Suspect maintains innocence

3 Durham killings create a time warp

Staff WriterApril 18, 2005 

Recovering from foot surgery, Ronnie Lindbergh Manning was sitting in his living room one Tuesday night in February when a blast rattled his house. He stood up, but someone tackled him to the floor. His house was suddenly teeming with heavily armed police officers, searching his possessions, taking his guns.

Police had a warrant for Manning's arrest in a notorious unsolved crime 200 miles away in Durham, N.C.: three men shot, slashed and beaten to death in an illegal liquor house in 1976.

But this wasn't the first time Manning had been a suspect. The morning after those slayings, police had charged into Manning's home on the North Carolina coast and questioned him.

They let him go. For 28 years, Manning carried on with his life. He had children, sold used cars, drove a truck and led a quiet life in a Virginia Beach subdivision. Until Feb. 8.

At age 54, his beard gray and white, his blood pressure rising, Manning found himself sitting in an interrogation room across from a man who introduced himself as Durham police Sgt. Jack Cates. Last year, Cates had reopened the triple murder investigation and, with new evidence, identified two living suspects.

"Why am I here?" Manning asked the detective. "You guys cleared me a long time ago."

"Because you did it," Cates said.

Durham police decline to discuss the new evidence that led to the arrests of Manning and of Gary Ernest "Whitey" Bennett, 56, in Durham, nearly three decades after the killings.

On Oct. 7, 1976, Aubrey L. Goss, 63, was found dead inside the East Durham garage where he served liquor and hosted high-stakes card games. Nearby were the bodies of two helpers, Walter Dean, 53, and William Wheeler, 37.

Police said the crimes at the house, which stands at what is now 1410 Braxton St., were linked to the motorcycle gang Hell's Angels. But before this year, no one had been charged.

Bennett, who is out on bail, has declined to be interviewed. A third suspect is dead.

Manning admitted that he was in the garage the night of the killings. But in an interview at the Virginia Beach jail, Manning maintained his innocence. Fighting extradition from Virginia to face charges in Durham, Manning sat in a wheelchair during the interview, partially obscured by a mesh screen.

"I know in my heart and soul that I didn't do it," he says, his small eyes widening behind his wire-framed glasses. His past wasn't perfect, he says. He may have been a petty thief. But not a killer.

Manning describes his beginnings as the oldest of six children on a farm in Rocky Mount. Money problems moved the family to Durham's Few Gardens public housing complex. As a teenager, Manning ran around Durham and Hillsborough with other troublemakers from the neighborhood, including Bennett, he says. A couple of break-ins landed both men in prison in the 1970s.

Manning's mother was ill and often told her son that his disreputable lifestyle was killing her, Manning recalled, wiping tears from his eyes. At age 26, Manning left Durham with his wife and went to Atlantic Beach, landing work as a painter.

Manning's alibi

The day before the killings occurred, Manning said, he was in Durham visiting his mother. He started feeling ill and had a fever of 103 degrees. He wanted to get back to Atlantic Beach, he said, to see a doctor in the morning. But before making the three-hour drive, he stopped by an old hangout: Aubrey Goss' liquor house on what was then Driver Avenue.

About 40 people were there when he arrived, almost all residents of East Durham, he said. He recalled seeing Goss just hours before he was killed, but said he does not remember seeing the other two victims or Bennett. Manning says he had a couple of beers, a shot of dark liquor, then went home between 9 p.m. and midnight.

About 8 the next morning, Goss' brother discovered the three bodies.

Goss was lying near the steel door at the front of the bootleg house. He had been shot eight times, with some bullets fired into his body after he was dead, according to an autopsy report.

Dean was slumped over in a chair farther inside the room, beaten and stabbed, an autopsy report shows. His glasses were propped on the arm of the chair, the report says. Wheeler was found lying in a cot. He had been stabbed 34 times and sustained at least 40 blows to his head, according to an autopsy report. One of his fingers was broken, indicating he had fought back, the report said.

Police estimated the men were killed at 3:30 a.m.

At 9:30 a.m., Manning was in his house in Atlantic Beach when police burst in, pointing guns at his head and asking where he had been the night before. He told them his story, how he had been to the doctor already that morning, he said. The police checked out his alibi, and left him alone after that day, he said. But the raid was enough to sully his reputation in Atlantic Beach, Manning said. So he and his wife moved to Virginia Beach to start fresh.

Manning learned to sell used cars and helped his wife manage apartment complexes for a realty company. He helped raise his two sons and his teenage grandson. He would watch his neighbors' homes when they were out of town. He hasn't been convicted of a crime in Virginia for two decades.

Polygraph test

Manning had thought about the killings and they had come up in conversation briefly at times, he says. But they were part of his long-ago history in Durham. On Feb. 8, memories of his first time as a triple-murder suspect returned as Manning sat across from Cates, looking at crime scene photos.

"He had a stack of pictures about an inch-and-a-half thick," Manning says. "He started shuffling those pictures like he was dealing cards. ... You can't erase things from your mind."

On Feb. 22, Manning voluntarily took a polygraph test. He said he wanted to reassure his family of his innocence.

A Virginia Beach-based polygraph examiner said the test showed that Manning told the truth when he said he had no involvement in the deaths of Goss, Wheeler and Dean. Polygraph tests are not admissible in North Carolina courts, but Manning said the test is one more piece of proof that he's not a killer.

Cates disagreed.

"He's had 30 years to convince himself that he didn't do it," the investigator said.

Manning is scheduled to appear in a Virginia Beach court May 9 for an arraignment.

Staff writer Samiha Khanna can be reached at 956-2468 or skhanna@newsobserver.com.

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