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Investigators Get New Leads In 16-Year-Old Case

KNOBEL, Ark. (AP) -- A state police investigator says he and a sheriff may be getting close to asking a prosecutor to bring charges in a death that occurred 16 years ago.

Special Agent Phil Carter of the Arkansas State Police is the second investigator with his agency to look into the death of farm laborer Earnest Lonnie Earles -- the first investigator has since retired.

Carter said he suspects Earles was killed, but no one has been arrested and it would be hard to get a murder charge to stick.

"We don't even have a body," Carter said. "Making a murder case without a body is not easy."

Even so, Carter feels he and Clay County Sheriff Ronnie Cole may be getting close to seeking charges.

Last year, Carter developed information while working on another criminal case in a nearby county. After reviewing the old file, Carter and Cole "developed a number of new leads," Carter said.

They searched a rural area near the Black River on two different occasions, using dogs trained to detect cadavers. And they now believe Earles was shot and killed after being lured to an area near the river.

"We have developed more than one suspect," Carter said. "We have been able to interview potential suspects, and we will conduct additional interviews. With the aid of forensics developed since this file was first opened, we hope we can build a case with the new evidence we have developed."

The case started June 21, 1987, when a missing persons report was filed in Clay County by a family member. Twenty-five-year-old "Ernie" Earles was missing from his home in Knobel.

Over the years, officers ran repeated computer checks on his Social Security and driver's license numbers with no results. The first state police officer assigned to the case, Jerry Brogdon, retired, and the file passed on to Carter.

Investigators reviewed Earles' activities over the several days before he was reported missing. They knew the farm laborer was involved in a fight at a private party. The man involved was interviewed, but Carter said the two resolved their differences later the same night. And in early 1990, the man was fatally injured in a one-vehicle traffic accident.

"All leads went cold for about a year after Earles was reported missing," Carter said. "Then Brogdon started developing evidence that Earles was killed. The rumor mill was thick. We tracked down the man involved in the fight with Earles and even looked at a rumor that his accident was murder to cover up something."

But Carter said they weren't able to establish any link between the fight and the accident and Earles' disappearance.

The new information has kept them going for the last year, though, and Carter and Cole are planning more searches using cadaver dogs.

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