For most people in the Roanoke Valley, the 1994 murders of the Hodges family in Vinton are a distant memory.
Their arson-damaged house on East Virginia Avenue, set on fire by their killer, was torn down long ago.
Earl Bramblett, convicted in 1997 of the four murders, was executed in 2003.
But the case is still vividly alive in the mind and imagination of Douglas Chandler Graham. The notorious quadruple murder has become an obsession he can’t let go.
Graham, 79, lives in Daytona Beach, Fla., now, but he spent most of his life in the Roanoke area.
He worked as a beat cop in Roanoke for a spell back in the 1950s, and in a cornucopia of jobs after that: finance, advertising, car sales, real estate, the post office and as a private investigator.
He never knew the Hodges family — Blaine, 41, wife Teresea, 37, and their daughters Winter, 11, and Anah, 3. Nor did he know Bramblett, a family friend of the Hodgeses, before Bramblett was charged in 1996.
Yet Graham has spent much of the past 14 years of his life in a lonely quest to prove the innocence of Bramblett, a drifter and one-time screen painter who a jury convicted in two and a half hours of deliberation after nine days of testimony.
Graham has built an extensive website, allamosa.com, in which he lays out circumstances of the murders and the subsequent investigation, intermingled with his own brutal criticism of law enforcement authorities and Bramblett’s defense attorneys.
He said the site had more than 100,000 hits, “which is not a lot, really,” until it crashed awhile back. Now its hit counter is above 11,000.
It’s indexed with names of the players, listed in a red, dripping-blood font.
Those link to photos of the people involved, excerpts of the 1,000 pages of letters Graham said Bramblett sent him in the years leading up to his execution, detailed explanations of inconsistencies Graham said he identified, and his own deep suspicions about what he believes really happened.
Except for the victims and Bramblett, Graham groups the people involved in the Hodges investigation into two broad categories: evildoers and fools.
He said they blindly focused on Bramblett from the beginning, and were bent on convicting and executing an innocent man to save themselves the work of a “real” investigation.
“I’m totally passionate about this,” he said in a telephone interview.
Graham has also written and self-published two thinly fictionalized novels about the case. “Smoke and Murders” is set in the town of Vinyard and covers a span of time from the crime until the beginning of the killer’s trial.
The second book, “Three Trailers Down,” picks up after the trial’s end, when new intrigues in the case arise in Vinyard in the wake of the abrupt resignations of the town’s two top police officers.
That’s what happened in Vinton — for reasons unrelated to the Hodges case — a couple of years after Bramblett was convicted.
Each novel has sold about 30 copies, Graham said.
Graham will recite chapter and verse on inconsistencies in the case, and evidence he said was falsified, lies that were told, perjury that was given, and areas of worthy investigation he said the defense ignored.
The chief prosecutor, former Roanoke County Commonwealth’s Attorney Skip Burkhart, is now the chief judge of Roanoke General District Court. His co-prosecutor and then-deputy, Randy Leach, is now commonwealth’s attorney.
The cop credited with solving the case, Virginia State Police Detective Barry Keesee, has retired.
Friday, Burkhart referred me to Leach for comment, and this is what Leach said: “We’re positive we got it right. The circumstantial evidence that was there was overwhelming.”
Just about the only thing Graham and the authorities agree on is that the case against Bramblett was completely circumstantial.
Teresa Hodges was strangled and the rest of the family was shot. No murder weapon was ever found. There were no eyewitnesses, and no hard evidence, such as DNA, linked Bramblett to the crime.
Bramblett had a history of molesting young girls and an unhealthy obsession with Winter Hodges. There was evidence that suggested Bramblett was paranoid and believed the Hodgeses were trying to set him up on charges of molesting Winter, and that’s what led to the murders.
Graham will hear none of it. But he has no cogent theory of who killed the family if Bramblett didn’t. Nor can he fully explain why so many public servants would conspire to convict an innocent man while allowing the actual killer to get away.
“That’s the big hurdle, getting people to realize this,” Graham said. “They can’t believe it happened.
“It’s just one big cesspool of something.”
And he vows to struggle on.