TRENTON, Ga. — When news broke this week that a serial killer took credit for a body found in Dade County 37 years ago, Sheriff Ray Cross was as surprised as anyone.
The FBI announced Tuesday that Samuel Little claims to have killed 90 people across the country over four decades, including a woman he met in Chattanooga. When a reporter contacted Cross for comment soon after, he had no idea about the case. At a news conference Thursday morning, he said he hasn't heard anything.
"We're still in our preliminary investigation in this," Cross said. "There's not a lot of details I can tell you. We're still waiting to hear from the FBI: What information, what evidence they have."
Little, 78, is serving three life sentences in California for murders in the late 1980s. He was not convicted until 2014, when DNA evidence linked him to the cold cases. Los Angeles police asked for help from members of the FBI's Violent Criminal Application Program, which tries to catch serial killers by studying commonalities among many cases.
The FBI contacted the Texas Rangers, telling them they found compelling evidence that linked Little to a killing in Odessa, Texas. When police promised to grant Little's request to switch prisons, Little agreed to participate in an interview with Texas Ranger James Holland in May. He confessed to 90 killings from 1970-2005.
The victims were marginalized women, according to the FBI, many of them prostitutes or drug addicts. Little said he often knocked the women out with a punch and strangled them. With no bullet or stab wounds, some early investigators concluded the deaths were the results of overdoses.
An FBI spokeswoman told the Times Free Press on Thursday that local law enforcement agencies corroborated Little's confession with other evidence in 36 of the 90 cases so far. She said those departments, such as the Dade County Sheriff's Office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, take the lead in verifying whether Little is telling the truth.
But that's hard to do when you don't know what Little actually claimed. Cross and GBI Special Agent in Charge Greg Ramey, who oversees the Northwest Georgia region, both said Thursday they were waiting for details from the federal government. The FBI spokeswoman, meanwhile, said the agency's role in the investigation was not to interview Little but to match his statements to the database, offering potential leads on the cold cases.
When asked how local agencies are supposed to learn what Little has said, Texas Department of Public Safety Lt. Lonny Hatchell said the FBI is handling that part. When told the FBI was not actually handling that part, Hatchell said, "The investigation is ongoing. There's a lot of moving parts. I'm not sure yet."
In its news release Tuesday, the FBI linked Little to a body found in Dade County in 1981. The victim was apparently a black woman between 25 and 30, who Little picked up in Chattanooga. She has never been identified.
Cross said human remains were found near Interstate 24 in Dade County around that time. Ramey, meanwhile, said the GBI still has some evidence on that case. The unknown woman was buried in a pauper's grave in Dade County, and investigators know where to dig up the remains, if they need to do a DNA test.
But before anything else, he said, investigators are waiting for details from the FBI.
"There's lots of investigation that needs to be done," Ramey said. "This case is far from being solved. We don't know any more right now than, 'We've got a good lead that needs to be followed up.' Any district attorney will tell you, just a mere confession doesn't get you a conviction."
With Little saying he met the woman in Chattanooga, she may have been from here. Melydia Clewell, spokeswoman for Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston, who oversees a cold case unit, told the Times Free Press in an email, "No one matching the victim's description was reported missing from Chattanooga so no law enforcement in Hamilton [County] ever worked on [the case.]"
Despite the confession, Cross and Ramey said investigators still need to work the case hard. They can't take Little's word at face value because, at the end of his life, facing the rest of his days in prison, it is possible he would take credit for victims he never knew.
"There's always people looking for fame and notoriety," Cross said. "This could possibly be that. We don't know at this time."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.