Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: Victims' family haunted by the killer who got away

They say Ailene Davis cooked a delicious walnut pound cake, a specialty with ingredients picked from a backyard tree.

Her mother, Josephine, got around by mule and wagon, wife to a Bladen County cobbler and log floater whom she tended faithfully.

On Friday, their family endured the fresh agony of their murders, forced to recall Grandma Josie and Aunt Ailene with multiple stab wounds.

For nearly four decades, they took comfort believing that the killer had been captured, convicted and sent to prison – that the system had delivered justice to a pair of women so tenderhearted they couldn’t slaughter the family hog.

That comfort fell away as they watched Joseph Sledge walk free at age 70, an innocent man robbed of 38 years thanks to testimony now dismissed as bad science and lies.

They couldn’t celebrate along with Sledge’s supporters, couldn’t hug him and shower him with tearful kisses.

The real killer got away. Even Sledge knew their pain. He directed his only words toward them, speaking in a voice tempered by years of confinement.

“I want to say this,” he said. “I’m very sorry for your loss, and I hope you get some closure in this matter ... and find the person who committed this horrible crime.”

Shock, confusion

By the family’s account, the Davis women lived simple lives, dull by modern standards. They were poor with little education. They grew collard greens, cooked cornbread and made turnips and dumplings – country aromas that wafted out their door.

“It often tickled the nose of a man named Bill Sutton, who lived nearby,” grandson Donald Hales recalled in a statement read last month. “Soon he would be on grandmother’s doorsteps wanting some of those collards.”

They never tasted or even smelled alcoholic beverages. They donated some of their land for a church. They had a pig they called Big Hog, who had a date with the slaughterhouse.

“When that day came,” recalled granddaughter Catherine Brown at a December hearing, “they could not have the pig put down. Aunt Ailene would talk to the pig and (he) would grunt back at her like he knew what she was talking about.”

They had no locks on doors or windows. In the Bladen County of 1976, mosquitoes were the only intruder anybody worried about.

“After this happened,” Catherine Brown recalled, “my dad went out and had locks put on the windows, locks on the doors, a nightlight installed inside. He then purchased a pistol and he slept with it under his mattress.”

A month ago, the family spoke against Sledge’s release.

They did not on Friday. District Attorney Jon David said their opinions had shifted, and he apologized to them along with Sledge.

“I can only imagine the shock, the confusion, the bewilderment and the disappointment they feel right now,” he said. “Essentially, they have been re-victimized. The state of North Carolina has let them down, too.”

From the witness stand, Catherine Brown spoke to the court a final time for her grandmother and aunt, asking anybody who knows anything about this lingering atrocity to contact police.

I ask it, too.

Dead or alive, the real killer has hidden long enough, and the Davis family has hurt for too long.

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