Cold case killing haunts BR attorney

The trail of blood offered a grisly glimpse of the killer’s movements about Apartment 94: Whoever stabbed Denise Porter left her body in the living room, washed up at the kitchen sink and apparently showered upstairs before leaving the residence.

Finding no signs of burglary, Baton Rouge police concluded the 20-year-old knew her assailant and that the March 1985 attack was motivated by unmitigated rage.

No one reported hearing a struggle, but neighbors were woken by the hysterical shouting of Joel G. Porter, a 27-year-old college student who told detectives he came home from working the night shift to discover his wife’s body splayed across the floor.

Porter told detectives he could not be the killer, investigative police reports show, because he worked all night without taking a lunch. He declined to take a polygraph, saying he feared his nervousness would skew the unreliable test.

“From day one, they knew that I had an alibi that was ironclad,” said Porter, a well-known attorney who has run for City Court judge, in an interview this month. “You’ll not find my blood mingled with hers. You’ll not find my skin or tissue under her nails. I have nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with her death at all.”

Porter, 56, has never been arrested in his wife’s death, a puzzling killing that is among the least publicized in the thick annals of Baton Rouge cold cases. But for much of his adult life, Porter said, he has heard whispers of his perceived involvement, rumors that seem to resurface at the most inopportune times.

“When I ran for judge, it spread like wildfire,” he said. “Imagine how I feel. I come home, and I have to cry in silence. It has just affected everything.”

The search for Denise’s killer tapered off in the years following her death, the file lying dormant among hundreds of other unsolved homicides. But in the past year, the authorities have taken a fresh look at the case, reinterviewing witnesses and testing crime-scene evidence with technology that was unavailable three decades ago.

“I just feel like all of this is happening for a reason,” Denise’s mother, Doris Washington, said in an interview at her San Antonio home last month. “God wanted us to wait on him.”

While Porter maintains his innocence, new court documents show detectives have not ruled him out as a suspect even as they acknowledge there is no direct evidence linking him to the crime. For his part, Porter accuses detectives of botching the investigation early on because they were too focused on him.

“I still think more could have been done back then,” he said. “I just would like for whoever killed her to be found.”

Porter said he has done all he can to assist detectives. But police offer a different assessment.

“We haven’t been able to gather any additional information from him because his attorney has placed limits on his availability to us,” Detective John C. Dauthier said. “There’s some new information now that’s being pursued that wasn’t available until we reopened the case.”

A search warrant filed last week says Porter “has always been a suspect in his wife’s murder.” The warrant says police pulled Porter over last March at the intersection of Interstate 10 and Interstate 12 to take a swab for DNA testing. Steve Irving, an attorney who has represented Porter in his dealings with the Police Department, said Porter told investigators he would give them the sample at Irving’s office but was stopped on his way.

“The police asked to interview Joel immediately when he was stopped for the DNA swab,” Irving said in an email. “Joel told the police quite plainly that he would grant the interview at my office when he got there. The police declined.”

The standoff reached a crescendo Friday when Porter sued Dauthier in federal court, accusing him of “defamation by innuendo” and using excessive force when serving the search warrant for the DNA. “Joel sees this as political and is not going to talk to Detective Dauthier about anything,” Irving said Friday.

A rocky marriage

Denise was a teenager when she met her future husband, a dapper gentleman from Baton Rouge seven years her senior. She grew up in San Antonio, and her father came to know Porter when the two attended International Bible College there.

One Sunday, Shedrick J. Washington invited Porter into his home for dinner. Denise was clever and quick-witted, and Porter was taken by her all-American beauty. “She was stunning,” Porter said, “and I immediately fell in love with her.”

Shedrick Washington had an unease about Porter, but he and his wife decided it would be best to support her in the relationship. “I didn’t have a real peace about it,” he said. “But I saw that she was really beginning to like Joel quite a bit.”

The couple became engaged and were married about a month after Denise’s 18th birthday. The marriage took Denise more than 400 miles from her family after the couple moved to Baton Rouge in 1983.

Porter attended Southern University and worked nights at the post office downtown, a grueling schedule he blamed for the mounting tension at home. Denise enrolled in nursing school at Our Lady of the Lake and became vice president of her class. “She liked to help people,” recalled her sister, Jeanine Anderson. “She had a very kind heart.”

Denise was well-liked by her friends, but she was not happy in the Capital City. Denise “was very unhappy at times and got very nervous when talking about her husband,” a classmate told police. Other witnesses told detectives she was having extramarital affairs.

“She wanted to have a good marriage, and she wanted it to last,” Doris Washington said of her daughter. “She wanted to be a good wife, but it just seemed like almost an impossible situation.”

One night, Porter reported to work in tears and told a supervisor his wife had gone home to Texas, according to police reports. At one point, Denise resigned from nursing school, writing “Divorce/leaving the state” on her withdrawal form, though she ultimately stayed with her husband. She left him again a month before her death.

“We don’t even know for sure how many times she left,” said her brother, Rodney Washington. “We just know how many times she came here.”

On the day before her killing, Denise packed her bags a final time. The couple had argued, Porter told police, because Denise had “kept the car to go shopping” and was late picking him up from Southern.

Porter told detectives the two made up before he left for work about 11:15 p.m. “He kissed her goodbye,” a police report says, and “everything was all right.”

‘Rage killing’

The exact time of Denise’s death remains unclear, but detectives have narrowed the window to between 1 a.m., when they say she was on the phone with another man, and 9 a.m., the time Porter said he discovered her body. When she encountered her assailant, she had pink rollers in her hair and was wearing gray sweatpants, a white T-shirt and blue booties, leading authorities to believe she was slain before going to bed.

Porter said he clocked out from work about 8:15 a.m. but stayed awhile to eat the lunch his wife packed him: a hamburger patty, boiled potato cubes and grape Kool-Aid. “I didn’t want her to think I didn’t like her food,” he said.

Porter headed to the couple’s apartment on North Lobdell Boulevard and said the door was unlocked when he opened it. He said he saw his wife lying on her back on the floor.

“Initially, I thought she was just exercising because she was concerned about her weight,” Porter recalled recently. “When she didn’t move, the urgency set in, and that’s when I ran to her. I called 911. I called her parents. I called my mother. I don’t know what the order was.”

Red spots dotted the living room wall, the television and some paper on the love seat. A pool of blood collected in front of the couch. Officers determined Denise’s body — her arms were outstretched, her feet crossed — had been dragged based on a bloody handprint on her ankle and some smearing on the floor.

Crime scene technicians also found blood on the faucet in the kitchen, police reports say, and a bloody rag in the sink “as if someone had tried to clean up something, possibly a weapon.” There was blood on the bathroom floor upstairs and “some colored substance” on a towel, leading investigators to believe the killer had taken a shower.

Detectives found a suitcase and suit bag beside the bed, packed with Denise’s clothing. At the time, Porter told detectives his wife had packed her things and threatened to leave him again, the investigative file shows.

Retired Lt. James Mitchell, the initial detective on the case, said investigators found no fingerprints from unknown people inside the apartment after a thorough check. He said police found a knife “but it had been cleaned up.”

An autopsy was performed the afternoon of Denise’s death, but police reports said it was carried out without the knowledge of homicide detectives, the District Attorney’s Office or the crime lab.

“This was a rage killing,” Mitchell said in an interview at his Denham Springs home. The killer, he added, “stabbed her 10 times in the chest and then four in the back before cutting her throat.”

In his state of hysteria, Porter was taken to Our Lady of the Lake, where he received a sedative. He reported to the detectives’ office about 1 p.m. to record a voluntary statement. He also provided his fingerprints and palm prints and a pair of shoes he was wearing for forensic testing.

“You have a situation where the spouse is always a suspect,” said Irving, Porter’s attorney. “But the spouse is also a victim.”

Porter refused to take a lie detector test. “There is a reason those test results are not admissible in court,” Irving said.

Looking back, Porter said he was never treated as a victim. “I believe that had I been treated that way early on — and not isolated and characterized and placed in a category — perhaps there could have been something they could have asked me that could have cued something ... where I could have been a partner to help them find out who did this.”

“My story has been consistent for 28 years,” he added later. “And you know why it’s been consistent? Because it’s been the truth.”

Detectives also questioned a former East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputy who worked as a security guard at the Porters’ apartment complex in 1985. The deputy, who was at the crime scene when police arrived, told investigators he had gone to a movie the night before Denise’s death and then to his girlfriend’s house about 12:45 a.m., according to police reports.

Also interviewed was an LSU student who told detectives he was having an affair with Denise. The 21-year-old said he had been in love with Denise and, on the night before her body was found, was on the phone with her until about 1 a.m. discussing the argument she had with her husband that day. Denise hung up and promised to call back in about 10 minutes, the student told police, but never did.

“She was going to leave tonight, but Joel told her to wait until the morning when he got home,” a police report says, paraphrasing the student. “They would talk, and if she still wanted to leave, he would take her to the airport.”

Dauthier, the cold case detective, said other people interviewed “may have been considered suspects” if for no other reason than they knew Denise and she may have trusted them. “But we certainly weren’t able to arrest anyone,” he added.

Blind forgiveness

At the Washingtons’ home in San Antonio, a portrait of Denise hangs over the fireplace, a reminder of her warm smile. Her parents have found an enviable peace that even friends struggle to comprehend. It isn’t the closure that victims seek in courtrooms with varying degrees of success but an unflinching belief that a higher being is in control.

On the eve of Denise’s killing, Texas news stations reported the execution of Stephen Peter Morin, a serial killer who before receiving the lethal injection offered a prayer of forgiveness and thanksgiving. Moved by the murderer’s redemption, Doris Washington spent the next morning thanking God for his undiscriminating grace.

She recalls praying that nothing bad would happen to any of her children but told God she would forgive the killer nevertheless. She said she had just completed that thought when the phone rang: It was Porter, calling to tell her Denise had been stabbed. Doris Washington said she initially mistook his hysterical cries for one of her daughters.

She had no idea who had taken her daughter’s life, but she said she knew immediately she must forgive that person. “It was totally an experience of God being involved for us,” she said, “because I don’t know how we could have gotten through it.”

The Washingtons said they never called the police to inquire about the investigation through the years, trusting the case would be resolved in due time.

“The Lord gave me a peace that totally surpassed anything I have ever experienced in my life,” Doris Washington said. “And the family followed suit.”