BUFFALO, NEW YORK – James Fountain seemed terrified when he called 911 to report a grisly discovery 18 years ago: Stuffed inside a wooden nightstand left in the backyard of his Montana Avenue home, he told the operator, he had found the chopped-up body parts of a woman.
Fountain, who had come off as meek and soft-spoken, cooperated with the investigation into the murder of Cynthia Epps, a 29-year-old mother of two young daughters, according to police who probed the horrific 1994 murder.
But last week, Buffalo’s Cold Case Squad detectives watched as the man who had seemed so shocked by the mutilated remains was arraigned in State Supreme Court on a charge of second-degree murder, accused of killing Epps and dismembering her body. He pleaded not guilty.
Recently uncovered evidence led investigators to Fountain.
More than a year ago, Cold Case Detective Charles Aronica was sifting through unsolved cases involving the slayings of women in the early to mid-1990s. He was hoping that recent innovations in DNA technology might reveal new leads.
The Epps case, from 1994, jumped out at Aronica. It had occurred during the city’s worst year for homicides in modern times — 92 killings. In contrast, there were 36 homicides reported in the city last year.
“Her murder was horrific, and I knew if we got evidence, that this might be the last cold case I reopened before retiring next year,” Aronica said.
Aronica, along with fellow Detective Lissa Redmond, began poring over the old evidence.
They went over crime scene photographs to identify where they might still find DNA evidence that would lead them to the killer, and they gave Erie County Central Police Services Forensic Crime Lab official Paul Mazur a long list of items to be tested. Mazur put forensic biologist Michelle Lillie on the case.
Months passed as Lillie conducted “meticulous testing” on the many pieces of evidence that were nearly two decades old.
Finally, they got a break.
DNA different from Epps’ was isolated. But whose was it?
The cold case detectives already were suspicious that Fountain was the man they were looking for.
Back in 1994, he had been ruled out after interviews determined he had not known Epps.
“Detectives had no reason to suspect Fountain had anything to do with it because he had no connection to her,” Redmond explained.
Investigators were left to assume Epps’ body parts, wrapped in a green blanket and placed in a wooden nightstand, had been randomly dumped in Fountain’s backyard on the 100 block of Montana.
But Aronica and Redmond learned that four months after the June 1994 slaying of Epps, a resident of Goodyear Avenue who lived only a couple of blocks away from Montana Avenue, Fountain was arrested for attempting to rape a woman.
In that case, Fountain had placed the woman inside a box and locked her inside a bathroom at her home.
“Fortunately, she managed to escape,” Redmond said.
Aronica and Redmond busied themselves digging further into Fountain’s past and discovered he had been convicted in 1977 of killing a woman in New York City.
“We would not have known about the manslaughter conviction at the time of the Epps murder because the records weren’t as easily available back then,” Redmond said.
A check of the New York State Sex Offender Registry revealed that he was convicted in 1984 for sexual attacks involving 7- and 8-year-old girls in the New York City area.
Sometime later, Fountain moved from New York City to Buffalo because he had relatives here, Redmond said.
The detectives didn’t have a hard time finding Fountain.
He was at Central New York Psychiatric Center in Marcy, where he had been placed in indefinite civil confinement after he had completed his lengthy prison sentence on the attempted rape from 1994 and other charges.
A judge agreed with the state’s claim that he had a “mental abnormality” and, if released, would pose a threat to society.
Obtaining a sample of his DNA to compare to the one found at the Epps crime scene was the next step.
That also proved easy for the detectives. After Fountain’s 1995 conviction on the felony attempted rape, a sample of his DNA was taken for a statewide criminal data base.
The results came back in October 2011. Lillie determined that the unidentified DNA taken from the Epps slaying matched Fountain’s.
“Given what we now know about the Epps homicide, I believe this is proof that civil confinement works,” Redmond said. “Who knows what could have happened if he had been released?”
Police are not saying much about Fountain’s motive for allegedly killing Epps, but Aronica did say, “It may have been an argument between the two of them.”
Two months ago, Redmond and Aronica interviewed Fountain at Marcy. And though the detectives declined to release the results of the interview, they said it went well.
What surprised them was the manner in which Fountain conducted himself. A small man who presents himself as unassuming, Fountain was extremely polite, they said.
The unexpected solving of the cold case has left the Epps family grateful that their daughter, sister and mother was not forgotten.
“This won’t bring my sister back, and I will not be held hostage or victim for what he did to my sister, but I am very grateful to both detectives,” said Epps’ sister, Roxanne McKinney Cumberlander.
Cumberlander added that when she saw Fountain in court last week, she realized he was a sick man.
“I forgive him and pray that he gets help and that God will save him,” she said.
Redmond said, “The family’s gratitude is overwhelming and makes our job meaningful.”
Fountain is now being held in the Erie County Holding Center, awaiting his next appearance before State Supreme Court Justice Penny Wolfgang.
Fountain’s court appearance was on the same day Aronica, a city officer for 40 years, celebrated his 60th birthday.
“This turned out to be a great birthday present, helping the Epps family get some closure,” Aronica said.