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Heartland Unsolved Update: Charges filed in the murder of Tommy Rowland

Updated: Sep. 30, 2021 at 5:50 PM CDT
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POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. (KFVS) - A Heartland Unsolved update 34 years in the making.

A murder investigation we first told you about in 2016 results in charges filed against the man authorities call the prime suspect since day one.

“I’ve been working with Hannah Pender, the Carter County Prosecuting Attorney.”

And that new partnership pays off, allowing Poplar Bluff Detective Bryce Colvin to do something he’s worked on for the past decade.

“On July 14th, I finally filed a probable cause statement with her to file charges of murder first against Uel Joe Freeman for the murder of Tommy Rowland.”

Uel Joe Freeman is now charged with Rowland's murder.
Uel Joe Freeman is now charged with Rowland's murder.(Courtesy of the Missouri Dept. of Corrections)

Freeman, already serving time for assault and armed criminal action, now stands accused of shooting Tommy Rowland in May 1987.

We first introduced you to Rowland in May 2016.

Poplar Bluff Detective Bryce Colvin talking to Kathy Sweeney about the Rowland case in May 2016.
Poplar Bluff Detective Bryce Colvin talking to Kathy Sweeney about the Rowland case in May 2016.(KFVS)

According to police, the 39-year-old unemployed laborer clearly had a side job in the mid to late ‘80s working as a middle man getting large quantities of pot into the hands of lower level street dealers.

“He was involved in several assaults, home invasions, burglaries, been busted for drugs.”

Rowland was well known around town, and already on law enforcement’s radar in the spring of 1987. However, he most likely had no idea a higher player in the game wanted him out of the middle.

On May 14, 1987 at 12:45 p.m., shoppers at the Valley Plaza Mall took notice of a maroon Oldsmobile, and a foul odor emanating from the trunk. There was also some kind of substance dripping from underneath the trunk.

An officer arrived and opened it.

The sight and the smell forced him back a step.

It was the body of a white male, and it had been in there several days.

Crime scene photo of Rowland's car left in a Poplar Bluff shopping center with his body in the...
Crime scene photo of Rowland's car left in a Poplar Bluff shopping center with his body in the trunk.(Courtesy of Poplar Bluff Police Department)

Identification came quickly. Tommy Rowland had been shot once in the head. Crime scene photos show marijuana scattered across his chest.

It appeared this career criminal crossed the wrong person.

“Freeman has always been the main suspect. Once I was assigned this case file back in 2011, I discovered that the charges had been filed originally through Butler County back in 1987.”

Colvin said prosecutors dropped those charges when authorities tracked the deadly shooting to a property in rural Carter County. However, that did not change the evidence pointing to Freeman as the man who pulled the trigger.

Property in Carter County where authorities believe Rowland was likely killed.
Property in Carter County where authorities believe Rowland was likely killed.(Courtesy of Poplar Bluff Police Department)

When we retraced Rowland’s final steps in our original report, the last man he was seen with, we know now, was Uel Joe Freeman.

On May 11, 1987 at 6 p.m., Tommy Rowland was seen at a local bar, sitting with a younger guy. He had a medium build and shoulder-length hair.

This man is Colvin’s prime suspect.

They go to leave and Rowland’s wife, Rhonda, stopped them.

“Tommy, can I go with you,” she asked.

“No, I would rather you didn’t.” Those were Rowland’s exact words, according to the police report.

The two men leave the bar. It was the last time Rowland’s wife saw him alive.

“I’m very excited about finally having charges filed on it. It’s been a long, daunting task to get the case file organized and submittable for prosecution.”

Bryce Colvin isn’t just a Poplar Bluff detective. He’s an investigator with the U.S. Army, a job that’s put a pause on the Rowland investigation more than once over the years.

Now, he’s onto another deployment, but will still be able to have an active role in the case against Freeman.

“I’ve working it out virtually where any courtroom testimony or anything should be able to be done remotely. And I should be able to do my job for the military and at the same time be able to provide testimony to move the murder trial forward.”

Uel Joe Freeman officially received an warrant for his arrest in Tommy Rowland’s murder at the beginning of September.

He’s being held without bond, technically, but since he’s in prison there’s no concern about him getting out.

Detective Colvin said they’re still working out the details to get Freemen before a Carter County judge.

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