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Juanita Todd’s daughter still pushing for justice, 51 years after her 1972 Pennsylvania homicide

The 22-year-old mother-of-two was stabbed 22 times and strangled with a bedsheet in her Wilkes-Barre home. More than 5 decades later, her murder is still unsolved.

It’s been 51 years since the brutal murder of 22-year-old Juanita Todd in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

One of her two daughters, Odetta Todd — who was only 18 months old at the time of the murder — spoke with Dateline about her mother’s case. “It was never a secret about my mom,” Odetta said.

Odetta told Dateline that she and her little sister, 5-month-old Tamu, went to live with Juanita’s parents after their mother was killed in September of 1972. 

“I remember my grandfather coming into my sister and I’s room at night, praying. And at the time, my grandmother was already taking my sister and I to church every Sunday,” she said, adding that they’d also go visit their mother in the cemetery every Sunday. “They never wanted us to forget, no matter how young we were.”

And Odetta hasn’t forgotten. 

In fact, Odetta said she has spent her whole life searching for justice. “I realized if we’re going to try and get any closure in this, we have to face— we have to face it,” she told Dateline. “So, no matter how painful it is, we have to face it. I have to face it.”

So that’s what she’s done. Odetta has researched her mother’s murder and pushed for authorities to further investigate for years. But throughout all of that, Odetta said she still hardly knows anything about who her mother was. 

“I still don’t know what her favorite color was,” she said. “You know, what was her favorite meal -- and… I don’t know those things. I just know that she was tortured and tormented to death.”

Juanita Todd was stabbed to death in her own home on September 28, 1972. There were 22 stab wounds, according to Odetta. “Those 22 stab wounds that she sustained -- she did not die instantaneously,” Odetta told Dateline. “She suffered.” Juanita was also strangled with a bedsheet, her daughter said.

Odetta and Tamu Todd as children
Odetta and Tamu Todd as childrenOdetta Todd

And worst of all, Juanita’s two young daughters were there to witness the murder. “I was always told when the police came in there, I was sitting right there in the pool of her blood at the head of her body,” Odetta said. “I was in her blood and I believe it.”

According to a local paper called The Times Leader, law enforcement officials did not find Juanita’s body until at least 15 hours after she was murdered. When they got there, however, both of the children appeared fed -- one even had a changed diaper.

In the years that followed, Juanita’s parents pushed for answers in her murder. But they never found them. Both of Juanita’s parents died without ever finding out what happened to their daughter.

“Now that my grandmother died, it’s really got –. I mean, more now than ever, that we need to do something,” Odetta told Dateline. 

Odetta said that her grandfather died in 2011 and her grandmother died in 2021. She said they both died of natural causes, and did have heart issues. “I call it that broken heart syndrome,” she said. 

Juanita Todd's parents
Juanita Todd's parentsOdetta Todd

Steve Corbett, now an independent journalist, has been helping Odetta push for justice. He told Dateline he first saw Juanita Todd’s photograph show up as a memorial on the obituary page of The Times Leader in 1972.

Corbett, who worked for the paper in the ‘90s, began writing about Juanita’s case and has followed it ever since — even after he stopped working there in the early 2000s. “He was writing about my mom,” Odetta told Dateline. “He didn’t know me. I didn’t know him. Once he started writing about my mom, I felt in my heart that he was God-sent, because nobody else cared.” 

Back in 1994, The Times Leader published an article in which the District Attorney at the time, Peter Paul Olszewski Jr., stated that police interviewed more than 50 people in the case. Even then, 22 years after Juanita’s death, he said the authorities faced obstacles like people moving away, dying, or just not wanting to cooperate.

The Times Leader also reported that in 1994, police said they suspected Juanita was killed because she flushed a large quantity of drugs down the toilet.

No longer working for the local paper, Steve Corbett is continuing to cover Juanita’s case independently. “I’m an Outlaw journalist,” Corbett told Dateline. “I’m an Outlaw writer. I write novels, I write short stories, and obviously, I write news columns.”

News columns like the 14-part series about Juanita’s case that he’s been publishing on his website since May of this year entitled, “Who Killed Juanita Todd?” 

Corbett told Dateline that he does not know who killed Juanita Todd and that he will not hypothesize about potential theories. Odetta Todd, on the other hand, strongly believes that she knows the man who killed her mother. “This was a hit,” she said, adding that she believes her mother was targeted because she had flushed the drugs.

But, in the five decades since Juanita was murdered, no one has ever been arrested or charged in connection with the case.

Both Odetta Todd and Steve Corbett told Dateline that they are frustrated with the police department’s handling of the case. They both said that they want the department to test any physical evidence they might have in the case using modern DNA technology. 

“They’ve got all this physical evidence that — if they still have it — they can retest it with modern forensic science and DNA,” Corbett said. “And that’s the way you put a case together." 

Corbett went on to say that he has “no idea” whether physical evidence still exists in the case, explaining that “[the Wilkes-Barre Police Department] won’t tell me.”

Dateline has reached out to the Wilkes-Barre Police Department and the Chief of Police, Joe Coffay, multiple times for an update on the case, but has not yet received a response.

Dateline also reached out to current District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce earlier this month requesting an interview about the case. Sanguedolce responded that “since this case remains an open investigation,” he was “uncertain what, if anything,” he could say at this time. He added that if Dateline wanted to provide specific questions he would review them and speak with us. Dateline sent him a list of questions the following day but has not heard back. 

Odetta told Dateline that she and her sister, Tamu, have plans to meet with detectives on September 25. Odetta said the last time she and her sister spoke to officials about their mother’s case was in the ‘90s at the district attorney’s office. This upcoming meeting will mark the first time that anyone in the Todd family — including Odetta’s grandparents — has met directly with detectives at the Wilkes-Barre Police Department.

Juanita Todd
Juanita Todd

Odetta feels this is a big step for her and her sister, who have been hoping for movement in their mother’s case for decades.

And despite 51 years passing with no answers, Odetta told Dateline that her number one priority is getting justice for her mother, and she plans on fighting until she does. 

“I believe [the police] when they say, ‘We just wanna get the bad guy that did this to your mother,’” Odetta told Dateline. “I just wish my grandparents could’ve heard those words. ‘Cause I believe this time they mean it.”

If anyone has information about Juanita’s case, please call the Wilkes-Barre Police Department at (570) 208-4200.