A 46-year-old unsolved murder in Durham is getting new attention — and new hope for a resolution — with the June 30 release of the true-crime podcast “The Long Dance.”
The eight-episode podcast by Eryk Pruitt and Drew Adamek delves into the 1971 murder of two local college students: 20-year-old nursing student Patricia Mann of Sanford and 19-year-old N.C. State student Jesse McBane of Pittsboro. It’s a case that came to be known in the local press as The Valentine Day Murder.
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 near 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.
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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, but it went cold. Then in 2010, Orange County Sheriff’s investigators Tim Horne and Dawn Hunter began reworking the case and came up with a person who they said looked like a good suspect. That suspect refused to cooperate or give DNA, and that was the last public update on the case.
Getting inside the investigation
Pruitt and Adamek entered the story in 2016.
Pruitt, a Durham-based writer of crime fiction, had listened to the first season of the “Serial” podcast and was inspired to try to tell a similar story.
“It was a really transformative storytelling experience,” Pruitt said. “For a while I was trying to come up with some fictional approach to ‘Serial.’ … It just collapsed on itself because it was harder than I thought it was going to be. But I always wanted to do something like ‘Serial.’”
Some time later, Adamek, an investigative reporter who was living in Durham at the time, contacted Pruitt with the idea to collaborate on a project and they brainstormed ideas. When this case came up, Pruitt knew it was the one.
Unlike many popular true-crime podcasts, Pruitt and Adamek weren’t satisfied to just retell the story of the murder; they wanted to dig deeper into the lives of Mann and McBane and try to solve the case.
Pruitt said they went to Orange County detectives in October 2016 and asked for information on the case and access to the families. But since it was an open investigation, their request was denied. So they did their own research and came back in 2017 with results.
Horne took one look at the work they’d done and decided to let them in.
Hard work, new leads
Pruitt said the quality of their research is why Horne decided to work with them.
“We had arrived at the same conclusion as far as the prime suspect,” Pruitt explained. “And we actually had some information that was new to their investigation. … Captain Horne — he’s a major now — decided it could be advantageous to work with us.”
“The Long Dance” is well done and the level of research is clear starting in Episode 1. Pruitt and Adamek supplement their narration with nicely edited interviews with detectives, as well as friends and family members of the deceased. The result is engrossing storytelling.
As the podcast unfolds, more is revealed about advances in the case.
“Over the course of the investigation, we did end up taking an active role,” Pruitt said. “We acquired DNA profiles which eventually were tested against the murder weapon — the rope. And we did seek out people who had yet to be questioned in previous investigations and turned that information over to Horne, and he then would question them. It was kind of exciting. I’d never done anything like that before.”
And the updates may not stop with the final episode. Pruitt said since the podcast launched on June 30, he has been contacted by more people with information on the case — people with information the detectives have been looking for but unable to find.
“Since this podcast has come out we’ve been getting emails and phone calls with more information,” he said. “In the podcast we talk about this incident in Duke Forest that was similar to our crime and no one had any information about it. Well, the original SBI agent who was assigned to that case came out and gave Capt. Horne the details. As a joke, he keeps calling it ‘Episode 9’ or ‘Season 2.’”
When we spoke to Pruitt on Wednesday, he had received important information by email from listeners just the day before.
“Yesterday I got two separate emails from two different women about information that we had been looking for,” Pruitt said. “Capt. Horne had been looking for it for seven years and myself for nearly two, and then these two random emails yesterday give it to us. ... They had the proof and everything we were never able to find.
“Our suspect has operated in the shadows for nearly 50 years,” Pruitt continued. “And our hope was always that this shining the light on him might shake something loose, and it’s already kind of working.”
Can’t let this one go
Pruitt, currently under contract to complete another work of fiction, says the reception to the podcast has been “humbling” and he wants to do more in the true crime genre.
“I definitely enjoyed the investigative aspect of this,” Pruitt said, adding that every law enforcement official he talked to had a fascinating case from their career they wanted to talk about. And he gets emails asking for help on other cases.
“There’s a lot of crime out there, and people just want their story told,” he said.
But he wants to finish telling the story of Mann and McBane. The new information coming in leaves the door open for more episodes to update the progress of the sheriff department’s investigation and eventually, hopefully, announce a conclusion. Whether that means an additional episode or a second season depends on the developments, Pruitt said.
“This is a hard one to let go of,” Pruitt said. “We still talk to investigators and the family members. If something shakes out, I have not put away my recording equipment. I’m ready to continue. Neither Capt. Horne nor I have really been good at just letting this go.”