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Songs in the Key of Murder

After nearly two years, "Karaoke Killer" Joseph Crouch Jr. is still at large.

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On Wednesday, June 20, 2001, a letter concerning $8,000 of bad checks left the state attorney general's office. It was addressed to Joseph "Jay" Crouch Jr., a 58-year-old mortgage specialist from Memphis. The letter warned Crouch that prosecution was imminent and that he could expect to face fines and jail time for his actions. For Crouch, it was a warning shot -- fair notice that his world, a world that increasingly revolved around the pursuit of earthly pleasures, was about to come unraveled in a hurry. Crouch had, by that point, kited almost $30,000 in checks. A fraudulent business scheme was catching up with him and criminal charges would be forthcoming. His mortgage company, Metro Credit Center, was in financial shambles, and his snowballing debts seemed insurmountable. At least Joseph Crouch had a loving family to turn to. He had two adult children: a son Joseph III, who had joined him in the family business, and a daughter, Teresa Wampler. He had Betsy, a doting wife of more than 40 years. And Joseph Crouch had another comfort as well: He loved to sing karaoke.

On Saturday, June 23, 2001, three days after the letter was sent from the attorney general, Crouch and his wife drove across the Tennessee border to Mississippi. They met friends at a karaoke club called the Cotton Gin. The Crouches had gotten into karaoke a dozen years earlier, and it had become a defining and indispensable part of their fun-loving lifestyle. For special occasions they would rent a karaoke machine, and their annual Halloween sing-along parties were famous among friends. What had begun as a weekend hobby had grown into something of an obsession. As many as four nights a week, the Crouch family could be found sipping gin and tonics and singing karaoke in any number of Memphis clubs.

The Hickory Hill Café, located amid the sprawling warehouses of Raines Road, and the lonely-looking Viaduct Lounge, hidden beneath the viaduct where Jackson crosses Chelsea at the National Cemetery, were among their favorite haunts. Crouch was the son of a Baptist minister, and he loved to sing gospel songs, particularly Elvis Presley's version of "Amazing Grace." Betsy, a Patsy Cline fan, liked to perform "Crazy." As was his custom, Crouch called Betsy up to stand with him for his last performance at the Cotton Gin. He looked into her eyes and sang "Always On My Mind," the aching Willie Nelson ballad in which a heartbroken man offers a feeble, narcissistic excuse for squandering the love of his life. According to witnesses, Betsy embraced her husband while he sang and rested her head on his shoulder.

"Maybe I didn't love you quite as often as I could have," the song begins. "And maybe I didn't treat you quite as good as I should have Tell me that your sweet love hasn't died. Give me one more chance to keep you satisfied You were always on my mind. You were always on my mind."

On Sunday, June 25th, Crouch played golf. He cashed a bad check for $600 and gave $200 to Betsy for groceries. Betsy gave her husband a haircut, and the couple spent the rest of the day in and around their home, a modest single-story brick house on Oakland Hills Drive, in a nice, if somewhat rundown, working-class neighborhood in Hickory Hill. After dinner, Crouch fell asleep in his chair, just as he always did.

According to police reports, on Monday around 6 a.m., Crouch put a pillow over Betsy's head, aimed a .25-caliber handgun at his high school sweetheart -- the girl he married when he was 18 and she was merely 16 -- and shot her three times in the face and once in the chest. Then he fled, first to his office at Metro Credit on the strip-mall-infested section of Park Avenue just east of Highland and then to parts unknown. He may or may not have picked up a woman named Didi -- a mysterious red-headed call girl officials believe he'd met and begun an online affair with -- before finally skipping town.

Reports in The Commercial Appeal chronicled a series of letters Jay sent to his family, letters that suggested his guilt but didn't exactly add up to a full confession. "I know that every day that passes the odds increase that I will be caught and my life will end," read one letter, dated November 2001. It was signed, "With deep love, Dad." But, the fact is, Crouch had confessed already, and by the time the letters started arriving, local authorities were convinced of his guilt. Legal concerns kept members of Crouch's family from immediately going public with information about a telephone call they had received from their father on the day after their mother was murdered. In that call, Crouch, who was hiding in Jackson, Tennessee, confessed his crime to his family, and he sought advice while attempting to make excuses for himself. He wanted the family to believe his murderous actions were motivated by love -- not so much a crime of passion as a mercy killing. He told his shocked family that their mother had cancer.

It was all a lie. While the autopsy showed that Betsy Crouch was showing early signs of emphysema, she was cancer-free. "Some would say that what I did was selfish," Crouch wrote in a subsequent letter, "and [what I did] was a coward's way out." It's the closest Crouch came to a written confession, and it's probably the closest he has come to date to confessing his true motivations.

Even with Crouch's confession, the pieces of the puzzle don't appear to add up. Not to murder, anyway. Yes, Crouch was in financial trouble -- trouble that was exacerbated by his chronic online and casino gambling habits. According to the police, Crouch loved to play the big shot, and when he was entertaining clients from out of town he would take them to Tunica and throw money around. He'd also been known to gamble thousands on a single golf game. Because of his bad checks and other fraudulent business activities, there was almost certainly a prison cell looming in Crouch's future. And there are indications that Crouch was being unfaithful to Betsy, and he knew he could be in for a world of heartache should that dirty little secret ever come out in court.

Still, none of these situations, taken alone or in concert, begins to explain why Joseph Crouch shot his wife. He could have just packed his bags and left. He would have been in the same position he is today -- on the run -- but without a murder rap hanging over his head.

"That's the missing piece of the puzzle," says Lt. Mickey Williams of the MPD's homicide division. "He could have just left. People do that all the time. Maybe he had another girl on the side. Maybe he didn't want to go through a divorce or bigamy or whatever. It could be that he had planned a murder-suicide but then couldn't go through with his end of it. But the family doesn't think that he was the kind of person who could have ever taken his own life."

Taking his own life might have ended Crouch's troubles, but it wouldn't have taken the terrible financial burden off of his family. According to his letters, Crouch had let his life-insurance policy lapse. But that fact, like his assertion that Betsy had cancer, was more than likely just another dodge designed to gain the family's sympathy. It's pretty obvious that Crouch was, and still is, a man who enjoys living far too much to ever commit suicide.

"You've got to think about this," Lt. Williams says. "After he killed his wife, he took her bag of golf clubs out of her shiny, brand-new Mercury Sable and put them in his [shabby] old [Mercury Tracer]. Then he took his clubs out of his car, put them in the brand-new Sable, then he drove off in the Sable."

Betsy's body wasn't even cold yet, and Crouch was already thinking about his next 18 holes. In his letters, Crouch has alluded to his recreational activities, including golf. He also wrote the family and told them that whenever he watches local sports teams such as Ole Miss play, it reminds him of home.

And then, of course, there is the karaoke.

A letter dated Christmas 2002 reads: "Dear Teresa and Jay -- I am enclosing two [karaoke] CDs that I made. You'll probably want to throw them away. If that's so, that's OK too. I would understand. Thought you might want to keep them just to have. There is nothing on them that would give any clue as to how they were made, where they were made, etc. Who knows, maybe [my grandson] will enjoy them someday." Included on the discs were tracks of Crouch singing "Cryin'" and "Stand By Me." Like his choice of "Always On My Mind," more desperate apology penned at the point of no return than love song, the tunes Crouch recorded for his family seem to be riddled with remorse and bitter irony. They are entirely at odds with Crouch's written admission to his family, "I should be having nightmares. ... But I don't."

Shortly after Betsy Crouch's murder, the MPD sent alerts about Joseph Crouch to the casinos along the Gulf Coast. They also sent information to casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City as well as other resort areas and cruise lines a man with Crouch's tastes might be attracted to. The MPD's hunch was correct. The letters Crouch sent to his family were postmarked New Orleans, the pleasure center of the Deep South. Crouch had a power-of-attorney document notarized in St. Bernard Parish, outside of New Orleans, and contacted a family friend in Gretna, a New Orleans suburb. A crudely disguised Crouch, wearing what appeared to be a fake mustache, was identified by family members from a grainy surveillance tape provided by the main post office in New Orleans.

According to Lt. Williams, just because Crouch is spending time in New Orleans doesn't mean he's taken up residence there or even near there. Williams initially feared Crouch had gone to New Orleans to get a passport in order to leave the country. He says now that it's just as likely that Crouch is moving around the numerous casinos in the area and only coming into New Orleans to mail his letters.

On January 26, 2003, an article about Crouch and his gambling and karaoke habits ran in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Officials hoped someone in the New Orleans karaoke scene might see the article and identify Crouch.

"The thing is," Lt. Williams says concerning the importance of the Times-Picayune story, "nobody is going to look at this 60-year-old man singing karaoke and think, That guy's a murderer! Nobody's going to suspect that this [gregarious] old guy is hiding some deep, dark secret."

Shortly after the story ran, tips started rolling in to the police, but the most promising lead turned out to be a bust. Fingerprints collected from a man believed to be Crouch didn't match what the MPD had on file from a 1987 DUI charge, Crouch's only other run-in with the law prior to allegedly murdering his wife.

Nearly two years after committing one of the Mid-South's most inexplicable murders, Joseph Crouch continues to elude authorities. According to Williams, spreading the word about Crouch throughout the casino, golf, and karaoke communities seems like one of the best ways to catch him. "I feel sure that [Crouch] has started his life somewhere else," he says. "And he's gambling and playing golf. He's singing karaoke." n

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