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Podcast brings new leads in Durham’s infamous ‘Valentine’s Day Murders’ cold case

‘The Long Dance’ podcast about unsolved 1971 Durham murders prompts new tips

Since “The Long Dance” podcast about the unsolved 1971 Durham murders of Patricia Mann and Jesse McBane launched in June, witnesses have come forward with tips for detectives.
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Since “The Long Dance” podcast about the unsolved 1971 Durham murders of Patricia Mann and Jesse McBane launched in June, witnesses have come forward with tips for detectives.

A true crime podcast released last month about the unsolved Durham murder of college students Patricia Mann and Jesse McBane in 1971 has generated new leads for Orange County detectives working the cold case.

The case, sometimes called The Valentine’s Day Murders, was reopened in 2010 by Orange County Sheriff’s detectives Tim Horne and Dawn Hunter. The detectives eventually settled on three main suspects. The strongest suspect, a doctor who worked at Watt’s Hospital where Mann was a student, is the only one still alive. But they never had all the pieces needed to put the case to bed.

The popularity of “The Long Dance” podcast — downloads have surpassed 75,000 at the time of this article — has meant more attention on the case than ever before. That attention means more tips from the public, more witnesses coming forward and more leads for Horne and Hunter to investigate.

A new true crime podcast from Eryk Pruitt and Drew Adamek, "The Long Dance," looks into the 1971 murders in Durham of Watts nursing student Patricia Mann of Sanford and NC State student Jesse McBane of Pittsboro.

Eryk Pruitt, co-creator of “The Long Dance,” has continued to spend time with Horne while he works the case. Pruitt said updated podcast episodes are possible. It all depends on what happens with the new leads.

Here are some of the updates to the investigation since the podcast ended:

In the final episode of “The Long Dance,” Capt. Horne said he was hoping DNA from the rope used to kill Mann and McBane might be analyzed using an M-VAC retrieval system. But the test Horne described as his “Hail Mary” yielded no answers; the machine was unable to retrieve enough DNA for testing.

In a July 20 interview, Pruitt said that other laboratories have since reached out, offering to test the rope with technology more advanced than the M-VAC.

“People have extended offers to help us directly, or to let us know about people they know who could help us in our endeavors,” Horne said.

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Such offers have come from labs as far away as the Netherlands and Australia and from statewide locales as well. Horne said he’s been contacted by Homeland Security and a Texas Ranger analyst offering to help. “Our fear is that if we continue to test the rope, there will be nothing else to test,” he said.

Pruitt commented, “It’s a race between technology and the advancing age of the suspect.”

Detectives Horne and Hunter never had much info on the abduction of a couple near Duke Forest that occurred not long after the murders of Mann and McBane. “It was almost like an urban legend that there was a second attempt sometime in the ‘70s,” Horne said.

A young man and young woman were taken at gunpoint from a nighttime parking spot to another wooded location, but managed to escape. Both survivors have now agreed to talk with detectives and render detailed descriptions of the night a man interrupted their necking to abduct them.

Pruitt said the description of the abduction is like finally knowing what might have happened to Mann and McBane. “We’re probably actually getting the story of what happened to Pat and Jesse, but told through these two other people,” he said.

The couple recounted to Horne, he said, how they’d stopped at a “lover’s pull off” at the intersection of N.C. 751 and Kerley Road in Durham when a man tapped on their window with a gun.

“It’s like a horror movie really. The kid jumped over the backseat to try and crank the car,” Horne said. “And the car knocks off.”

The engine wouldn’t crank. With the woman still in the backseat, the abductor sat in the front passenger seat directing the young man to drive at gunpoint.

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They took a right on Erwin Road, crossed into Orange County and again parked on what today is named Sunrise Road, Horne said. The armed man told the male abductee to get in the trunk but he refused to leave the young woman alone with their abductor.

Allegedly, the abductor struck the young man repeatedly in the head with a pistol butt until the force of his blows knocked the gun from his grasp, Horne said. The abductor drove away and abandoned the car in Durham County.

At the time of the Duke Forest incident in 1972, the survivors gave a description of the abductor to police, who drew a composite sketch. Pruitt said the sketch “favors remarkably” a photo of the main suspect, named in the podcast, taken in roughly the same era. “I think when people get a look at that, they’re going to draw some very heavy conclusions,” Pruitt said.

Recent media exposure prompted a retired SBI agent “who worked the ‘72 abduction” case to contact current investigators, Horne said. The former SBI agent still had his old notebook — case numbers, dates, names. The old notes led to Horne’s unearthing of the sketch, buried for years, from within SBI’s archives.

Investigators had also heard about a student being arrested or questioned for exposing himself to women on the UNC campus in the 1950s, during the time the main suspect would have been attending the school. But detectives have never found any records of the incident. Since the podcast, two women have come forward with information about that case.

“Every little thing that a suspect does — it may be irrelevant or it may be important — you just have to focus it all in,” Horne said. “Doing a time line of this person’s life, including acts that are documented and we know occurred, it is telling. … A person that exposes, often works up to other things, whether it be peeping Toms, whether it be some stalking or different types of voyeurism.”

A woman, who worked as a medical professional in the ‘70s, recently came forward for the first time with potential case-building evidence. Horne said, the woman’s story about overhearing a workplace conversation in the late 1970s has led him and Hunter to reconsider another possible murder suspect who long ago was dismissed as a possible murderer.

The recent media exposure has helped Horne’s building of a case. He said, “What it has done, really, has been to jog peoples’ recollection. What they thought may have been at the time relatively insignificant, people are now willing to share. ... It’s increased my workload.”

A podcast tells their story

The eight-episode podcast by Pruitt and Drew Adamek goes deep into the murders of Mann, a 20-year-old nursing student from Sanford, and McBane, a 19-year-old N.C. State student from Pittsboro. The couple, who had dated for years, attended a Valentine’s dance at Watts Hospital in Durham, where Mann was a student, on Feb. 12, 1971. After the dance, they went parking in a cul-de-sac in the present-day Croasdaile neighborhood. When they failed to return, friends and family contacted police and a search began. McBane’s car was found, but no trace of the couple.

Thirteen days after their disappearance, their bodies were found tied to a tree in the woods in northwest Durham, just inside the Orange County line. They had been strangled to death. Investigators think they were tortured, but there was no evidence of sexual assault.

Detectives from the Orange and Durham county sheriff’s offices, the Durham Police Department and the State Bureau of Investigation all worked on the case — not always working well together — and it went cold.

Capt. Horne was set to retire last month, but has delayed his retirement in hopes of closing this case.

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Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks
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