Miami Valley Murder Mystery: Detectives say they’re close to solving Zenith Lawrence case

Detectives said they are close to solving a Miami Valley Murder Mystery, a case that went cold more than a quarter century ago.

It’s a case of a 55-year-old woman who was killed while delivering newspapers. The people on her route knew her simply as “the paper lady.”

However, to the person who loved her most, she was so much more.

For most of his life, it was just a boy and his mother, Zenith Lawrence. She is described by her son as smart and good and someone who worked at one time helping child victims of sexual abuse.

Then, in the cruelest twist of fate, she too became a victim.

Zenith Lawrence was doing her job, delivering newspapers on Oxford Avenue on Dec. 28, 1995. It was a frigid morning with snow on the ground and she was sitting in her parked car when someone came by and shot her in the head.

Det. Doyle Burke, a retired homicide detective with the Dayton Police Cold Case Unit, said, “What we believe is she was, unfortunately, just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Burke is working with the Dayton Police Cold Case Unit to revisit long unsolved murders, focusing on those they believe can still be solved, such as Zenith Lawrence’s case.

“Totally, 100 percent innocent victim and she just didn’t deserve to die,” Burke said.

Burke took News Center 7′s Cheryl McHenry back to the scene in Dayton’s Collage Hill neighborhood.

He was called that morning shortly after someone heard a shot and then saw a woman slumped over the wheel of her car.

“Window was partially down because she was just probably sorting out her papers and the car was just full of newspapers. This was not one or two blocked routes, this was a pretty extensive route,” Burke said.

Investigators believe the motive was robbery.

“We know that shortly thereafter, almost immediately thereafter, there was another robbery nearby, just a few blocks away and we believe the same suspects to be involved in this homicide,” Burke said.

The second crime scene is less than a mile away at 1904 West Grand.

Here the two suspects robbed a man in his apartment with one of them firing a shot into the ceiling. That man went to prison for that crime, but not before telling people his accomplice was the person who shot Zenith Lawrence.

A witness, who wanted to remain anonymous, said, “He told us the story. He said he didn’t shoot her. Billy was the one that did it but it’s like he was there, so it’s like you did it too.”

The witness never understood why the pair would rob and kill someone neighbors knew so well as “the paper lady.”

“She was just a perfect person to take advantage of because she was throwing papers out. I don’t know why they did that. I never got an answer to why they did it,” the witness said.

With suspects in mind, detectives are working with BCI to extract DNA from evidence with techniques not available in the mid-90s.

“From witnesses we’ve determined that they did look through the car for probably something of value, so those items had been checked for fingerprints previously, but not for DNA. So, there’s a very good chance, with today’s techniques, we can get some DNA from those items,” Burke said.

That process will take several months. In the meantime, detectives are hoping to shore up the case as tightly as they can. To do that, they need help from citizens.

“We’re close. That’s why we’re just praying that someone is going to come forward and help us get that one little piece that we don’t have right now,” Burke said.

Zenith Lawrence’s son said he thinks about her every day and seeing his mother get justice, even years after her murder, is the most important thing to him.

Cold case detectives have made it their mission to see that happen.

“This lady deserves justice. She’s out basically serving the neighborhood, doing the job that a lot of people would not do, and she just deserves some justice,” Burke said.

If you have any information about the murder of Zenith Lawrence, no matter how small or significant, you are urged to call the Cold Case Unit hotline at 937-333-7109 or CrimeStoppers at 937-222-STOP.

You can remain anonymous but leave a number so detectives can call you back if they need more information.