed open, probably with the four-inch hunting knife that was lying on the floor nearby. In the bedroom, there was an empty suitcase. Clothing had been thrown everywhere. The place was a mess -- except for one area.

The kitchen was immaculate, the dishes washed, stacked, ready to be put away. The only items out of place were two white drinking glasses with orange liquid in them, next to a bottle of Tang.

The implication wasn't exactly the stuff of Sherlock Holmes. One thing seemed achingly obvious: "Whomever touched those glasses," says Newkirk, "we figured was involved."

These days, Newkirk works as compliance investigator for the Euclid Public School District. He retired from the Euclid Police Department in 1997 after 31 years on the force -- 25 as a detective, 15 of those in charge of the East Side suburb's investigative unit.

He is tall and thin, with a thatch of white hair and a pair of eyeglasses that make him seem more like a college professor than an ex-criminal investigator -- at least until he opens his mouth. His laconic, measured style of speech is pure cop-talk. Murderers, rapists, and thieves are all "actors" or "individuals." The words "so-called" and "per se" are employed often. His demeanor would make Joe Friday look manic.

During his tenure, Newkirk worked nearly 100 murders, but the details of most have been lost to time. "The cases that you don't clean up are the ones that stay with you," he says. "I have some recall of cases I solved, but it's not the same. It's when you have an open case, you have a sense of unfinished business."

And for almost two decades, since the day Elaine Lovett's body was discovered -- June 2, 1978 -- one of the most conspicuous pieces of unfinished business for Newkirk was her murder. The problem with the case was never one of cinematic proportions. There was never the need for a Eureka! moment, when the great riddle of what happened in Lovett's apartment would be cracked. Even in 1978, just weeks after the killing, Newkirk felt as though he had a decent idea of what happened -- or at the very least, who bore some responsibility. He and his fellow investigators just needed to prove it.

He didn't figure it would take 20 years.

Elaine Lovett was born in Columbus in 1957, but grew up in Brooklyn, New York, the oldest of three children. Her parents split up in the early '60s, and she was raised by her mother, Dalilian Hidalgo.

If Dalilian's job, working for the New York City Board of Education, didn't afford the family the most lavish lifestyle, she tried hard to provide the things she thought important for her children: a sense of family, education, faith. "They were very close, even though I had gotten a divorce from their father," she says. "I worked for 30 years to give my children a home."

"My mom was very strict," says Helen Lovett, Elaine's sister. "She didn't allow us to have boyfriends . . . We were hardly allowed to play outside."

When Lovett turned 18, in 1975, she moved to Ohio to live with her father in Columbus. The arrangement lasted only a couple of months, however, and she soon moved back to New York. She didn't stay there long. A couple of months later, she was back in Ohio, this time settling in Cleveland, where she enrolled in the Job Corps training program located at East 107th Street and Carnegie Avenue.

Not long after she arrived, Lovett started dating Andy Fortson. Lovett never told her family how she and Fortson hooked up, but he says they met while he was working behind the counter of 79th and Euclid Beverage on the East Side. "Her and her girlfriend came in," he says. "She started talking to me, and she said she liked me. So we started dating."

That's one way to put it.

Fortson was a good-looking, smooth-talking hustler -- one who, even in his early 20s, showed a flair for streetwise entrepreneurship. "He was a genius to the degree he was insane," says Brenda Caver, who has known Fortson for almost 30 years and gave birth to one of his daughters. "He could always think of ways to make money."

In the late '70s, one of those ways was running hookers, a business that afforded Fortson a conspicuously indulgent lifestyle. There were the three-piece suits, the lizardskin shoes, and the three cars: a blue limo, a pink Lincoln, and a white Rolls-Royce.

Though Elaine Lovett told her family she was supporting herself in Cleveland by working at a department store, she was actually employed by her "boyfriend" Fortson, working out of the Biscayne Lounge on Prospect Avenue as a prostitute.

Fortson doesn't deny that he worked as a pimp in the '70s -- "I was a hustler," he says -- nor does he refute that Elaine Lovett prostituted for him. But she was too wild to work for him on a consistent basis, too much trouble, he says, and it lasted only a couple of months.

"Elaine was mostly a renegade, they called it," he says. "She was really a renegade. She liked women and shot dope, and that's not a good woman for a so-called pimp back in the days to have."

Not surprisingly, Fortson's description of the easy-come, easy-go life for a prostitute flies in the face of how others later remembered life in his employ. Like all pimps, he controlled every aspect of his prostitutes' lives. He paid their rent. He bought their cars. He gave them money for clothes, food. He told them when to start working, when they could stop.

He even said who they could be. Few people in town even knew Elaine Lovett's real name. She had been given a new identity. Her name, in Cleveland at least, was Sonia Cruz, even if everybody knew her by her nickname: Little Bit, a self-explanatory calling card if there ever was one. She was a wisp of a woman: five feet tall, weighing barely 90 pounds.

It was a life, of course, that was a form of indentured servitude, one in which the freedom from violence came at a specific cost: $300 a day, every day. No days off, no personal time, no exceptions.

"It was not like Pretty Woman and Julia Roberts," Jackie Lynn, who also worked as a prostitute, would later recall. "It was a hell, and you couldn't just walk away from it."

For streetwalkers like Lovett, it was a life that centered around the 'ho stroll: the area of Euclid and Prospect avenues between East 18th and East 40th streets that served as the city's red-light district.

"You would get up around two, three, four in the afternoon, unless you had something to do, if you had to be in court for some reason," Lynn would later explain of the daily routine. "Then you would just go right to work . . . You would prostitute all night. Nonstop. Then you would give the money to your pimp."

The depressing banality of the workday grind, however, was belied by the consequences for any transgression against a pimp, real or imagined. If a girl didn't meet her quota, she was beaten. If she was suspected of pocketing money, she was beaten. If she was seen with another pimp, she was beaten.

"My nose was punched. My lips were bloodied. I had my hair pulled out," one of Fortson's former prostitutes would recall of a typical beating. "Then he was kicking me with his pointed-toed shoes. My toenail ended up getting torn off. He kicked me again and again . . . and he had to take me to the emergency room, because I was in excruciating pain."

It was also a life that Elaine Lovett was planning to leave. She told friends and fellow prostitutes that she was leaving Cleveland, that she was going back to New York for good.

On May 12, 1978, Elaine traveled to her family's Brooklyn home for Mother's Day, bringing with her two plates as gifts for Dalilian. One depicted the Last Supper. The other bore the words "Mother's Day."

That two-week visit was supposed to be a prelude to her homecoming. Elaine told her family of her plans. She just needed to make one quick trip back to Cleveland to get her furniture.

It was going to be the way it had been when the kids were growing up, Dalilian thought, when they did everything together, back when she would pick them up from school each day, when they would all go to church together.

But first, Elaine had to go back to Cleveland. Her sister didn't want her to. Helen Lovett knew what her mother did not. She had seen the bruises on Elaine's legs and arms. She knew about Elaine's boyfriend, Andy. She had heard them on the phone together, had seen Elaine crying while she talked to him. She had seen how terrified Elaine was at the thought of returning to Cleveland.

Helen tried to console her sister. She told her she didn't have to go. But Elaine couldn't be swayed, despite her fear. "It was like she had no choice," says Helen. "She had to go back."

Elaine left New York on May 28. Five days later, she was dead.

Almost immediately after the murder, Andy Fortson became a suspect. Police figured that Elaine's plans to leave Cleveland without his permission -- a major offense in her line of work -- provided a strong enough motive. They also found out that she had been afraid to return to Cleveland because of him. Fortson, for his part, didn't help himself out by lying to police the first time he spoke to them. Fortson told investigators that he had seen Lovett briefly three nights before the murder. Other than that, he said, he hadn't talked to her for a month. But police knew that he had spoken to Lovett while she was in New York.

There was one problem with focusing on Fortson as a suspect: Investigators found no physical evidence connecting him to the crime. And Fortson had a solid alibi. The night the cops suspected Lovett was killed -- Wednesday, May 31 -- he was at the Midtown Motel with another woman all night. So in the fall of 1978, a couple of months after Elaine Lovett's body was discovered, the file was put on the shelf. Police had exhausted their leads. The case had gone cold.

It would stay that way for almost a decade. No new leads, no new names, nothing more that could tie Fortson or anyone else to the crime. Then, on May 30, 1986, almost eight years to the day after Lovett was killed, Newkirk got a call.

It was from a lawyer in Sarasota, Florida, who said he represented a woman named Tina Heimer. Newkirk was already familiar with the name. In 1978 she provided Andy Fortson his alibi, telling police she had been with him at the Midtown Motel the entire night.

Ever since, however, Heimer's conscience had eaten away at her, she said. For eight years, every time the calendar came to the end of May, she thought of Lovett. Now she wanted to tell the cops what really happened.

Heimer said that she had, in fact, shared a room with Fortson on the night of May 31, 1978. But Fortson hadn't been there the whole time.

Sometime between 3 and 4 a.m., when Heimer woke to go to the bathroom, she noticed that Fortson wasn't there. She assumed he had gone to get a Coke. But just as she was about to go back to sleep, Fortson came into the room. He was nervous and agitated, and he was wearing different clothes from the ones he'd had on that evening.

He kept pacing back and forth. Over and over, Heimer recalled, he kept saying, "I got to find a witness."

Heimer also made it clear that Fortson had been furious about Lovett leaving him. A few days before the murder, Heimer told Fortson that she'd heard Lovett already had a "player" in New York, a pimp whom she was apparently planning to work for. Following pimp-prostitute protocol, Lovett had already given the man her diamonds, the price for his services. Fortson, said Heimer, "freaked out."

"He said he gave that bitch those diamonds," Heimer later recalled.

A few days later, hours before police believed Lovett was killed, Heimer retrieved a package left at the front desk of the hotel. It was a manila envelope from Lovett. Inside were pictures of Elaine and Fortson, spanning the time they had known each other. When Heimer showed the pictures to Fortson that night, he became enraged.

Heimer would never forget what he'd said: "I'm going to kill the bitch."

Now police knew Fortson had a motive and the opportunity to kill Lovett. Newkirk went to meet with a county prosecutor, even though he already knew what the prosecutor would say: The case wasn't going anywhere near a grand jury yet.

The problem was the fingerprints left on the two glasses at the crime scene. It was the best piece of physical evidence, but it was also the greatest weakness in nailing Fortson.

The police had lifted six prints off the glasses, but only three could be identified -- all of them belonging to Lovett. The cops had no idea who left the others. None of them, it turned out, came from Fortson. And to go to court accusing Fortson of murder -- without being able to identify who had been in the apartment -- was tantamount to begging for an acquittal.

"This," Newkirk says dryly, "was particularly aggravating."

The family shared that aggravation. Like police, they had long suspected that Fortson was involved. Helen even dreamed Elaine told her he had done it. Even so, after years without an arrest, they had given up hope that Fortson, or anyone else, would be brought to justice.

"At the beginning," says Dalilian Hidalgo, "I thought they would never find him."

It would be another five years before she was given any reason to hope. In the spring of 1991, Fortson landed in jail on a disorderly conduct charge. It was 13 years after the murder had taken place, but the detective didn't want to squander the chance to discuss the case.

Newkirk and Fortson had talked before, shortly after the murder, but now Newkirk had information that discredited Fortson's alibi. He told him Tina Heimer had revised her version of what happened the night of May 31, 1978. That she had told them she'd lied to help Fortson, that she had given the police other information connecting him to the murder.

Fortson didn't believe it. Tina wouldn't say such things, he told Newkirk. He had been at the Midtown Motel the entire night. He had nothing to do with the murder.

Newkirk showed Fortson a picture of Lovett taken at the Prospect Lounge. Fortson told Newkirk how good she looked. Then Newkirk showed him another picture, one taken after her body was discovered in her apartment.

Fortson became upset, refusing to look at the photo. "I got nothing to do with that," he said.

Seven months later, he popped up on Newkirk's radar again. In October 1991, Fortson landed in jail once more. This time he had beaten his common-law wife, Brenda Caver, so badly that she ended up in Euclid General Hospital. At the time, Fortson and Caver were living with their 16-year-old daughter, Andee Caver, in an apartment at 26500 Parklawn Drive in Euclid -- the same complex in which Lovett once lived.

After being released from the hospital, Brenda Caver came to the Euclid Police Station with her daughter to be interviewed about the assault; Newkirk figured that she might also know something about Elaine Lovett.

However, it was Andee Caver who spoke up when Newkirk started asking questions. She told Newkirk that, a couple of years before, Fortson had taken her for a ride in his Rolls-Royce. He wanted to talk to her about the "ABCs of life," she said, how she shouldn't grow up to be like him. He had hurt a lot of people in his life, he told her. He had even once "made somebody disappear."

"I used to take both my daughters for rides," Fortson says now. "I wasn't no angel in my 20s. So when I did take two of my children . . . I used to tell them all the time, don't grow up to be like me. I've done some things I'm ashamed of, but that doesn't mean you have to grow up and be like that. I used to tell them that all the time."

Still, he never told his daughter he "made anybody disappear," he says.

After hearing what Andee Caver had to say, Newkirk met with a supervisor in the county prosecutor's office downtown. Fortson had a motive, an opportunity. And if Andee Caver was telling the truth, he had made a confession. What more could they need?

Prosecutors and investigators all believed they could get an indictment if they went to the grand jury, but fingerprints remained a major hang-up. "If we go and present a case against Fortson, we'd have to reveal that there are unidentified fingerprints on glasses that we felt were definitely left by the killer or killers," says Newkirk. "It's going to be 'Well, who's that?' We don't know."

As it turned out, what they really needed was a better computer.

For decades, movies and television have given the impression that fingerprints were akin to a calling card: Just feed them into a computer, and out pops the name of a suspect, like some sort of crime-fighting vending machine. Until a few years ago, however, it didn't quite work that way.

For most police departments, the only way to compare prints was to do so manually. You had to know who you were looking for. Otherwise, it was a wild goose chase.

In the Lovett case, investigators long had trouble pinpointing Fortson's associates, those who may have assisted in the murder.

"The people we were dealing with weren't about to offer us any legitimate information we could act on," says Newkirk. "We were dealing with some individuals that were on the street, and they'd be placing themselves in danger by offering up information."

In August of 1998, however, everything changed. That month, the Euclid Police Department obtained an Automated Fingerprint Identification System. AFIS was an example of life imitating art. It worked the way movies and television shows had always imagined fingerprinting technology worked. An investigator scans in a print, which the computer then analyzes and compares to the prints already in its database. Out comes a list of possible matches, which are then compared by hand to the print in question.

The computer was tied into the Cleveland Police Department's catalog of fingerprint cards, which includes more than a million prints of people arrested over the years.

Ever since the system arrived that summer, Detective Raymond Jorz had been going through old cases that had unidentified prints on file, trying to find matches.

When Jorz entered the unidentified prints from the Lovett murder on August 14, 1998, he got a hit. The name that came up: Robbie Robertson.

Jorz had never heard of him. Robertson wasn't mentioned in the old case file; nor were there references to him in the original investigation. The only thing police could presume was some sort of familial relationship between Robertson and Fortson.

On May 4, 1999, Robertson couldn't figure out what the police wanted with him. He had moved to Brooklyn in 1993 and didn't even know the woman police were asking about. Sonia Cruz, Elaine Lovett, Little Bit: He'd never heard of her. He certainly didn't have anything to do with her murder. He had never even been in Euclid, he said.

About the only thing he'd admit to was being loyal to his stepbrother, Andy Fortson, when he lived in Cleveland years before. "I was the younger brother, and he took care of me, so I would do whatever he asked. I was there for him," he told the cops.

But for a man who didn't know Elaine Lovett or anything about her murder, Robertson had an uncanny knowledge of the details of the case. At one point, he claimed he was being set up, that somebody could've planted that glass with his fingerprints on it.

But there was one small problem: Police never told him about the glass. The only way he could have known about it was to have been at the murder scene.

With Robertson's own admission that he worked for Fortson -- along with the fingerprints placing him at the apartment -- investigators finally had enough evidence to go back to the prosecutors. On December 17, 1999, Fortson was arrested.

Even with evidence gathered over 20 years, however, it was hardly an open-and-shut case. Despite Robertson's fingerprints on the glass at the crime scene, despite Fortson's shredded alibi, despite evidence that Fortson had threatened to kill Lovett, the case would be difficult for prosecutors to win.

Their theory was that Fortson ordered Robertson, and likely someone else, to do his dirty work for him. Though Robertson's fingerprints were strong evidence, there was little else to tie him to the murder. Prosecuting Fortson involved a worse problem: There was zero physical evidence tying him to the crime.

In May of this year, the two men finally went on trial in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. The charges: aggravated murder, conspiracy, and conspiracy to commit aggravated murder.

Assistant County Prosecutors Ed Walsh and Pat Lavelle called 13 witnesses, including Jackie Lynn and Tina Heimer, both of whom are now living under different names.

It was a murder case, of course, but the trial was really about the sins of prostitution. If nothing else, prosecutors made Fortson look like a scumbag who enslaved women so he could drive a pink Lincoln with white leather interior, while the prostitutes who worked for him had to get permission to buy food.

Meanwhile, prosecuting attorneys argued that Robertson was simply weak: a lackey guilty of taking his marching orders from a manipulative thug who couldn't stomach the messiest part of his business.

The most compelling testimony came not from someone who hated Fortson, however, but from someone who should have been on his side: his own daughter, Andee Caver.

On the stand, Caver couldn't remember telling Newkirk that her father once told her he'd made someone named Little Bit disappear. It was a victory for the defense.

But Caver seemed so terrified during her testimony that she was the prosecution's most effective witness. She said she was afraid her mother would get killed for showing up in court, that her father had offered them a trip to California if they wouldn't testify.

Even Fortson admits that's why the jury convicted him. "'If you don't want to go to court, I'll send you to California,'" he confesses to telling Andee. "Yes, I did. I certainly did. That's why I'm here. I can't deny that. That's why I'm here, because I went over and said that."

In the end, jurors bought the idea that Fortson was responsible for Elaine Lovett's murder. They didn't feel the same about Robertson and acquitted him of all charges.

Fortson was sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 20 years. He is now a slim, handsome 43-year-old resident of the Lorain Correctional Institution who is convinced he will win his appeals case, which is now pending.

"I'm going to put it to you like this," he says. "I'm not going to say I didn't do it. I know I didn't do it. And I didn't. Period. Just period. I'm a very spiritual man, and I thought all the things I got away with, I thought I got away with. All the things I done, I call this retribution . . . It's just between me and God. So I know I didn't do a murder, and I know I'm going home. I know I'm going home."

Elaine Lovett's family doesn't really care what Fortson believes. After 22 years, they finally saw justice catch up with the man they always thought responsible. "I don't know how to put it in words," says Helen Lovett. "Right now, it's still like open wounds . . . but I feel peace in my heart that they finally caught somebody."

But even after Fortson's conviction, there remained one last piece to the puzzle.

About a week before the trial, something still bothered Raymond Jorz. One fingerprint, specifically. Though he and his partner, Detective Robert Pestak, had been able to match Robertson to the prints found on the glasses, it accounted for only two of the three prints previously unidentified.

On the morning of April 26, just before he left the station for a court hearing, Jorz put the last fingerprint into the Euclid Police Department's new fingerprint identifying computer. It came back with a hit: Charles Tolliver.

By that time, Jorz was familiar with Tolliver. He was Andy Fortson's first cousin. And even more so than Robertson, Tolliver was Fortson's enforcer, called on to keep prostitutes in line and intimidate rivals.

The pieces had finally come together. A warrant was issued in early May for Tolliver's arrest.

At his trial in late September, many of the same witnesses testified. But unlike Robertson, Tolliver didn't have a bogeyman co-defendant to distract attention from his misdeeds.

This time, the prosecution focused on the idea that Lovett's injuries had to have been caused by more than one person. Tolliver had been there -- the fingerprints showed that. And since he was Fortson's enforcer, he must have had some part in the killing.

Once again, defense attorneys called no witnesses of their own, but they did establish that there was no way to judge when a fingerprint has been left somewhere. Tolliver's prints could have been planted at the crime scene, they argued, or he could have been there some time long before the murder.

Tolliver, however, had to contend with testimony from Jackie Lynn and Tina Heimer, as well as Brenda Caver, that he was Fortson's chief strongman.

Like her daughter in the previous trial, it was Brenda Caver who provided the most damaging testimony. Back in 1978, shortly after the murder, she was walking with Tolliver to Fortson's sister's house. Caver had yet to hear about Lovett. She had been out of town, and she asked Tolliver if he knew what Lovett was up to.

"He said, 'That bitch is dead,'" Caver testified. "I asked him what he knew about it. He didn't say anything."

There was one thing that bothered Caver about the incident: Tolliver was smiling when he said it.

He was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, though he was found innocent of murder itself, and was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison. He is appealing the conviction.

Before Judge Bridget McCafferty sentenced Tolliver, she let him address the court. "The pieces don't fit into the puzzle," he said. "I really don't know what to say. I'm looking for justice, and this to me is not what is called justice."

Perhaps it's just called karma.

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