Spence Holley recalls the weekend he spent antiquing with his 74-year-old mother as a happy one. It also was the last time that he or anyone else saw the retired Boise school teacher alive.
Phyllis Ward’s body was pulled out of a fire that ravaged the first floor of her Randolph Drive house on the morning of Monday, July 23, 2012. An autopsy later revealed she was bludgeoned to death before the fire.
The police investigation remains open. It is one of five unsolved murder cases the department is working on from the past 20 years.
“The files from a case like this always stay on the lead detective’s desk,” Boise police spokeswoman Lynn Hightower said. “Officers remain hopeful that they will be able to provide the family with answers as to what happened.”
Police declined to discuss anything about the Ward case, including whether they have any suspects. Hightower said police don’t want to jeopardize the investigation.
But Spence Holley, 43, the middle of Ward’s three grown children, says he’s pretty sure he knows who is at the top of their list of suspects.
“I was the No. 1 suspect from the beginning,” said Holley, who said he’s been questioned by police five or six times. “They accused me that very first day, when she died.”
“I made the mistake of saying I was the last person with her,” he said. “They interpreted being the last person with her as the one who killed her.”
Some of his actions also may have drawn their attention: He drank and slept in the front yard of Ward’s house that first night after she was found.
“I figured that whoever did it would come back to the house,” he said.
A WEEKEND TOGETHER
Ward spent her final weekend doing something she loved: Looking for treasures at estate sales.
“It was something that her and I could enjoy together,” Holley said. “We would go to the most interesting ones, the ones that sounded good in the paper.”
Ward was a collector, and collected with gusto. If she went to an estate sale, she wanted to be the first in line — so it was her practice to get there a half hour or more before it opened. That weekend the pair focused on a sale in Riverside Village in Garden City, spending several hours there Saturday and Sunday, Holley said.
Ward purchased a wooden ship, a cabinet, a brass bowl, an arbor and books, among other items. The ship and the books were destroyed in the fire.
Ward spoke to her daughter, Jennifer Holley, a 41-year-old Boise resident, after the Saturday sale. Jennifer recalled her mother asking if she was interested in some antique books and other items that she planned to return to purchase the next day.
After antiquing Sunday, Spence Holley said, he and his mother had lunch at Applebee’s and then went back to Ward’s house.
“I hung out at my mom’s house and did some watering, and I left at 3,” Holley said. “That was the best weekend I’d had with my mother in I don’t know how long. When I look back, there was a reason for that.”
He said he was on his way back to his mother’s house the next morning to mow the lawn when he got a frantic call from Jennifer, who had been alerted to the fire by a neighbor.
Spence Holley was a sailor who left the Navy after about eight and a half years. He said he got out in 2004, around the time his third child was born, because long deployments were taking a toll on his family. Over the years, he’d also struggled with alcohol abuse.
In 2007, he pleaded guilty to felony DUI, according to online court records, and he’s been in and out of jail and prison since then. His mother offered tough love, he said, but was also the one who bailed him out of jail when others wouldn’t.
At the time of his mother’s death, he said, he was living in a hotel looking to buy a house. He was in a pretty good place in his life after going through difficult times, he said, including a divorce.
“I was doing all right until what happened with my mother. Then I binged, hard,” he said.
One of his biggest regrets, he said, is that he didn’t follow through on his desire to install a security system in his mother’s house.
“My mom was so anti-technology,” he said. “It would have been a hassle to deal with a security system in her house.”
SECOND ARSON FIRE AT HOUSE
On Sept. 1, 2012 — about six weeks after Ward’s death — firefighters were called to the house to put out another fire. This, too, was a crime.
“It’s totally violating,” said Jennifer Holley, who recalled feeling sickened by the thought of someone else in the house, trying to burn it down. It also caused fear: Was someone targeting the family? Was the person who set the second fire the same person who killed Ward?
After the second fire, police asked all the Holley children, and Jennifer’s boyfriend, to submit to cheek swabs for DNA, Jennifer Holley said.
But the DNA found at the house matched someone with no apparent connections to the family: Steven Eugene Roberts III, a convicted felon who had been released from prison a few months before Ward’s death.
Roberts was charged with first-degree burglary and first-degree arson. Roberts was found guilty in September 2014 of torching Ward’s house. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison, including 10 years before he’s eligible for parole.
Roberts admitted to being at Ward’s house, but said he did not start the fire, according to court records. Police say Roberts was not involved in Ward’s death or the earlier fire at her house. They have not explained why he was ruled out as a suspect, but records show that Roberts was in custody — though not in prison — on July 22 and July 23, 2012, when Ward was murdered, according to Jeff Ray, a spokesman for the Idaho Department of Correction.
MOTIVE FOR MURDER?
Ward’s children don’t believe burglary was the motive for the murder.
Jennifer Holley said she’s not aware of anything that was missing from her mother’s house, including jewelry or hundreds of dollars of cash in her purse.
Spence Holley’s theory is that his mother was killed by someone on drugs. He said there was a party in a nearby house the night Ward was killed.
He wonders if police have investigated others, such as his mother’s ex-boyfriend or her handymen, as intensely as they have focused on him. He said police cut out chunks of the seats in his Suburban and took the baseball bat that he carried in the truck (he said he played in a men’s ball league).
“They have absolutely nothing on me. They want a confession,” said Holley, who on the advice of his attorney declined to take a polygraph test.
Jennifer Holley keeps photos of her mother on her bedstand. In her search for answers and justice, she has consulted psychics. She speaks at least monthly with detectives, and met with Police Chief Bill Bones earlier this year. She brought a bowl full of sympathy cards with her, to show that it wasn’t just Ward’s family who miss her and want justice. She remains optimistic that police will solve the case.
“I feel like they’ll figure it out,” she said.
Ward’s ashes are buried in a family plot in the northeast Iowa town of Elma. Her eldest son, Jeff Holley, 49, who lives in Palm Springs, Calif., will mark the third anniversary of his mother’s death with a visit to Boise.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do — maybe make some of her favorite food,” Jennifer Holley said. “We did that for Mother’s Day. We made chile rellenos.”