From the Editor

Drescher: Writer can't forget 1970 murder in 'Bloody Madison' County

jdrescher@newsobserver.comJanuary 10, 2014 

JOHN F. BLAIR, PUBLISHER

Nancy Morgan, a 24-year-old VISTA worker and recent graduate of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, was killed in the North Carolina mountains in June 1970. Her unclothed body was found hogtied in the back seat of a government-owned Plymouth, which had come to rest on an old dirt road on Hot Springs Mountain in Madison County.

Mark Pinsky, then a recent graduate of Duke University, read about Morgan’s death the day after her body was discovered. He immediately identified with the idealistic Morgan, even though they’d never met. “I felt as though a comrade had fallen,” Pinsky told me this week.

No one has ever been convicted of killing Morgan; there also was evidence she was sexually assaulted. A fellow VISTA worker (the program, modeled after the Peace Corps, stands for Volunteers In Service To America) was the last person known to have seen Morgan alive. He was charged with the slaying in 1984, largely based on the testimony of a man so unreliable he left the witness stand and was captured fleeing the courthouse. There was little evidence to convict the VISTA worker. The jury acquitted him in less than an hour.

Which left the question: Who killed Nancy Morgan?

Pinsky, now 66, could not get that question out of his mind. He started a file about Morgan shortly after her death. Pinsky, who lives in Florida, is a former Los Angeles Times reporter who has written four books about religion; his work has appeared over the years in The News & Observer. About 20 years ago, he started traveling regularly to Madison County every year to do his own research. The result is Pinsky’s recently published book, “Met Her on the Mountain: A Forty-Year Quest to Solve the Appalachian Cold-Case Murder of Nancy Morgan.”

Pinsky calls it “a tangled tale of rural noir.” He concludes, as the jury did, that the fellow VISTA worker did not kill Morgan. But Pinsky thinks he knows who did – a longtime Madison troublemaker who’s now in Central Prison after being convicted of murder in another case. In a taped interview, that man told Pinsky he was involved in Morgan’s death, which he said was unintentional.

Morgan was cheerful, friendly and had no known enemies in Madison County. Her death was big news. Walter Cronkite reported it on the “CBS Evening News.” J. Edgar Hoover, then-FBI director, reviewed a memo on the case and wrote questions in the margin.

‘Bloody Madison’

Morgan’s body was found on a Wednesday morning. Four days later, The N&O published a deeply reported article at the top of its Sunday front page, “Slaying Brings Fear to Madison County.” Kerry Gruson’s story was remarkably complete. “It took me four to five years to get a handle on the ethos of Madison County that she got in a week,” Pinsky told me.

In his book, he wrote: “Kerry Gruson’s was the best of the out-of-town newspaper accounts, dramatically different in depth and tone – notwithstanding that it was reported on the fly, written in her car, dictated by phone to the newsroom’s city desk on the way back to Raleigh, and published less than a week after Nancy’s body was found.”

Gruson wrote: “The county earned the name ‘Bloody Madison’ during the Civil War when it split between Union and Confederate causes and family feuds provoked long years of bloodshed. It is still known for its moonshiners, bootleggers, and politicians who know a thousand ways to win an election.”

Pinsky does not look favorably upon the work of then-Sheriff E.Y. Ponder. He says Ponder, brother to Madison political boss Zeno Ponder, focused on the male VISTA worker to prop up a sagging re-election campaign. (The Ponder brothers are long gone. E.Y.’s death in 2001 prompted this classic lead sentence from The N&O’s Rob Christensen: “They buried former Sheriff E.Y. Ponder of Marshall last week, which is no guarantee that he won’t continue to vote in Madison County.”)

A new Madison County

When Morgan was killed, many Madison County residents were distrustful of outsiders and were especially skeptical of the long-haired, sideburn-wearing VISTA young men, who were considered hippies. After Morgan’s death, VISTA pulled out of the county.

Pinsky says Madison is a different place now, welcoming outsiders. Among them is a friend of Pinsky’s family, a young woman who happens to be the first AmeriCorps VISTA worker in Madison in 43 years. She works on literacy issues, and the county has embraced her. “She loves it, and they love her,” Pinsky said. “Somewhere Nancy Morgan is smiling. The work she started that was cut short is continued today with a woman who is in many ways like her.”

With the publication of the book, Pinsky says his mission is accomplished. But he can’t forget Morgan, who would have turned 68 this month. He still adds to the files (he has about 100 now) he started 40 years ago. “This has always been with me since the day after her body was discovered,” he said. “It will be with me, I know, until I die.”

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com; Twitter: @john_drescher

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