Inaugural Equal Justice Symposium to be held in Fort Smith on Sept. 9 

by George Jared ([email protected]) 882 views 

Lois Ensey, 23, a married mother of two arrived at J’s Nite Owl convenience store in Fort Smith at 6 p.m. on July 19, 1979, to work the night shift. Less than an hour later she vanished. Friends, family and local authorities spent days searching for her.

Her body was found on a rural road in Sebastian County nine days later, her daughter, Nikki Ensey told Talk Business & Politics. The mother had been shot three times. Nikki was only two years old at the time and has no recollection of her mother. She spent much of her life knowing virtually nothing about the police investigation into her mother’s case. To this day it’s never been solved.

“It was very difficult,” Nikki said. “It put a hole in our family. Her parents became alcoholics after that. My grandmother died young. She was 58. … I wish we would have had more information about suspects in her case. If we had known sooner, we might have been able to do more.”

Revamp, a Fort Smith-based non-profit victims and families advocacy group hopes to change the system in Arkansas to make it easier for families to get information about missing and murdered loved ones and expand citizens’ rights under Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), said Revamp President Patti Rush.

“We advocate for families. We advocate for victims,” she said.

The non-profit is hosting its first Equal Justice Symposium on Sept. 9, at the Fort Smith Convention Center. It’s free to the public and organizers plan to make it an annual event. The goal is to bring stakeholders – advocacy organizations, victims’ families, media, law enforcement and lawmakers – together to promote education and public awareness about how the system works in the Natural State and how it needs to be improved through legislative action.

A myriad of presentations will be given by journalists, advocacy groups, activists, and victims’ families, said Revamp board member Tom Honeycutt. At least 80 booths, mostly comprised of law enforcement agencies and victim families will be at the event. Fort Smith Mayor George McGill and Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker are among the elected officials and civic leaders that are slated to attend. Van Buren native, and local television journalist Jo Ellison is slated to give a presentation.

Representatives from CrimeScene 360, a collaborative effort between the University of Arkansas’s School of Criminal Justice and the Donaghey Emerging Analytics Center, will be on hand. Chaos Divers, a civilian group from Illinois,will also be at the Symposium. The group travels around the country helping families with missing loved ones search waterways. The group has been successful in multiple cases around the country and often uploads videos to their YouTube channel.

A limited, free luncheon will be held. The keynote presentation will be updates on the West Memphis Three case. Three men, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., claim they were falsely convicted in the heinous murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis on May 5, 1993.

The three men, dubbed “The West Memphis Three” were released on Alford, or no contest, pleas in 2011 after spending nearly two decades in prison. Echols has petitioned the Arkansas Supreme Court to allow advanced M-Vac DNA testing to be done on ligatures that bound Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore.

Organizers are hopeful that at least 500 people will attend. Attendees are expected to come from all parts of Arkansas and Oklahoma. Rush said one of her goals is to start a non-profit legislative reform group to target specific laws that need to be changed or new ones that need to be adopted. Under state law, an active criminal case file is not subject to the state’s FOI law, no matter how old the case might be.

All a law enforcement agency has to do is say the case is active to withhold information, Rush said. There could be details or leads in cases that families and advocacy groups could pursue. Disclosure could also reveal if an investigation has been botched, she added.

In the Ensey case, the family didn’t know for 40 years that there was a primary suspect and possible accomplices. Three boys were playing near a payphone and watched the abduction take place. The primary suspect, Alvin Myers, has already passed away, and it’s never been publicly released that the boys watched as two men escorted the young mother out of the convenience store into a beat up old white truck.

“We need to find those boys. They are probably in their 50s and 60s now. We need to find them. I wish we had been more informed about who the suspects were. If we had known, we could have done more before they died or were infirmed,” Nikki added. “It so important if we could find those boys.”

Revamp helped Nikki and her sister, Jennifer Smalley, acquire their mother’s case file in 2020. Sebastian County Sheriff’s Department detective Janelle Daggett was the conduit to getting the file, and Nikki said she was grateful for her help.

Communication between law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and families needs to be improved, Honeycutt said. Often, when family members call there’s nothing new to report in the case and it can be frustrating for the family and law enforcement. While communication and the system need to be improved, Honeycutt said they don’t want to tarnish law enforcement, or prosecutors.

“We don’t want to work against the law enforcement community. We want to help them and these families and victims,” he added.

Honeycutt said he thinks the state’s FOIA needs to be expanded to allow families to have access to the initial incident report, something that is done in many other states. Once a case is open all documents and investigative materials are not subject to FOIA in Arkansas until there is an arrest. Honeycutt, a former journalist and licensed private investigator, said giving the public access to the initial incident report could help families and advocacy groups bring resources to bear that wouldn’t cost the law enforcement agency resources or time.

“The greatest tool we have is open records,” he said.

The state’s cold case laws are vague and need to be updated, Rush said. One of their ultimate goals is to improve state laws and this will take some of the burden off families.