Police say 1972 Fairhaven murder is now solved

Picture of yearbook photo
A tribute to Karen Spencer in Hayfield Secondary School’s 1973 yearbook.

On November 29, 1972, Karen Spencer walked out of her family’s house on Belleview Avenue in the Fairhaven neighborhood. She would never be seen alive again.

Three days later a group of boys found the 12-year-old Spencer partially concealed body in a field off of North Kings Highway, not far from Spencer’s home. She had died from blunt force trauma.

Spencer’s murder, one of the oldest “cold cases” in Fairfax County, is now solved, the Fairfax County Police and announced Wednesday.

James “Jimmy” Edwards, who is deceased, was responsible for the brutal murder of Spencer, according to police.

“In the summer of 2018, two independent acquaintances of Jimmy revealed to detectives that in the early 90’s, Jimmy confided in them he killed a girl and buried her in a field when he was a teenager,” the FCPD said in a news release. “Over the next year and a half, detectives received additional tips that supported this information and other previous investigative findings that implicated Edwards.”

Image of Edwars that looks like a mug shot
Edwards (FCPD photo)

The new evidence also ruled out other people that police had investigated, the news release said. In December, the Commonwealths Attorney’s office “determined that sufficient evidence would have existed to support the arrest and prosecution of Edwards.”

Edwards, who lived near Spencer and was 16 years old at the time of the murder, was said to be Spencer’s boyfriend, though that has been disputed over the years. Edwards denied involvement of the murder, and he died in the 1997. However the search for justice for the Spencer family continued, the police said.

“For nearly five decades, Major Crimes detectives remained steadfast in their pursuit of justice for 12-year-old Karen Lee Spencer and her family”, Major Ed O’Carroll, the FCPD’s Major Crimes Bureau Commander, said in the release. “I am proud of the work of Detective [Chris] Flanagan and all detectives who contributed to the closure of this case. The fact that they never gave up combined with our community’s willingness to come forward with information were critical in solving this case.”

Front page of Gazette with large picture of police in field
From the front page of the December 4, 1972 edition of the Alexandria Gazette.

Spencer was a 7th grader at Hayfield Secondary School in 1972. Newspaper accounts from the time indicated she came from a large family, and noted that her father had died in 1970.

Spencer had told a family member she was going to return a book to a friend on the night she disappeared. She left the house around 10 p.m. and never made it to the friend’s house, according to the newspaper accounts.

Newspaper clipping with headline "Official sees progress in Death Probe"
From the December 5, 1972 Alexandria Gazette.

Spencer’s body was found December 2 in what was then known as “Fifer’s Field,” an open space where children played regularly and where a carnival would set up shop every year in the 1960s and early 1970s. Her blouse was torn, but it was later determined that she had not been the victim of a sexual assault.

The murder was front page news in the Alexandria Gazette, which featured a large picture showing more than two dozen police officers walking in a line to search Fifer’s Field for evidence. Former Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Horan was quoted in news accounts, as was former police chief William Durrer.

An obituary in the Alexandria Gazette from December 1972 indicates Spencer’s funeral was held at St. Louis Catholic Church, and that she was buried at National Memorial Cemetery in Falls Church.

Spencer’s case eventually faded from the news. Fifer’s Field no longer exists, having been developed into portions of the original Huntington Metro station property and later the Courts at Huntington Station development.

But the case was not forgotten. In the past decade Spencer’s murder has been an occasional topic of discussion among members of a Facebook group dedicated to the Route 1 area. Residents who grew up with her never forgot what happened, with many saying the murder shattered the innocence of their childhoods.

News about the closure of Spencer’s case was quickly posted on the forum Wednesday evening.

“Now Karen can rest in peace,” said one friend.