Our card this week is Viola Pendergrass, a wild card from North Carolina.
I felt compelled to tell you Viola’s story even though she’s not featured on a cold
case deck because she was the matriarch of not just her sprawling family, but also those
at the apartment complex where she’d lived for two decades.
Residents there even called her Ma.
That is, until one winter morning in 1992 when someone came into her home and viciously
attacked her, shocking a community and dividing a close-knit family.
I’m Ashley Flowers, and this is The Deck.
On February 7th, 1992, in Charlotte, North Carolina, Iris Howard called her grandmother
Viola to make sure that she could still watch her four-year-old son that day while she went
Viola said yes, and Iris was like, great, I’ll see you in an hour.
Around 730, Iris loaded her toddler son into her car and headed towards Viola’s apartment
a few minutes away.
But when Iris got there, the door to Viola’s second-story apartment was locked.
This didn’t make a ton of sense to Iris, because obviously Viola was expecting her,
and she typically just let herself in.
I mean, this was part of their routine.
She watched him all the time, and the door would always be open for her to come in.
So Iris knocked and called out for Viola, but as she listened for footsteps coming toward
the door, there was just silence.
Iris started to worry.
Not only was she going to be late for work, but she was concerned about her grandmother.
Iris tracked down a spare key from a neighbor that she knew and let herself in.
Once inside the apartment, Iris immediately checked the bedroom, and there, slumped upright
in a chair across from the bed and wearing a blood-soaked robe, was Viola.
Iris raced out of the bedroom and ran back to the neighbor who’d given her the key,
and that’s where she called 911.
Officers with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department met Iris outside the complex within
minutes, and she cried and screamed as she pleaded with them to save her grandmother.
But when they went into the apartment and entered the bedroom, first responders knew
there was nothing that could be done.
Viola was already dead.
With a bloody kitchen knife at the elderly woman’s feet, it wasn’t difficult for investigators
to deduce how she was killed.
They counted at least 16 stab wounds across her chest and stomach.
Back then, Detective Ed Williams was relatively new to the force, but something that stuck
out to him and the other officers was the way Viola’s body was positioned and what
it potentially told them about her killer.
She was found in her bedroom in a chair right next to the bed, sitting in her chair.
So it appears that she may have been even having a conversation with this person.
My assumption, I don’t know, but my assumption was that she was just sitting on a chair next
to her bed.
Whoever did this was sitting on the bed having a conversation with her, and then it went south.
Apparent defensive cuts and scratches on her arms that were noted in her autopsy told police
that whatever happened, Viola didn’t even have time to stand herself upright from where
she was seated in the bedroom.
Investigators combed through the rest of the apartment looking for more clues that
could lead them to Viola’s attacker.
But aside from the bedroom where Viola was killed, there wasn’t anything obviously
out of place throughout the rest of the home.
The apartment was undisturbed as far as investigators could tell, and nothing really gave them the
impression that it had been rummaged through.
But then they spotted one clue left behind in the bedroom.
The bedside phone in Viola’s room was off the hook and dangled to the floor.
There was also blood smeared across the receiver and the phone itself.
To police, that meant one of two things.
Either whoever attacked Viola clearly went out of their way to make it as hard as possible
for her to call for help, or Viola herself had reached for the phone trying to call for
help after she was stabbed.
As law enforcement and crime scene technicians continued their work in the apartment, framed
photos of Viola and her larger-than-life family surrounded police as they worked to collect
Iris was the first person to talk with Charlotte-Mecklenburg police since she was the one who found Viola
and she was the one who called 911.
She was quickly cleared of any involvement in her grandmother’s death.
Not only had she been back at her own apartment getting ready for the day before driving over
to drop off her kid, which phone records confirmed, but there was also the neighbor who said Iris
did in fact borrow a key just to get into Viola’s apartment, and she quickly came
running back to call for help.
When the police got there, she was hysterical.
You can kind of tell when someone, I mean, we’re all human beings, we all have been
since our infancy, I think we can, you could say we’re all students of human behavior.
I think for the most part, people can kind of tell when someone is genuine and when they’re
This was genuine.
The neighbor who loaned Iris the spare key was a friend of Viola’s, someone she trusted.
And that much was clear considering Iris went straight there for a key when she couldn’t
get inside the apartment.
So investigators spoke with this neighbor too, and they were able to rule her out as
a suspect pretty much right away as well.
Unfortunately, those working the case today were not able to share the ins and outs of
why with us, but they did give our reporter an answer to something that I was wondering
They said that the knob on the inside of Viola’s front door did not require a key to be able
to lock it.
Like, you could twist the lock and then shut the door.
So it’s not like whoever killed her would have had to be someone with a key.
Even though this neighbor couldn’t give them anything helpful other than confirming
Iris’s story, the detectives were eager to talk to other people who might have been
around and may have seen someone coming or going from Viola’s place that morning.
Little Rock Apartments, which is still there today, is on the west side of Charlotte.
And back in the early 90s, it was made up of working class families.
And it was facing increased challenges with a rising crime rate.
But Viola was a fixture there.
Some neighbors told police that Viola had been through a lot of hardship in her life.
As a young adult in South Carolina, she picked cotton on a farm along with her eventual husband,
who died in a car crash in 1953.
Now Viola was retired and loved to help take care of her grandkids, of which she had plenty
because Viola herself had 11 children, five sons and six daughters.
After her husband died, Viola raised her kids largely on her own.
And now she was helping raise her grandchildren.
Because to Viola, family meant everything.
And her neighbors were treated like family too.
Viola wasn’t just the elderly woman who lived upstairs and kept to herself.
She knew everyone and everyone knew her.
The headline to an article in the Charlotte Observer the day after her murder, February
“‘Neighborhood’s Ambassador Fatally Stabbed.’”
A man named William McRae, who was identified in the article as Viola’s nephew by marriage,
was quoted saying,
“‘She was the type of person, if you were hungry, she would feed you.
She didn’t even have to know your name.
That’s just the way she was.’”
She was so loved that most people around her apartment complex called her Ma.
Here’s Detective Williams again.
It seems like there’s always one or two or three people that are the go-to people in
the neighborhood where people hang out, people really enjoy seeing.
Sometimes you’ll have a lot of kids and a lot of adults that just hang out at these
different apartments or houses in neighborhoods.
Well, her apartment was one of these apartments.
She was the grandmother of the apartment complex, per se.
Despite her close ties and popularity in the community, canvassing the apartment complex
turned up nothing.
But police still had the daunting task before them of notifying and speaking with Viola’s
And those conversations led police to one crucial detail.
When police spoke with Viola’s extended family, one detail stood out as a common theme in
Viola’s social security checks.
Viola, who was 79 years old at the time of her murder, depended on those checks to support
Each month, she’d receive $700, which is about $1,400 today when adjusted for inflation.
Her family members told police that whenever Viola received her checks, she would cash
them, but she usually kept the money out of a bank.
For safekeeping, I mean, at least that was the intent behind it, she sometimes enlisted
nearby relatives to hold on to the cash for her, and then whenever she needed it, they’d
bring it over.
This was in large part how Viola managed her savings, and apparently for good reason.
When our team was in North Carolina reporting for this episode, a family member disclosed
to us that lump sums of Viola’s cashed social security checks had actually been taken from
her apartment at least three times before.
The most recent time someone allegedly stole from Viola was as little as four months before
she was murdered, and for the very last check she received, Viola made the decision to hold
on to the cash herself.
Those closest to her would know that she kept the $700 in the same place she always did,
on top of her bedroom dresser.
So if no family members were holding on to that money for her after she cashed that last
check, the money should have been in that same spot as it always was.
Except when police processed the crime scene, no cash was found on the dresser, which was
right next to Viola.
And just so you guys can visualize it a little bit, based on where Viola’s body was found,
police thought that it was likely that her killer attacked as she was seated in that
And if that were the case, with Viola immobilized, there was nothing standing between the assailant
and the money.
In fact, it would have been pretty easy for whomever murdered Viola to swipe the cash
from the top of the dresser and then just bail.
And that seems likely because police did not find that cash anywhere in the apartment.
It appears that that is probably the motive, because there is no indication that Ms. Pendergrass
ever did anything to anyone that would cause them to kill her.
The only motive we see, and when I say we, we from the police department, the investigative
standpoint, is that $700 is missing.
So it appears that this was a robbery.
As police continued interviewing her relatives, it was clear that faith and family were two
central pillars in Viola’s life.
And she held especially close to both after her husband died in a car crash 40 years earlier.
Her loved ones told officers that Viola never remarried and spent her working years as a
cook in restaurants to support her kids, who at the time of her death were mostly located
in her native South Carolina, but were also spread out across New Jersey and North Carolina.
As of February 1992, she also had 27 grandchildren and 46 great-grandchildren.
With Viola’s sprawling family, it took several days for the news of their matriarch’s shocking
death to trickle down.
So it wasn’t until three days after her death on February 10th, when one of Viola’s
grandsons, then 19-year-old Christopher Pendergrass, got word that he needed to call his mother
Christopher was in the U.S. Navy at the time and was stationed off the coast of San Diego.
When he got a hold of his mom, she told him that his grandmother was killed.
He was spared the details over the phone, but the following day, Christopher was on
the next flight back to North Carolina.
He hadn’t even made it out of the Charlotte airport when he insisted on knowing exactly
how his grandmother was taken from them.
And he cried into his mother’s arms when she finally told him.
I mean, the news was almost too unbearable for him to process.
Even 2,000-some miles apart, with him being stationed in California, he and Viola made
time for one another whenever possible, and the two would talk on the phone every other
day before he shipped out.
I mean, this was someone who helped raise him, someone who was a vivid part of his earliest
Brought on some sadness and depression.
You know, up until I was in kindergarten, I spent almost every day of my life with my
I was with her almost every, every day.
So I was the baby grandson for a long time.
I guess the term, they say, well, he was spoiled, and with me, I was just that close and had
that much love for her and respect.
Christopher said that the last time he talked to Viola was on February 5th, just two days
before she was killed.
She was in good spirits and seemed to be strong and healthy, you know, just judging her, being
able to hold a conversation and have good memory to recollect anything that she was
She talked about the crime that had gone up around in Charlotte and even around in her
On top of that, Viola witnessed an altercation between two men at the apartment complex,
and things escalated to the point where one of the men pulled a gun on the other.
Viola intervened, placed a hand on the shoulder of the man with the gun, and said something
to the effect of,
Mr. Please don’t shoot that man.
After defusing what sounded like an incredibly dangerous situation, she walked away unharmed.
But before her death, Viola assured Christopher and other nervous family members that she
had no reason to be afraid in her own community.
Despite the area becoming increasingly crime-challenged, Christopher said there’s no way his grandma
would have ever welcomed a complete stranger into her home, because she’d made those
recent comments about the crime rate in the neighborhood.
That meant, whoever this person was, she trusted them enough to apparently have a sit-down
conversation in the comfort of her bedroom, dressed in her nightgown.
Well, with that, and the way her apartment was set up, she had to have let them in, because
if it was somebody that would have attacked her from the front door and gotten her all
the way back into her bedroom where she was found, it would have put up a bigger fight.
You know, it would have been more things like turned over, or what have you, as far as the
crime scene goes.
So whoever it was, she trusted them enough to get that far back into her home, into her
bedroom, because she was, you know, sitting in a chair.
So for them to get that far in her house, she definitely trusted them.
As weeks turned into months without any answers, some of Viola’s family members started to
suspect each other.
And that suspicion bred resentment in the family after her murder, and it made people
like Christopher wonder who in his family he could even trust.
Police never did a press conference or anything announcing a theory about who killed Viola,
but they were having conversations with some of Viola’s relatives about who had a habit
of stealing or borrowing Viola’s cash, and who in the family knew about her social
When months went by with no new tips or leads, police started to lean further into the theory
that one of Viola’s own family members killed her.
Because again, few if any people outside of the Pendergrass family knew when she would
deposit her social security check and where she would keep the cash.
But to prove it, police needed more.
They couldn’t build a case on suspicion alone.
They needed evidence, which, to put it mildly, was sorely lacking.
Aside from their shoe-leather police work in the field, police tried in more ways than
one to engage with the community to solve Viola’s murder.
In 2003, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department empaneled a civilian review board
meant to add fresh eyes and perspective to some of the agency’s coldest cases, including
According to a news story published in the Charlotte Observer in July 2006, the team,
which to this day is made up of volunteers who have law enforcement backgrounds, would
re-evaluate evidence, re-evaluate interviews, reports, and prepare summaries of their findings
for sworn law enforcement.
And honestly, they had a pretty solid track record.
According to that same article, the work of the civilian review board as of July 2006
led to at least 15 arrests, leading to the closure of 17 cases.
But Viola’s wasn’t one of them.
Then in 2006, this is 14 years after Viola’s murder, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department
created a special webpage that featured information about seven unsolved homicides.
Now I know a simple website may sound like a no-brainer for most of us today, but this
was 2006 and kind of on the heels of the internet boom.
But as far as we know, that website didn’t actually result in any definitive leads.
Part of someone coming forward with information, the best bet at solving Viola’s murder,
police said, rests with figuring out whose DNA was on the physical evidence collected
from the scene.
Again, the most promising pieces of evidence was that blood that was found on the phone
in the bedroom and the bloodied knife found near Viola’s body.
But the test results from the blood smear found on Viola’s phone were very interesting.
According to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, those results showed a mixture
of Viola’s blood and a second unknown person.
At least five DNA samples were collected from relatives to compare against the blood smear,
but Detective Williams told us none of them were a positive match.
And you might be scratching your head over this because I was.
If they were able to extract a foreign profile from the phone, why couldn’t they immediately
tell whether or not that second person was a relative of Viola’s?
I mean, that would at least confirm or debunk the family member theory.
But after calling up a couple of DNA experts, we found that it’s not so simple.
Things get very complicated beyond just trying to prove a genetic match to someone’s parent,
child, or full siblings.
Like, pretty much, like, you have to be that close in order for it to be a hit right away.
So CPD had to outsource the non-Viola profile for forensic genetic genealogy testing.
And as of this recording, they’re still waiting to find out if that person is in fact
related to her.
In 2018, detectives decided to try something that they never thought to try before, thanks
to advances in forensic DNA testing.
They sent the knife back to the lab and had analysts take the knife apart and test it
This was done in the event that blood, or any other physical kind of DNA, managed to
seep into the inside crevices of the knife, like between the handle and the metal.
Analysts use what’s called MVAC testing, which I’ve talked about in some other episodes,
but it’s basically when DNA lab techs use this vacuum-like device to suck out hard-to-access
trace evidence that they can then test.
But just quick sidebar, because I know that you’re all DNA nerds like me, the MVAC apparatus
is usually used on fabric or cloth evidence, but in this case, they used it on the handle
of the knife after splitting it open to make a flat surface.
And using that method, they were able to retrieve some blood and they compared it against
the blood that was found on Viola’s phone, but there wasn’t enough to get a match.
Now, around that same time, police also sent Viola’s blood-stained robe to be analyzed
in order to determine whether there was DNA profiles present on that that weren’t Viola’s.
But that testing was also inconclusive.
After all of these years, Detective Williams can’t help but feel frustrated over Viola’s case.
She was a caring person, and it makes me sad that this happened, but it makes me sad that
I never had the opportunity to meet her, because it sounds like somebody I would have liked
very, very much.
I don’t want to get all emotional, but that just tears my heart.
It’s disgusting that this happened, and I don’t get like that with many cases.
But this one, I don’t know, something about this case has just touched me.
I’ve been doing this for 36 years now, and I’ve only had a few cases like this where
I’ve gone home and thought about it, I’ve woken up in the middle of the night thinking
about it, I wake up in the morning thinking about it, thinking, what did I miss?
The family was, and remains, basically divided into two camps.
One side insists that the killer was among them, and that nobody outside of the family
knew when Viola cashed her checks, and more crucially, where she kept the actual money.
And then you have the other side, which grew defensive and resented Christopher and investigators
for even suggesting the possibility.
Everybody’s a suspect to me, until we get to the bottom of it.
It could have possibly been anyone in the immediate vicinity between the neighbors and
family, because somebody knows exactly what happened.
So like I said, I’m hoping that the police department can make the arrests they need
to in this investigation.
As they’ve continued to investigate, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have had their eyes on a relative
of Viola’s who’s battled substance use disorder and had a history of allegedly stealing
from family to support his addiction.
Police have remained interested in him, and he has agreed to talk to police as recently
as 2021, but detectives believe that he knows more than he’s letting on.
He is still alive today and lives in the Charlotte area.
Now that man, who police declined to identify, was considered a strong person of interest
then and still today.
But police do have his DNA on file, and it did not match the unknown evidence from Viola’s
So suspicion, coupled with circumstantial evidence, however credible, just isn’t enough,
at least in most investigations, to charge someone with murder.
Now let’s assume for a minute that this man’s prints or DNA did turn up in the apartment
when police were working the scene.
People were always coming and going from Viola’s apartment.
It was a hub of social activity, and this guy was family.
He had spent many years around that apartment.
So honestly, uncovering his prints in the apartment would prove very little, if anything.
I mean, as Viola’s grandson, he had a perfectly legitimate reason for being in the apartment.
In March of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down day-to-day life and forced most
work to go remote, Detective Williams, like the rest of us, had no idea what was ahead
or how long he was going to have to keep out of the field.
So when he started working from home, he took Viola’s case file with him.
And all I did in my basement every day was read the case, thinking there’s something
I’m missing, there’s something I’m missing.
As he poured over the materials in his basement, Detective Williams felt compelled to do something.
And while in quarantine, there was only so much he could do.
But because Detective Williams moonlights as a radio DJ for WSGE in Charlotte, he decided
to use his unique platform and hit the airwaves to make a call out for Viola in November of
There’s no reason anybody should be murdered, but there was no reason this lady should have
She was just minding her own business.
She was a happy lady, a happy grandmother, a happy mom.
And somebody took her life for $700.
And I want to bring closure to this family because, again, nobody, and I mean nobody
deserves to die like this woman died.
So if you have any information at all, please contact me.
Even though that broadcast was almost two years ago, Detective Williams’ message these
days, both on and off the airwaves, remains the same.
Is this case solvable?
If this case was unsolvable, you and I wouldn’t be sitting here because I would have thought
this is a waste of time.
But yes, I think it’s solvable.
I think we just need one person to tell us something because we have some other evidence,
but we don’t have enough evidence.
I’m not going to put somebody in jail because I think they did it.
I don’t work like that.
And I don’t know anybody in my unit that works like that.
We put people in jail because we know they did it.
And I want to know without a doubt that if I’m putting handcuffs on somebody, that they
committed this crime.
And all I need is for one person to come out and tell me, tell me something, tell me the
information I need, and I can wrap everything up.
I feel like we’re that close, but we just need someone to talk to us.
Christopher said there have been times over the last 30 years that he’s wanted to give
up because he felt like he would never know what happened to his grandma.
I’ve lost a lot of family members since that time.
They went on and died without knowing the truth, at least here on earth.
While he has gone back to being hopeful for an arrest in Viola’s case, Christopher knows
that there’s a chance that he too will pass on someday not knowing what happened that
morning inside his grandma’s apartment.
I tell my children that if you have to, I tell my older children, if I’m not here, you
keep calling the police to see if there are any new leads, anything, that we can get this
If you have any information about the February 7, 1992 stabbing death of Viola Pendergrass
in her Charlotte, North Carolina apartment, please contact Detective Ed Williams at the
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
You can contact him via email at james.williamsatcmpd.org, or you can call 704-336-8626.
You can even submit a tip or relevant information anonymously through the local Crime Stoppers.
There is a $5,000 reward if you provide information resulting in an arrest and prosecution.
And remember, if you call Crime Stoppers, you can remain completely anonymous.
The Deck will be off next week, but we will return the following week with a brand new episode.
The Deck is an AudioChuck production with theme music by Ryan Lewis.
To learn more about The Deck and our advocacy work, visit thedeckpodcast.com.
So what do you think, Chuck?
Do you approve?