Shaffer: A tip goes mum on 1973 mummy murders

jshaffer@newsobserver.comAugust 5, 2012 

Bobby Mills mug

NC DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS

— In 1973, police discovered three bodies suffocated inside a Raleigh apartment, their hands bound with neckties and their heads wrapped from chin to eyebrows with duct tape – a lurid case the press soon dubbed the “mummy murders.”

At the time, investigators linked the triple slaying to the Dixie Mafia, a loose-knit crime syndicate skilled at safe-cracking, cigarette smuggling, gambling and prostitution across the South.

But eight years later, they hung the deed on one 28-year-old man: Bobby Lee Mills, a metal broker living in Florida with his wife and child. His sentence: Life in prison, where the world largely forgot about him.

Until now.

Mills started writing The News & Observer in July, enclosing a cashier’s check for $4,900, promising much more. About a week later, a check for $1,100 arrived. On July 22, he wrote me from Central Prison asking to meet and “facilitate the exchange of documents in my possession.”

He signed it with a quote from Bob Dylan: “Some people feel the rain, others just get wet.”

We mailed the money back to Mills, but much as I’d like to, I can’t visit him for an explanation until September. Shortly after writing, he went into disciplinary segregation for a string of offenses in April, including threatening to injure staff.

But while we wait, it seemed like a good time to blow a little dust off this case, thought to be the first triple murder in Raleigh’s history.

“Everything in the case indicated that Bobby Lee Mills was not an inexperienced youth that made a mistake,” prosecutor William P. Hart said in 1982. “It was nothing but a professional murder committed by the coldest type of person who, for money, would go and kill three people.”

The three victims found in the Tivoli Court Apartments near Lions Park all worked for Auto Bargains Inc., a used car dealership on North Boulevard. Grover Shepard Broadwell, 54, was manager; Michael Allen Collins, 33, and Della Murray, 20, worked there part time.

Collins, it was reported, stood the size of a linebacker.

“It would take a big man to get him down,” said an unidentified friend at the time.

The case, investigators said, revolved around Collins. At the time of death, he was scheduled to testify about a safe-cracking case before a Franklin County grand jury. His connections led law enforcement to believe the Dixie Mafia had a hand in the mummy murders.

“Indications are that the crime was committed by an organized group,” Raleigh police Capt. James Stell said in 1974, one year later.

When they picked up Mills in 1981, Florida authorities reported that he had been kidnapped and badly beaten in a drug-related incident. Indictments in Wake County linked him in a conspiracy with two other men, one of them a convicted drug dealer, but neither of the other two was charged. Police hinted at further arrests to come, but none came. The case grew stranger once the trial started a year later.

An ex-SBI agent testified that Mills described being involved in an elaborate plot to kill Collins, one in which Collins was made to believe he was taking part in a robbery, but was actually killed along with the other victims – both bystanders in the case. Yet Mills also told the agent he’d refused to take part.

Later, a Central Prison inmate and a convicted felon testified they’d heard Mills talking about the case, in one case bragging about it being “more fun than shoplifting.”

His attorney, Wade Smith, tore into the witnesses’ credibility but offered no evidence. Mills left the courtroom in shackles, convicted in one of Raleigh’s most sensational murders.

I don’t know what documents Mills wants to present, and I can’t tell from his letters what the money is supposed to be for, but I’m happy to speak with him when I can.

We get lots of letters from inmates – “jail mail,” it’s jokingly called at The N&O. But I’ve never had anyone send money from behind bars. Of course we can’t keep it, but still, it’s curious.

Mills, now 59, says he’s suffering from four terminal diseases and hasn’t long to live. He also says he’s been held in a mental health block against his will. Department of Corrections officials say he’s been denied parole many times since 2001.

Time will have to tell what the mummy murder man has to say.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4818

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