WILMINGTON — Fourteen years ago, Allison Foy disappeared. Two years later her body was found, but the case remained open. For Foy’s family, who believe there is a single, clear suspect, it’s been a long, painful wait for justice.
But somehow, the family keeps up hope.
This year, with a new detective on the case and a new Wilmington chief of Police, Foy’s sister Lisa Valentino remains remarkably upbeat.
“I like to think I’m an optimistic person,” Valentino said in an interview last week. “I know the Wilmington Police Department is still running down every lead — and they still get leads. I’m still hopeful someone will come forward and say, ‘I was afraid to speak up before, but I’m speaking up now.’
After a rocky start, progress
Valentino was initially highly critical of the Wilmington Police Department, in large part because officers allegedly told her Foy was likely an overdose victim. Valentino was told Foy would probably be found ‘with a needle in her arm’ — but Valentino didn’t buy it.
Two years later Foy’s body was found along with that of Angela Nobles Rothen. Foy had been stabbed numerous times; Rothen had broken bones in her face and skull but the apparent cause of death was a knife wound to the neck. Foy’s disappearance became a murder investigation. Detective Lee Odham took over the case, and things turned around. According to Valentino, Detective Odham kept her in the loop constantly, even as the case stretched on for years.
The Wilmington Police Department (WPD) built a case against one main suspect, Timothy Craig Iannone: Iannone frequented the Junction Pub and Billiards bar where Foy was last seen, and matched the description of the cab driver who was seen picking Foy up. Iannone was also accused of raping and assaulting a prostitute. The alleged incident took place just 100 yards from where the remains of Foy and Rothen were found. Iannone acknowledged hiring the prostitute but denied any other crime; he also explicitly denied any involvement in Foy or Rothen’s death.
In July of 2016, ten years after Foy disappeared, a new witness came forward. Although WPD was apparently able to verify much of the witness’s testimony, there were still no arrests made.
Valentino lays that at the feet of District Attorney Ben David.
Law and Order
In North Carolina, only law enforcement agencies can make arrests and only District Attorney’s offices can prosecute. But while that separation of power is clear on paper, in practice the DA’s office exerts tremendous influence over law enforcement.
In New Hanover County, it’s common for detectives to consult with Assistant District Attorneys — or even Ben David himself — on whether or not an arrest should be made.
In Valentino’s opinion, WPD has wanted to arrest Iannone for years, but the DA’s office has counseled against it, effectively preventing an arrest even though, technically, the decision is up to WPD.
“I think they have enough, I think for years they’ve only had one suspect, and they have wanted to make an arrest,” Valentino said. “I think it’s Ben David that has put the brakes on it.”
At issue is the two very different standards of proof used by law enforcement and prosecutors.
For a police department like WPD, the standard is probable cause — which some have described as ‘just more than fifty percent chance of guilt.’ Valentino said Detective Odham believed he had that level of proof against Iannone, especially after an additional witness came forward.
But for a DA’s office, the standard is based on what will win a case in the courtroom — the proof has to be ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’
In several high-profile cases over the last few years, it was apparent that while WPD had probable cause they could not make a case beyond a reasonable doubt, at least in the DA’s opinion.
Thus, as with Iannone, while WPD detectives could legally make an arrest they didn’t.
According to Valentino, David met with her and her father several years after Foy’s body was found. Valentino’s father has since passed, but it’s hard for the family to forget a promise Valentino said David made during that meeting.
“A couple of years after Allison was found, my father – who has since passed – and I had a meeting with Ben David. And in that meeting, (Ben David) said to my father, ‘I know you’re unhappy with how things have been handled, I know you think an arrest should be made, just give us a little more time,’ he said, ‘and if you’re not happy with how things go, I’ll convene the grand jury,’” Valentino said.
David has declined to discuss this meeting, saying only “Ms. Valentino and I want the same thing: Justice for Allison Jackson Foy. We both share the hope that her sister’s killer will one day be held accountable for this heinous crime.”
But what Valentino described — David’s promise to convene a grand jury — is effectively the opposite of what has happened so far.
Typically, law enforcement makes an arrest and then hands a case over to prosecutors. The District Attorney convenes a grand jury, which issues the indictment necessary to move a case to Superior Court, where felonies (like murder) are tried. But District Attorneys can be more proactive, as well, and in rare cases can convene a grand jury to indict, essentially bringing charges ahead of law enforcement.
That hasn’t happened, and Valentino did not mince words about it.
“I don’t understand how he’s still the District Attorney. I don’t understand how he runs unopposed every time. How is he able to promise a family like ours something — and then not do it? He keeps saying there are no statutes of limitation on murder — ok, that’s true, but there are statutes of limitations on people’s lives. My father’s already passed away. Fourteen years later, who knows where these witnesses are. People die, people move away, people’s memories go. The farther and farther we from this, the harder it becomes,” Valentino said.
One of WPD’s largest case files
WPD confirmed that newly minted Chief of Police Donny Williams had spoken with Valentino about that the case, and that the department had handed the case over a new detective, Robert Pierce.
WPD spokesperson Linda Thompson said that Pierce was already hard at work.
“He’s one of our best and, the good thing is, Detective Odham is still on the force, so they can still share notes, discuss the case — nothing’s been lost in the transition,” Thompson said.
Last year, WPD purchased a new DNA vacuum in part at Valentino’s urging. Unfortunately, the device hasn’t produced any new evidence in Foy’s case, but the department continues to receive and track down leads.
“I’m told that Allison’s — Allison and Angela’s — are two of the biggest case files at WPD,” Valentino said.
“It’s not a cold case,” Thompson said. “We’re still working it.”
Valentino said she’s still working with the CUE Center for Missing Persons, which recently did an annual drive to get Allison Foy’s photo out to the public on pizza boxes.
Valentino still feels that more information could come forward. After all, despite feeling like a cold case for nearly a decade, a new witness came forward in 2016. There was also a 2011 incident, which somehow never made the news, where Iannone was arrested about an hour before sunrise, carrying a bb-gun, condoms, and sexual lubricant in a plastic bag. Valentino said she’d spoken with several law enforcement officers and private investigators who believed Iannone could have been stalking a potential victim.
“Like I said, I’m hopeful. I’m still hoping. Despite how much time that has passed, I do think there’s more out there,” Valentino said. “Because justice still hasn’t been served here.”
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at email@example.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001