It was the seeming randomness of Samantha Olson's death that shocked people when they turned on the news or picked up a paper the morning after she was killed: A mother with her child in the car, traveling through one of the busiest intersections in North Little Rock. A few shots, reportedly from a pickup truck heading down McCain Boulevard in the opposite direction. And, just like that, a young woman's life was ended and a family was changed forever.
Even a cursory interest in the stories behind murders in any city in America shows just how rare the truly random homicide really is. It's almost always personal: an argument taken too far, a drug deal gone bad, a fight in a club that progressed beyond fists. But who would kill Samantha Olson, 31, wife, friend of everyone, mother, lover of life? And who, especially, would kill her in such a way? If someone did have a reason to target Olson, who could or would have planned to do it there, in that way? Two cars, meeting for a half-second in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in town, broad daylight, surrounded by witnesses, on a road five lanes wide? Nobody would, of course, which points to the even more frightening possibility: that there just was no motive, other than that the shooter saw an opportunity to kill one person in the countless thousands he saw that day, and took it.
It's what makes the case hard to solve, and even harder to understand for those Samantha Olson left behind. With anything else, there are dots to connect, suppositions to be chased to bedrock fact, or — almost as important — dead ends, which allow investigators to rule out and rule out until all that's left is the truth. Not here, though. Here, there's just a blurry video of a maroon pickup that seems to have disappeared like a bad dream after gliding through the frame of a surveillance camera on Camp Robinson Road six months ago. Here, just a widower husband who will have to go on without the woman he still calls the love of his life. Here, just a mother and father who will grow old without their daughter. Here, just a little girl who will grow up never having known her mother.
While police and Olson's family still hope the truck will turn up, or that time will loosen the killer's tongue, the fire under the case is six months old now, and flickering low. They pray something will happen, sooner or later. But for now, they're all still at the mercy of the random.
It's hard to imagine a worse place to kill someone than the intersection of JFK and McCain boulevards. It was just after 7 p.m. on Aug. 14, 2013. Being late summertime, the sun wouldn't set for nearly an hour. Though it was a Wednesday, a run of mild temperatures and beautiful weather that week had drawn people out from under the air conditioning. By the time Samantha Olson topped the hill heading east on McCain toward JFK, only a few blocks from the home she shared with her family on West M Street, heading into the last moment of her life, the intersection was surely full of cars, five lanes east and west, five lanes north and south.
Nobody really knows where Olson was going that evening, with her 11-month-old daughter, Linnea, strapped into a rear-facing car seat in the back of Olson's dark blue 2012 Mazda 3 hatchback. Her mother, Phyllis Lyles-Vontungeln, suggests she might have been headed to get a birthday present for a child's party she and Linnea were supposed to attend in her hometown of Pine Bluff that weekend. But the truth is, we'll probably never know.
Aug. 14 had been, Samantha's husband Eric Olson said, a perfectly normal day. He was at Little Rock's Copper Grill that moment, waiting tables at the restaurant where he and Samantha both worked — he as a bar manager, she as a server, though she'd also been working part time for the past year as an accountant after getting her degree from UALR. They'd met at Little Rock's Cajun's Wharf in the summer of 2008, both starting on the same day, and almost instantly hit it off as friends. After they both moved from Cajun's to sister restaurant Copper near the River Market, their friendship grew into a romance and eventually a proposal of marriage. Samantha became pregnant with Linnea in 2011. She'd struggled with pregnancies in the past, having several miscarriages — so many, in fact, that when she learned she was pregnant, she'd told her mother she wasn't getting her hopes up again — but Linnea turned out to be, as Lyles-Vontungeln described her, Samantha's miracle. She was born healthy on Sept. 16, 2012. Eric and Samantha were married about two months later. Videos posted to Facebook in the weeks before Samantha's death show her and Eric kneeling on the carpet of their home, encouraging their daughter to take her first, tentative steps. So normal, so happy.
Heading east on McCain, what was Samantha Olson thinking in that moment, with the sun at her back? She had the driver's side window cracked six inches, less than the width of a sheet of notebook paper. Ten seconds away. Five. The light was green. Samantha Olson entered the intersection.
Approaching in the inside lane from the other direction, headed west on McCain, was what North Little Rock detectives have since identified as a maroon 2008 Ford F-150 pickup. Though some witnesses at the scene would later insist that the truck had a large orange toolbox in the bed — a kind of steel crate with forklift rungs, favored by those employed in construction trades — others insisted the toolbox was silver. Witnesses said the driver was male but disagreed on his race.
As Olson and the truck passed one another, witnesses told police, they saw a gun emerge from the pickup's window, firing somewhere between three and six shots. Police will not say where on her body Olson was hit, but it incapacitated her almost instantly. With Linnea unharmed in her child safety seat, the car coasted to a stop in front of the Starbucks at JFK and McCain. Amazingly, the bullet that killed Samantha Olson passed through the six-inch gap between the top of the driver's doorframe and the top edge of Olson's partially rolled down window, leaving the glass unshattered. Though investigators would later use a metal detector on the dirt berms surrounding the intersection, searching for the slugs or bullet fragments, a spokesman said they found nothing. Likewise no shell casings were recovered at the scene. Police won't say what caliber of gun was used, or whether they recovered bullets from Olson's body or the car.
Meanwhile, the maroon Ford pickup continued on at a steady speed through the intersection, with witnesses telling police that the driver didn't race away or even try to get off the street. From there, the truck apparently motored sedately west on the same road for almost a mile, through the spot where McCain becomes West 47th Street and into Levy, where a surveillance camera caught a glimpse as it passed, just before the driver turned left on Camp Robinson Road. The last image investigators have of the pickup was taken as it passed a surveillance camera in the 3500 block of Camp Robinson. None of the video images could provide a tag number for the truck, and none of the witnesses was able to provide a better description than that it was a Ford F-150, the most common truck in the North America. As far as anyone knows, the pickup hasn't been seen since.
Sgt. Brian Dedrick is the spokesman for the North Little Rock Police Department. He said that while leads on Olson's murder still come in, calls to the NLRPD hotline (501-680-8439) for the case have "slowed significantly" since the crime was fresh in peoples' minds.
"Last week, we got three or four calls on it," he said. "We're actively investigating each call that we get, but ... the calls we're getting, a lot of them are focused on: 'I saw a truck.' We follow up on all of those, but it's very time-consuming. We really need someone with knowledge to come forward."
Dedrick said that, given the circumstances of the case, it's surprising the investigation hasn't produced more leads, either from eyewitnesses at the scene, motorists along McCain when Olson was killed, or people coming forward with information in the six months since the crime. He said there is currently a total of $14,000 in reward money for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Samantha Olson's killer.
With most homicides, there is a connection between the perpetrator and the victim. In this case, however, everything points to Olson's simply having been at the wrong place at the wrong time. He illustrated his point by detailing a recent North Little Rock homicide in which a man was charged with killing his roommate, with at least two eyewitnesses coming forward.
"When you have something like that, we took that person into custody the same night," he said. "There's a direct relationship to that person already when you arrive at the scene. This [the Olson murder] is not like a domestic. Everybody we've talked to said she didn't have any enemies. ... With one car going east, one car going west, the chances of somebody targeting her would seem slim. We're not ruling anything out, but it does appear to be a random act."
Though the video images of the maroon Ford pickup gave investigators hope of finding the killer in the early days of the investigation — and Dedrick said they're "very confident" the shots did, in fact, come from that truck, based on information from multiple witnesses — six months in, Dedrick suggests that the truck may not be out there to find, at least not locally.
"Now, that truck could be a different color," he said. "It could be sold, it could be in a different state."
Though investigators still follow up on every tip, he said what it will probably take to find a suspect is someone with a direct relationship with the killer to come forward and talk. To that end, they have run announcements on televisions at the Pulaski County Regional Detention Center about the crime and worked to get the word out to the media.
Dedrick said any homicide is a tragedy, but the circumstances of the Olson case have been particularly troubling for investigators. "What bothers me is that there's a family out there that hasn't found any closure," he said. "There's a baby involved that was in the vehicle when this happened. We've worked a lot of homicides, and they all bother you anytime we have loss of life. But when you have an infant involved, and a homicide for no apparently reason, you take it home with you."
Stan Doucet, Samantha's father, was the first in the family to learn that his daughter had been injured. Someone from the UAMS emergency room called him around 9 p.m. on Aug. 14, told him his daughter's name, told him to get there, but wouldn't say why. An overnight stocker at a local discount store, he was getting ready to go to work when the call came. A few minutes before, he'd been watching KLRT, Fox 16, as he did every night at 9, when he saw footage from a shooting at JFK and McCain — few details, more to come. On the way to the hospital he called Eric and never allowed himself to imagine that she was dead. A car accident, he thought.
"Samantha had a tendency to drive hard," Doucet said. "She'd had a couple of accidents before, and on the way to the hospital, I was thinking, 'I'm going to have to chastise this girl pretty harshly about her driving.' But then they came in and were speaking to us — there was like, five or six people in there, the medical team that had worked on her — and when one of them said she had been shot, my reaction was, 'SHOT?' I'm thinking, 'How did she get shot?'... Then when they said she didn't make it, I just kind of lost it."
Telling Samantha's mother fell to Doucet. Phyllis Lyles-Vontungeln lives in Pine Bluff, where Samantha was raised from the age of 2. No night owl, Lyles-Vontungeln said she goes to bed just after the KLRT news at 9 p.m. She'd seen the same footage from JFK and McCain as her ex-husband had.
"Just for a brief second," she said, "it crossed my mind: Samantha goes there all the time. That's over where she lives. Then it left my mind, because I thought, she isn't out at night. It never occurred to me that might have happened earlier in the evening."
Lyles-Vontungeln went on to bed and was asleep when the phone rang around 10:30 p.m. She knew it was bad when she heard Stan's voice. "I started walking to go outside because I knew something had to be wrong for him to be calling me at that time of the night," she said. "Then he told me, 'Phyllis, Samantha's dead.' And I said, 'No!' I just collapsed. I was screaming and crying, because that's my baby. Why would something like that happen to my baby? She was good. She didn't have nobody mad at her. She didn't know bad people. She didn't acquaint herself with people who would be that way. I couldn't understand, and I still don't understand."
Stan Doucet said that Linnea was Samantha's everything — that she went from "60 watts to 100 watts" when it became apparent she'd carry the child to term after years of frustration and heartache. He laughed while talking about how Samantha bought clothes for her "six months in advance," filling a closet with things, planning what the girl would be wearing.
"She was always planning," he said. "Even before the baby was born, she was buying clothes. It was an amazing thing that a person can go from no child to being the perfect mother. That's what she was to me."
His daughter was friendly with everyone, Doucet said, which makes the idea that she would meet a violent end all the more confusing. Doucet said that the fact that his daughter's killer is still at large is just beyond his comprehension.
"It's just not right that my daughter is dead and this person is still out there," he said. "It just doesn't balance out. I don't know what else they can do. With the cameras they had, they followed this truck supposedly — videoed this truck — all the way down to Camp Robinson into Levy, and it just seems impossible that they don't have a license number on this vehicle."
Though losing his daughter wounded him terribly, knowing that Linnea will grow up without her mother is a pain that grinds at Doucet. "She won't have the privilege of knowing that her mother was a good person. She won't have the privilege of knowing that her mother was loved by other people. She won't have the privilege of that mother being there when she's sick or when her heart aches, or during her problems in life. Her mother's not going to be there to tell her it's all right."
Samantha, Lyles-Vontungeln said, was an all-around good person, a friend to everyone, independent, kind, a woman who had made her own way and asked for nothing. She said her daughter called her every day, usually on the way to work, just to chit-chat. When Lyles-Vontungeln was treated for lung cancer in 2009 and 2010, Samantha drove down from Little Rock to sit with her for the half-day-long treatments.
"I'd tell her, 'Baby, you don't have to come down here every time momma has chemo,' " she said. " 'You don't have to make this trip. You have other things to do. You have a life now.' And she'd say, 'Momma, it's OK. I brought a book with me to read.' She loved to read."
Lyles-Vontungeln said that one of the saddest things is that when Samantha died, her life had finally come together the way she had always wanted: husband, child, degree, blossoming career as an accountant. "She had reached her happiness in life," she said. "She had accomplished her dreams, and she was about to go back to college and work for her master's. She was happy. But I just tell myself that it was God's will. I don't know why, and I can't answer them questions. But there had to be a purpose."
For her part of that purpose, Lyles-Vontungeln intends to tell Linnea about her mother someday, how Samantha loved her, how proud Samantha would have been of her. She hopes she lives long enough to do that, Lyles-Vontungeln said. Since her daughter's death, she admits, time seems to run differently.
"My birthday's in October," she said. "Matter of fact, my birthday is five days before Samantha's birthday. But I just kind of bypassed my birthday this past year. It's almost like life just stops and stands still. We're not supposed to have to bury our children."
In a small house, with a small yard, with a small living room cluttered with toys and the noise of a bubbling fish tank, on a quiet street less than a quarter of a mile from where his wife was shot, Eric Olson and his daughter carry on as best they can without her. Eric and Samantha had planned on trying for another child in the next few years — on getting the house tidied up and on the market so they could buy something with room for a growing family. "And then, in one fell swoop, all that got erased," he said. "It's tough for me, because I think, 'Man, there for a minute, I had it.' I had what I really wanted in life. Outside of a great career and all that, I had what really mattered."
He is not one to cry about his troubles, but it's easy to cry for him. On Nov. 11, 2013, the day that would have been his first anniversary, he posted a picture on Facebook: His pale left hand framed against the leg of his blue jeans, a black and silver wedding band on his finger. "I've been wearing this ring for a year now," he wrote. "I imagined today being a lot different then." He's only 34, but he can't imagine being with anyone else.
Knowing that he has to keep going for his daughter keeps him focused. He's glad for that. A lot of Samantha's favorite TV shows were police dramas. He doesn't watch them anymore, but they used to watch them together all the time. "It just seems strange, especially now that time has gone by," he said, "to think about that experience, and to think about a lot of the shows we used to watch. You're watching these stories, and you can only really imagine how the characters react to things and how they feel about it. But then to be part of it — to have something like that actually happen to you — it's mind blowing."
These days, he said, the routine helps: taking care of his daughter, pulling her in the big red wagon that takes up a sizeable chunk of their living room, driving Linnea to his mother's so she can watch her while he goes to work, caring for the only part of Samantha he has left. "It all kind of cruises along," he said. "But there are times during the day, pretty much every day — and sometimes it's a little more intense than some, especially when it's quiet — that I think about it more. Later in the evening, trying to fall asleep, especially when I've got Linnea there, laying in bed, I'm really aware of the person that's missing. That whole atmosphere has changed. I'm not aware of how long it'll take before I don't notice that, or if I ever will stop noticing that. It's kind of crazy."
At stoplights, he said, he tries to keep his eyes open. He used to write down license plate numbers when he saw maroon trucks so he could pass them on to the detectives, but he doesn't anymore. He admits he thinks about the random a lot. He thinks about how, the night of the murder, a coworker scrolling through her Facebook page saw a blurb about a shooting at JFK and McCain, and mentioned it, and how he thought it must have happened at one of the gas stations. He thinks about how — 30 seconds sooner or later — it could have been anybody, but instead it turned out to be her. He thinks about how lucky he was that they weren't both killed. He thinks about how it just seems tremendously unfair for Samantha to have been snatched out of life at the moment of her greatest happiness, after years of miscarriage and frustration, one month shy of a year of motherhood. He thinks about how unfair it is for Linnea to have lost her. He thinks about hope: how his mother watches true crime shows, and how sometimes on those shows, a killer will get brave and brag of a murder months or years after the fact, and somebody will drop a dime. He thinks about his growing sense of outrage as the depression and grief has receded like a cold tide, of asking his wife's killer, "What the hell? What gives you the right to do this? To do such a thing? I'm pretty sure, as human beings, we've got an agreement that we're not going to do this."
But usually, in the dark before sleep, he doesn't think about Fords or anger or shots or fate or randomness. He just misses her. He misses his wife.
"I miss her presence," he said. "Everything about her, her physical presence, her personality, all those things that made her who she was and made our relationship what it was. Any time I talk about the case in particular, it's those other things I think about: how it happened, all the different scenarios that it could possibly be."
There will come a time, he said, when he'll have to tell Linnea about what happened to her mother. She just turned 17 months old, and she's starting to talk, saying words, connecting words to objects. "Every once in awhile, she'll say 'mommy,' " he said, "which kind of surprises me. She wasn't saying any words at all at 11 months, so I don't know what she connects with 'mommy.' " He figures she'll be old enough to notice that other children have mommies when she's around 3. Then she'll ask. And he will do his best. It seems too young to explain such a thing, he said. But he will try. He worries about what he'll tell her later on about the way her mother died, especially if the killer is never caught.
Down the short hall from the living room where Eric Olson sat asking questions with no good answers, there was a slight noise, a heartbeat of a sound. In that moment, the gloom of dredging it all up evaporated from his face and you could see, once again, the man who loved and laughed with and married a woman named Samantha Olson.
"Here she comes!" he said, and beamed.
After a few seconds, a cherubic little girl, hair tousled from her nap, edged into the room. Her mother's friendly, careful eyes took in the new visitors. And in the time it took Eric Olson to bend down and scoop his daughter up into his arms, all thoughts of the random — of pain, and faith, and doubt, and the future — were momentarily forgotten.
Anyone with information about the killing of Samantha Olson should call the North Little Rock Police Department's hotline for the case at 501-680-8439. All calls will be kept confidential. There is currently a $14,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a suspect in the case.