The red flags were there.
Earl Webster Cox was already a convicted child sex offender with a history of molesting little girls when 9-year-old Angie Housman was abducted moments after stepping off her school bus in St. Ann in November 1993.
He had ties to the area, including a sister who lived close to Angie’s school. He had been arrested for molesting two 7-year-old girls in Overland just four years before a deer hunter found Angie’s body in a wooded area in St. Charles County.
How, then, did the dozens of investigators who spent countless hours investigating the case miss a prime suspect?
That’s exactly what some of the detectives on the case have been asking themselves ever since charges against Cox were announced this week.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch interviewed several of those original investigators and key members of the Major Case Squad of Greater St. Louis about their reactions to the news that the alleged killer had been closer than they knew.
All agreed that if Angie had been abducted today, advances in technology, communication and science would likely have solved the case in weeks, if not days.
Tools like the internet, social media, a sex offender registry, a national DNA database, and a local criminal history database containing arrest information across dozens of police departments did not exist at the time.
Bob Schrader was police chief in St. Ann when Angie disappeared. He retired in 2013. He said the first time he heard the name Earl Cox was about a month ago.
“It wasn’t for lack of trying, I can tell you that,” he said. “In every investigation, you can have the best technology and the best people on it, but you also need a little bit of luck.”
Schrader said investigators chased down leads every day for months.
“Normally, somebody would talk and say you know, ‘Don’t look at me, check this guy out.’ But nobody brought up his name.”
Not even his family.
Cox’s sister, Janet Wilson, 65, sat in a chair in her front yard on a recent Friday, not far from Buder Elementary School where Angie was a student.
“He never lived here, that’s the only thing I can tell you,” she said in a brief interview.
Did he stay there? No, she whispered. Could he have kept Angie at Wilson’s house? Never, she replied, adamantly.
Is he capable of doing what he’s accused of doing?
“No,” she said. “I don’t know. I didn’t know him a lot in his adult life. If he did do it, I’m very sorry, but there’s nothing I can tell you.”
Wilson and her husband have hired a lawyer. The lawyer, Kristi Flint, said this is a stressful time for the family. She reiterated that Cox never lived at the home in Overland with his sister and that they would have nothing to say to reporters.
St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Tim Lohmar said that Cox’s name had surfaced four years after the killing, when the FBI compiled a list of 1,408 names of people who had been arrested in the area.
The entry was nothing more than Cox’s name and date of birth, he said. By that time, investigators from the Major Case Squad, a conglomerate of departments that donate detectives to work homicides in smaller jurisdictions, had returned to their respective departments. It’s unclear what happened to the list.
Cox was a ghost until a DNA profile extracted from a piece of Angie’s underwear led police to him early this year.
Missouri was one of 26 states that did not maintain a registry of convicted sex offenders in 1993. Illinois had one.
Police who pushed for a registry in Missouri repeatedly referenced Angie’s case. Robert P. McCulloch, who was then the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, has said that a registry “would’ve cut the investigation that took days and days down to hours.”
In 1994, Congress passed a national law requiring states to maintain registries of rapists, child molesters and other convicted sex offenders, and track where they live after they are freed from prison. That same year, the Missouri Legislature enacted its registry. Sex offenders began registering in Missouri on Jan. 1, 1995. Anyone convicted of a sex crime since 1979 — or committed to a mental health facility as a criminal sexual psychopath — was required to register with law enforcement.
Within the first month, 197 sex offenders in St. Louis County, for example, had registered with police. Police said they had not been aware of some of them.
Cox’s name is still missing from Missouri’s sex offender registry. He’s also not listed in the Colorado database, where he was convicted in 2003 for his role in an international online child pornography ring. And he’s not part of the national database.
Cox is incarcerated in North Carolina as a “sexually dangerous person,” a classification created by the 2016 Adam Walsh Act to give the government the power to keep people confined beyond their sentences if they are deemed highly likely to re-offend. He was certified as he neared the end of a 10-year sentence for his role in an international child pornography ring.
Robert Lowery Jr. was a police officer in Florissant when his father, one of the founders of the Major Case Squad of St. Louis, tapped the son to lead the Housman case. The absence of a registry forced detectives to create lists manually, he recalled.
Lowery said those who would know the criteria for those lists have died.
“I can assure you that the (suspects) we were aware of were all found, and an extensive amount of work went into trying to tie them to the case or eliminate them,” he said. “I’ve always said, ‘What frightens me is the ones who weren’t on that list.'”
Dan DeCarli and Rick Zweifel were part of the team of 20 to 25 detectives spending long hours following leads, interviewing people. DeCarli was a detective with Ferguson police and Zweifel was with Richmond Heights.
Through the years, they’ve called in random leads or thoughts to Lt. Col. John Lankford in St. Ann and Lt. Ed Copeland in St. Charles County, both still assigned to the case.
DeCarli, now a captain in Ferguson and commander of the Major Case Squad, stood alongside Lohmar at the recent announcement.
Zweifel, now retired, called DeCarli afterward. Both men expressed disbelief, along with relief.
“It’s so frustrating to get the news and the circumstances around this guy, and the fact that it just never really surfaced is mind-boggling,” Zweifel said. “Somebody could have mentioned it just in passing and that would have helped and we would have looked into it.”
But, DeCarli added, “You’ve got to have evidence on these people too.”
The forensic science that implicated Cox wasn’t available at the time, DeCarli pointed out. Lohmar stressed during the press conference that breakthroughs in DNA technology dating to mid-2017 were key to extracting the DNA that led to the charges.
“It’s hard to Monday morning quarterback; things are different nowadays. But you learn as you go,” DeCarli said. “As soon as I heard his name I started wracking my brain, but it was like it fell out of heaven.”
DeCarli is hoping the release of Cox’s name and photos will help bring other cases to justice.
“It’s waking people up, like, ‘Hey don’t forget about our cases,'” he said. “Hopefully putting this guy’s picture out there, people might call and say, ‘He did this to my daughter,’ or ‘He did this to me.'”
Former Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson worked the “leads desk” as a sergeant with St. Louis County Police during the investigation into Angie’s death. Hundreds of calls and tips from the public poured in. He assigned leads to officers to chase, and tracked down a few himself.
No call about Earl Webster Cox ever came in, Jackson said.
“If this exact same thing would have happened today, he would have been in an interrogation room immediately,” he said. “But we just didn’t have the technology back then that we have today.”
In addition, key locations — Angie’s house, her school, her bus stop, Cox’s house, Cox’s relatives, his previous arrests — were situated within about 1 1/2 miles of each other. Yet, those sites spanned three separate municipalities, each with its own police department: Overland, Breckenridge Hills and St. Ann. Communication across jurisdictions was hit-or-miss.
Now, patrol officers have access to criminal records through databases on the computers in their cars, Jackson said.
Frank Barrow, a St. Ann detective who retired as a captain in 2018, remembers searching the Housman basement, looking in nearby creeks and questioning drivers near her school bus stop. He never saw Cox nor heard the name.
“It’s very frustrating knowing that he was very close,” Barrow said.
Barrow also interviewed sex offenders.
“I was disturbed there were that many sex offenders in the area,” he said.
Like his fellow detectives, Barrow said it’s a relief that the case is solved. But he has lingering questions. Where did the killer keep Angie for nine days before her body was found? Did he act alone?
But Barrow is confident new tools in law enforcement will lead to more answers.