Murder: Blood Will Tell
photography courtesy of Vicki Guthrie
One night in June 1990, while visiting her parents in Pineville, La., 33-year-old Treva Parks awoke from a nightmare so disturbing that she ran from her room and sought the comfort of her mother’s arms. She had dreamed that a man was chasing her with a knife. Just two weeks later, the bad dream was a premonition come true. Vicki Guthrie found her sister’s brutalized, lifeless body in the apartment on South Pine Street in Little Rock, Ark., where Parks lived alone. Scarcely an inch of the bedroom wasn’t covered with blood. The messy crime scene was a testament to the tremendous struggle that had occurred: broken vase, broken lamp, soil from an upended houseplant, dresser drawers yanked out onto the floor … and all that blood.
Parks had suffered blunt force trauma to the head, slashes and gashes to her face and throat, and a stab wound to her heart. And then as if taking her life wasn’t enough, the killer stole her dignity, too, leaving her nude body in a humiliating pose. The overkill and the personal nature of the assault seemed to suggest that Parks had known her attacker, so investigators initially looked closely at people in her inner circle.
Parks had a new man in her life, and she was contemplating marriage with him. He had witnesses who placed him elsewhere during the weekend of the murder, but Parks’ former boyfriend had an “iffy” alibi, and he was a domineering sort who didn’t like to take “no” for an answer. Officials, however, had no physical evidence linking him to the crime. They also questioned a man who had given Parks a ride home after her car broke down, but he was cleared.
“She had put her car in the shop Friday afternoon,” Guthrie said, “And we think [the murder] happened late Friday night or early Saturday morning, sometime maybe after midnight.”
Her friends and family remembered Parks as a gregarious young woman who was artistic and creative. Like her sister and mother, she loved flowers, and even though she lived in a one-bedroom apartment, she surrounded herself with beautiful plants.
“She may have been hit on the head with one of her potted plants,” Guthrie said.
In 1990, DNA technology was still in its infancy, but the Treva Parks case was the first to be investigated by the Little Rock Police Department’s Crime Scene Search Unit, and they were meticulous in their gathering of evidence. They discovered Parks’ blood on a towel that also had blood from an unidentified male.
“Essentially, she left us a message,” Guthrie said. “She was able to fight back at some point. She was able to wound him. That’s why his blood was on the towel.”
At the time of Parks’ murder, there was no centralized DNA database, but the evidence was preserved and stored. Years passed without a break in the case. Then in 2002, the LRPD formed their Cold Case Squad, and they chose to take another look at Parks’ murder.
“They got the evidence out and went back through it,” Guthrie said, “And that’s when they were able to extract DNA from the towel.”
The chronology of the Parks murder and the investigation that followed is like a chronology of forensic science evolution. In 1989, Virginia became the first state to establish a DNA database, and over the next decade, the rest of the nation did likewise. The Arkansas State Crime Lab entered the DNA from the towel into CODIS, the national database, but did not get a match. More years passed.
Finally, in 2009, a vicious attack on another woman caught Parks’ killer in a trap of his own making. Ouachita County resident John Bentley Yancey was arrested for an assault on his wife that included biting off part of her face. After a police chase in which Yancey used one of his own children as a shield, he was captured, later convicted and sentenced to 30 years in the penitentiary. By this time, authorities were routinely taking DNA samples from felons being processed into the prison system. When Yancey’s genetic material was entered into the database, the lab got a hit. Yancey’s DNA matched the blood taken from the towel at Parks’ apartment.
Yancey had been a heavy drug user for most of his life, and he financed his habit by thievery. It is thought that he entered Parks’ apartment that night to steal whatever he could. He had dropped his wife off at work at a nearby Taco Bell and then started roaming the neighborhood, looking for places to burglarize. He didn’t see a vehicle at Parks’, so he probably thought she wasn’t home and somehow got inside. Yancey claimed he had no memory of the crime.
Pre-trial motions and evidentiary hearings delayed Yancey’s trial for more than two years. Then on March 28, 2012, just one day before his trial was set to begin, Yancey pleaded no contest to first-degree murder in exchange for a sentence of 45 years in prison.
“It happened very quickly, and it caught us all off guard,” Guthrie said. “It was something we didn’t have a lot of time to think about, which in a way is good, because if we had been left with a decision, I don’t know how our family would have reacted because we wanted the sentence to be death, but I think we got a fair sentence. I don’t think there is any verdict that is enough, but I’m very comfortable with the way the case was handled. I’m very, very complimentary of the Little Rock Police Department and the Crime Scene Investigation Unit. I think they did a spectacular job of gathering and preserving the evidence. If they hadn’t kept that towel and extracted the DNA from it, we would never have known what happened, and there is some peace for me in knowing.”