For decades, felonious minds have been getting better at getting away with murder in this country. In 2016, nearly 40 percent of murder and non-negligent manslaughter cases went uncleared, according to the FBI.
This “lack of closure,” as many call it, causes grief for victims’ families and frustration for investigators, some of whom retire without being able to say definitively who was to blame for a citizen’s violent demise that happened on their watch.
For the general public, unsolved deaths are a ceaseless source of mystery.
Here are some of the memorable cases from North Carolina that have never been marked “closed.”
The Valentine’s Day Murders
What happened: On Feb. 12, 1971, 20-year-old nursing student Patricia Mann of Sanford and 19-year-old N.C. State student Jesse McBane of Pittsboro disappeared after attending a Valentine’s dance at Watts School of Nursing in Durham, where Mann was a student.
The couple had been high school sweethearts and went to a local “makeout” spot near the Croasdaile neighborhood to park after the dance. Police believe that’s where they were abducted.
Thirteen days after their disappearance, a surveyor found their bodies in a remote wooded area in northwest Durham, just inside the Orange County line. Their hands were bound and both were tied to a tree, back-to-back on opposite sides. Investigators think they were tortured before being strangled to death. There was no evidence of sexual assault.
The investigation: 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 not always sharing the information they learned. The case went cold.
Recent developments: Orange County sheriff’s investigators Tim Horne and Dawn Hunter reopened the case in 2010 and made significant progress, eventually narrowing in on one main suspect — a former Durham doctor who worked at Watts Hospital (the doctor recently retired and moved from Durham).
In June of this year, the locally produced podcast “The Long Dance” brought the 46-year-old murder and investigative efforts to a larger audience, which has led to more tips and witnesses coming forward. Detectives have also received offers from outside agencies to use advanced DNA retrieval methods to test small amounts of DNA on the rope used as a murder weapon.
If you want to learn more about this case, “The Long Dance” podcast is a terrific deep dive and the most comprehensive piece of work on the victims, suspects and investigation. You can get episodes wherever you already download podcasts or from thelongdancepodcast.com.
If you know something: Contact the Orange County Sheriff’s Office at 919-644-3050. —BC
End of innocence in a college town
What happened: Suellen Evans had just started at UNC in the summer of 1965, a 21-year-old transfer student and rising junior trying to get in some extra classes before the start of the regular school year. At the time, UNC had just 12,419 students, fewer than half the current enrollment. Women, who made up less than a fourth of the student body, still could be expelled for violating curfew.
On Friday, July 30, Evans got out of class just before noon, stopped at the Old Well to talk with a friend, went by Alumni Hall to look for a professor, and then started back to her room in Cobb Dorm. She needed to pack and get ready to go home to Mooresville for the weekend.
Evans took a shortcut through Coker Arboretum and was near the exit at Raleigh Street when a man grabbed her from behind and pulled her into some bushes. Evans screamed and fought back, drawing the attention of a student and nun who were nearby and ran to help. One of them saw a man’s arm around Evans’ legs just before he ran away.
When one of the women asked if she was hurt, Evans said no, but said the man had tried to rape her. “I think I’m going to faint,” she said. She collapsed and died. Her throat had been cut and she had been stabbed in the heart.
She was the first female UNC student to be killed on campus since women were admitted in 1897.
The investigation: With help from the State Bureau of Investigation, police had picked up five potential suspects by nightfall, then released them all after questioning. As recently as 1997, according to a story in The News & Observer at the time, police administered a polygraph test to one of the original prime suspects, which he passed. Another main suspect had already died.
After the killing, about 200 male students helped police do a grid search of the arboretum for the 4- to 6-inch knife thought to have been used. It was never found. Over time, police said they interviewed more than 100 possible suspects.
Recent developments: There have been no useful leads in the case in decades.
If you know something: Contact Chapel Hill-Carrboro-UNC Crimestoppers at 919-942-7515 or email crimestoppers-chcunc.org. —MQ
Hogtied in the high country
What happened: As the snow began to pile up during a winter storm the night of Feb. 3, 1972, Troy Hall said he got a muffled phone call from his mother-in-law, Virginia Durham, saying a group of men were holding her husband and son in another room of their house, off the N.C. 105 bypass on the west side of Boone.
Hall later told investigators he asked his wife, Ginny, whether her mom would make a prank call. Despite the weather, the Halls decided to drive over and check on Virginia Durham, 44, her husband, Bryce, 50, and their son, Bobby Joe, 19, who was living with them while attending Appalachian State University.
The Halls’ car wouldn’t start, so they asked a neighbor to drive them. When they arrived, Ginny Hall stayed in the car while her husband and the neighbor walked up the hill to the house. Inside, they found all three dead, hogtied with their hands behind their backs and their bodies draped over the edge of a bathtub full of water.
The investigation: An autopsy showed that Virginia Durham had been strangled with a rope. Her husband and son had been strangled and then drowned. The phone had been disconnected and the receiver dropped into the floor. The house had been ransacked, but a bag of cash from an unmade bank deposit for Bryce Durham’s Buick dealership in town still lay in the floor.
Because of the storm, Bryce Durham had driven home in a four-wheel-drive vehicle from his dealership. The car was missing from the home when the Halls arrived. Police found it abandoned 3 miles away with a pillowcase of silverware inside that had been taken from the house.
Police arrested four men but later dropped the charges, according to a 2015 story in the Watauga Democrat.
Recent developments: The Watauga County Sheriff’s Office has said it runs fingerprints found at the crime scene through a federal database every year but has not found a match. In 1974, the SBI’s new unsolved murder team made the case a top priority. In 1994, investigators asked a judge to exhume the body of a man who had died in 1978 to see whether it could get a fingerprint match. The exhumation never happened.
If you know something: Contact the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office at highcountrycrimestoppers.com or call 828-268-6959. —MQ
A brutal beating in Chapel Hill
What happened: On the morning of Sept. 7, 2012, Faith Hedgepeth, an almost 20-year-old UNC student and member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe from Hollister, was found bludgeoned to death in the Hawthorne at the View apartment she shared with her roommate, Karena Rosario, in Chapel Hill. Rosario and friend Marisol Rangel discovered the body.
The investigation: The Chapel Hill Police Department has said that between 1,800 and 2,000 people have been interviewed in connection with the case, and more than 100 DNA samples have been taken. In an article published in The News & Observer in 2016, Chapel Hill police Chief Chris Blue said the number of legitimate suspects is “closer to 10.”
Early in the investigation, police focused on several men, including two of Rosario’s former boyfriends: Eriq Takoy Jones IV, who had been ordered to stay away from Rosario’s apartment by way of a protective order; and Brandon Edwards, who had dated Rosario but was also friends with Hedgepeth. Text messages were exchanged between Edwards’ phone and Hedgepeth’s phone on the day her body was discovered.
Recent developments: Police have released a photo of a bloody Bacardi rum bottle they think was the murder weapon, along with a photo of a fast-food bag with the message “I’M NOT STUPID BITCH” and “JEALOUS” written on it. The bag was found on the bed next to Hedgepeth’s body. Lt. Celisa Lehew was made the lead investigator on the case in 2016.
In April 2018, investigators from the Investigation Discovery channel show “Breaking Homicide” examined evidence from the case. After consulting independent analysts and specialists, they concluded that in their opinion, the key to uncovering the truth in the case lies with Rosario, Hedgepeth’s roommate. “We believe that Karena Rosario is a strong person of interest, based on her behavior, based on the facts and circumstances, based on the text messages,” Derrick Levasseur said in an interview with the N&O.
If you know something: Contact the Chapel Hill-Carrboro-UNC Crimestoppers at 919-942-7515 or email crimestoppers-chcunc.org. —BC
‘Death of a Pinehurst Princess’
What happened: Pinehurst in 1935 was an island of prosperity amid the nationwide economic disaster of the Great Depression. That’s where Elva Idesta Statler, 22, the adopted daughter of the founder of one of America’s first successful hotel chains, was living when she met Henry Bradley Davidson Jr., 42, a divorcee whose own family had lost its money.
Statler and Davidson were married in early 1935, and Elva traveled to Boston to make a will naming her new husband as the recipient of her estate, including the inheritance from her parents, who had died years before.
The honeymoon was barely over when, on Feb. 27, she was found dead in the garage of the couple’s rented home. Her body, partially clothed, was slumped over the door frame of her 1934 Packard and the garaged reeked of exhaust, according The Pilot of Southern Pines.
The investigation: Reporters and photographers came from around the country to cover the death and the inquest that followed. The questioning was inconclusive as to whether Elva had been murdered, committed suicide or been the victim of a spectacular accident. Davidson was never charged, but a year later, Elva’s family fought hard to try to get her will declared invalid to stop him from getting the money.
Recent developments: In 2010, Steve Bouser, editor of the Southern Pines Pilot, published “Death of a Pinehurst Princess” about the case with Moore County resident Diane McLellan. McLellan came to Bouser after finding a vintage photo of newshounds gathered in Pinehurst in February 1935 and says she became obsessed with it. McLellan did extensive research on the case and Bouser did some more.
If you know something: Contact the Pinehurst Police Department tip line at 910-420-1654. —MQ
The murder that prompted Ethen’s Law
What happened: Early in the morning of June 14, 2007, 22-year-old Jennifer “Jenna” Kathleen Nielsen, a married mother of two, was stabbed to death behind the AmeriKing Food Mart and Exxon station at the intersection of Lake Wheeler Road and Centennial Boulevard in Raleigh, across from the State Farmers Market.
Nielsen, who was 8 months pregnant at the time of her murder, was a newspaper carrier who had been delivering USA Today papers to the station. A newspaper carrier for The News & Observer discovered her body and called 911 just before 5 a.m. Police think she was killed about 3 or 4 a.m. She had been stabbed in the neck and her body was found partially clothed.
Jenna’s husband, Tim Nielsen, was at home with the couple’s two sons at the time of the killing.
The investigation: Police found a bloody knife and some clothing near the place where Nielsen’s body was found, along with DNA. They searched nearby homeless camps and released a sketch of a man they called a person of interest.
A $15,000 reward was also offered for information leading to an arrest. A year after the murder, police said they had contacted 700 people in connection with the case and investigated about 1,000 leads.
The story has been featured on numerous true crime TV shows, including “America’s Most Wanted.”
Recent developments: The most recent news about the case came in 2011, when the NC General Assembly passed Ethen’s Law, named for Nielsen’s unborn son. The law lets prosecutors charge criminals for two crimes when they commit murder, manslaughter or assault against a pregnant woman.
If you know something: Nielsen’s family set up a website with information about the case, including news coverage. There’s also a way to submit tips through the site: Justice4jenna.org. Reach the Raleigh Police Department tip line at 919-227-6220 or CrimeStoppers at Crime Stoppers at 919-834-4357. —BC
The Lost Colony Murder
What happened: After her first year at what was then Campbell College, Brenda Joyce Holland, 19, of Canton went to Manteo to spend the summer of 1967 working as a makeup artist on the set of “The Lost Colony.” She rented a room in a house in town.
On the night of July 1, she went on a date with a chorus singer from the show named Danny Barber. On July 2, she didn’t show up for work. Police and volunteers searched for days until her body was found on July 6 in the Albemarle Sound near the fishing village of Mashoes. She had been strangled.
The investigation: According to journalist John Railey, who has seen a copy of the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation’s file on the case and who has written about it extensively this year, police focused heavily on Barber as a suspect. Barber first told investigators that he had driven Holland home that night, but later said the truth was he had fallen asleep after they got to his house, and she must have left sometime after 2 a.m., walking toward her own place.
Around the same time, Dr. Linus Edwards, Manteo’s only dentist at the time, had had a loud fight with his wife, something witnesses said happened frequently because Edwards was a heavy and combative drinker. His wife fled the house because, she later said, he threatened to kill her. He went out in his car looking for her.
Some investigators in the case theorized that Edwards spotted Holland walking home and — because it was dark, he was drunk and maybe approaching from behind — mistook her for his wife, attacking her before realizing he had the wrong person.
After they were divorced, Edwards’ then-wife told several people, including a reporter for The News & Observer in 1997, that Edwards confessed to her that he had killed the girl.
Edwards shot himself at his home in 1971. Police said they did not find a note.
Recent developments: Railey’s writings about the murder prompted the SBI to allow a cold-case detective to find out whether enough evidence remained to use new DNA testing to try to solve the case. In July, the SBI said the search had been unsuccessful.
If you know something: Contact the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation’s cold-case unit at 800-334-3000. —MQ
Slaying or suicide in the Reynolds mansion?
What happened: In July 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, Americans turned briefly from their own troubles to the sordid woes of an unimaginably wealthy Southern family whose charming heir had mysteriously died of a gunshot wound to the head.
Zachary Smith Reynolds, known as Smith, was the youngest of four children born to Richard Joshua Reynolds and his wife, Katharine Smith Reynolds. R.J., founder of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in Winston-Salem, was 30 years older than his wife, who was also his first cousin-once removed.
R.J. Reynolds died in 1918, when Smith was just 6 years old. Katharine died six years later, leaving the children to be raised by an uncle and aunt. All the Reynolds children were due to inherit millions, but not until they reached the age of 28.
Smith Reynolds dropped out of school as a teenager to pursue his fascination with flying, becoming one of the first licensed pilots in the nation. At 18, he married Anne Cannon of the Cannon Mills textiles-founding family. They had one daughter before divorcing in November 1931.
Six days later, he married comedic singer and Broadway actress Libby Holman. Smith, 20, and Holman, 28, went to live at Reynolda House, the 60-room estate in Winston-Salem that his parents had built.
On July 5, 1932, the couple hosted a gathering at the mansion, and accounts at the time said that after hours of partying with bootleg liquor, most of the guests headed home. In a story for the Virginian-Pilot in the 1980s, longtime North Carolina reporter Mason Peters wrote that Reynolds and Holman argued that night, possibly over a suspected dalliance between Holman and Reynolds’ friend and aide Albert “Ab” Walker, who was at the house.
Shortly after midnight, a single shot from a .32-caliber handgun was heard from the master bedroom on the second floor. Holman and Walker took Reynolds to the hospital, where he died a few hours later.
The investigation: The death originally was treated as a suicide, but Holman was summoned before a coroner’s jury, where she said she remembered the pistol being at Reynolds’ head and she remembered him falling onto her on the bed, but little else. In August, the jury indicted Holman — who was pregnant — and Walker for first-degree murder.
The charges were dropped after the family indicated it would not object, because it would be difficult to prove whether Reynolds’ death had been a suicide or a murder. It was widely understood at the time that the child Holman carried could later be the grounds for an ugly fight over the millions that Reynolds would have inherited had he lived.
After negotiations with Holman, Reynolds’ siblings used their shares of his estate, $7.5 million, to create the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in his honor in 1936. Family members later made additional gifts to the foundation, and it is now one of the largest in the U.S., giving millions of dollars a year aimed at “improving the quality of life for all North Carolinians.” The first grant went to fight venereal disease. In 2016, the foundation paid out more than $553 million in grants to organizations across the state.
Recent developments: In late August, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, located in the Reynolds mansion in Winston-Salem where Smith Reynolds died, will open a small exhibit in the basement telling Reynolds’ story from his birth into the famous tobacco family to his hobnobbing with Charles Lindbergh to his 17,000-mile solo flight from London to Hong Kong. The exhibit includes Reynolds’ logbook from that historic journey. The museum also has launched a new app, Reynolda Revealed, with photos and oral history from the family that includes a tour stop focused on Smith Reynolds’ death.
If you know something: Call the Winston-Salem Police Department’s Crime Stoppers line at 336-727-2800. —MQ
Murder in the BE-LO grocery
What happened: On the evening of June 6, 1993, the manager of the BE-LO grocery in Windsor locked up with a cashier and a four-person cleaning crew inside the store. A suspect hiding inside emerged with a gun and led the six employees to a back room where he bound them with duct tape, stacked them on top of each other in groups of two, and began shooting them.
The suspect shot four of the employees and stabbed another, stabbing him so hard that the knife broke off in his body. He then fled the store, taking $3,000 with him and leaving three dead, two injured and one unharmed.
The victims were Bud Cecil, store manager, shot dead; Joyce Reason, cashier, shot dead; Johnnie Rankins, cleaning crew, shot dead; Tony Welch, cleaning crew, shot but survived; Jasper Hardy, cleaning crew, stabbed but survived; and Thomas Hardy, cleaning crew, unharmed. After the suspect left, Welch crawled to the front of the store to call police.
The investigation: The survivors of the brutal attack gave a description to authorities that resulted in a composite sketch of an African American man with a slender build and a military-style haircut. Rumors persisted around town that the killer may have had a military or police background, but no strong suspects emerged.
Now-retired Bertie County Sheriff J. Wallace Perry told The Daily Reflector on the 25th anniversary of the slayings that he thinks too much stock was put in the composite sketch at the time — specifically, the description of the suspect’s nose, which was said to look like it had been injured.
Recent developments: There have been no recent developments, but the case is still open and there is a $30,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the killer.
If you know something: Call the Windsor Police Department at 252-794-3111 or the NC SBI at 800-334-3000. —BC
Abducted at the bus stop
What happened: Five-year-old Brittany Locklear disappeared from her family’s driveway in southern Hoke County on Jan. 7, 1998. The abduction happened while Brittany was waiting for the school bus at the end of her driveway. Brittany’s mother had been waiting with her but went inside for a moment to use the bathroom. When she returned, Brittany was gone.
After a massive search by authorities and hundreds of volunteers, Brittany’s naked body was found the next day in a drainage ditch on a farm road just three miles away. The child had been raped and drowned.
The investigation: Brittany’s parents were ruled out as suspects. A neighbor said she witnessed Brittany’s abduction and described the suspect as a white man driving a full-size pickup truck.
The Hoke County Sheriff’s Department worked with the State Bureau of Investigation and together they followed up on thousands of leads and interviewed every known child molester in a 50-mile radius.
Recent developments: In 2003, investigators identified their only suspect so far, a former firefighter for the Fort Bragg Fire Department who had photos of Brittany in his locker when arrested that year for bank robbery. They took a DNA sample but it didn’t match.
Hoke County Sheriff Hubert Peterkin told The Robesonian in 2009 that the department was “starting over with the case.”
If you know something: There is a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for Brittany’s murder. Contact the NC SBI at 800-334-3000. —BC