Ashleigh Crouch, Correspondent
Fifty years ago, Linda Faye Croft’s body was found about five miles from campus, deceased, lying face down in a garbage heap.
The 20-year-old JSU student and ROTC student worker went missing on February 26, 1970. Croft was last seen on campus at approximately 5:35 p.m. behind Martin Hall with ROTC employee Floyd E. Harnage Jr.
According to Dave Robertson, former JSU student and ROTC member, word of Croft’s disappearance spread across campus so fast that the members of ROTC were never even officially notified of the tragedy or asked to help in the search, it was just something they did because “the ROTC program was like a family.”
Robertson recalls walking miles of dirt roads around the area surrounding campus searching for Croft’s body. He also stated that he vividly remembers asking friend and fellow ROTC member Tom Robertson, “What do we do if we find her?” Robertson, and many other students at the time, were simply not prepared for the possibility that their friend and classmate would not be returning to them alive.
According to Croft’s roommate, Rita Morris, Croft was supposed to meet a man whose last name started with “H” behind Martin Hall to discuss a surprise party for Croft’s fiancé, Mike Whitlock, who was also involved with ROTC, at which Whitlock was supposedly receiving an award.
James Bartels, a then-U.S. Army Private and JSU student, later identified the man Croft was talking to as Harnage. Harnage was later tried and convicted of Croft’s murder in the case’s June 1972 trial.
Morris testified in court that Croft returned to their room in Curtiss Hall at approximately 4:45 p.m. on the afternoon of February 26, 1970 and changed clothes to meet a man on the sidewalk behind Martin Hall so that he could tell her more about the alleged surprise party being thrown for Whitlock. Morris also stated that Croft talked with her about a letter Harnage had shown her in regards to the award Whitlock would be receiving.
According to Morris, Croft left the room dressed in navy blue pants, a navy blue long sleeveless vest, a long-sleeved white blouse, blue shoes and a beige raincoat.
Morris was able to recall Croft’s exact outfit because, according to her testimony in court, Croft opened her raincoat and said to Morris, “See what I have got on, just in case anybody needs to know, just remember what I have got on.” Morris also testified that Croft told her she was expecting to return to their room around 6:30 p.m. that evening to make a 7:00 p.m. date with Whitlock, and that if she had not returned by 9:00 p.m. to call the police.
Whitlock arrived at Curtiss Hall before 7:00 p.m. on February 26, 1970 to keep their date. Croft was reported missing, and early the next morning an intensive search party was organized by a rescue squad, civil defense units, state and county officers, the Jacksonville Police Department, around 60 members of the ROTC, several students that volunteered to assist in the search and two helicopters from Fort McClellan.
In her testimony, Morris stated that Croft appeared nervous and that she jokingly told Morris that if the man she was going to meet tried anything, she was going to karate chop him in the back because he had recently returned from Vietnam with a bad back. Later testimony, including Harnage’s own testimony, confirmed that Harnage did return from his tour of Vietnam with a back injury.
On the Friday morning after her roommate’s disappearance, Morris found a note in Croft’s communications notebook which was later offered in evidence as State’s Exhibit No. 5. The note was addressed to a Cathy and stated that Croft was uneasy about the supposed surprise party and was suspicious that there was no party being planned at all.
It was later revealed that none of the other five full time ROTC employees, nor the other two student workers, had any knowledge of an award for Whitlock at all until Harnage mentioned it to them on Friday, February 27, 1970 after Croft’s disappearance and very likely after her murder. Harnage stated that Croft told him of the award but said that it was supposed to be a secret.
Harnage was questioned in his home by authorities around 2 a.m. on Friday, February 27 about Croft’s whereabouts. Officers noticed wide scratches on the tops of Harnage’s hands, which he claimed were from his cat that had scratched him while in heat.
Officers requested Harnage go with them to the police headquarters for further questioning, and Harnage and his wife followed officers in their own car to the headquarters. Photos of Harnage’s hands were taken after his arrest at Calhoun County Jail and were introduced as evidence at the trial.
Croft’s body was found on March 8 by then 17-year-old Alton Maddox, who noticed Croft’s body lying face down amongst garbage when he stopped for a few minutes on his drive back home from Jacksonville. Croft was found wearing no shoes and no coat, both of which were discovered near her body, with a silk scarf knotted through her mouth and tied in the back. An autopsy conducted by the Toxicology Department for the State of Alabama later revealed strangulation as the cause of death.
Harnage was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Croft in the first degree at the conclusion of a five day long trial in June of 1972. He was denied any appeals.
It is believed that Harnage’s conviction was due in large part to statements and evidence presented during Morris’s testimony.