Q & A with Marcus Blair
Recently, I was able to chat with Marcus Blair.
In 1999, Blair, a budding journalist working for the Southwest Times Record broke a story about a promising suspect in the Melissa Witt murder case. Little did he know that 16 years later this story would become the catalyst for my quest to find Justice for Melissa Witt.
LaDonna (Q): Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Marcus (A): I grew up in Heavener, Oklahoma, a very small railroad town in southeast Oklahoma. My father was a railroader.
I have a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Arkansas and a master’s degree in Motion Pictures and Television from Academy of Art University, San Francisco. My first real job (not fast food or farm work) was as Sports Editor for the Poteau Daily News and Sun. From there I went to the Times Record in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Afterward I was faculty and public relations director for Carl Albert State College in Poteau, Oklahoma. I now live in Columbia, Missouri, and after a few of life’s twists and turns I am now a full-time church pastor.
LaDonna (Q): I love that you are now a full-time church pastor! What a rich and diverse background. Can you tell me about how (and when) you found out about the Melissa Witt case?
Marcus (A): The abduction and murder was big, HUGE news at the time. I lived very close to Fort Smith, so when we went there shopping, I remember seeing the billboards and flyers. I was a sophomore in high school at the time. I frequently bowled at Bowling World. But really everyone seemed to know - it was water cooler talk for sure. My parents and sister talked about it. Friends were talking about it. Every night the news had something about the case. I think just about everyone in the area was invested in the outcome of the case because it happened right in the middle of our lives. It felt like an appalling invasion, a real atrocity, that someone had snatched up this beautiful girl in our community and we were powerless to help. LaDonna (Q): Fast forward a few years to your time working at the Southwest Times Record. Can you tell me about the day you first learned about Larry Swearingen and the murder of Melissa Trotter? Did you immediately notice the similarities in the Trotter and Witt murders? By the way, I want you to know that the article you wrote inspired me to delve deeper into Larry Swearingen's past and into the Witt case. You are a trail blazer and a true hero in so many ways!
Marcus (A): I arrived at work in the afternoon to start my beat. I remember checking in with my editor and asking what had transpired so far that day. We received newspapers from all over. My editor handed me one from the Houston, Texas area. “Look at this, Marcus. This girl who was killed is named Melissa and doesn’t she resemble…” “Missy Witt?” I completed her sentence. An eerie feeling came over me. A feeling of “what if?” I took the paper to my desk and within an hour, I had a long list of similarities between the cases - the victims could’ve been sisters, they shared so much in appearance, build, dress, and even social habits. They were killed the same way. They were dumped in the National Forest. The more details that emerged, the more I was stunned. It just could’t be denied - these cases were mirror images of one another. Serial killers had been caught in the past with fewer connections between their own crimes than these. I remember staring at the face of Swearingen on that newspaper and thinking, “Did you do it? Was it you?” LaDonna (Q): I get chills just thinking about this! As you now know, Larry Swearingen remains a top suspect in Melissa Witt's murder. Can you tell me what happened next? Did you immediately notify law enforcement when you realized that there might be a connection between the Trotter and Witt cases? Marcus (A): I went to the police with the case that very afternoon. The police department was one block from the news office and I all but sprinted there. It was one of those moments a young journalist dreams about. Had I solved a murder? Not just “a” murder, but the biggest unsolved mystery of the region? Most journalists are quite idealistic - we dream of breaking the big case, taking down the corrupt, solving some riddle, serving the public. I contacted J.C. Rider, then a detective captain at the Fort Smith Police Department, as I knew he had been the lead detective on the case from the beginning. I told him I may have found fresh information for the case. I presented him my findings, and I remember his demeanor changed. Most police were cordial but curt to reporters. “Just the facts.” But I remember Captain Rider getting noticeably excited - maybe thrilled is the better word - as I told him what I had found. He treated me, from that moment, like more of a colleague than a young, dumb reporter. I remember trusting him immediately. He was your classic, crusading cop with a case that he can’t let go. The one thing I asked is that the police reveal none of this to the other press in the region until my story ran. I wanted an exclusive. J.C. was fine with that. We stayed in touch all week, meeting daily behind closed doors as he told me more and more of what he was discovering about Swearingen - namely that he fit perfectly the FBI profile that had been developed on Missy’s killer. They just needed to put him in Fort Smith at the time of the murder. Meanwhile, lawyers from our paper were filing for copyright on my story. It is a rare, rare thing in the news business to have a story big and important enough to copyright it. Most reporters never have a copyrighted story, ever. My editors, as you can well imagine, were beside themselves over these developments. I believe the story came out in our Monday edition, copyright and all. By noon, the other Fort Smith press (TV stations) were reading my story on the air. “In a copyrighted story in the Times Record today by Marcus Blair, police may have found a connection between…” I was quite proud of this acknowledgement, and the fact that I had scooped the world with this huge, exclusive story. It was one of those days you go home and feel like you actually did some real good for the world. But besides it being a personal and professional victory, I wanted more than anything to solve Missy’s murder and bring peace to her mother. LaDonna (Q): As you reflect back on the Witt murder, do you still feel that Swearingen could be "the" guy? Marcus (A): I do believe Swearingen to be the best suspect, to this day. From what I know of him, he had this nasty, narcissistic attitude that just seems to fit what I would think a serial killer could be. I think he was in love with himself and he was all about power - living like a big dog, being the alpha male, dominating. Hurting women in one way or another seemed to be the way he got most of his sick validation. And I think he killed to prove himself “the man.” It’s sickening because really, how much “man” does it take to overpower and kill a petite young woman who trusts him? Under his self-made persona, he was a weakling. LaDonna (Q): How has the Melissa Witt case impacted your life? Do you think about her case often? Marcus (A): I can’t tell you how many times I have sat in the news office and just stared into Missy’s eyes in pictures. She was so beautiful, I just can’t understand who would want to mar and destroy such a good soul. She was a contemporary of mine in age and location, and even though I never met her, I imagine we might’ve been friends. I know it sounds weird, but I’ve often felt like she’s pleading with me. I can’t look at her photo too long without turning away - those eyes, they just seem to cry out, “Help me. Avenge me.” Always have. This may be what happens when you get too obsessed with a case. But I have long felt like I owe it to her, that it’s my mission, to solve her murder. Even though I haven’t been a journalist in many years, I still sometimes wake up at night and I can see those eyes of hers pleading with me from the photos. The case haunts me and always will. I love your passion, Marcus. I definitely think we are two kindred spirits when it comes to wanting justice for Melissa Witt. I am hopeful we can find some ways to work together on this case!