Walker County Sheriff Nick Smith has asked that the State Bureau of Investigation review the case of Eric Cates, a 32-year-old whose body was discovered inside a burned pickup behind the old Empire …
Walker County Sheriff Nick Smith has asked that the State Bureau of Investigation review the case of Eric Cates, a 32-year-old whose body was discovered inside a burned pickup behind the old Empire School in March 2015.
The case files were turned over to the SBI on Wednesday.
Smith said Tuesday that his office will also be cooperating with Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry, whose previous attempts to assist with the investigation were rebuffed.
Cates and his family are from the Cullman area.
"He (Gentry) wants to work on the Cates case and a missing persons case on a female that they have involving Walker County. He said he feels like they are both very solvable cases, but it's going to take the cooperation of both departments," Smith said.
Cates' mother, Tobbie Stover, said she is pleased that Smith has reached out to the SBI.
The move offers a glimmer of hope to Stover, who had previously requested that an outside agency be consulted as years dragged on without an arrest.
"As many times as your balloon can be burst, mine has been. Now I have another one aired up, and we'll see how far it goes," Stover said Tuesday afternoon.
The bodies of Cates and his dog, Gypsy, were discovered on March 21, 2015, by hunters.
It took more than a month for an identification to be made and for the remains to be returned to Cates' family for burial.
An autopsy could not determine the cause of death.
Tips and leads have continued to come in as recently as two weeks after Smith took office. Smith and Sgt. Chuck Tidwell traveled to Jefferson County to conduct an interview with a suspect and a polygraph was scheduled, but the individual was unable to take it for medical reasons, according to Smith.
Smith said the decision to involve the SBI is not a reflection on the investigation that Tidwell has been conducting.
"Sometimes we hit a dead end in cases and I think a fresh pair of eyes is good to look over a case and make sure that we haven't missed something," Smith said.
Eventually, Smith plans to assign someone the task of looking into the county's cold cases. A retired investigator willing to work part-time would be ideal, according to Smith.
In the meantime, Smith is willing to meet with anyone who would like to make him aware of an unsolved case involving their loved one.
Smith addressed the case of Cates first because it is one of the county's most recent cold cases and because Stover approached him during last year's National Crime Victims' Rights Week Candlelight Vigil. At the time, Smith was nearing the end of his campaign for the Sheriff's Office.
"This case isn't more important than any of the others, but we have to start somewhere," Smith said.
At one time, a $25,000 reward was offered for information leading to an arrest related to Cates' death, but the money did not seem to sway anyone who had information.
In November 2017, Gov. Kay Ivey authorized a $5,000 reward. Ralph Shoemaker, who towed away the burned truck in which Cates was found, has long offered a $5,000 reward as well, according to Stover.
For Cates' family, the wait for answers has compounded the tragedy of his death as well as the losses that followed.
His uncle, Mike Cates, died in February 2016. He was the last person to see his nephew alive and carried that burden with him until his death, according to Stover.
Eric Cates' father, Wayne Cates, passed away from cancer in August 2016.
"It has been a rough four years," Stover said.
Father and son shared many interests.
Cates drove a truck for his father's company, Cates Logging. He also followed in his father's footsteps as a dirt track racer.
In 2001, the two built River Valley Speedway, a dirt track in Bremen. The name has since been changed to ECM (Eric Cates Memorial) Speedway.
Fishing was another lifelong hobby for Cates, who was raised on the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River in an area known as Cates Valley.
Stover described her son as a prankster who never met a stranger.
"People have told me that he literally gave them the coat off of his back. He was a good guy," she said.
Cates had special affection for Gypsy, the English-American bulldog mix that he owned since 2004 when she was six years old.
"He never called her a dog. She was his daughter," Stover said. "She was the sweetest, stubbornest dog, and she was Eric's right hand."
In addition to renaming the speedway, Cates' family keeps his memory alive by holding a candlelight vigil each year on the date of their deaths. The first was held at the site where he died. In 2017, it was held at the speedway. Last year, it was held at the cemetery where he and Gypsy were buried.
In May, family and friends will release balloons at the race track on his birthday. The track also hosts a memorial race each year for Wayne Cates.
Stover said that she feels a kinship with other families who have waited years for answers and for justice to be served.
Her heart breaks for others like the family of Jordan Wilson, a Cullman woman who went missing in 2016. Her body has never been found. At least one search for Wilson has been conducted in Walker County.
"It's horrible knowing what we've been through to think about what they have been through not knowing. At least I know where my son is," Stover said.