Josh Shaffer

Seven people vanished. Five more slain. And years pass without answers – Shaffer

Five years ago, Shelia Moses got the news that her childhood home had burned to the ground and her brother had vanished from the scene of the fire – his cars still parked in the driveway and his tongs still out on the grill.

Sheriff’s deputies investigated and called the fire suspicious, but they discovered no clue for the missing truck driver who was locally famous for his barbecued chicken. The 61-year-old man had disappeared like a feather in strong wind.

To Moses’ thinking, her brother’s loss has drawn scant attention from law enforcement – no more than a cursory search and a handful of phone calls. And as she looked around her hometown, she found the families of 11 other people who either went missing or were killed by unknown attackers, all of the victims from extremely rural and sparsely populated Halifax and Northampton counties.

“We feel left out,” she said last week at a rally on the Halifax courthouse lawn with about 100 people, most of them wearing shirts and carrying placards bearing their loved ones’ faces. “We asked for a task force. We didn’t get one. We asked for a tip line. We didn’t get one. We asked for the SBI. Some of us have talked to the SBI. We asked for the FBI. I’m ashamed to say I’m the only person out here who has talked to the FBI.”

Of those dozen people on Moses’ list, seven simply dropped out of sight. Amy Bridgeman walked away from a house in Weldon in 2014, leaving her purse behind. Jalesa Reynolds left a computer terminal at a Scotland Neck public library in 2010.

With few exceptions, the victims’ families told stories at the rally of case files that grew dusty with age, calls to investigators that went unanswered, leads that pass unchecked.

Jackie Stansbury, whose sister hasn’t been seen around Roanoke Rapids since 2006, said she entered Shonda’s name into a national crime database on her own. She got tips from callers, and when she told a detective about them, she said he told her, “Check it out, and tell me what you find out.”

In a statement, Valerie Asbell, the district attorney for both counties, said, “Finding answers for these families has been an unfortunate situation which requires all hands on deck. While my office does not have investigative authority, I have reached out to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and they are working hand in hand with local law enforcement agencies to get answers for these families and will continue to work together with the help of the community. This is an important mission, and I encourage everyone to come forward to help. It is going to take everyone in the community speaking up when they hear, see or know something. No tip is too small.”

Daniel Moses, Shelia’s brother, could hardly have gone missing from a more remote patch of North Carolina. Add up every person living in Northampton County, and you’ve got a population smaller than Morrisville.

Still, Interstate 95 runs through the middle of this region – a ribbon of high-speed traffic connecting New York and Miami, easy to jump on and disappear. In Halifax County, Roanoke Rapids counts as the only outpost of any size for many miles of highway in either direction. The FBI believes that Bridgeman may have caught a ride from the area with a long-haul truck.

Aside from her brother, known as “The Barbecue Man,” Moses counts as the region’s only celebrity. A Shaw University graduate, she was nominated for a National Book Award for her young adult novel “The Legend of Buddy Bush,” based on the home where her brother disappeared. It belonged to her grandfather, a symbol of the rewards from hard work in the rural, segregated South. When I met her there five years ago, Moses described catching fireflies in the yard: a happy place. Her brother Daniel appears loosely as the character Coy in “Buddy Bush,” an older brother who moved north.

Moses would have been hard to miss at 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, wearing his hair in a box-style cut. The last time anyone saw him in the community of Rehoboth, in June 2011, he was walking toward his house from a neighbor’s place, wearing a black shirt and khaki cargo shorts. During my visit, as Shelia Moses and I walked through the charred debris, she told me the house was burned too badly to know whether anything had been taken.

Her brother had no history of mental illness that anybody knew.

He had some liens filed over debts, a few thousand dollars. Nothing to disappear over.

He had some criminal charges, including an illegal gun violation in Virginia that led to a short jail sentence.

Three years after Moses went missing, deputies leading a team of cadaver dogs combed the woods near his home in Northampton County, turning through the underbrush near a place called Quarter Swamp. They turned up nothing and dismissed their lead as fumes from methane gas.

As the victims’ families noted, somebody out there knows something. Somebody bragged to somebody else, and their loved ones wait somewhere for a single person to find the courage and decency to pick up the phone. But in the meantime, they all emphasized, a monthly call from a deputy or a prosecutor would be helpful, even if just to say they haven’t quit yet.

These people all had names. Daniel Moses. Amy Bridgeman. Jalesa Reynolds. Shonda Stansbury. Just to say them out loud lights a small, hopeful candle.