Editor's note: Brenda Joyce Holland, 19, was found strangled to death in Outer Banks waters in July 1967. No one was charged. Journalist John Railey recently has urged the SBI to take another look at the case, and in April the agency said it would do so.
Word of his condition rapidly spread across desolate Manteo. People wanted to know if the dentist had any last words. They had talked for years about his affair with a local woman, the drinking that turned him into a madman and his abusive relationships with his first and second wives. But most of all, they talked a about a time back in the summer of 1967 when some said he may have slain a woman.
Edwards’ stepdaughter, Claudia Fry Sluder Harrington of Manteo, told me recently: “I have no doubt Dr. Edwards was the killer of Brenda Joyce Holland. He was certainly capable of that sort of violence.”
By that Valentine’s Day, Edwards had been a suspect for almost four years, at least in the court of public opinion, in Dare County’s highest-profile homicide case, that of Brenda, the 19-year-old makeup supervisor at The Lost Colony outdoor drama. Brenda’s strangled body had been found in the Albemarle Sound in July 1967. A longstanding law-enforcement theory goes that, while drunk, the dentist threatened the life of his second wife, Dotty, and she ran away from their home. The dentist later pursued her, the theory goes, mistook Brenda for his wife (the facial resemblance between the two blondes was strong) killed her and cast her body into the sound.
Brenda was a beloved and respected member of The Lost Colony crew, a Campbell College student from the mountains whose killing devasted her late parents and continues to haunt her siblings, Ann Holland Earley, Charles Holland and Kim Holland Thorn. Charles Holland, 63, of Haywood County, told me recently that “something broke inside me” when Brenda was killed.
Harrington was seven. The man she knew as “Papa Doc” could have moments of gentleness, but he was for the most part a brooding, often drunken presence. Her mother’s marriage to Edwards would last only five years.
In South Carolina, while Edwards was in the Army, he’d once threatened to kill himself, his first wife told State Bureau of Investigation agents. Her daughter would later tell an investigator that Edwards once choked her mother and released his chokehold after she, the daughter, threatened him with a mallet. The first wife and Edwards divorced. Edwards and Dotty were married in 1964. At the time Brenda was slain, Edwards was having the affair, according to the SBI file.
Sheriff Cahoon, working with SBI agents, never took Edwards seriously as a suspect in the case, judging from the file. On Sept. 28, 1967, according to the file, SBI agents gave Edwards a polygraph test at the Ocean House Motel in Kill Devil Hills.
Edwards “did not show deception” on the polygraph test, according to the SBI file, and, based on “discussion,” “Dr. Edwards has been eliminated as a suspect.” Edwards and Dotty Fry divorced in 1969. Edwards stumbled on. In the days leading up to Valentine’s Day 1971, according to the SBI file, Edwards “had been on a drunk.”
Wheless got to Edwards’ home first, just before 7 p.m., finding him “shot and lying in the kitchen floor,” according to the SBI file. Wheless called the sheriff’s office. Edwards was taken to the Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Va. He died there two days later. Edwards’ shot, the SBI file states, “knocked him unconscious, but failed to cause death until 5:00 a.m., February 16, 1971.”
His death only renewed the questions about Brenda’s homicide. Had he killed her four years before?