CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — More than 25 years after the disappearance and presumed death of 38-year-old Linda Evans Lunsford, a suspect is on trial in Chesterfield County Circuit Court for her murder.
According to the Chesterfield County Police Department (CCPD), Lunsford was last seen alive on Dec. 26, 1996. She was reported missing by her family that night.
After years of investigating what was initially deemed a suspicious missing person case, investigators concluded that Lunsford was deceased, according to a CCPD release from 2021, though her remains have not been recovered. The case has since been classified as a death investigation; specifically a no-body homicide.
On May 17, 2021, detectives presented the facts of the case to the Chesterfield County Grand Jury and obtained an indictment of first-degree murder for John Harvey Howard, 62, of Hanover County. He was arrested the following day, with assistance from the U.S. Marshals Service Capital Area Regional Fugitive Task Force. Personnel from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) also assisted with the decades-long investigation.
8News spoke with Lunsford’s family members back in 1996, just days after her disappearance.
“He was the last one to see her,” a loved one said of Howard.
Witness testimony Tuesday, during the second day of a scheduled 14-day trial in Chesterfield County Circuit Court, included video excerpts from a nearly hour-and-a-half-long questioning with then-CCPD Detective Rick Mormando and Howard.
Mormando said he was called to assist with the investigation on the morning of Dec. 27, 1997, and temporarily served as the lead detective on the case. He interviewed Howard that morning at CCPD headquarters and noted that Howard came voluntarily as he was not under arrest at the time of the questioning. Mormando said that authorities had information that Howard may have been the last person to see Lunsford, but that Howard never appeared emotional or surprised throughout the interrogation.
During the questioning, Howard could be heard describing his year-long relationship with Lunsford as “rocky” and said they were off-and-on.
“I had no control, so I just had to deal with it,” Howard told Mormando in 1996 of his relationship with Lunsford and her involvement with other men. “She’s been being a party animal, and I can’t do that.”
In the video of the 1996 questioning of Howard, he went on to say that he and Lunsford dated “exclusively” at one point, but that she cheated on him with her ex-husband, as well as others. When this happened, Howard told Mormando that he and Lunsford would break up, but that they were still working together at Walmart, where they first met, throughout the conflict in their relationship. Howard also said that he started dating another Walmart employee after breaking off his relationship with Lunsford, but that Lunsford attacked the other woman and keyed her car. No police report was taken of the alleged incident.
As the video of Howard’s questioning played in the courtroom Tuesday, he could be heard telling Mormando that he and Lunsford had put wedding rings on layaway at Walmart after discussing marriage.
Throughout the interrogation, Mormando and the detective with whom he worked asked Howard several times if he was ever frustrated or angry with Lunsford, and how he felt about the possibility that she might be gone forever. Mormando testified in court on Tuesday that Howard was matter-of-fact about what had transpired.
Howard’s two children, who provided their testimony before the jury on Tuesday, stated that they had met Lunsford and even lived with her temporarily. They also added that their father was not emotional with them, which is consistent with what Howard stated during his 1996 questioning with Mormando, referring to his former employment as a sergeant at a Central Virginia prison for 14 years, during which time he said he had to learn to keep calm in intense situations.
In the video of the 1996 questioning, Howard told officers that he and Lunsford worked an overnight shift at Walmart on Christmas Day, going into work at approximately 10 p.m. Howard told Mormando that Lunsford seemed angry from the start of the shift, and she ended up filing a sexual harassment report with their Walmart supervisors against him.
“Monday night, we were fine,” Howard said. “What has happened? You know, what has taken place here?”
Howard said that he and Lunsford agreed to speak about the issues in their relationship after work, so they drove to McDonald’s the morning of Dec. 26, 1996. He described Lunsford as confused, apologetic and teary-eyed.
After driving in their respective cars from Walmart to McDonald’s, Howard said that he and Lunsford both got in his car, where he drove them to his home nearby. He said that she told him she was having problems with other people, and that he told her he wanted her to “stop playing” and tell the truth. When the two arrived at Howard’s residence on the morning of Dec. 26, Howard said that they continued to talk before engaging in sexual intercourse. His children were home at the time, and his son later testified that he heard them both come in.
While Lunsford and Howard were together at his residence the day after Christmas in 1996, Howard claimed that Lunsford spoke about her inability to make commitments — she couldn’t pay bills, get her life together or make decisions. Howard said he sent his children on an errand to Walmart — where they later testified it was not uncommon for them to walk to pick up groceries for the family — so that he and Lunsford could continue talking and engaging in sexual intercourse. But shortly after they left, Howard said that Lunsford ran downstairs and simply said she had to leave, walking out the front door on her own.
Howard told Mormando that he asked Lunsford for a written statement to be added to his Walmart personnel file to balance out her previous sexual harassment claim against him. He said that Lunsford told him she would take care of it, and then left his residence.
Shortly after Lunsford left, Howard claimed that his children returned from the grocery store, and he told them he didn’t know if they were back together.
Mormando could be heard during the video of the 1996 questioning asking Howard about why he did not leave Lunsford, given the nature of their relationship, to which Howard replied that he loved her too much to do so.
Later in the interrogation, Howard described the rest of his day on Dec. 26, 1996. He told Det. Mormando that he went to pick up firewood in Powhatan, though authorities said he never provided a name, phone number or address for the location where or the individual from whom that happened. To pick up the firewood, Howard said that he needed to borrow his father’s Dodge Ram truck, which was later searched for forensic evidence, though authorities said that never turned up any leads. On his way to pick up the firewood, Howard told Mormando that he dumped some trash in Chesterfield, and then headed to Powhatan.
When authorities performed a cursory search of Howard’s residence following the initial 1996 questioning, Mormando said they did not find anything unusual, aside from the lid of a trashcan near the front door or porch.
“She may be in a ditch somewhere, and I’m like, ‘That’s a scary thought,'” Howard told Mormando during the 1996 interrogation.
Howard went on to say that he originally believed Lunsford may have run off with another man, but that he would be heartbroken if police found her dead somewhere.
Mormando testified Tuesday that he recalled authorities searching Howard’s father’s truck, but that he did not remember whether Howard’s personal vehicle was examined.
Retired CCPD Lieutenant David J. Higgins also testified Tuesday, as he worked as a forensic detective at the time of Lunsford’s disappearance. He said that he continued to do forensics work after 1997, and returned to provide assistance on the case when leads arose in 1998 and 2003.
Higgins said that in 1996, forensics units would have used fingerprints, recovery of fluids and fracture matches in their testing, but that there had been significant changes in the technology over the years, most notably in the early 2000s. At the time of Lunsford’s disappearance, authorities would have needed a large blood sample of at least six well-soaked cotton swabs in order to get a DNA reading, according to Higgins, whereas now, that can just be done on touch.
Higgins said he was initially contacted to examine Lunsford’s car, which was found at a grocery store off of Midlothian Turnpike after her disappearance. He testified that he also examined Howard’s father’s truck, during which he recovered trace fibers, dirt samples and leaves. But forensic analysis of those materials did not turn up any leads.
Judge Lynn Brice is the presiding judge on the case, despite previous calls from the Chesterfield County Commonwealth’s Attorney that she be recused.
The case is set for a two-week jury trial, with Howard out on bail.