Shaffer: Many still say group committed mummy murders

jshaffer@newsobserver.comAugust 10, 2012 

Bobby Mills mug

NC DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS

— Last week, I told you about Bobby Lee Mills, the convicted killer serving time for Raleigh’s “Mummy Murders,” a man sent to prison for binding three victims with neckties and suffocating them by wrapping their faces with duct tape.

Since then, I’ve learned that everybody else involved in that 1973 triple slaying believes Mills had help from a bigger gang of criminals – perhaps even the glamorously named Dixie Mafia – and that those culprits in this strange and gruesome case never came to justice.

I can’t talk to Mills yet. He got placed on disciplinary segregation at Central Prison shortly after writing The News & Observer in July. In those letters, he enclosed two cashier’s checks totaling $6,000, which we returned, and promised a look at fresh documents.

But while I’m waiting, I’ll share some of the bizarre details that keep landing on my desk.

“We always believed he absolutely, positively could not have done this alone,” said Raleigh attorney Wade Smith, who represented Mills at trial. “Even with a gun, holding them up, how are you going to get them wrapped up in tape?”

Let’s start with the Dixie Mafia.

Shortly after the killings, N.C. Attorney General Robert Morgan declared that the “mummy murders” looked like the work of this loosely knit syndicate known for cigarette smuggling, safe-cracking, prostitution and murder across the Southeast.

The work at the crime scene looked neat and professional – all victims gagged and bound. Police noted that two people had been found stuffed inside car trunks within a few days of each other, indicating the presence of organized crime.

Still, the theory didn’t sit with all the local gumshoes.

“I wish somebody would tell me what the Dixie Mafia is,” Raleigh Police Capt. J.V. Haley said at the time.

Decades-old press reports give details of this Southern-fried gang, most of them placing its headquarters in Mississippi around the Gulf Coast casinos. The Dixie Mafia caught blame for assassination-style murders around Biloxi.

But in North Carolina, investigators found a less lethal crew, prone to quickly blowing whatever money it made.

“I do recall they were involved in stealing a lot of farm equipment,” said Howard Satisky, a former assistant attorney general now in private practice. “I think this concept of Dixie Mafia was, to law enforcement, always more of a flash in the pan. It just sort of glamorized a bunch of thugs that had the sense to work together.”

Still, the crime was uncommonly grim for Raleigh in 1973 – thought to be the city’s first triple murder.

It wasn’t just the duct tape. Whoever killed the three victims, Smith recalled, left behind a pyramid of wine glasses stacked 12 or 15 glasses high. The bizarre sculpture was arranged such that if you poured wine in the top glass, it would spill over into the glasses below.

The victims’ identities added to the mystery. Nothing linked them except their place of employment: Joe Murray’s used car dealership. Grover “Shep” Broadwell was thought to be a crackerjack salesman. Della Murray was the owner’s young niece. Only Michael Collins drew the authorities’ attention: He was slated to testify to grand juries in both Franklin County and Atlanta, linked to a convicted drug dealer here and the Dixie Mafia in Georgia.

The theory persisted that Broadwell and Murray were bystanders, caught up in an attempt to silence Collins. But Broadwell’s nephew, Leonard Doucette in New Bern, told me this week that his uncle acted strangely just before being killed. He passed his family a large sum of money, asking that it be given to his daughter if anything ever happened to him.

“I always thought there was more to it,” Doucette said. “It wasn’t a robbery. My uncle had on a big diamond ring, and that was not taken. My uncle was not a bad person. I think he got involved over his head.”

Mills landed in the case literally out of the sky.

Authorities arrested him at the Miami Airport in 1982, almost a decade after the killings, the first and only suspect ever charged. Mills told police he was a “metal broker” living in Florida with his wife and child, but they called him a “multi-state offender” wanted on burglary, larceny and drug charges.

In their indictment, a grand jury accused Mills not only of killing the three, but of trying to hire a man to kill Collins for $10,000. He also stood accused of aiding in another murder by collecting ash trays, beer cans and wine glasses to confuse investigators with extra fingerprints.

In Raleigh, Bill Ross knew him from their mutual affinity for gambling.

Now 71, living in Hickory, Ross recalled Mills as a terrible card player and bumbling, would-be thief who once drove his car into the side of a building in Wilson in a failed attempt to rob it.

“Having to cheat never came into play with him,” Ross said. “He couldn’t play anything. He couldn’t play a radio.”

Once in custody, Smith said, Mills made a deal through his previous attorney to take a lie-detector test.

If he passed it, the charges would be dropped.

He failed it, Smith said, calling it a terrible deal made over inadmissible evidence.

But even after he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, few considered the case closed.

“There had to be others,” said District Attorney William P. Hart, shortly after seeing Mills placed behind bars.

But only Mills took the rap.

I wonder what he will say.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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