In the fall of 1984, Ronald Reagan was halfway through his two terms as President. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was about to close the year at 1,211. A typical movie ticket cost $2.50, gasoline was about $1.10 per gallon and the film Amadeus was on its way to winning Best Picture.
On November 15, 1984 a couple was found shot to death in their rural Lincoln County home. Thomas McKnight, known as “Cotton,” had just observed his birthday the day before. He was a life-long native of New Mexico, having been born November 14, 1952 in Roswell. He and his wife, the former Judy Lee Rickley, lived in Picacho. The couple had been married since December 10, 1977 at a family ceremony on their ranch.
Cotton was a third generation New Mexico resident. His grandfather Thomas Judson McKnight and grandmother Nannie Potts McKnight had moved from Texas to Chavez County as early as 1910, two years before New Mexico became a state. They had acquired ranch property near Ruidoso but maintained a residence in Roswell. Cotton’s father Joe William McKnight and his mother Avalon Mae “Adgie” Russ McKnight were sheep ranchers in the same general area as Judd had ranched.
According to New Mexico Department of Public Safety Cold Case files, Cotton and Judy ran the Upper McKnight Ranch in southeastern Lincoln County. They were found shot to death, execution style, in the kitchen of their home. Each had last been seen alive two days earlier. The report also stated that there was no sign of forced entry, indicating that the victims likely knew the person or persons who shot them.
(Image credit: http://www.dps.state.nm.us)
Cotton McKnight’s obituary stated that he was a rancher and a member of several civic organizations, including the Ruidoso Masonic Lodge, the Elks Lodge, the York Rite Bodies & Ballut Abyad Shrine, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, and the New Mexico Woolgrowers Association. He served as chairman of the Lincoln County Commission from 1978 to 1982. His wife Judy was a homemaker and had lived in Picacho since their wedding in 1977. She was a native of Colorado, having been born in Longmont on February 17, 1946. Their funeral service was held at First Baptist Church and they were interred at South Park Cemetery in Roswell.
As of today, almost thirty-three years later, the case is classified as a cold case. The initial investigation was performed by the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department and the New Mexico State Police. Lincoln County convened an investigative grand jury, but was unable to return an indictment. According to New Mexico Department of Public Safety, no suspects have been publicly identified.
A 1985 article in The Ruidoso News discussed the case and included several quotes from District Attorney James Weldon where he named several possible conflicts between the District Attorney and the Lincoln County Sheriff’s department regarding their respective approaches to the investigation, suspects who may have been identified, the possible inadmissibility of evidence and other aspects of the case. Whether the conflicts hindered the solving of the case, we may never know.
The New Mexico Department of Public Safety asks that if you have information on this or any other unsolved homicide, you may contact the Investigations Bureau Cold Case Homicide Unit at (505) 827-9066.
Addendum: There is a now a Facebook page dedicated to this case. It’s called Justice for Cotton and Judy McKnight. https://www.facebook.com/McKnightColdCase/
There is also a podcast called True Consequences that discusses this case in detail: http://trueconsequences.libsyn.com/unsolved-cotton-and-judy-mcknight
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