Area's two cold case murders haunt investigator with more than 30 years on the job

srobertsjr@vagazette.com

Capt. Troy Lyons of the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office has investigated every murder in York County since 1991, but two open cases in the upper end of the county prey on his mind.

Neither the City of Williamsburg nor James City County have any outstanding cold case murders, according to their police departments.

However, in York County’s Bruton and Penniman areas, two killings remain unsolved: the murder of a reclusive phone dispatcher and the murder of a crack cocaine dealer.

“Both of the cases were mine,” Lyons said.

The murder of Aaron ‘Peanut’ Smalls

At 8 a.m. on Jan. 25, 2001, Aaron “Peanut” Smalls told his girlfriend he was leaving their Newport News apartment to buy fried chicken and a cellphone card, Lyons said. He drove off in her 1984 Chevrolet Celebrity and never returned.

A man phoned Smalls’s cousin on Jan. 27 and told him he’d seen the car at Dodge’s Fried Chicken in Newport News, and it was driven by a man who was not Smalls, Lyons said. The man in the car had sped off.

Days later, on Feb. 6, 2001, York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office deputies were called about a car sitting in the parking lot of a Penniman neighborhood. Deputies ran the license plates on the vehicle and contacted Smalls’s girlfriend to pick up the car, Lyons said.

“When she arrived to pick the car up, she went into the trunk to see — there was some of her baby’s stuff in the trunk,” Lyons said.

“She found Peanut. He had been there for a while.”

A single gunshot wound to the chest had taken the 26-year-old man’s life, but there were no signs he was killed where they found the car, Lyons said.

As the lead investigator on the case, Lyons never released the caliber of the weapon with the hope that it could corroborate a witness’s claim.

The witness told York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office deputies he’d seen a 6’ 2”, 180-pound black man in a black hat and black jean jacket get out of the car at the complex on Jan. 25, Lyons said. The man walked around the car a couple of times before he walked up to the witness and asked for a cigarette. Then he walked off toward Parchment Boulevard.

“At that time, Parchment Boulevard — there were houses there but that development was still under construction,” Lyons said. “We believe that person was headed toward Carver Gardens as opposed to a house on Parchment.”

Clothing found in the trunk had another man’s DNA on it, Lyons said. After tests, the DNA was found to be Smalls’s girlfriend’s baby’s father, but he was later cleared in the case.

The car appeared to have been cleaned and wiped down — eliminating the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office ability to find other clues, Lyons said.

“Over the last 16 or 17 years, no one has given us the final piece of the puzzle that we need to put it together,” Lyons said. “One of the problems of this case is that Peanut was a drug dealer. He dealt in crack cocaine, and at the time of his murder there had just been indictments against him in York County and Gloucester for drug dealing.”

Smalls left behind a young son and his girlfriend, according to Lyons. Smalls’s son, now in his mid-20s, still calls Lyons about once a year to check in on the case.

“This case is a real whodunit,” Lyons said. Multiple suspects have been interviewed during the intervening 17 years, but still, there’s no one Lyons can point to definitively.

The murder of Darlene Cotner

A foul squall rolled over Williamsburg on the night of March 31, 2004.

Darlene Cotner, a reclusive night-time phone dispatcher, lived with her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend at Cotner’s Old Taylor Road home, Lyons said. She didn’t know it, but before the sun rose the next morning, she’d be dead.

Cotner, 59, worked for Steele’s Garage on Bypass Road as an overnight dispatcher for the garage’s tow trucks, Lyons said.

At 5:30 p.m. on March 31, the company transferred their phone calls through their answering service to Cotner’s home as usual, according to Lyons. At 9:45 p.m., a tow truck driver called Cotner to tell her about an April Fools’ Day prank he intended to pull on another driver.

After 9:45 p.m., there were no more calls from Cotner’s residence, Lyons said, and a call at 12:55 a.m. to dispatch a tow truck went straight to voicemail.

When Cotner failed to transfer the phone lines at 7 a.m., the tow truck drivers began to worry for her safety, Lyons said. She was a morbidly obese woman and the drivers feared she may have had a heart attack.

That’s when two of the wrecker service employees went to see Cotner at her home, Lyons said. They found Cotner’s daughter, Rachelle “Shellie” Shull, and boyfriend Mark Toward there.

Shull went into her mother’s bedroom and discovered Cotner had been brutally murdered; she was still wearing her navy colored nightgown, according to Lyons.

“Her throat was cut, almost to the point where her head was nearly severed,” Lyons said.

Soon after, Lyons took on the role of lead investigator in the case and started tracking down leads.

Initial interviews with Shull and Toward told a tale of an extortive relationship between Toward and Cotner, Lyons said.

“At the time of the murder, Mark (Toward) was on probation,” Lyons said. “We learned through the course of our investigation that Darlene did not like Mark Toward. Mark drank a lot and would sit out on the front porch and smoke marijuana, which Darlene did not like.”

Cotner forced Toward to do house chores by threatening to report him to his probation officer, Lyons said.

“At the time of her homicide, she’d been bugging him about installing a faucet in the bathroom,” Lyons said. “He did that the day of the homicide — he installed the faucet.”

But Toward told a different story about his relationship with his girlfriend’s mother; he told investigators that he and Cotner treated each other like old friends, Lyons said.

“Mark would have you believe that he and Darlene were as tight as two ticks,” Lyons said. “But everybody else we talked to, including Shellie, said there was a lot of friction between the two.”

There were other contradictions.

On the day Cotner died, Toward started a bonfire a few yards from the house at about 4:45 p.m., which still smoldered at 11 a.m. the next morning despite heavy rain the night before.

When they went through the ashes of the fire, investigators found a knife blade, a knife handle and a metal zipper, according to Lyons.

Investigators soon learned Toward had a penchant for carrying a large knife similar to what was found in the fire, Lyons said.

But Toward’s timeline also cast suspicion on him, according to Lyons. He told deputies he had gotten drunk near the CSX railroad tracks and passed out until about 12:15 a.m. on April 1, 2004.

“We found no evidence of that,” Lyons said. “As a matter of fact, according to Shellie, he was wearing the same clothes that he had on … we know that between about 8 p.m. and midnight, it rained very, very hard. Yet, he’s not soaked or muddy or anything like that.”

Shull picked him up from a Texaco gas station at Airport and Richmond roads and they drove home in the early morning hours of April 1, Lyons said.

At 5:30 a.m., well before Shull discovered her mother’s dead body, Lyons said, Toward called his boss and told him there was a situation.

Shull was cleared in her mother’s death — she was at work at the WaWa on Richmond Road at the time of the murder, Lyons said.

But as forensics came back from the murder scene and Toward’s clothing, absolutely no physical evidence tied Toward to the murder scene, Lyons said.

Despite that, the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office charged him in the killing, Lyons said, but the charges were dropped by the York County Commonwealth’s Attorney due to the lack of physical evidence.

Toward stayed with Shull for a few months after her mother’s death, Lyons said, but he eventually moved on. His last known residence was in Washington state.

Years after both murders, Lyons still keeps track of the suspects and thinks about the victims.

About once a year, Lyons or another investigator pores over the cases. When the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office hires new investigators, Lyons has them look over the files and reports with a set of fresh eyes.

When investigators receive tips or leads on the old cases, they pull the files, too.

One York County homicide in 1989 was solved two years later when a story about the murder aired on “America’s Most Wanted,” Lyons said.

For both Darlene Cotner and Aaron “Peanut” Smalls, justice has yet to arrive. Long after they’ve been laid to rest, Lyons can’t. He’s still looking for answers, for justice.

“We’re looking for that piece of the puzzle that’s missing,” Lyons said. “You can't frame it with five missing pieces and say ‘I’m done.’ We’re still looking to complete the full picture to be able to arrest and convict the person.”

Police ask anyone with information on the murders of Aaron “Peanut” Smalls or Darlene Cotner to call the Crime Line at 1-888-LOCK-U-UP to provide law enforcement with an anonymous tip.

Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329 or on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.

Copyright © 2018, The Virginia Gazette
46°