Iredell County Sheriff Tom Thompson didn’t have a lot of information about a body found on the side of a gravel road in the eastern part of the county on Sept. 19, 1975.
“He is a black male and that is all I can tell you,” he said to a reporter from the Record & Landmark.
Thirty-seven years later, not much more is known about that man, but two sheriff’s detectives are hoping to change that.
Today, the man still exists only in the yellowed files in notebooks at the sheriff’s office.
With the passage of time and modern forensics on their side, the two investigators hope to be able to let a family know what happened to their loved one.
The unidentified victim was found early one morning by a truck driver for Jack Wooten Co. The company used Campground Road to access a sand pile near the end of the dead-end road.
A woman who lived nearby said she’d detected an unpleasant odor in the area and saw a sneaker near the side of the road when she drove by earlier that morning.
The case was a puzzle from the start. There was no identification anywhere near the body. None of the usual methods of identifying him would work.
He was wrapped in a blanket, sheets and some type of rug. A flammable liquid had been doused on the body and it had been burned beyond recognition. Only the face, also wrapped in a cloth, escaped the flames.
Even with the face escaping the damage from the flames, there were no other clues to even start trying to identify the man.
With no way of putting a name to the victim, the case soon went cold. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered at sea, which was the custom at the time for unidentified remains.
Giving the victim a face
Detectives dusted off the notebooks and, in cooperation with other agencies, put a face to the man found on the side of the road so many years ago.
The drawing of what the man might have looked like in life, they hope, will lead to an identity and, possibly, those responsible for his death. They also are hoping the drawing will jump-start a case that began nearly four decades ago.
The autopsy told detectives how the man died. He’d been struck several times in the head with a sharp object, shot twice and then his body was set on fire.
What the autopsy couldn’t tell detectives was his name.
Reopening a cold case
Detectives today are hoping they can do that and more.
Capt. Andy Poteat and Major Darren Campbell of the Iredell County Sheriff’s Office said they think time might be in their favor.
While time can hinder an investigation, it can also be the factor that makes someone decide to talk.
“People who could not or would not help you in the past might be willing to now,” Poteat said.
Sometimes, he said, it’s not a matter of being afraid to cooperate but simply that they don’t realize the information they have is valuable.
“I’ve already encountered that. Someone will say so-and-so talked to me back then and told me something but I figured ya’ll already knew that by now,” he said.
New clues emerge
While there are factors in their favor, there are also a multitude of hurdles to overcome.
They also are dealing with the crime scene processing of the time, which is not nearly as precise or involved as it is now.
“They never even considered DNA 20 years ago, 30 years ago,” Poteat said.
Still, DNA might provide a clue for investigators. A shell casing found near the body was processed and there is DNA on the casing. So far, however, the person who left that DNA is not in the Combined DNA Indexing System (CODIS).
Detectives are frustrated in the attempts to identify the DNA because of protocols within the system itself which prevent authorities from releasing the name of a familial link to the DNA.
For example, if the suspect’s parent or sibling has been convicted of a felony and is in the DNA database, that link cannot be revealed, detectives said.
Also, some of those interviewed initially have died or moved away. Poteat said he has conducted interviews on these cases with individuals from Iredell County to the West Coast.
Second case getting a look
Looking back at one old case has led detectives to also take a look at a second murder that occurred just two weeks before this one.
On Sept. 6, 1975, the Iredell County Agricultural Fair was ending its week-long run.
Two teenage girls, Pamela May- hew, 15, and Barbara Triplett, 17, left the fair and went to a friend’s house. When they decided to leave, no one could take them home, so they started walking the five miles to one of the girls’ home on East Broad Street.
As one of the girls rested on the bridge railing over Fourth Creek near East Elementary Road, a man — described later as African American — approached and of- fered them a ride home, Campbell said.
They declined, telling him they were close to their destination, Triplett said.
Then the man got out of the car and Triplett and Mayhew ran toward what is now the Seventh Day Adventist Church. The man caught up with them and pulled a gun, Triplett said. He forced the two frightened girls into his car — making Pam sit on the console and Barbara in the passenger seat.
Remembering the details
Triplett said she tried to take everything in, every detail. She remembered the car was blue with bucket seats and a red and blue insignia on the dash. She thought the car might be a Buick or Pontiac. The passenger door creaked. The gear shift was on the column.
Triplett said she and Pam tried to keep the man talking. He said his name was Walter and he had four daughters.
As they drove further and further away from Statesville, Pam clutched a stuffed Dalmatian she had won at the fair, Triplett said.
They were taken to a farmhouse on Weathers Creek Road. The man pulled Pam through the passenger door and tried to force her to the ground.
Triplett, who said she felt protective of her younger friend, tried to find something in the car to hit the man with, and at the same time, Pam was struggling with the man, she said.
Finally, Triplett said, she of- fered to take her friend’s place. He forced Triplett to hold up Pam’s hair as he gagged her, tied her arms and legs and pushed her to the ground, Triplett said.
Triplett said the man then forced her onto the ground and raped her.
The man stood both girls up, pointed and told them to walk that way, pointing toward the house. He was still holding the gun.
When they ran into a fence, Triplett said, she was shot in the shoulder. She fell down and stayed still, hoping the man would think she was dead.
He then fired another shot, striking Pam. A second shot was fired at Pam, silencing her screams, Triplett said.
The suspect then fired a fourth shot, hitting Triplett in the back. She remained conscious but continued to play dead. She watched as he walked away and got into his car. She remembers hearing the change jingling in his pockets as he walked.
Triplett made her way toward the road but saw headlights and became frightened it was her attacker. She said she hid in a ditch.
Triplett said she walked for what seemed like hours, finally reaching the intersection of Weathers Creek and Shinnville roads. She said she sat down in the dirt. As dawn approached, she saw a car approach and figured this was her last chance. She waved down a pickup truck.
One of the men who was in that truck said Triplett was barefoot, scratched and dirty. He said she told him “I’m shot and I want to go to a hospital. I’m going to die, aren’t I?”
The man took Triplett to Troutman and called authorities.
Triplett survived, spending a month in the hospital recovering from two gunshot wounds.
Mayhew was discovered a short time later. She was taken to the hospital but pronounced dead on arrival.
Triplett said she still holds out hope that the man who killed her friend and attacked her will be found. She said she is glad the sheriff’s office is taking a fresh look at the case.
Seeking an identity
While Poteat and Campbell look for any clues that might connect these two cases, the biggest lead, Campbell said, lies in putting a name to the dead man. That’s vital to learning why he ended up on the side of Campground Road, said Poteat, who is the detective who dusted off this cold case and several others.
Knowing who the man is, Poteat said, will lead to family, friends and acquaintances and possibly a motive and a suspect.
He was an African-American man, about 5-feet-11-inches to 6-feet tall and weighed about 150 to 170 pounds. He is estimated to be about 25 to 35 years old.
He had some facial hair that survived the fire. He was wearing the remnants of a white T-shirt, a belt with a metal buckle and one blue Pro-Keds tennis shoe and pants that could be military in nature, Poteat said, but nothing that contained any identifica- tion. The pants were Seafarer brand jeans, which were common in the military.
While it’s possible the man bought uniform pants at a thrift store, there is another clue that may link that man to the armed forces.
“Because of his professional dental work,” Poteat said, “the medical examiner believed there was a military connection.”
Above, two trees stand on the site on Weathers Creek Road where Pamela Mayhew and Barbara Triplett were attacked and shot in 1975. Mayhew died of her injuries.
At left, the Fourth Creek Bridge, near East Elementary Road, where Trip- lett and Mayhew said their attacker stopped them.
But in the days before computers and DNA and other modern forensic techniques, there was nowhere for investigators to turn. No missing persons report on a man remotely matching that description was located in the immediate area. It’s a good possibility, Poteat said, the man was not from Iredell County.
With the body destroyed by cremation, most modern forensic techniques are now out of the question. So it means filtering through hundreds of military records for a man fitting the description of the dead man, and then seeking to find those that fit the best — to see if they are still alive or have died since 1975.
The right thing to do
Working this hard to solve to identify this nameless victim is simply the right thing to do, said Poteat, who added that this man’s death is just as sad and just as important to solve as any other, even without a family demanding justice.
“He was somebody’s son, somebody’s uncle and he de- serves justice the same as any other victim,” he said.
Poteat said he doesn’t know why the man was murdered but believes there might be a connection to the rape-murder of the two teenage girls that occurred 13 days earlier.
The man might have been killed because some people be- lieved he was the person respon- sible for the murder of Mayhew and the assault on Triplett or to send a message, Poteat said.
Atmosphere of the 1970s
In order to begin to understand what happened to the unidentified man, Poteat said, it’s necessary to examine the atmosphere of 1970s Iredell County.
Racial relations were still such that the retaliation murder isa plausible theory, said Skip McCall, president of the local NAACP chapter.
McCall is a Statesville native and was living back in this area after a stint in the service in the mid-1970s.
“Accusations and allegations of rape were the cardinal sin of race relations,” McCall said. “There were those with the feeling of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. If you did anything to a white woman, there was definitely a sense of retaliation. ... That is part of the history of race relations.”
That is just one of the scenarios that may surround the death of this man, but until he is identified, it’s hard to press forward, Campbell said.
Looking for answers
Still, the connection to the two cases not only has prompted the reopening of the murder of the unidentified man but has resurrected the cold case of the Mayhew-Triplett incident as well.
A man was tried for the murder of Mayhew and the assault on Triplett but a not-guilty verdict launched this case back into the unsolved category.
The man who was tried was white, but Triplett’s initial description of the suspect was that of a black man. She told depu- ties her attacker was tall and heavyset with a gap between his front teeth. He wore shiny black shoes.
And the composite produced, based on her description, does not look like the man found dead 13 days later. Triplett looked at a photo and said the dead man was not the one responsible for what happened to her and Mayhew.
The area where the assaults occurred was a known gathering spot for people from the area, Poteat said.
Triplett said she believed the man was familiar with the area. She said the house wasn’t visible from the road.
That’s a view shared by the two detectives looking into this case.
“Nobody would have known that area unless they were local,” Campbell said.
In fact, he said, the deputies who responded to Triplett’s call for help and who were familiar with the area, could not find the site without the assistance of a local resident.
Remote crime scene
Today, the place where the crimes occurred is still remote. From where Poteat and Camp- bell believe the crime occurred, there are a couple of manufactured homes visible now, but they were not there 37 years ago. It was even more remote in 1975. There was an old farmhouse that had been rented out over the years but the most recent tenants had vacated some months before the murder and assault, and the property had evolved into an unofficial gath- ering spot, Campbell said.
Poteat said he believes some of those who frequented the Weathers Creek Road spot in the mid- to late-1970s might know the man they are seeking for the murder and assault of the two girls.
He hopes the passage of more than three decades will mean those people are more willing to come forward than they might have been in 1975.
Probing a couple of cases that are rooted in the 1970s is a dif-ficult task.
“It’s 10 times more methodical and labor-intensive (than a new case),” Poteat said.
Campbell compared solving a decades-old case to putting together a puzzle. “It’s like a 10,000-piece puzzle and you have to find the right pieces to put it together,” he said.
Past cold case solved
But Poteat and Campbell do have experience with older cases.
And modern forensics did not play a role in solving the murder of Celeste Fowler. Old-fashioned detective work provided the evidence to charge a man with her death and he ultimately pleaded guilty.
Identifying the victim was the dilemma detectives faced in 2001 when the nude body of a woman was found in western Iredell County. There were no clues to her identity except for a small tattoo on her wrist.
A few days later, and several states away, detectives were able to do something vital to eventually solving her murder — learn her name.
She was Celeste Fowler from Clinton, Conn., and had just been in this area a few weeks. Still, that short stint here did lead to acquaintances and a suspect — Thilbert Wayne Hager.
But there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Hager and the case grew cold. Every so often, another detective would dust off the case and look for a way to solve the murder of the mother of four.
It took seven years and lots of old-fashioned detective work, before an arrest was made. After a trial and just before the case was headed to a jury, Hager agreed to a plea bargain and was sentenced to 14 years.
Driven to succeed
The success of that case is what drives Poteat and Campbell to look for answers in the two 37-year-old homicides and the assault.
Poteat said he believes that same kind of investigation might be the link that rips these two cases wide open as well. That lead, he said, will be in the form of an identity.
“That will open the door,” he said. “Once we identify him, it may yield leads in other areas,” he said.
And if a suspect can be identi- fied in either of these cases, Poteat said, he or she, if they are still alive, will be arrested.
Pamela Mayhew’s mother, Bonnie, said she and her husband, David, are hoping for a resolution.
“I hope they find out who did it,” she said.
Poteat and Campbell have that same hope.
The passage of time doesn’t change one thing, Poteat said. After all, there is no statute of limitations on murder.