She was 18 then. Her roommate, Cheryl White, was 16, a runaway with something to prove. She had fled home one day in the fall of ’75 after a fight with her parents about bad grades, according to reports in the Macon Telegraph at the time. When they came home from work the next day, White was gone.
Within a matter of weeks, after moving in with Stewart, she was dead.
But Stewart escaped authorities for years — in large part because she managed to steer the homicide investigation away from herself by attempting to pin it on two young men who had nothing to do with the crime, police said.
Now, decades after police finally pinpointed Stewart as their prime suspect, she has escaped prosecution for good.
Just months before she was scheduled to go on trial in White’s killing, she died, Houston County’s assistant district attorney, Eric Edwards, told WGXA on Friday.
Stewart died of acute chronic respiratory failure in San Antonio in October while out on bond and in hospice care, the Macon Telegraph reported. She was scheduled to go on trial in May, but as prosecutors prepared for the case, they could not reach her and neither could her defense attorney. Authorities only recently learned it was because she was dead, Edwards said. Her death marks the end of a four-decade investigation fraught with missed opportunities and a lack of physical evidence, one Stewart herself appeared to control from the start through lies that led investigators astray. It wasn’t until 2017 that cold-case investigators caught up with her, after tracking down the tip they needed.
“We were ready to go, looking forward to finally trying to seek some justice for the family,” Edwards told WGXA. Instead, the case will be dismissed.
Stewart’s deception began immediately after White’s death, newspaper accounts show.
At the time, police were desperate for leads. The crime, described by the coroner as a “savage physical attack,” disturbed the town of Warner Robins, Ga., for its apparent senselessness: Nobody could figure a motive. There was no sign of a break-in, no evidence of sexual assault or theft. The assailant stabbed White 15 times and slit her throat in her bedroom.
White’s parents wondered in the news media whether they had done something wrong. They worried their daughter, a cashier at Piggly Wiggly who had her own car, was perhaps too independent for her age, and fell in “with the wrong kind of people” after leaving home, her mother told the newspaper. White lived with Stewart, then known as Mary Jane Staples, in a housing complex so raucous that news accounts called it the “party apartments” ― and on the night she died, plenty were raging.
The man who found her body, a neighbor, told the Macon Telegraph in the next day’s paper that he believed “Miss White knew her murderer.”
His picture ran right next to one of Stewart, looking down her nose at a cigarette.
The Macon Telegraph featured her in the article, too, apparently her first public comments after the slaying. She gave the reporter a story: All evening that Tuesday, she had an “uneasy sensation” that something had gone wrong at her apartment. She checked on White about 10:30 p.m., only to leave the apartment again and return to learn that White was dead, she claimed.
Police believed the tale, at least at first. They turned to Stewart for information as a key witness, and she gave it to them by identifying two young men she said had spent all night with White. They had to be the killers, she told police.
Armed with nothing more than Stewart’s testimony, police arrested and charged both men with murder. They were released shortly afterward, after a “serious question of credibility” tainted Stewart’s testimony, police later said.
“And those were four critical weeks for work on the case — gone,” a detective lamented in the Telegraph after Stewart misled them.
Stewart was convicted of perjury and sentenced to probation for providing false information under oath. But it’s unclear whether police considered her a person of interest after her apparent lies. The lead detective said months later that he believed it was the work of one man, probably a"pretty heavy drug dealer,” maybe even a drug dealer who meant to kill someone else — a case of “mistaken identity,” the detective surmised.
Within two years, police had not even recovered the murder weapon.
“It’s like a ghost in the closet,” Chief of Detectives Tommy Wright said of White’s unsolved death in a 1977 Telegraph article. “It haunts me even worse because I’m positive that I know who did it.”
He said he believed it was a young man.
But in the community, Edwards told WGXA, some neighbors never stopped believing that Stewart had to be the killer.
Finally, several years ago, a new mayor took office — and he happened to be Cheryl White’s childhood friend. Chuck Shaheen requested the Warner Robins Police Department reopen the case. It was a promise he had made to White’s family, he told 13WMAZ.
“Cheryl was a beautiful person, and we just want to make sure people remember her,” Shaheen, who is no longer mayor, told 13WMAZ.
By then, Stewart was no longer living in Warner Robins, having moved to San Antonio. Investigators, Edwards said, tracked down people who knew Stewart closely and managed to make contact with an ex-boyfriend. It turned out, she confessed to him, prosecutors claimed.
With that, they arrested Stewart on a warrant in March 2017 to the immense relief of family and friends. White’s death, an old friend said, “really did something to Warner Robins.”
“This changed my whole life, you know looking around wondering who did this for many years,” Kathy Grant Willoughby told 13WMAZ in 2017. " I still think about it to this day, but as of yesterday, we know who did it.”
She said Stewart’s arrest led her to write a letter to her childhood friend. She brought it to White’s grave, assuring her that “justice, finally, was going to be served.”
The motive for the killing remains unclear.