A local story has been waiting five decades to be told. For the past four years, much of the narrative has been sitting on my desk. Before that, it spent decades in files at Suffolk County police and district attorney’s offices.
It’s the tale of Carlos DeJesus, a 27-year-old Greenport fisherman who was last seen alive the night of Nov. 4, 1966, and whose body washed ashore at the state park in Orient more than a month later. Mr. DeJesus likely died from “loss of blood from wounds in the rear of his scalp,” according to an initial autopsy report. His death was initially investigated as a homicide.
Different versions of Mr. DeJesus’ story have been told in local papers over the years. Even The New York Times published a pair of articles, the first of which, in February 1967, was headlined “L.I. DEATH IS LAID TO RACIAL ACTION; N.A.A.C.P. Urges U.S. Inquiry on Slaying of Negro.”
But even The Gray Lady lost sight of Mr. DeJesus’ story at some point. And the full truth never surfaced.
There was, however, one man who ached to bring to light Mr. DeJesus’ fate. His name was Reynolds Dodson. A journalist from Water Mill, he penned a column in The Southampton Press from 1996 until his death in September 2012.
If you’re unfamiliar with Mr. Dodson but want to get a sense of who he was, I’d like to point you to the first line of his obituary, published in The Press.
“For Reynolds Dodson, telling the truth was a priority,” the paper wrote, “even if it made people turn up their noses or go red in the face.”
One of those instances was his dogged pursuit of what really happened to Mr. DeJesus, whose death he detailed in a January 2011 column. Former Suffolk Times publisher Troy Gustavson also wrote about Mr. Dodson’s investigation into Mr. DeJesus’ death, calling on locals with information to come forward. Few ever did.
I never met Mr. Dodson, but I was copied on his exchanges with Mr. Gustavson, the last of which was a frustrated memo pleading with us to do more to assist him in obtaining information from Suffolk County police about the case.
I thought of that email and of Mr. Dodson’s agitation when I read his obituary the day it was published on the Press’ website. Mr. Gustavson had filed a Freedom of Information application with police in 2010, but was told the department’s resources were tied due to its investigation into the Gilgo Beach killings.
Inspired by the first line in Mr. Dodson’s obituary, I filed my own FOIL request the week he died and later that month obtained 114 pages related to the homicide inquiry into Mr. DeJesus’ death. I would later receive an email from Mr. Dodson’s wife, Susan, who said she found my contact information in his notes for a book he was planning to write about the slaying. She asked if I would be interested in keeping his files.
In the four years since, this newspaper has started and stopped working on a piece about the investigation several times. Most efforts were stalled by current events or the lack of a hook for a story about a decades-old crime.
This week, however, marks 50 years since Mr. DeJesus died — and I’d be remiss not to acknowledge his death, recognize Mr. Dodson’s efforts or share some of the information we collectively obtained.
Although this isn’t the revelatory story we once envisioned, some of the following information has never been reported. It was obtained through the homicide file, research I conducted with the help of colleagues Jen Nuzzo and Paul Squire, and, of course, the notes of the late Mr. Dodson.
Nearly every story ever written about Carlos DeJesus suggests he was likely killed by white men who were angry about his reputation for sleeping with young white women. It’s a thread first mentioned in the missing person report filed by his parents six days after he was last seen.
“Due to the many enemies [Mr. DeJesus] has, his mother believes that bodily harm might have come to him,” the report reads. It includes testimony from Mr. DeJesus’ mother and his friend Herman Shelby of Greenport, who was also sometimes referred to in the reports by his birth name, Herman Reynolds.
“Both told long stories of how and why Carlos DeJesus was unpopular with local persons because of his belligerent attitude and because he, a Negro, was courting white girls,” the report states.
Specifically, some reports stated, Ms. DeJesus and Mr. Shelby believed the father of a young white woman Mr. DeJesus had intended to marry was behind the killing.
It’s a theory police dismissed from the very beginning.
Instead, authorities identified a different suspect. But while investigators built a case for a grand jury, no one was ever indicted in Mr. DeJesus’ death.
On Jan. 12, 1967, a report prepared by a pair of Suffolk County homicide detectives stated that moving forward, the investigation would be centered on one person.
“We feel now that we have reached that point in the investigation where we have eliminated the outside possibilities and that it has now focused down to one subject, Herman Shelby,” detectives wrote. “The investigation shows that only one person keeps the racial aspect going and that is Shelby.”
Police pointed to witness testimony that alleged Mr. Shelby was seen searching for his friend in the woods in Orient days before his body was found nearby. He also reportedly made references to several witnesses of a scenario in which Mr. DeJesus was cut up and thrown overboard before his body ever washed ashore. Several letters indicating possible death threats referenced to police by Mr. Shelby and Ms. DeJesus also never surfaced.
Perhaps the most damning evidence police found was that Mr. Shelby had removed the passenger seat of his truck in the days following his friend’s death and that his boat had been moved to Shelter Island the day Mr. DeJesus’ body was found. Police would later find the boat submerged in water, portions of it freshly painted, according to case file reports.
Mr. Shelby also failed a police polygraph test, but investigators determined he was unfit for such questioning due to his distressed demeanor. Police said his motive might have been jealousy over a girl Mr. DeJesus had been seeing. The reports indicate the two also had a dispute over money.
In June 1967, the status of the investigation was officially downgraded from a homicide to a suspicious death.
Months earlier, Newsday had reported there were a record eight open homicide cases on Long Island. This was attributed to the 1966 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miranda v. Arizona, which police say limited their ability to question certain suspects.
“Police sources believe that in [the DeJesus case] a suspect might now be in custody if Miranda rights hadn’t blocked attempts to question witnesses who refused to talk to them on the advice of attorneys,” Newsday wrote.
In March 1970, the DeJesus case was officially closed, with prosecutors stating “it would be impossible to criminally prosecute this case” based on the physical evidence, according to a report filed by detectives at the time. Mr. DeJesus’ body had spent more than 30 days in the water and the medical examiner said contributing causes of the lacerations found on it were unknown. DNA testing wouldn’t be used successfully in a criminal investigation for another 16 years.
No headlines were made when the case was closed and, based on the scope of our research, Mr. DeJesus’ name didn’t appear in a newspaper again until 2011, when Mr. Dodson and Mr. Gustavson wrote about the case.
In his piece, Mr. Dodson wrote that he learned of Mr. DeJesus’ fate in a 2010 phone call he received from a Riverhead man who thought he should pursue it as a civil rights story. The man told Mr. Dodson he would speak to him under the condition that his name not be published, according to a recording of the phone call. The man later said the same thing to me when we met in 2012.
During our meeting, the man was mostly focused on reviewing the homicide file I had obtained to see if he was ever considered a suspect. He had told Mr. Dodson that police tried to pin the murder on him and Mr. Shelby. The homicide case does reference the man, who was a teenager at the time, quite often. He was one of the last people to see both Mr. DeJesus and Mr. Shelby the night of Nov. 4 at a bar in the village. He was also one of only two people referenced in the case file as having consulted an attorney — the other being one of his relatives.
In the four years since we met, the man has not answered more than a dozen follow-up phone calls I’ve made to him, most recently this week.
When we met, he told me he believed someone might open up to me on their death bed and tell me the real story.
It won’t be Mr. Shelby. On May 2, 1977, he was killed by two gunshot wounds to the neck during a violent incident in Waterproof, La., according to a death certificate that identifies him as Herman Reynolds.
Although the local newspaper that covers Waterproof, the Tensas Gazette, lost a portion of its archives during Hurricane Katrina, it managed to secure for The Suffolk Times several years ago a copy of its brief article on Mr. Reynolds’ death from the Tensas Parish Library. The article states that Herman Reynolds was shot by a man after he was found in the bedroom of a woman, who suffered minor injuries in the shooting.
Mr. Reynolds, as he was referred to in the article, had been living in Waterproof for just three weeks after leaving his hometown of Greenport, the Gazette reported.
In a series of letters he sent Mr. Dodson from the Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, Fla., twice-convicted murderer Robert Waterhouse said he had driven Mr. Shelby to Louisiana.
“I just happened to run into him a couple weeks before I was leaving [for Monroe, La.,] and he said he had relatives in some little town called Frostproof or Waterproof and asked if I wanted company,” Mr. Waterhouse wrote in a handwritten letter to Mr. Dodson dated Sept. 17, 2010. “[Years later] my sister-in-law said my aunt called and said Shelby had been killed. Rumors had it a drug deal gone bad [or] he was caught with some other man’s woman [or] I had killed him.”
Mr. Waterhouse, who was in prison at the time of Mr. DeJesus’ death for his conviction of a previous murder in Greenport, was executed by lethal injection in Florida on Feb. 15, 2012. Following his second murder conviction, he spent more than 30 years on death row.
Despite attempts to find justice for Mr. DeJesus — the last by Mr. Dodson — our research tells us the possibility of anyone being convicted for his murder ended decades ago.
The truth is a local story that will likely never be uncovered.
The author is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected].