The Coldest of Cases: When LEO no longer cares to follow leads...
Updated: Jul 19
The senior class motto at Sallisaw High School in 1995 was "Take it to the Limit!" but one young lady that donned her cap and gown among the 131 graduates that year had her potential thwarted when she was murdered less than a year-and-a-half later in DeKalb County, Alabama.
On November 3, 1997, the semi-nude body of 19 year-old Tina Michelle Payton, was found on the living room floor of the rural home on County Road 104 between Geraldine and Crossville, Alabama where she lived with her fiance.
Payton had moved from Sallisaw to Crossville in August of that year to "start a new life".
Less than a month before her death her fiance, a Cherokee native American named Chad Frank, moved from Sallisaw and took job in a local mobile home production facility. Tina also found work at Geraldine Super Value, a local grocery store.
At 4:18 pm on that Monday, Chad Frank returned home from work to find Tina dead from gunshot wounds from a .38- or .357-caliber pistol in the head and chest. On her lower abdomen was a carved pattern of lines that appeared to form a cryptic symbol that confounded investigators and led them on several wild goose chases.
Sadly, the DeKalb County investigator that swore to solve the case retired thirteen years ago. A spokesperson with the sheriff's department said that the 23 year-old mystery is no longer considered active and is not currently assigned to an investigator.
"I will pass along your inquiry to our chief investigator, but I can tell you the Payton case is considered a cold case that we are no longer actively working," the spokesperson said.
Several facts in the case are puzzling.
The house where Payton was killed had been her home for only about three months.
Tina's father, Max Payton, had bought the house and five acres in 1994 after he retired from the Air Force. Speculation was he intended to give the small farm to Tina and Chad once they were married.
Tina continued to live in the house after her father took a job a Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Florida Less than a month before the slaying,
Investigators first thought the murder might have been cult related, based on the carving of the symbol onto the lower part of Tina' body. The sheriff office learn then learned the cryptic symbol resembled a Druid sign but while it was a close match, it wasn't exact.
They later concluded the symbol was a red herring meant to throw the investigators off the track of the real killer
The gunshot through Payton’s hand was what investigators at the time called a “defensive wound” because it appeared that she may have grabbed the gun during the struggle with her assailant.
Tina was found on her back, nude below the waist, with the symbol clearly visible to anyone who entered the room.
The staged appearance of Payton’s body and the symbol carved into her skin led homicide detectives and the state pathologist to the conclusion that the woman’s killer had put her body on display and arranged the scene for "maximum visual effect".
An empty condom wrapper was found beside Payton’s body, but authorities said she was not sexually assaulted. The prosecutor in the county at that time stated "“This was not a random act, but an attack directed specifically at Tina Payton, probably by someone she knew.”
The doors were locked and there were no signs of forced entry.
Given the personal aspects of the homicide, Chad Franks was taken into custody and was the primary suspect with the thought the carved symbol might be a Cherokee sign. But Franks established an alibi, having left for work at 6:15 a.m. and returning home at 4:18 p.m. when he found Tina's body.
The autopsy revealed that Tina had died at 9 a.m. that morning.
Family members say an ex-wife of Max Payton was also questioned but nothing ever came of that aspect of the investigation. In 2001, and for a number of years later, the investigators claimed to have a singular suspect in mind and at one point was "days away from making an arrest".
But the evidence never added up to an arrest, and today the case file sits in a drawer someplace forgotten. In fact, the case is as cold as the person who answered the phone at the Dekalb County Sheriff Office.
"I will pass along your inquiry to our chief investigator, but I can tell you the Payton case is considered a cold case that we are no longer actively workin
Getting justice for families is hard enough when someone is actively working a case. It's virtually impossible when no one cares.
This is the point in the story where we would normally tell you to contact the Dekalb County Sheriff Office if you have information on the death of Tina Payton.
But they don't care.
We at Back Roads Mysteries do care, and you can contact us at 479-461-0126 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your tips and thoughts on this case.