This story is part of a collaborative project between Project: Cold Case and a University of North Florida Journalism class. The student credited above wrote this story as a class project.
Sherry Ross loved Eric Clapton. She was a rebellious free spirit, a funny, loving young woman whose life centered around her baby girl, Graylyn.
“She was a wonderful mother who obviously cared for her daughter,” said her neighbor, Frankie Tennison.
Graylyn’s life was forever changed in 1991, when at 6 years old, she watched a man stab her mother to death inside their home in Jacksonville, Florida.
Now 28 years later, Sherry’s murder is still unsolved. Graylyn West is determined to figure out who killed her mother. “After all this time, I’m not going to stop, I still have hope,” she said. “I want my mom to know she did not die in vain.”
Growing up, Sherry Ross was different from the rest of her family. While her brothers and sister were rigid, Ross was a free spirit. When she was 17, the family moved to Brunswick, Georgia. Sherry soon became pregnant, though she wasn’t aware until three months later, when her family moved to Nashville, Tennessee.
Ross hid her pregnancy as long as she could and refused to identify her baby’s father, despite her mother’s desperate pleas. For reasons only Sherry knew, she did not want the father to be a part of Graylyn’s life.
Graylyn Christine was born in Nashville during the fall of 1984. The mother-daughter pair quickly became each other’s worlds.
At 20 years old, Ross decided to move to Jacksonville. As a single mother, Ross did whatever she could to provide for her daughter, including dancing at a local gentlemen’s club. Shortly before her death, she had begun selling bonsai trees, in hopes of making the venture a full-time job. “She always did what was best for me,” Graylyn, now 35, said.
At some point during her time in Jacksonville, Ross met her husband Jazzo, and they began hanging out with a local biker gang.
“Sherry was not like the rest of the [biker] girls, she was classy,” said Tennison, her former neighbor. “She was a good person, she was good-hearted, and she was really trying to be someone.”
Ross and her daughter settled into a neighborhood known as Lackawanna, a residential neighborhood adjacent to the train tracks, with a crime rate that is currently three times higher than that of Jacksonville, according to statistics available from Realtor.com. However, West says she never felt unsafe because the gang protected them. “My mom never locked any of our doors,” she recalled
Indeed, on the day Ross was murdered, her doors were unlocked.
May 8, 1991, was just like any other day. Ross had dropped her daughter off at school earlier that morning and picked her up later that day. On the way home, the two got into a disagreement about cleaning the house. “I remember I was pretty upset,” West said. “I went into my room and started counting money like I was going to run away and that’s when I heard a scream and a commotion, and I got scared.”
West remembers hearing a man say, “Give me all your money and give me all your gold,” and then her mother asking the man not to hurt her. The man then asked if anyone else was in the house and Ross said no.
West immediately hid under her bed. All she could see were the man’s feet. She then managed to move from underneath the bed into the closet, knowing it would be safer there.
“I remember being in the closet and having a bat,” West said. “I remember the bat because I was contemplating getting it and helping my mom.” As much as she wanted to help her mom, Graylyn just couldn’t move her feet. She waited until the house was completely silent before stepping out of the closet.
“I remember creeping out of my room and immediately seeing blood on the floor,” West said. “I followed it straight to my mom’s room and she was laying halfway on the bed with her feet dangling off it.”
West tried to talk to her mom and even shake her awake, but she got no response. She did the only thing she could think of and ran across the street to a biker gang member’s house for help.
Since West was only six years old when her mother died, she was never able to comprehend what she had witnessed. “Even though I remember all those details, it still, to this day, doesn’t necessarily feel real,” West said.
West says she struggled a lot while growing up. She felt like she was alone and that she was a burden to her grandparents, who became her caretakers after her mother’s murder. Between the ages of 9 and 12, West truly struggled with the effects of losing her mom. “I tried to kill myself,” she said.
Graylyn’s life turned around when she was about 13. She began thinking about what this man could have been going through in his life that ultimately led him to murder her mother.
She couldn’t help but cry for him, and, ultimately, forgave him. That saved her life.
“If I continued on the path of destruction, I was going to be dead. He would take my mother’s life and I was basically letting him take mine, too,” West said.
Even though West forgave her mother’s killer, solving the case would bring her the answers she desires. “There were two things I set out to accomplish in this life: the first was finding my father and the second was solving my mother’s murder,” West said. She found her father a few years ago through genetic testing and describes him as a good man with a troubled past.
“Now that I have found my father, all that’s left is solving this case and giving hope to other families along the way.”
If you have any information on the unsolved murder of Sherry Ross, please call the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office at (904) 630-0500. To remain anonymous and possibly be eligible for a $3,000 reward, call First Coast Crime Stoppers at (866) 845-TIPS.
Research and Impact
There’s a growing concern of a “cold case crisis” in America, as thousands of cases go unsolved each year. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, there are nearly 250,000 unsolved cases since 1980.
One cause is the lack of resources. Research shows that the more than 18,000 agencies in the country that have cold cases, only 18% of them have designated cold case units. Nearly 20% of those units lack the proper protocols for effective investigations.
For survivors and cold case investigators alike, the fight to educate and prepare is a shared responsibility. The National Institute of Justice has worked diligently to offer solutions to this “crisis” with recently publishing the National Best Practices for Cold Case Investigations book. This guide helps agencies build and sustain cold case units to best serve the families that have waited long enough for answers.
In our hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has a cold case unit featuring multiple investigators for more than 1,500 cases in the county.
Project: Cold Case and the National Institute of Justice’s Best Practices encourages all survivors to ask if their city has a cold case unit and what the city is doing to combat this crisis.
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