Memphis Murder: The Unsolved Killing of Nancy Ruth Little

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Memphis, Tennessee, is famous for its delicious barbecue, the home of Elvis Presley and Beale Street, attracting millions of visitors yearly. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most violent cities in the United States, with over 350 homicides in 2023. Additionally, there are numerous unsolved murders and disappearances.

One of Memphis’ cold cases occurred in 1989. It was a brutal crime barely covered by local media outlets, and little information came from the authorities. The case was one of 13 unsolved killings among the city’s 156 homicides that year. (Cooke 1990)

A young woman nine months pregnant was found dead in her car, and the police and media were quiet. Was it because she was black? Or the fact that the father of her unborn child was a married family man? Perhaps either or both.

It was not until one month after the murder that a local newspaper published a piece on the case. Thereafter, little was reported for almost three decades until the same newspaper printed another article in 2016.

In the fall of 2021, around the 32nd anniversary of the crime, two local podcast hosts, Jeremy and Kelly, came across the case and decided to investigate. The pair, who are siblings, spoke with the victim’s family, friends, and the police for their show, Riverside Homicide. 

Who Was Nancy Ruth Little?

Nancy Ruth Little was born on January 19, 1957, one of seven children, four boys and three girls, and the youngest of the girls.

Nancy graduated from Hamilton High School in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1975. She stood nearly 6 feet tall and once aspired to be a model, even joining a high school club called The Modelettes.

According to Jeremy and Kelly, Nancy’s favorite color was red, and “Red” is what her father used to call her as a nickname. She loved music; her favorite recording artists included Luther Vandross and Pattie LaBelle. She also loved typical Southern food such as fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and greens.

In 1989, Nancy lived alone at 5076 Village Woods Apt. 8 in Whitehaven, a neighborhood in south Memphis near the Memphis International Airport and about five miles from Elvis Presley’s home, Graceland, also located in Whitehaven. She had a good job working the second shift in the U.S. Post Office Bulk Mail Center at 1921 Elvis Presley Boulevard.

At some point, Nancy became involved with one of her male coworkers, who was married. Though, he told her the typical “affair lie” that he and his wife were separated. However, they were still together, having been married for four years, and had two daughters. So when Nancy unexpectedly delivered the news that she was pregnant with his child, it likely sent shock waves through his body and put him in a difficult position.

Nancy was due to give birth in mid-October 1989 and took maternity leave earlier that month. She was excited about the arrival of her first child and started decorating a room in her apartment with Disney decor for the baby. She had even picked out names – Brandon for a boy and Brandi if it was a girl – and started a trust fund.

Nancy planned to give birth at Baptist Memorial Hospital East and move in with her sister, Jacqueline White, who lived closer to the hospital. (Cooke 1989)

Evidently, some were not happy about the pregnancy. Nancy was unsure whether he would take responsibility for their child. Unfortunately, she learned the answer the hard way.

The Murder of Nancy Ruth Little and Her Unborn Child

Nancy telephoned her mother, Annie Little, around 6 p.m. on October 8, 1989, telling Annie she planned to stay in for the night. She was supposed to pick Annie up from her job at a nursing home at 2 p.m. on October 9 but never showed. She also had plans to meet her sister, Hazel Little, but Hazel never heard from her either.

Around 6 p.m., children playing in a neighborhood about a mile from Nancy’s apartment found Nancy’s body in her automobile parked in front of 2061 Slate Road, the first house on the street, just west of Hornsby Drive.

Here is the strange part about this case – the positioning of Nancy’s body.

Nancy was face down in the passenger seat with her head in the floorboard, her pregnant belly on the seat, and her legs extended behind her into the backseat. How she ended up in that position is a mystery that only her killer can solve. Police said at the time, they believed Nancy had been dead for about 12 hours, and her unborn child did not survive.

“When she got into that position in a little car with all her weight going down, it just smothered her; it just cut off her air,” said Lt. J.D. Douglas of the Memphis police homicide department in 1989.

Nancy was wearing a striped blouse and overalls. The car keys were still in the ignition, and the doors were unlocked. Her purse was in the front passenger seat, where she was found.  

“Neighbors said the car had been sitting on Slate just west of McKellar Park for a day before the body was discovered. Police and family members said Nancy had no friends or family in that neighborhood and had no known reason to be there,” wrote Anthony Cooke in The Commercial Appeal in November 1989.

Autopsy

stock photo of a morgue

The Memphis Police Department denied Jeremy and Kelly’s request for a copy of the police report. However, they obtained a copy of the autopsy report because it is a public record. 

Shelby County Medical Examiner Dr. Jerry Francisco performed Nancy’s autopsy. He had supervised Elvis Presley’s autopsy in 1977 and conducted the one on Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. 

According to Jeremy and Kelly, the autopsy noted five injuries:

  1. Contusion on the chest wall
  2. Incision (gash) on the forehead
  3. Abrasions on face and back of neck
  4. Bruising on her left arm and chest area
  5. Rib fracture on the left 10th rib

Most injuries were on Nancy’s left side, suggesting the killer was right-handed. That also indicates to this author that she was in a sitting position, specifically upright in the passenger seat, and the killer was in the driver’s seat. The reason is that she had no injuries to her lower extremities. Therefore, her killer likely harmed her from the driver’s side. 

According to the Riverside Homicide podcast, Dr. Francisco ruled Nancy’s death a homicide due to positional asphyxia. Nonetheless, it took Francisco’s homicide ruling to get the police to start an investigation into Nancy’s death. 

Weird. I figured how Nancy was found in her car might have been their first clue. 

The Investigation

stock photo of a police investigation - evidence bag, fingerprint, magnifying glass, duster, knife, DNA

Lt. J.D. Douglas said in 1989: “The doctor [Francisco] has ruled it a homicide so we have to live with that. We’ve done everything we can to determine who’s responsible since the doctor says someone must have done it.” 

What kind of statement is THAT? 

Memphis cold case detective Joe Stark said in 2016 that he and his team were “currently finding out” why Nancy’s car was at the location where the neighborhood kids found it. He also said that the location is “connected to her boyfriend.” That suggests the boyfriend or someone he knew lived in that neighborhood or nearby.

Friends described Nancy as “a homebody,” and family members said it was unusual for Nancy to leave her house at night. Hazel Little said Nancy made it clear she was staying home on the night of the 8th. 

Hazel told The Commercial Appeal in 1989: “She was so systematic … That was the way she always did things.”  

Nancy preferred to stay home versus going to clubs and always went to bed early. 

Jeremy and Kelly repeatedly spoke with the Memphis Police Department’s cold case detectives for their podcast. According to the detectives’ reports, there were no phone calls to or from Nancy’s apartment and no known beepers or pagers. Furthermore, the detectives said they have no telephone records, which makes no sense. How did they know there were no telephone calls? In 1989, police could still access telephone records. However, they could have been lost over time. 

Police do not know who Nancy last had contact with after leaving her mother’s house.

Detectives also said there were no notes in their reports mentioning the condition of Nancy’s apartment, so we do not know if there were signs of a struggle or foul play or if it was in immaculate condition. Either way, investigators should have noted something in the police report, so that is odd. 

The family told the podcast hosts that police found a blue finger-less glove near Nancy’s car. The glove was the same type used at the bulk mail center for sorting mail. However, it is unclear whether investigators ever forensically tested said glove.

Police told Jeremy and Kelly there was no evidence that Nancy was killed anywhere other than her car. However, that contradicts Stark’s statement to The Commercial Appeal in 2016.

“He [killer] was hiding her body in the car while driving so nobody could see her. She didn’t drive herself over there like that … Somebody drove her there and left her there,” Stark said.

The Suspect

Stock photo of police questioning a suspect

The obvious suspect is the married boyfriend, who had plenty of reasons to murder Nancy. Police finally named him a suspect in 2016. 

Investigators have detained and questioned him multiple times since 1989, but they claim insufficient evidence to charge him with a crime. He allegedly took and failed a polygraph test.

The boyfriend’s only alibi is his wife, who likely lied to protect her family. She also encouraged him to retain an attorney. 

He cheated on her and impregnated his girlfriend, so the wife should have thrown him under the bus. However, she likely wanted to keep her family together at all costs. 

Police revealed in 2016 that Nancy was preparing to take her boyfriend to juvenile court for child support. “Which means if his wife doesn’t know, she’s gonna find out. That’s a motive. But that’s just a theory,” Stark said. 

Nancy’s family told Jeremy and Kelly that the suspect did not attend Nancy’s funeral. However, they also said they had never met him, so how did they know? He could have blended in with the other mourners.

Jeremy and Kelly stated that the original detectives who interviewed the suspect “are no longer around.” It is worth noting that in 1989, police claimed they had no suspects, according to The Commercial Appeal, even after interviewing the boyfriend. 

According to Tennessee law in 1989, Nancy’s killer, if caught and tried, would be guilty of only one homicide – Nancy’s. 

“The baby has to breathe before it’s a human life lost,” said then-homicide squad Capt. Ken East.

DNA Testing

In 1989, DNA testing was in its infancy. At the Little crime scene, police found blood droplets near the body and believed those came from Nancy. However, Stark said they also pulled DNA from the steering wheel. (Callahan 2016)

“We have some DNA that has to be sent in that will give us a very good idea as to who killed her,” Stark declared. 

The family told Jeremy and Kelly that a forensic tech had alluded to them that the DNA had been “used up.” They are hoping DNA will solve Nancy’s murder if any is still available.

Aftermath

Nancy’s unborn child was a girl and therefore, named Brandi. She is buried with her mother.

Nancy’s boyfriend is now in his 60s. It is unclear whether he and his wife stayed married or where he lives today. Police and family refuse to name him publicly at this time.

Fox 13 Memphis revealed in October 2023 that Nancy’s brother, James Little, was offering a $50K reward for information leading to his sister’s killer.

According to Riverside Homicide’s Facebook page, last fall, they launched “a letter-writing campaign to the Shelby County District Attorney’s office in addition to the Memphis Cold Case Unit,” asking their followers “to send letters to both the DA and the MPD urging them to give Nancy’s case the attention it deserves.”

Anyone with information regarding the murder of Nancy Ruth Little can call Crime Stoppers at (901) 528-CASH (2274), the Cold Case Hotline at 901-636-COLD (2653), or email a tip to ColdCase@memphistn.gov

Note: I just want to say that I really enjoyed Jeremy and Kelly’s podcast episodes (two parts) on Nancy’s murder. I usually do not listen to podcasts because I find them long and tedious, but I recommend this good one to my readers. I plan on listening to more episodes of their show. Honestly, I loved how they told Nancy’s story compassionately and professionally without sounding like they were reading from a script. Furthermore, each part was less than 30 minutes long. However, they have not had any new episodes since November 2023. I do not know why, but I hope they produce more! You can find the link to Nancy’s episodes below. 

Sources

Callahan, Jody. “Searching For Justice.” The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN). August 4, 2016. 

Cooke, Anthony. “Grief Doubled in Killing of Expectant Mother.” The Commercial Appeal. November 20, 1989.

Cooke, Anthony. “Kin Offer $10,000 to Find Killer. The Commercial Appeal. August 11, 1990.

Jeremy and Kelly, hosts. “The Case of Nancy Little.” Riverside Homicide (podcast). October 31 and November 2, 2021. Accessed January 20, 2024. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/001-the-case-of-nancy-little-pt-1/id1593124516?i=1000540458784 and https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/002-the-case-of-nancy-little-pt-2/id1593124516?i=1000540458669

“Rites Set For Nancy Little.” The Commercial Appeal. October 12, 1989.

Wilkerson, Daniel. “New Podcast Puts Spotlight Back on Memphis Murder of Nancy Little as Brother Offers $50 Reward.” Fox 13 Memphis. October 9, 2023. https://www.fox13memphis.com/news/new-podcast-puts-spotlight-back-on-memphis-murder-of-nancy-little-as-brother-offers-50k/article_11d56758-66f3-11ee-b65c-db3ff439c8e0.html. Accessed January 20, 2024. 

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True Crime Diva

I've blogged true crime since 2010, happily taking up only a tiny corner of the internet. I'm not here for attention; I'm here to tell you their stories.

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