'Met Her on the Mountain' - Part 3 of 5

During a Madison County trial in Nancy Morgan's death, a weak case unravels

March 3, 2014 

  • ‘Met Her on the Mountain’

    In 1970, a young antipoverty worker, Nancy Morgan, was found murdered in Madison County, deep in North Carolina’s mountains. After nearly 44 years and one trial, the crime remains unsolved. But author Mark I. Pinsky, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times and Orlando Sentinel, has devoted decades to the story. He believes he knows who did it, and why.

    This is the third of five parts excerpted from “Met Her on the Mountain,” from John F. Blair, Publisher, of Winston-Salem. Reprinted with permission.

  • A changed name

    Ed Walker is not the real name of the man described in this story. Because he was concerned about dredging up such a traumatic experience from so long ago, he agreed to cooperate only if given a pseudonym.

After Nancy Morgan’s murder in June 1970, former sheriff E.Y. Ponder sought his old position and was elected.

But the investigation languished, despite his vow to solve the case. By 1982, Ponder had been re-elected twice but had yet to deliver on his promise. Facing another competitive election, he again promised to solve the VISTA case. But after the election, nothing happened, again.

As sheriff, Ponder dispensed justice selectively, targeting outsiders but going light on local boys who could be counted on to vote Democratic. He also ran an extensive network of informants throughout the county. One was a petty crook named Johnny Waldroup.

In the spring of 1984, Waldroup, already on probation for a break-in, faced new charges involving vehicle theft, and another conviction would send him to state prison. In 1970, he had been a neighbor of Nancy’s fellow VISTA worker Ed Walker, the last person known to have seen Nancy alive. Now, Waldroup stepped forward with a tale that implicated Walker.

With Waldroup’s information in hand, Ponder and District Attorney Tom Rusher concluded that a case existed against Walker. On Aug. 20, 1984, after hearing testimony from Ponder, Waldroup and agents from the FBI and the SBI, a Madison County grand jury indicted Walker for first-degree murder, rape and obstruction of justice.

Then 34 and living on the Florida Gulf Coast with his wife and adolescent daughter, Walker was working as an auto-parts supervisor. Brought back to Madison County, he was booked into the jail in Marshall, the county seat. He declared himself indigent, and Superior Court Judge Charles Lamm assigned his case to attorney Joe Huff, a lifelong opponent of the Ponder regime.

Walker managed to make bail and returned home to await the trial, but his life in Florida hurtled downhill. He lost his job, and his wife was fired from her job as a police dispatcher. In short order, he lost his house, his condo, his boat and his two cars. By the time of the trial, the Walkers were down to $52 and an ancient Cadillac.

*

The trial began June 25, 1985, and lasted a week. But the decisive part – the testimony and cross-examination of Waldroup, the star witness – occurred the first day.

Waldroup, then in his 30s, said he had met Nancy Morgan at Walker’s house the Saturday before her final Sunday dinner – a sighting of Nancy not reported at the time or corroborated by anyone since. Late Sunday night, after hearing a noise, Waldroup said, he went to Walker’s house. “I walked around to the side of the house and looked through the window, and I see’d two people in the house and one on the couch.”

Waldroup said he recognized Walker but not the second man. The woman on the couch was Nancy.

“She didn’t have no clothes on. She had a cord running from her neck to her feet,” Waldroup said.

Waldroup testified that when he entered the house to come to Nancy’s aid, he saw her eyes moving, the lids fluttering. But before he could release her, the life seemed to go out of her. Waldroup said Walker told him that “if I didn’t help them dispose of the body, they was going to kill me. I was told if I didn’t drive the car, I’d be killed, too.”

A staggering cross-examination

Convinced the threat was genuine, Waldroup said, he drove Walker’s car while the defendant got behind the wheel of Nancy’s gray Plymouth. They proceeded to Tanyard Gap. There, he testified, “I sat and waited on him.”

All the time Waldroup was testifying for the prosecution, Huff, Walker’s attorney, was thinking, Let me get at him.

When it was his turn, Huff launched into a cross-examination sometimes so blistering it caused jurors to grimace. From the outset, Huff addressed Waldroup as “Johnny.” The witness called the attorney “Joe,” “Huff,” or simply “you.”

The first question went back to 1970: “Why did you tell Sheriff Roberts that you were not up there [at Bluff] and you didn’t know anything about what happened up there?”

Red-faced, Waldroup shot back, “I wish not to answer that question.”

Huff shifted to Waldroup’s criminal history, both to undermine his credibility and to establish a motive for him to lie – namely, the desire for special treatment from Ponder.

In light of Waldroup’s previous convictions, Huff asked, and the fact that he was supposed to be on supervised probation at the time of the truck theft, why wasn’t he in custody now? “Why are you walking around here today when you’ve got a five-year sentence you ought to be serving?” Huff demanded. “I say you didn’t tell anybody [about Nancy’s murder] until you had been down there in jail for about a year and couldn’t get out.”

“No,” Waldroup replied.

Huff: “Who’s taking care of you, Johnny? What did they promise you if you testified? ... So you bought your way out of jail on a lie?”

Waldroup gave no ground, replying rapid-fire: “No.” “Lie.” “ You are lying.”

As the pressure on Waldroup grew, he repeatedly asked the judge to be excused to go to the bathroom. When the judge did not immediately agree, Waldroup stepped down and walked out of the courtroom, forcing the judge to call a hasty recess.

Exonerated, but questions linger

A few minutes later, one of the spectators looked out the window and saw Waldroup walking down the street.

Deputies retrieved him, but Waldroup was losing patience. After the cross-examination resumed, he told Huff, “I’m not answering no more of your damn questions.”

The attorney fired back, “Are you afraid you might tell the truth if I ask you enough?”

No, said Waldroup, wagging his finger in Huff’s face, “I’m just afraid my nerves will make me choke you to death.”

On Friday, the jury deliberated for a little more than an hour. When jury foreman Anthony James announced the not-guilty verdict, the entire courtroom seemed to sigh. Walker rolled his eyes to the ceiling.

Everyone in Madison County seemed relieved the trial was over, and most accepted that Ed Walker was not guilty. But many continued to wonder, Well, then, who did kill Nancy Morgan? That mystery remained.

Tomorrow: A surprising confession

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