Sister determined to find answers

Rosemary Norris-Southward kneels next to the gravesite of her older brother, James Norris, and her mother, Esperanza Lopez, at the Rockville Cemetery in Fairfield, California. Norris was last seen Oct. 3, 1974, before flying from San Francisco to Florida to buy marijuana in Citrus County. A set of remains found in 1976 in Dixie County were later matched to Norris in 2010. Authorities continue to work a criminal investigation into Norris’ death.

It’s been 42 years since Rosemary Norris-Southward laid eyes on her older brother.

Without any warning to his family in his hometown of Fairfield, California, 24-year-old James “Jimmy” Norris flew overnight on Oct. 3, 1974, from San Francisco to Miami. 

It was not uncommon for Norris — a journeyman — to travel.

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“He could be little bit unpredictable,” Southward said about her brother, who she described as “a flower child,” a poet, an intellectual and animal lover with a great sense of humor and undying love for his mother.

But Norris’ mother, Esperanza Lopez, had a feeling of worry about her son’s surprise trip.

“She knew before everyone this was not normal,” Southward said.

A postcard, dated Oct. 4, 1974, from Inglis, Florida, was the last bit of contact Norris had with his family.

 “Mom was like, ‘Why would he send this, what’s in Inglis? It doesn’t look like a vacation destination,’” Southward said.

 These unanswered questions, paired with a mother’s love for her son, prompted Lopez to conduct her own investigation into her son’s disappearance.

“She didn’t know how to launch an investigation, but she learned,” Southward said, adding her mother hired a private investigator to aid in her inquiries.

Brother’s disappearance impacted entire family

Southward was 13 years old at the time of her brother’s disappearance. She is the youngest of her five other siblings in her family. She said her mother’s frantic emotions of fear and depression impacted everyone.

“I was just very scared because my mom was so panicked and so fearful,” Southward said. “It just created this real, real scary environment and tension in the air.”

Lopez’s and her investigator’s focuses were set on Norris’ friends in California, who remained tight-lipped about why Norris flew to Florida. Norris’ friends did break, saying they all pooled money for Norris to buy marijuana in Florida.

It was learned that after his arrival in Miami, Norris traveled up to Citrus County with $12,000 cash in hand. He planned to meet with some associates in the Inverness-Floral City area to buy Columbian-grade marijuana and return back home.

The friends thought Norris took the money and ran, which Southward did not believe.

Even with that extra piece of information, Lopez would still not get very far in her search for her son.

“It was upsetting to her, she couldn’t get any help,” Southward said.

35 year later; remains found

On April 16, 1976, a construction worker was using heavy equipment off U.S. 19 in northern Dixie County, near the Taylor County line. His eyes were drawn to a something lying on the ground, which he found to be a set of skeletal remains.

That set of human bones was labeled as just another “John Doe;” waiting for a name, a face and a story for detectives to unravel. 

Dixie County Sheriff’s officials contacted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to assist in what would become one of Dixie County’s and Citrus County’s oldest unsolved case.

FLDE and its regional office in Tallahassee made many attempts to put a name to the remains, such as dental recognition, but the remains stayed unnamed in an evidence vault for over 30 years.

It would not be until progresses in DNA sciences, which would raise the chance of a match for unnamed bones.

An agent with FDLE in 2009 sent over Norris’ remains to the University of North Texas’ Center for Human Identification to get a DNA profile on age, race and other physical traits.

FDLE Special Agent Mike Kennedy, who supervises the Violent Crimes Squad, took over the case when a DNA profile was developed a year and a half later. Kennedy has been devoted ever since.

“We’re working for the family, for the victim,” he said.

After the profile was made, FDLE searched the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System’s (NamUs) database for any relevant unsolved cases with similar characteristics.

Kennedy worked to match his case’s summary with NamUs’ unsolved case database. Bit by bit he discovered Norris’ missing persons case, which Southward already to NamUs.

“We were able to get started on a road map,” Kennedy said 

Southward and her family also sent in reference DNA to the Fairfield Police Department and California Department of Justice.

“If they had not done that ... then it would still an unsolved case,” Kennedy said about efforts made by Norris’ family. “They played an important part in finding their loved one.”

Parents of victim die before son’s ID

It would not take long for FDLE to connect the dots and match Norris’ DNA with the remains.

“It was very gratifying that a whole lot folks had worked together,” Kennedy said about getting a match. “We were able to get a little bit of closure.”

A Fairfield detective met with Southward in late 2010 to tell her about the finding. Her reaction was disbelief.  

“I think that that was devastating on so many counts,” Southward said. “Not the least of which, our parents went to their graves not knowing what happened.”

Norris’ father, James Berkeley Norris Sr., died Christmas Day 2000 at the age of 76.

Lopez died in 2007 at the age of 86.

“She knew that he was gone, she knew that he was passed away,” Southward added about her mother’s “spiritual connection” with her children.

During the 10 years before her death, Lopez suffered from Alzheimer’s, and her short-term memory deteriorated. She would still remember her missing son and the memories she shared with him.

“She sort of lived in the past. ... I let her talk about him,” Southward said.

After Norris was identified, Southward and her sister traveled to Florida to take Norris’ remains back to California. Norris is now buried with his mother at Rockville Cemetery in Fairfield.

 “Just having a place to lay flowers means the world when you have a missing person,” Southward said.

Investigation takes new turn

With Norris found, another chapter began in the investigation: finding out what happened.  

Southward handed off every bit of information she and her mother collected during all those years to investigators with FDLE, the Dixie County and Citrus County sheriff’s offices.

“We’re in good hands, I trust those guys,” Southward said.

Detectives continue to work the aging criminal investigation, looking into people Norris might have made contact with during his mysterious visit to Citrus County.

Kennedy said even though what Norris did was illegal, it did not justify him being robbed and murdered.

“Someone needs to be held accountable,” he said, adding hundreds of interviews nationwide have been made to try and piece together where people may have been over 40 years ago.

Kennedy said persons of interest have been developed, adding they are still alive and in the country. He could not divulge much more about current investigations.

After finding out about Norris’ reason to travel to Florida, Southward and her mother believed Norris’ death was due to a drug deal gone wrong.

“They’re still out there ... enjoying life,” Southward said about her brother’s killer or killers. “And that was stolen from my brother.”

Kennedy said while it appears Norris was the victim of a bad drug deal, he’s still keeping open about other theories.

“We’re just letting the facts take us,” he said.

Sister determined to find answers

While authorities work to decipher evidence from over 40 years ago with the technology of today, 55-year-old Southward volunteers her time with Fairfield’s Police Department.

She works in the department’s missing person’s unit.

Southward continues to keep her brother’s cold case warm in the lime light by working with the media and the Crime Stoppers organization.

“I think I’m just as determined today, and I want justice just as much as ever,” The passage of time can do a lot, but it doesn’t diminish that at all.”

Kennedy said people with information on this case must come forward, and can do so anonymously.

“It’s doing the right thing for the family,” he said. “He is still someone’s loved one.”

For more information on Norris’ cold case, visit Southward’s website at www.whokilledjamesnorris.com, or http://tinyurl.com/zn68bbm.

Contact Chronicle reporter Buster Thompson at 352-564-2916 or bthompson@chronicleonline.com.

Contact Chronicle reporter Buster Thompson at 352-564-2916 or bthompson@chronicleonline.com.