Jim Sjodin's silver Nissan still sits where he left it in front of the empty house at 107 S. Valentine in the Stifft Station neighborhood, hunkered down on tires that have gone a bit spongy in the year since he died. The car is cluttered. There's an umbrella on the front seat and another in the back; yellowed copies of old newspapers in the floorboards; a blue plastic basket from Walmart; a straw hat in the back window that's beginning to bleach from the sun. There was nobody to claim his belongings after his death, so the car sits right where Sjodin parked it.
On Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011, someone — a person or persons — came into Sjodin's home just south of Markham, beat him unconscious with a heavy object in a back room, then set the house on fire. Firefighters and police responded just before 7 p.m., but Sjodin was already dead from head injuries and smoke inhalation. Today, plywood covers the back windows of the house, the siding blackened with soot and the eaves hanging where firefighters pulled down the wood in search of stray embers.
With his full, white beard and part-time job as choir director and organist at Highland Valley United Methodist Church, the 65-year-old Sjodin might be the last person you'd expect to wind up at the center of a mysterious, unsolved homicide. An Oklahoma native who never married and apparently had no living family — an accomplished tenor, voice and piano teacher and long-time vegetarian — Sjodin was described as friendly by his neighbors, often waving to them and swapping plant cuttings. Police say they have no suspects as of this writing, though they believe the murderer was likely someone who knew Sjodin.
Because no family members stepped forward after Sjodin's death, members of Highland Valley UMC and other churches paid for the burial and his headstone. A former student from Christ the King Catholic Church donated the plot in Roselawn Cemetery.
Betty Morgan, the music director at Highland Valley UMC, said Sjodin served as the church's part-time piano and organ accompanist for a year before he was killed, and was well liked. She noted that when the church held his memorial service, the choir loft was filled with his former students.
Morgan said that Sjodin didn't talk much with her about what he did in his off-hours. The week Sjodin was murdered, he'd been filling in for Morgan while she recovered from cornea surgery.
"I don't know any dealings he had with people outside of the church, so I don't know if there would be anybody who would be angry with him," Morgan said. "I can't imagine it. Jim was just such a great guy. The children loved being around him. He was just so effervescent in his personality."
Rev. Daniel Kirkpatrick, now pastor at First United Methodist Church in Dewitt, was the pastor at Highland Valley when Sjodin was killed. He said Sjodin was the most talented musician he's worked with in 29 years as a pastor and a man he remembered as a "gentle soul who had a marvelous sense of humor," who was very open and accepting of people. After the murder, Kirkpatrick said, the congregation spent several months working with local shelters trying to find homes for Sjodin's three dogs, which Kirkpatrick said were "his family." Kirkpatrick has no idea who would want to hurt Sjodin.
"He was an old bachelor, never married, but I wouldn't call him a loner," Kirkpatrick said. "He was a pretty social fellow, taking his laptop and going down to the River Market pavilion." Kirkpatrick said that because Sjodin was covering for Betty Morgan that week, the Sunday of his death was the first time the full range of his talents had been on display for the congregation, with Sjodin leading the handbell choir, youth choir, children's choir and adult choir that day. Kirkpatrick and Morgan said that Sjodin finished a choir rehearsal at around 5 p.m., on Jan. 23, then headed home. He was apparently killed soon after arriving there.
The Arkansas Times spoke with several of Sjodin's neighbors, none of whom wanted to be identified for this story. Many of them said there were frequent visitors at Sjodin's house at all hours of the day and night. "We'd hear them knocking on the door, and sometimes they'd go in and sometimes they wouldn't," one neighbor said. "I've come home before to see them sitting on his porch, waiting for him. It was kind of scary to get out of the car when they were just sitting there."
A spokesman for the Little Rock Fire Department said that because the criminal investigation is ongoing, he couldn't release details about how the fire in Sjodin's home was started. LRPD spokesman Lt. Terry Hastings said that detectives are looking for ways to generate new information in the case.
"I heard them talking about it the other day back in homicide," Hastings said, "and they were saying they had kind of run out of leads on it."
Hastings said that there was no sign of forced entry and police don't know of anything that had been taken from Sjodin's home by the killer. While a search of the house turned up no evidence of illegal activity there, detectives heard the stories about frequent visitors from Sjodin's neighbors, along with speculation about what might have brought them there.
"That's what we've been told, but we have not determined what that activity is, and that's the problem," he said. "Of course, the folks who are coming up there and visiting him are not going to tell you, and the neighbors, that's what they know: 'There's been a bunch of strange-looking people around there.' But we can't pinpoint who those people are or what they are doing."
Hastings said most homicides in Little Rock are over either drugs or ongoing issues within an existing personal relationship. Truly random murders, such as when a person is killed during a robbery or burglary, are relatively rare. Knowing that, police can often develop a good idea of who committed the murder within a few hours after it happened. In those cases where a suspect doesn't immediately arise, however, Hastings points out that there's a short investigative window before a case can go cold.
"If you don't solve it, really, within the first 30 days, your stuff goes pretty cold," Hastings said. "It's difficult after that. We've solved cases that are years old, but usually we find out a piece of information. I tell people it's like a jigsaw puzzle. ... It may be months, it may be years before that last piece falls in. When it does, we can make that arrest."
Police are still searching for that elusive puzzle piece in the murder of Jim Sjodin.
"If we had a guy out here robbing businesses and shooting people, that one would be fairly easy to solve," Hastings said. "But when you have a relationship with two people, where we're not involved in it and we've received no calls, and suddenly it reaches the point where one of them kills the other one, that's difficult."