Naomi Alexander looked to her left and watched as her granddaughter spoke. A smile came across Alexander’s face, which has known much sorrow in her life.
For nearly 21 years, her high cheekbones have caught thousands of tears.
As Shelby West spoke of a father she knew only for the first 11 months of her now 21-year-old life, Alexander’s eyes never diverted from her granddaughter.
When Alexander looks at West and listens, she’s as close to her late son — Joshua West, who was Shelby’s father — as she’s ever going to be.
“When I see her, I see him,” Alexander said. “She looks just like him. When I’m with her, I’m with Joshua. She says things just like he did. Her personality is the same. She’s stubborn just like him.”
With those five words, Shelby West smiles.
“I feel like I’ve missed out on a lot not getting to know him,” she said.
West’s death, Alexander said, would be a little easier to grasp or at least understand if he had been ill and died or if he was killed in a car crash.
Instead, the night of Nov. 16, 1998, and all the days that have followed — more than 7,500 of them — have been etched in the mind and heart of his mother and, now that she’s old enough, his only child.
West, 22, and Jason Walker, 24, both of Elizabethtown, died that night nearly 21 years ago off a then-isolated Nicholas Street among some trees and brush.
The men, who Alexander said knew each other but were not close friends, were shot and killed. Their bodies were found inside a white burned Volkswagen sedan — West in the back seat and Walker in the trunk.
Nobody ever has been charged in the case.
“Our link to solving this case is someone,” said Elizabethtown Police Department spokesman Chris Denham, who personally has been involved in investigating the case.
Denham and Detective Travis Mills have been reviewing the case file and evidence in search of any possible leads which can end with a conviction.
They are not sure if one person or multiple people had a hand in the shootings that night.
Mills believes the cold case remains a “solvable case.”
Alexander said her son was at a party the night of the shooting and he went with Walker.
“We’ve been told they went on a beer run and they never got back,” she said.
Alexander believes at some point in the trip, Walker was contacted and their path back to the party was interrupted. What that interruption might have been, she doesn’t know.
Investigators over the years have been faced with a number of challenges in the case – from potential evidence wiped away in a fire to the dozens of unknowns, such as whether the men were shot elsewhere and dropped where they were found and who or what brought them to their death destination.
The unknowns, for Alexander, grind at her daily and have consumed her.
“It was the worst day of my life and has been ever since,” she said.
The details are as vivid today as they were that Monday night and the days that followed when the youngest of Naomi Alexander’s two children was gone.
She was sitting in a room of her Elizabethtown home when her oldest son, Matthew, walked in and told her what had happened. In a matter of a few words, life as she knew it as a single mom was over.
She said a close friend of hers was a police officer and when he learned of what happened, he asked Matthew to break the news to her.
“There are so many things that go through your mind when something like this happens,” Alexander said. “They still do all the time.”
Alexander has been forthcoming in the years since the shooting. She is willing to speak about her son and the homicides as often as she’s asked.
“There is no closure from these circumstances,” she said.
She said the viciousness of their killings is impossible for her to overcome.
“He was the most important thing in my life,” Alexander said. “I think anybody else who is in my situation would do the same. ... I want to know and when I dig in, I don’t give up.
“I could do him harm to this day,” she said of her son’s killer. “I wish that I would forgive him but it’s been really difficult for me.”
She admits her son was “no angel.”
“He got into some trouble,” she said. “He got into marijuana and he quit school. He was doing things a lot of teenage boys would do. He was wild.”
She said her son was smart – he just didn’t like being in school. He did earn his GED.
When he was 22, Shelby was born.
“She was his world,” Alexander said.
Alexander, 77, said she had a premonition the two nights leading up to West’s death he might have been facing potential trouble. On the night of his death, she reached out to him and went looking for him, she said, and didn’t find her son.
“There has been so much speculation of what happened,” she said. “It’s so difficult.”
In a conference room at EPD headquarters recently, there were folders of numerous interviews and photographs related to the case as Denham and Mills went through them.
“Sometimes a fresh set of eyes on a cold case is what you need,” Denham said. “Somebody knows about what happened and someone has been living with this on their conscience a long time.”
Denham said Alexander frequently has been in contact with investigators through the years. Her persistence is part of a driving force for investigators to solve the case.
There has been no contact with Walker’s family for several years, he said.
“You want to do it for them and you want anyone responsible for what happened to be brought to justice,” he said.
The longer a case remains open, the more hurdles you face in solving it, Mills said. New cases arise and priorities change.
“A cold case always stays with you and is always above your head,” he said. “It’s not something you forget about.”
Shelby West is a student at Elizabethtown Community and Technical College. She said she’s on the honor roll after spending time at three high schools before graduating in 2016 from Central Hardin High School.
“You grow up,” she said, smiling. “When I was a young kid, it was all about being with my friends and doing things. You get older and you want to have a different life.”
She said she’s taking general courses at ECTC and is interested in studying geology.
West said there have been numerous times those who knew her father made the connection she is his daughter.
“I feel like I’ve missed so many good things and a lot of things for me would have been different if he had been an important figure in my life,” she said. “I had a good childhood, but it would have been better to grow up with complete parents. It’s hard to be a single mother but my mom did a great job.”
One of the photographs police have of West is him holding his daughter.
“I feel like he is expressed through me,” Shelby said. With that, she looks at her grandmother and smiles.