Slain couple's family hopeful clues will emerge

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comOctober 2, 2012 

— The vacant property at 870 E. South Bear Creek Drive might not look like much to someone passing through town, but to Jim Chapman, it was once a small slice of Eden.

It's where the home belonging to his parents, Bill and Lena Chapman, once stood. As a child, Jim Chapman played amid the tall orange trees and large garden in his father's yard.

During summertime, he and other kids would dig tunnels in the mud. Or simply walk across the street to Bear Creek and float as far as a rubber raft would carry them. "This was heaven," he recalled, letting out a sigh.

But these aren't the first thoughts that come to mind as he stands in front of the empty space that used to be his parents' home.

Six years ago this week, someone broke into the Chapmans' house, killed them and set fire to the residence. The slayings are among the city's most notorious cold cases. Bill and Lena Chapman, ages 91 and 81, respectively, had no enemies and lived on a relatively quiet street.

Revisiting the site of his parents' slayings is always emotional, but Jim Chapman, along with his family and friends, always returns there this time of year. They go door-to-door and pass out fliers, hoping anyone with information about the slayings will come forward.

The family will hold a vigil at 7 p.m. Saturday at the site where the couple's home stood. The public is invited.

Jim Chapman said tips to the Police Department tend to increase when his family holds a vigil at the home site. He hasn't lost hope that one day, someone might provide a tip that will solve the case.

"It's hard to have the vigil, but we have to do it," Jim said, accompanied by his wife, Jenny Chapman, as they walked the neighborhood Saturday.

She said Oct. 1 opens old wounds for the Chapman family. "You just kind of put things in a box just to keep your sanity," she said. "This time of year, it's hard."

Sgt. Scott Skinner, who supervises the Merced Police Department's Investigations Division, said police aren't releasing details about the couple's deaths. Police have been tight-lipped about the case over the years, citing the integrity of the ongoing investigation.

For example, police haven't said how they were killed, or whether there are any persons of interest.

Over the years, the Chapmans' story has been featured on television programs such as Jane Velez-Mitchell and Jacque MacDonald's "The Victim's Voice." The state is offering a $50,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest of the killers.

Skinner said police believe burglars broke into the home, and that the couple interrupted them. He said the burglars probably set fire to the home to destroy any physical or forensic evidence.

"We are still actively working that case, and still following up on all leads," Skinner said.

When asked whether the couple may have known the culprits, Skinner replied, "I do not think it's a close personal friend of theirs or someone they knew on an everyday basis. It definitely could have been an acquaintance or someone that had done some type of work for them."

Skinner said some items were taken from the house, although he wouldn't identify what those were.

Firefighters discovered the bodies of the couple inside the home after responding to the fire.

The couple moved to Merced in 1953. Bill Chapman got a job at Sterling's Department Store, where he worked in the shoe department. He then struck out on his own, opening Chapman's Shoes in 1961. The couple had three children: Karen, Gail and Jim.

Bill Chapman retired and closed the store in 1980. He remained active, working for other shoe outfits as well as selling vitamins and vacuums.

Police are asking anyone with information about the case to call Detective Joe Deliman at (209) 385-6992 or the department's automated tipline at (209) 385-4725. Tips are kept confidential, and callers can remain anonymous.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

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