Crime

Who murdered this 72-year-old grandmother? Moore County reopens its coldest case.

Moore County’s coldest case

Neighbor Jennifer Edwards, who was 19 at the time, talks about the unsolved 1989 murder of Evelyn Williams' outside Pinehurst. The case was recently reopened.
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Neighbor Jennifer Edwards, who was 19 at the time, talks about the unsolved 1989 murder of Evelyn Williams' outside Pinehurst. The case was recently reopened.

In 1989, sheriff’s deputies in Moore County discovered a crime scene that haunts memories after nearly three decades: the body of 72-year-old Evelyn Williams, face-down in a utility room off her garage, her throat cut.

Within hours, investigators described the murder as “a real whodunit,” offering no clues. A recent widow, Williams led an active life near Pinehurst Course No. 6, golfing with friends, playing regular sets of tennis, making Christmas cards for her grandchildren.

Her body was fully clothed. Her pocketbook was missing from the house – the only residence on Butte Circle at the time – but deputies could not pin down robbery as a motive.

They searched in vain for footprints in the woods. They dragged a nearby lake, acting on a misguided tip. They offered a reward that quickly rose from $5,000 to $11,000. But the case offered no solid leads, Williams’ name disappeared from headlines and her family settled into 30 years of grief and mystery.

“The first three or four years following this, it was probably a daily discussion,” said her daughter Susan Burgette in upstate New York. “It was nonstop. I think it’s been so long that you come to accept it. I’m nearly my mother’s age now. It makes you reflect.”

Now the puzzle of the popular retiree’s murder will get fresh eyes. Sheriff Neil Godfrey has appointed a former deputy and Special Forces officer to reexamine the 1989 murder, which is very nearly Moore County’s last cold case.

Called out of retirement, Jerry Lynn Cooper will contend with fading recollections and witnesses who have long since died. But time cannot bury this certainty: Someone slashed an elderly woman’s throat on purpose.

“It wasn’t a random act,” Cooper said. “You don’t have such a violent death over just, ‘Give me your pocketbook, lady.’”

A simpler Pinehurst

In 1989, Pinehurst boasted only about 5,000 people, a third of its population today. Famous for golf, it hadn’t yet hosted the U.S. Open – a tournament that first put its tall pines and sandy soil on the nation’s TV sets one decade later.

Williams’ development off course No. 6 just outside Pinehurst had only about 100 residents at the time, nearly all of them retired. Jennifer Edwards, who grew up as Williams’ nearest neighbor, recalls thinking that she was the only teenager for blocks in her whole development.

“I told my mother once that I was the youngest person there, and she was second-youngest,” said Edwards, now a mother of two in North Raleigh.

At age 19, she knew Williams well enough to say ‘Hello.’ Her retired neighbor lived a block and a half away, but she was an avid walker.

On a Friday afternoon in late January, Edwards and her mother saw Williams at a pro shop. The next day, around noon, Edwards saw Williams walking alone on Aronomink Lane – not far from home. Then on Monday, a deputy knocked on Edwards door, giving Edwards the news, asking if she had any information.

“It became clear,” she said, “that I was the last person to see her alive.”

Evelyn Williams came to Pinehurst in 1980 with her husband, Robert, a retired chiropractor. They had met and married when Robert was a student in Iowa. After his long and successful career in upstate New York, they decided on a retirement of golf and warm weather. Williams drove a cream-colored Dodge with a personalized license plate: TAKECARE.

“I can say my mother really was a beautiful person on the outside and the inside,” said Burgette, now retired from teaching. “She was a great homemaker, very creative. She made her grandchildren’s Christmas cards, and she made them by hand. She liked to do fabric painting. She made doll’s clothing. She enjoyed reading and was involved in continually trying to educate herself. She took courses at the community college. She liked anything that involved exercising her brain. Word jumbles. She played bridge, Pinochle. She was a busy lady.”

Before she died, Edwards’ family never locked their doors; afterward, always.

For years after the murder, Edwards would search for news on the case, combing the Internet for updates. She never found anything. So much time passed that she convinced herself the killing had never happened.

Then on Monday, she got a call from Cooper, a new investigator giving the case another look. He reminded her of her statement in 1989, a report from the last to see the deceased, and asked to speak to her again.

“I thought it was a spoofing call,” she said.

No easy answers

Cooper has dived into a case that resists routine explanations.

The Williams family were retirees in a golf community, but their house was a modest brick ranch – not an obvious target for thieves. Robbery hasn’t been ruled out as a motive, Cooper said, but it hasn’t been confirmed.

Then there is the will.

Robert Williams died of cancer in 1988, and he left everything to his wife. Evelyn Williams had an earlier marriage that produced two children: Robert and Clyde Delf. In their mother’s will, those two sons received 10 percent of her estate each. Burgette and her brother Mark received a combined 80 percent.

Cooper said investigators are considering those facts, but Burgette said her brothers’ involvement makes no sense. For one, she said, all four children got along well enough that they did not consider each other half-siblings.

For another, she said, when Burgette and brother Mark learned details of the will, they protested their larger share and suggested the terms be rewritten more equitably. But the Delf brothers – older, successful businessmen who are now deceased – insisted that their younger siblings needed the money more.

“My parents, I believe, felt that my two older brothers had made their way in the world,” Burgette said.

Cooper said Edwards’ statement remains important because it helps establish a time of death. Williams had her hair done on the Friday evening before she was discovered, and a friend saw her at Harris Teeter at around 7 p.m. that night. Passing Edwards shows she was alive at midday Saturday.

“We’re not focusing in on any particular person or thing,” Cooper said. “Due to the way that Mrs. Williams was found, it leads us in several different directions. Sheriff Neil Godfrey wants to be sure these cases are brought to closure for these families. It’s just one of his high priorities.”

The hope from all directions is that this new attention shakes loose information from someone who has long kept quiet, nagged by conscience, bothered by the memory of a kind grandmother.

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