IN THE early morning hours of March 5, 2017, Detective Zachary Burdette with the then Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department passed through the yellow-crime scene tape strung decisively around the stucco house with the black door and shutters on E. 34th Street.
At that time in Savannah, the tape had become such a frequent occurrence throughout downtown that to regular observers, it became less of a nuisance and more of an ill-lapsed Christmas decoration that still remained in spring.
The house’s occupant, 47-year-old Saundra Thomas, was one of thousands of victims who were a part of 1,123 violent crimes investigated by Savannah-Chatham police that year. In fact, Thomas had become the murder victim that just took Savannah’s homicide tally from nine to ten, far outpacing the 2016 rate.
This, however, was a statistic that Detective Burdette was all too aware of. Each victim and the life and families they left behind became an overpowering weight made from grief and determination that, for him, displaced statistics for more empathetic compositions that allowed him to not see a victim, but instead, a daughter, sister and friend.
Detective Burdette moved through the house in light steps, as if to not disturb the eventual 100 or so pieces of evidence that would be found and logged from throughout the house, a stark contrast to other cases that reared only ten to 20 pieces of evidence.
Calmly, Detective Burdette described to me the murder scene that, even with the distance of three-and-a-half years later, he was able to do as if it had been permanently ingrained into his memory, nestled between the threads of personal moments with his wife and family that were forced to co-exist uncomfortably next to recollections of such violent finality.
The violent finality, in particular, of Thomas’ life stood out. She was shot while in a postured sleep position that indicated no alarm on her behalf, and a chillingly detached range that suggested the purposeful avoidance of having to face her and her reaction. Furthermore, the murderer left her untouched and showed no attempts to frantically revive an unrevivable situation.
The bedroom was not fashioned with the gore that true crime fanatics have become accustomed to witnessing secondhand. The home was relatively untouched, the doors and windows showed no signs of forced entry and a found mailbag with undelivered letters indicated that Thomas’ intention the next day was to wake up and report to a South Carolina mail facility where she worked at seven days a week as a mail carrier.
Publicly, no suspects or persons-of-interest were ever formally announced, but those working the case had people of interest that they spoke to out of the suspicion that certain evidence imposed.
Family and friends also pointed fingers to individuals who, for multiple consistent reasons, felt were responsible for the murder.
Detective Burdette recalled some of the conversations he had with people who could have potentially become suspects. On more than one occasion, the line of questioning drew awkward and inconsistent accounts, poor corroboration of facts and emotional and physical responses that often left him with more questions than answers.
However, though finger-pointing and accusations abound, no physical evidence from the house nor from Thomas’ body ever directly connected any people of interest or unknown assailants to the murder. Three and a half years later, after a promotion to sergeant that removed him from the homicide unit and the subsequent return to homicide in October 2019, Detective Burdette has returned to the case that he has described as infuriating and solvable.
To date, it is the only homicide he has ever been assigned to that he has not solved. A chip in the armor of a dedicated man whose grit and unrelenting perseverance is not defined by a self-imposed career goal, but by the vexatious permanence of the knowledge that Saundra Thomas’ murderer walks free while she is relegated to a yearly crime statistic.
When I asked what the missing link in solving this case was, Burdette simply replied that the intimate knowledge of even one person could crack the solvable, unsolved case. One person.
You could be that person. Crime Stoppers of Savannah-Chatham County provides a service that makes it easy for all citizens to report crime anonymously. By calling the 24/7 crime tip line at 912-234-2020 or going online to SavannahChathamCrimeStoppers.org and clicking “Submit Online Tip,” you can anonymously report any information you have regarding this case and qualify yourself for a cash reward up to $2,500.
Until then, this solvable, unsolved case fails to reach its justly deserved conclusion and Saundra Thomas lies beneath a headstone in Jacksonville Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery in South Carolina while her killer presumably lives free, with either the zealous confidence of a person who escaped the grasps of the law, or an emaciating remorse.
I can only hope the latter, though most would agree it is no replacement for the resolve of justice.