In 1975, the Commercial Hotel in Flagstaff was a place for street alcoholics to get a room for the night. It fronted Route 66 downtown.
It has since burned down, and there is a breezeway in front of what is now Flagstaff Brewing Company where the hotel once stood.
Fay Ann Tohonnie spent a lot of time living at the Hotel Continental in Flagstaff in 1975. She lived what law enforcement calls a “high-risk lifestyle.” On Oct. 13, 1975, her body was found off A-1 Mountain Road. She had been shot in the head.
“A lot of work in this one,” said Joe Sumner, volunteer for the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office cold case unit. “It’s a very complete file. They worked this case very hard in the ‘70s. They did as complete a job as they could have.”
The cold case unit is currently trying to solve nearly 40 cases in the county like Tohonnie’s. Sumner, who retired from the National Park Service in 2007 as a criminal investigator, came onto the cold case unit in 2008.
A jogger found her body. Sumner said that the theory was that she was shot someplace else and was pulled out of a vehicle by her feet.
“It was based on physical evidence at the scene,” Sumner said. The position of her body, mixed with her stockings and shoes being pulled off, suggested the body was dumped.
The shoes had been thrown a short distance from the body.
“We sent those in for DNA testing,” Sumner said. And the shoes had a mixture of DNA on them that included male DNA. The male DNA was compared with DNA samples in national databases and came back with a “hit.” The hit came from a databases of DNA samples from people who have family members reported missing. The database often helps authorities identify remains and solve older crimes where DNA samples are available.
But there are regulations and policies regarding the release of the names of family members who have agreed to provide samples to the database, and because the sample from Tohonnie’s shoe was mixed, a name could not be provided to investigators, Sumner said.
A witness had come forward in the case two months after the shooting and said that she had been with Tohonnie when she was abducted on Townsend-Winona Road. The witness told investigators that she and Tohonnie had been picked up by a Native American man from Oklahoma. He had pulled a weapon and had threatened to rape them both. The witness took off running and heard shots.
She did not immediately come forward because she was suffering from brain swelling brought on by extreme alcoholism and was in a hospital in a delusional state, Sumner said. But investigators went to the scene where the witness said the shooting happened. Sure enough, investigators found .22-caliber casings, which matched the caliber of the three bullets used to kill Tohonnie.
“There was no way to compare the shell casings,” Sumner said of a comparison between the bullets in Tohonnie's skull and the casings found.
The witness was then shown a lineup of men, and she identified a man as the suspect. That man had been arrested for killing a Navajo police officer at the time the witness came forward. Investigators were unable to tie the man to Tohonnie’s killing.
The witness was put through a second lineup, and she identified a man who had been arrested for murdering a gas station attendant on Highway 180 near Kendrick Park, Sumner said. Again, investigators were unable to find evidence to link the second man to Tohonnie’s murder.
“What was interesting was that she picks two stone-cold killers out of two different lineups,” Sumner said. “But they could never be sure she identified the correct one.”
Both men are dead now.
Sumner said that the next step is to go through the suspect list again and see if he can find criminal histories, to determine if they have DNA samples in national databases to compare with the DNA sample from the shoe, or to determine if any of the suspects have relatives in national DNA databases.
Because of Tohonnie’s lifestyle, the witness list is long, Sumner added. The Hotel Continental was cheap, and there are 18 to 20 suspects on the list the cold case unit can continue to check up on.
If anybody has information about this case, contact the sheriff’s office cold case division at 774-4523, or visit the Facebook page.
Larry Hendricks can be reached at 556-2262 or email@example.com.
This report has been corrected from its original version.