February 1, 2020 | By Haneifah Ahmad
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.
Rosemary Norris-Southward’s brother died 47 years ago, but she still thinks about him every day.
“If I could ask him anything right now, I wouldn’t ask what ended him,” she said. “I’d ask him if he really has been with us through all of our family’s joys and sorrows. It sure does feel like he’s still right there beside us.”
James “Jimmy” Norris was creative and animated and often a bit mischievous. There was never a dull moment with James around. He was always looking for an opportunity to pull a prank.
One time as a teenager, James insisted on helping set the table for dinner, as the parish priest was joining the family that night. His mother was mortified when everyone sat down at the table and realized that James had set out the “special” salt and pepper shakers – the ones shaped like toilets.
But in October of 1974, James Norris disappeared while on a trip to Florida. Eighteen months later, his remains would be found in a wooded area of Dixie County, Florida.
James grew up in the San Francisco Bay area of California. He was an intelligent man; after high school, he went to a local community college before transferring to San Francisco State University and earning his bachelor’s degree. There he received a teaching credential for adult education classes and started teaching English as a second language.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, San Francisco State was a hotspot for Civil Rights and Vietnam War protests. James was no stranger to social justice issues and was known to join the protests on campus. He helped promote the hugely successful San Francisco Moratorium against the war in Vietnam.
On October 3, 1974, James stopped by his family’s house and asked if they could watch his dog as he went on a trip.
He never disclosed the details of his trip, just that he would be gone for five days.
His mother grew concerned when James never returned home.
“She was getting increasingly fretful about it,” Rosemary said of her mother. “She always had this sixth sense about things, especially when her kids were involved.”
When James arrived at his destination, he sent his family back in California a postcard. It was the last time they would ever hear from him.
Rosemary still has the postcard.
It reads: “My favorite family, I hope you are well, and I hope that my dog is not preggers. Feed her as well as you please. I forgot to give you some money for her keep. Take her to Dr. Miller if she needs attention. Be home soon. – J.”
James wasn’t the type of person to send postcards, his sister said.
“I always thought that maybe he sensed he was in danger,” Rosemary stated, “and that’s why he mailed the postcard.”
She readily admits that thought is just a hunch, but she points to the postcard as possibly being a clue.
“The postmark is perfect. You can see everything on there. It reads, ‘Inglis, FL. Oct. 4. PM. 1974,’” Rosemary said.
“That clue was vital. If he hadn’t done that, we would have had no idea where he went.”
But what was James doing in Inglis, Florida? What was he doing in Florida at all? The family was stumped.
According to police reports, James was suspected of flying to Florida under the alias Richard Gunning. He was supposedly planning to purchase Colombian marijuana to sell back in San Francisco.
The Norris family would go decades without knowing the whereabouts of James until 2011 when the human remains discovered in rural Dixie County, Florida, back in 1976 were identified. It took years and DNA sampling with the help of the University of North Texas to finally identify James Norris’ body.
Information about how James died is lacking, but, allegedly, he was carrying a large sum of cash on his person at the time to purchase the drugs. Rosemary believes her brother’s death was a drug deal gone bad and that he was robbed prior to the murder.
“It was so awful for my mother,” she said. “She didn’t know what to do.”
James’ disappearance was tough for his family, but probably more so for his mother than anyone else.
“She was strong, but she loves her kids so much,” Rosemary said. “When this happened, it destroyed her. She fell into a deep depression.”
Florida law enforcement agencies have put a lot of work into investigating this case but still need more information.
In 2020, FDLE announced that new leads were being worked in the case. According to FDLE spokeswoman Jessica Cary, the new leads “center on the group of purported marijuana dealers Norris was meeting, and their connections to Citrus County.”
Despite the nearly fifty years without answers, Rosemary holds out hope that whoever murdered her brother will pay for their crimes.
“Someone needs to pay for this because of what was taken from Jimmy,” she said. “All that future. What was he going to with his life? He was brilliant. He was a poet. He could have been an author.”
Rosemary saw first-hand how losing a loved one can affect a family. That experience inspired her to help others facing similar fights.
“After my brother’s remains were identified in 2011 and FDLE launched an investigation into his homicide, I wanted to learn about what may be coming next,” Rosemary said. “I went back to college and got a degree in criminal justice.”
Since 2014, she has been working in the missing person field, assisting families in the search for their loved ones.
If you have any information on the unsolved murder of James Norris, please call the Florida Department of Law Enforcement at (850) 410-7000.
Research & Impact
Project: Cold Case works tirelessly to ensure we are equipping survivors with helpful tips and suggestions for continuing the conversation of awareness for their loved ones.
One such recommendation is to reach back out to the investigating agency and start the process of re-introducing yourself and your loved one. Ideally, detectives and family members would discuss updates and status of a case regularly, but that simply isn’t the case, especially not when a case has been cold for decades.
The reasons for lack of communication can be lengthy – lack of funding for dedicated cold case departments, continuing crime impacting caseloads of investigators, original detective being promoted, changing departments, or retiring, and many more.
This often leaves the families without word of what happened. Many families reach out to our office and share that they never knew their original detective had retired.
By calling periodically, you are bringing your loved one’s names back to the forefront of the agency. When you are successful in getting a detective on the phone, be sure to have a list of questions or concerns to maximize the time you have with them. Ask specific questions that gauge if the case has been reviewed, if there is evidence that may benefit from technological advances, or even if they are willing to sit down with you to get an understanding of where the case sits and what has been done in the investigation.
Also, be mindful to update your contact information with law enforcement. Also, ask for your detective’s contact information – especially an email address. Having access to your detective allows for
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