Viola Pendergrass was lovingly known as the “Neighborhood Grandmother” -- adored by many at the Little Rock Apartments in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she lived in the early 1990s.
The 79-year-old was no stranger to caring for others. She raised 14 children with her husband at their home in South Carolina, but that was just the beginning. The family worked hard for their livelihood, and followed sharecropping work to North Carolina. But tragedy struck in 1953 when Viola’s husband was killed in a car accident.
Left to raise her children, at least eight of whom were still living at home, Viola moved her family to Charlotte, North Carolina where she could find work. She got a job as a cook, which she continued to do for most of her life until she retired. In retirement, Viola continued to help raise children, grandchildren and even the neighborhood children.
“She was a giver,” her grandson, Christopher Pendergrass, told Dateline. “She gave so much of herself to others. She shared what she had. She always put others before herself.”
Christopher and his grandmother were inseparable.
“She helped raise me,” he said. “She was always there for me. My grandmother was my world.”
On February 11, 1992, Christopher was serving in the U.S. Navy in San Diego when his commander delivered the heartbreaking news. His beloved grandmother had died. But not only had she passed away, she had been brutally murdered.
“It was a total shock,” Christopher told Dateline. “The fact that someone took her life. She was so harmless. It makes no sense. That shock and sadness, I was just overcome with it, and it went on for days and weeks, you know. And now decades. It’s still there.”
Christopher was just two weeks shy of his 20th birthday when his grandmother was killed. They hadn’t seen each other in months due to Christopher being stationed on the other side of the country. But they talked on the phone often, and spoke just two days before she was killed.
“She sounded fine on the phone, making sure I was OK,” Christopher said. “To talk to a happy, healthy woman on the phone and then for her to be gone -- murdered -- it was just, well, hard to comprehend.”
By the time Christopher received the news of his grandmother’s murder, four days had passed.
Viola Pendergrass was found dead in the early morning hours of February 7, 1992, at her apartment on Nobles Avenue.
She had spoken to a family member around 6 a.m. that morning. When the same family member came by her apartment around 7:30 a.m., the 79-year-old woman had been stabbed to death with a kitchen knife from her home, according to Detective Ed Williams with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
“She was found sitting in a chair next to her bed,” Det. Williams told Dateline. “It was almost like she was sitting there having a conversation with this person before she was killed. And then she was stabbed repeatedly. It’s really awful.”
Detective Williams told Dateline that there was no apparent forced entry into the apartment and he believes Viola knew her killer. He added that she had recently cashed her monthly social security check and that money appeared to be missing.
DNA collected from the scene has been tested multiple times, but nothing has led detectives to a suspect. Detective Williams told Dateline there was extensive DNA on Viola’s nightgown and on the kitchen knife that was used to stab her. But because so many people were in and out of her home, they could not pinpoint a suspect. He added that detectives do believe the DNA evidence points to someone who was at Viola’s home often.
“She was that lady in the neighborhood who had the home where everybody congregated,” Detective Williams said. “So there are multiple people whose DNA was on everything.”
Viola’s case went cold in the 1990s, but has been revived in recent years by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Cold Case Unit with help from a civilian review team. The team, which is comprised of people with law enforcement experience, and civilian volunteers from a wide array of life experiences, organizes the paperwork and provides the detectives with a detailed summary of the available information relating to the case, saving valuable time.
Detective Williams has been on the case for two years. When the pandemic hit and many were sent home to work, Detective Williams said he took advantage of the time to really focus on Viola’s case.
“I think I know who did this,” Detective Williams said. “But we’re still missing that piece that’s going to bring it all together. But I do know there are people out there who have information. If we could just get the right person to come forward, we could solve this.”
The case is on Detective Williams’ mind every day, he says, and is something he won’t be giving up on anytime soon.
“Not only do I want to solve this for Viola, for this kind, harmless woman who was killed in such a brutal way, but I want to solve this for her family - for Christopher,” Detective Williams said. “He’s been searching for answers for decades now. It’s time to solve this and give him peace.”
Next February will mark 30 years since Viola was murdered, but her grandson is hopeful for answers before then.
“So many of our family have passed on without knowing the truth,” Christopher told Dateline. But he has faith in the work that Detective Williams and the CMPD’s Cold Case Unit are doing and is optimistic the case will be solved.
“She didn’t deserve to die the way that she did,” Christopher told Dateline. “I’m not giving up hope that this case will be solved. She deserves that at least. She deserves justice.”
Anyone with information that may help solve Viola’s case is asked to call Charlotte Crime Stoppers at 704-334-1600 or the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s Homicide Cold Case Unit hotline at 704-336-2358.