Murder mystery

Florida filmmakers explore unsolved 1966 murder of Meridian family

  • 4 min to read

Norma Jeanette Sims went to a Saturday night Mississippi State University and Florida State University football game on Oct., 22, 1966. Mississippi State lost, 10-0, and Norma came home, alone, to what The Meridian Star would call one of "the most brutal murders in Florida history."

Originally from Meridian, the family had moved to Tallahassee 10 years earlier. Robert Sims, the father, worked for the Florida Department of Education. Robert, 42, and his wife Helen, 37, had three girls: Norma, 17, Judith Ann, 15, and Joy Lynn, 12. 

Murder Mystery Robert Sims

Robert Sims

On that autumn night, someone, or several someones, came into the home, bound, gagged and gravely wounded Robert, Helen and Joy Ann. When Norma arrived home, Joy had died from six stab wounds to her abdomen. Helen and Robert, both shot in the head, were unconscious and near death.

Murder Mystery Helen Sims

Helen Sollie Sims

Emergency responders rushed Helen to an ambulance but Robert died before responders could reach him. 

Helen never regained consciousness and died nine days later in a hospital. 

Murder Mystery Joy Lynn Sims

Joy Lynn Sims in yearbook

The two oldest sisters, Norma Jeanette, 17, and Judith Ann, 15, survived. Norma had gone to the football game and Judith had been babysitting.

Police had difficultly gathering evidence from the crime scene, which thousands of people walked through, and had no access to today's advanced forensic technology. With no evidence of a break-in, no missing jewelry and no signs of sexual assault, police had difficultly finding a motive.

Nearly 50 years later, the case remains unsolved.

"It's an open wound for us (in Tallahassee)," said Davis Houck, a professor of rhetorical studies at Florida State University. "I mean, these three people – a 12-year-old girl and a mom and a dad who were much loved in the community and were prominent people and good people – were brutally murdered and nobody was ever arrested."

Last spring, one of Houck's former students, Kyle Jones, approached Houck looking for local documentary ideas for a class.

"I told him I think I have a home run for you guys if you really want to dig in because I think it's going to be a really challenging subject," Houck said.

Houck sent old articles on the event to Jones and told him about the local significance.

"If you talk to locals who were around in the '50s and '60s when the murder happened, they will tell you very loudly that that's when Tallahassee as a community lost its innocence. Now, that's one perspective on this but it's true," Houck said. "People started locking their doors. Halloween was canceled that year. It changed people."

Former Tallahassee police chief Frank Stoutamire called it "the worst crime I have ever seen in 28 years of law enforcement," in interviews at the time. Stores sold out of water guns, which women would fill with an ammonia mixture for protection. Children stayed home at night.

"As soon as you mention it, there's a sudden shift in the atmosphere, no matter who you're talking to. Whether it was an old neighbor or somebody who grew up going to high school with one of the daughters," said Jones, a digital media production senior at Florida State. "It seems fresher than I guess I could have imagined."

Jones worked with three other class members, Deanna Kidd, Michael Walsh and Elijah Howard, rifling through boxes of old police documents, filming interviews and editing video. 

Jones and his classmates never had the chance to visit Meridian, though all three family members are buried at the Hebron Baptist Church Cemetery at 4795 Vimville Causeyville Road. And the filmmakers haven't found the surviving sisters, who moved to live with an aunt in Huntsville, Ala., nor have they found a family photo.

The Meridian Star's recent attempts to contact the sisters or find local community members who remembered the family, also, were unsuccessful. 

Three days after Jones and his team released their film online in April, one of the main suspects, Vernon Fox, contacted Jones.

"I thought, 'I'm never going to get rid of this thing. I'm never going to stop working on this,'" Jones said.

After some discussion, Fox agreed to an interview and the film went back into production. 

"It was the first time he (Fox) had spoken to anybody about this since 1987, to my knowledge," Jones said. 

Police had a few suspects, ranging from a prominent pastor to a young couple, but never had enough evidence to prosecute them. According to Jones, investigators at one time thought they had enough to try the two main suspects, Fox and his girlfriend, but knew it wouldn't be enough for a conviction.

"There was a lot of tension," Jones said. "Everybody knows everybody so everybody thinks they know what happened. Everybody thinks they know who did this. But the popular opinion in this city would be that those two did it and there was good reason for that, I think."

By adding this interview, and a step-by-step analysis from attorney familiar with the case, Jones said the film will be stronger.

"I think it does their story more justice," Jones said. "We treated everybody in this equally because we're not going to pretend we know who did it."

Jones doesn't plan on investigating the case further after the second release date on Oct. 27. A Tallahassee club, The Moon, will offer a free public showing at 7 p.m., with the opportunity to ask Jones questions after the documentary. Past that, Jones doesn't know what he'll do with this project. 

Murder Mystery funeral

The two oldest Sims sisters leave the funeral escorted by their uncle, James Karr.

"There's always going to be more leads to pursue," he said. "We didn't figure out who did it and we're not going to figure out who did it. It's unsolved for a reason."

Because of the lack of progress, the murder remains deeply ingrained in the minds of Tallahassee residents, Jones said.

"This city is very much aware of this case still. It's a topic that I think doesn't go away until something happens," Jones said. "A lot of people we talked to... they were very happy we were doing something because they saw it as a form of closure.

"Hopefully we're giving that level of closure by saying, 'This is why it's unsolved; this is how complicated this case was.'"

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