BLACKWELLS HOLLOW, Va. (PIX11) -- Keith Ford can’t shake the memory of that Sunday morning in November 1997, when a New York City police detective called him in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia to tell him his daughter, Sheri Ann, was dead, slain in the basement of a Brooklyn house.
“He said it was my daughter, because it was her driver’s license,” Ford recalled through tears, standing in the woods of his Crozet, Virginia, property. “I said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’”
But Ford made the seven-hour drive in his pick-up from Blackwells Hollow to Brooklyn and mournfully discovered the detective was correct when he identified his 22-year-old daughter at the Kings County Hospital morgue. The morgue attendant tried to gently tell Ford that he couldn’t take his daughter’s body right away.
“And I just told him, ‘You know, we come to get what’s ours. We’re country people. We’re hillbillies. We just come to get what belongs to us,’” he said.
Ford, now almost 72 years old, remembered taking his daughter’s body back to Virginia and burying Sheri Ann on his land, with an etching of Mickey Mouse on the black gravestone.
“She had the original Annette Funicello hat,” Ford told PIX11 at the grave site. “I bought it for her at auction.”
PIX11 Investigates traveled to meet Ford in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so we could show viewers the place where a New York City murder victim had grown up and perhaps to help get new information about whoever killed her.
Detective Steve Litwin from the NYPD’s Cold Case Squad told PIX11 that Sheri Ann Ford spent her last evening alive in 1997 with her on-again-off-again boyfriend, John Valenzuela.
Ford had briefly attended the University of Virginia, before she quit to start working in a restaurant in northern Virginia.
Her stepmother told PIX11 the owners of that restaurant were busted in a drug raid, and Sheri next headed to New York.
“She started styling her hair a lot different, wearing heavier make-up,” said Mary Ellen Ford, Sheri’s stepmother.
Her father remembered getting a phone call from Sheri early in the summer of 1997.
“She said, 'I’m in Queens, New York. I got burned out on radiology, and me and my girlfriend came up to see the city,'" Ford recalled.
The Friday before her murder, Ford told PIX11 his daughter called him and said she was ready to come home, after several months in the Big Apple.
“I said, ‘You know, baby, I have seven old houses in the Hollow, pick one.’”
Sheri never made it home.
Her boyfriend, John Valenzuela, made a 911 call about 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 7, 1997. He said Sheri had been forced to perform a sex act by two men who invaded the basement apartment on Linden Boulevard in East Flatbush.
She was stripped, her wrists and ankles bound with leather straps, and put on a recliner in the basement. Sheri was shot once in the back of the head.
Detective Litwin doesn’t believe all of Valenzuela’s story.
For one thing, Valenzuela claimed the shooter tried to get him “and that the man with the gun ran by him and tried to shoot him but the gun misfired.”
Valenzuela also told a neighbor to look out the window, as Sheri’s white Suzuki jeep was driven away.
“The jeep was found running about five blocks away,” Detective Litwin observed.
The neighbor also reported hearing a possible “muffled” gunshot about 5:30 a.m. that Sunday, three hours before 911 was called.
Litwin and the NYPD Crime Stoppers Unit are offering a reward to anyone who can offer information that leads to an arrest and a conviction. The phone number for confidential tips is 1-800-577-TIPS.
Sheri Ford’s father is offering something more.
“It would be a whole lot of comfort to me, right now, if I could find out who did that," Ford said. "And I would take real good care of the person who helped me find him."
He carries a water-damaged photo of a mug shot he claims is John Valenzuela.
“This man right here either killed my child or he knows who killed my child,” Ford said. “I’d like to find him and talk to him.”
Valenzuela was never charged with any crime in connection with the case and he’s believed to be living in Oklahoma. But Ford would still like to have a talk with him.