His nickname was Pop. And after working all his life, sometimes two jobs, he died for a roll of quarters.
Forty-three years later, it appears uncertain who robbed and killed Claude “Pop ’Killian. That long-ago crime is again front and center for people who thought it was over.
“Pop Killian was loved,” said Margaret Rudder, who still works at the Highlander laundry on Columbia Street in Chester where the crime happened, and worked there in 1973. “Everybody loved him.”
In 1977 James McClurkin and Ray Degraffenreid were convicted of the crime. Each is now on parole, and law enforcement officials say neither committed the crime. They had served 39 years in prison.
“Pop was working that day and he was attacked,” Rudder said. “He was robbed and killed. ... Prison for (39) years is a long time and it is not right if they did not do it. But they were convicted.”
Albert Degraffenreid, older brother of Ray Degraffenreid, welcomed the news last Tuesday that his brother had been paroled.
“It’s about time,” Albert Degraffenreid said.
Ray Degraffenreid, whose parole was approved last week, has had mental deterioration while imprisoned. When released in early 2017 he will be placed in a facility for treatment. McClurkin is on parole and working a job while pursuing exoneration.
“My brother has been in prison for so long, and the next step is to see if we can get his name cleared once and for all,” Albert Degraffenreid said.
Lawyers for both men are now seeking exoneration. The witness at the 1977 trial, Melvin “Smokey” Harris, confessed to the crime in 1992, while in prison for an unrelated crime. Harris’ confession was never considered believable by the courts. Harris died in prison last year.
Yet for those who knew and loved Killian, .
Herbert Lutz is owner of the Highlander laundry. His father owned it in 1973 and all in Chester knew Killian, 74.
“What remains here now is that Claude Killian was the victim in this brutal crime all those years ago,” Lutz said. “He was shot down. He was killed.”
Lutz said he has no problem with both men being paroled after so many years. And if Degraffenreid and McCurkin did not commit the crime, Lutz said “they sure shouldn’t have been in jail.”
But they were convicted, and even though paroled, still are. And the main police officers and prosecutor in the case are all dead, Lutz said.
“I don’t know how they can prove it when everyone who was involved is long gone,” Lutz said.
Jennie Killian Stuart, Claude Killian’s granddaughter, said for decades the family believed the right men were convicted because the police and prosecutors and courts said so. She was not told of the re-opened police investigation and that hurt the family deeply, she said.
She said she and other family members do not want the wrong people to have gone to prison, but the Killian family had not been told what’s happening now.
Sheriff Alex Underwood told parole officials that McClurkin and Degraffenreid had alibis and witnesses that show they were not in Chester when Killian was shot.
Chester Judge Brian Gibbons, after learning of the new police investigation last summer, appointed McClurkin and Degraffenreid lawyers to pursue the potential improper imprisonment. Joshua Kendrick is Degraffenried’s lawyer. Jeffrey Bloom is McClurkin’s lawyer.
Next comes finding evidence to convince prosecutors and a judge to vacate the convictions, or order the convictions overturned.
“The state cannot give Mr. Degraffenreid back the last four decades of his life, but we expect it to at least give him back his name and reputation,” Kendrick said.
And those who loved Killian must wait, not knowing what will happen, and not knowing who committed the crime.
But one thing is certain.
Pop Killian was killed on Aug, 5, 1973, a hot night, over a roll of quarters.
That, all agree, also is injustice.