Saturday, July 4, 2009

Terror Times Two: Gaffney, SC Suffers Second Serial KillerG

GAFFNEY, S.C. (AP) - Terrified residents canceled Fourth of July plans and holed up in their homes Friday as investigators hunted a serial killer believed to have shot four people to death.

Plenty of evidence links the killings, though officials have not yet determined how the victims are connected or if they knew whoever shot them, said Cherokee County Sheriff Bill Blanton.

"Yes, we have a serial killer," he said at a news conference in this rural community 50 miles south of Charlotte, N.C.

The latest victims were found in their family's small furniture and appliance shop near downtown Gaffney around closing time Thursday. Stephen Tyler, 45, was killed, and his 15-year-old daughter was shot and seriously injured. Tyler's wife, his older daughter and an employee found them in Tyler Home Center Coroner Dennis Fowler said.

A day earlier and about seven miles away, family members found the bodies of 83-year-old Hazel Linder and her 50-year-old daughter, Gena Linda Parker bound and shot in Linder's home. Blanton would not say if Tyler and his daughter were also bound.

The killing spree began last Saturday about 10 miles from Tyler Home Center, where peach farmer Kline Cash, 63, was found shot in his living room. Blanton said the killer may have first spoken with Cash's wife about buying hay. She left and came home a few hours later to find her husband's body. Investigators said it appears he was robbed, but they have not determined if anything was taken in the other killings.

Cherokee County, home to about 54,000 people, had just six homicides in all of 2008, and half that the year before. Until now, Gaffney has been most famous for two things: a giant water tank shaped like a peach that can be seen from Interstate I-85, and the infamous Gaffney Strangler. In my 2007 book, Palmetto Predators: Monsters Among Us, I detailed the reign of terror Gaffney endured during the latter part of the 1960s from Leroy Martin, the Gaffney Strangler.

May 20, 1967. Roger and Annie Dedmond had spent most of that evening drinking at several beer joints in Gaffney, SC. As Annie drove her inebriated husband home after, a Red Top cab driven by Lee Roy Martin followed the Dedmonds for a few minutes. Illuminated by his headlights, the cabdriver noticed the two occupants were fighting inside the car and swerving all over the road. Finally, the car pulled over and Annie Dedmond jumped out of the car.

“Do you need a ride?” Martin asked the woman.

“Hell yes,” she said and climbed inside the cab.

Later in the night Roger Dedmond woke and managed to find his way back home. He was not particularly worried about his missing wife; it was not the first time she had ditched him while they were drinking. He expected her to show up later that morning.

Instead, the police knocked on his door and informed him that the nude body of his wife had been found dead off the highway between the towns of Union, South Carolina and Spindale, North Carolina. Her raped and strangled body was discovered laying against a chain link fence next an electrical transformer on Jerusalem Road in Union County.

Roger was arrested and charged with his wife’s murder. He pleaded “not guilty” but the jury chose to disagree. Roger Dedmond was sentenced to eighteen years at the Union County Prison Camp.

Thursday, February 8, 1968. Bill Gibbons, the managing director of the local newspaper, The Gaffney Ledger, received a phone call.

CALLER: Take out three sheets of paper; I’ve got three stories for you. Write down what I tell you on each sheet.


CALLER: On the first sheet, write the name of Nancy Christine, East Smith Street. Now take down these directions. Listen carefully.

(Gibbons wrote down directions to an area off the old Chain Gang Road in Gaffney, an area used as a teenager’s Lover’s Lane.)

CALLER: On the second sheet, write the name Nancy Carol Parris, Chatham Avenue. Go to the bridge on Ford Road and look in the water on the downhill side. You’ll find her body there. On the third sheet, write down March 1967, Jerusalem Road, Union County and the name Annie Louise Dedmond, Spindale, NC. Don’t go by yourself. Go and get the sheriff.

Gibbons called Sheriff Julian Wright about the strange call. Half an hour later, Gibbons, Sheriff Wright and Deputy Billy Bridges climbed into a sheriff’s car and drove to the bridge on Ford Road - the closest location the caller had identified. Once they parked the car, Deputy Bridges leaned over the railing and looked down into the cold clear water of People’s Creek.

“You’d better come here and look at this,” Bridges said.

The sheriff and Gibbons looked over the rail.

Sheriff Wright said, “Oh my God, there she is. My God. We’ve got real problems.”

They were staring at the nude body of twenty-year-old Nancy Parris. She had been missing for one day, last seen walking her poodle. The men worked their way down the gravel slope beneath the bridge. Her body was lying on the sandy bank on its right side, legs apart, head halfway submerged in the water. There was a deep bluish circular mark around her neck. They also noticed cigarette burns covered the dead woman’s back.

“Who in the world could have done this?” Sheriff Wright asked.

Gibbons began to take photos of the body, despite his shaking hands. He was not used to this kind of reporting. The Ledger usually covered high school sports, weddings and county council meetings. Brutal, deliberate murder was unheard of in Gaffney, a quiet small southern town. The coroner and more officers arrived.

Sheriff Wright organized a search for the second body, fourteen-year-old Nancy Rhinehart. Nancy had been missing for ten days. A group of deputies, Gibbons and Ledger photographer, Tommy Martin, joined the search, as did Jim Holland, Jr., a reporter for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.

Holland recalled, “You have to remember, this was 1968, and police procedures were not what they are today. Today, they would have roped off the area and searched every twig for evidence before ever moving the body, but years ago things just weren’t done the same way.”

The group of men spread out 20 yards apart and slowly walked through the clearing from the parking lot into the bare woods. It was a stark, cold February day in the South Carolina upstate and the men were silent with dread as they searched.

A few minutes later Deputy Coyle shouted, “Oh God! Here she is!” He was staring a bare foot sticking out of a pile of brown leaves.

It was about this time that the phone rang at the sheriff’s office. Deputy Vernon Wright answered. The caller asked, “Did Gibbons get the sheriff to go look for the bodies?”

The deputy replied, “Yes.”

The caller hung up.

The naked body of Christine “Tina” Rhinehart bore the similar circular bluish bruise around her neck as Nancy Parris. She had missing for eleven days, but the coroner determined she had been dead for less than twenty-four hours when her body was discovered. That meant she had been kept captive for ten days. That piece of information was the most disturbing to the police.

The officials then looked for the body of Lucille Dedmond with no success. Upon some investigation they were surprised to discover that Dedmond had been murdered eight months ago and that her husband had already been convicted and was serving an eighteen year sentence.

The FBI set up a tap on Gibbon’s office phone, just in case the killer called again.

Sunday, February 11. Lt. Dick McKinnon of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) was assigned to the case. That afternoon he was approached by a local man who claimed that on Wednesday night, February 7, he saw a man throw Mrs. Parris’s body off the Old Ford Road Bridge.

McKinnon asked, “Why didn’t you come forward sooner?”

“Well,” the man said. “When it happened, I thought he was tossing a dog over the side. I didn’t know it was a body until I heard the news.”

“You’ve known for two days,” McKinnon said.

“I’m married,” the man said. “And that night I was parked in my car with a married woman.” He described the car as a 1957 black Chevrolet, but did not get the license number.

Monday, February 12. At 9:15 that night, Bill Gibbons answered his home phone.

CALLER: This is the same man who called you before. We’re going to have to do something about that man down there serving my sentence. I killed Mrs. Dedmond, just like I did Mrs. Parris and Rhinehart. I killed them all with them all begging me not to do it.

The Dedmond girl was driving at a high rate of speed when she passed me at Linder’s Vineyard. She was driving a red Ford with the left rear tail light out. He was passed out in the car. I was behind her as she started back to Gaffney.

She had on blue shoes, size five. She had a blue pocketbook with a snap top; in it was lipstick, an aluminum comb, a picture of a girl sitting on the back of a white Falcon, car keys, a watch, which had no band on it. She had the band broken with she and her husband had a scuffle.

She wore an open-bottom dress with a lot of frills, no coat, stockings and a 32-inch bra . . . no, change that to a 36-inch bra. I took her body to Union County to throw suspicion off Cherokee county. I laid her below the transformers on the Old Jerusalem Road with her head downhill. Her eyes were still open.

GIBBONS: Where did you put the poodle? The little dog, where is it?

CALLER: It’s dead. She had the dog with her.

GIBBONS: Where is the dog?

CALLER: It is out in the open at the exact location where I killed her.

GIBBONS: And where is that?

CALLER: I can’t tell you, my car tracks are there and it would give me away. The clothes have been destroyed.

The caller hung up and Gibbons called the police. A few minutes later Deputies Oliver Coyle and Otis Spencer arrived at the house. Gibbons also called his editor, Jack Truluck who also rushed over to the house. While the men were discussing the phone call, the telephone rang again. The officers scrambled to pick an extension phone.

CALLER: I forgot to tell you that she had some Harris-Teeter stamps in her pocketbook. And the same weapons were used in all three deaths.

GIBBONS: What weapon?

CALLER: I can’t say. That would give me away. Mrs. Dedmond was killed in March, not May. And I killed Miss Rhinehart at 10:00 a.m. on December 29, not February 6. The coroner got it wrong.

GIBBONS: Don’t you think you ought to come in and give yourself up?

CALLER: I’ll get the chair. They’ll get me.

GIBBONS: You need help; you might not get the chair.

CALLER: Yeah, I’ll get the chair. I had their hands and feet tied when I killed them.

GIBBONS: Where did you pick up the Parris girl?

CALLER: That would give me away.

GIBBONS: What about the Rhinehart girl?

CALLER: She has been dead a week. I have been back to the grave site seven or eight times.

GIBBONS: You have some feelings, or you wouldn’t be concerned about Dedmond. Why don’t you give yourself up?

CALLER: They will have to shoot me like the dog I am.

GIBBONS: You need help and we’ll try to help you.

CALLER: I’m psycho. The only reason I’m telling you this is to get the other boy out. He’s serving my time. One thing you can tell people: I’m not going to pick up any woman that’s fat and ugly. I’ll be in, but if they don’t catch me, there will be more deaths.

Tuesday, February 13. Opal Buckson, 14, was a ninth grade African American Honor Student and member of the high school chorus. Every morning she and her four siblings walked the half mile dirt road from home in the Mt. Sinai community to meet the school bus on what is now the Hyatt Street Extension. That morning Opal left the house a few minutes before the other children. Her sixteen-year-old sister Gracie trailed about 50 yards behind. Opal was standing on the side of road next to the bus stop when a blue sedan drove up; a man jumped out, grabbed Opal and forced her into the trunk of the car. Gracie ran home to tell their father. Emanual Buckson jumped in his car and sped down the dirt road only to discover Opal's books sprawled over the highway. Since the family did not have a telephone, Buckson raced to his mother’s house to call police.

The largest manhunt in Cherokee County history was organized within an hour. Citizen volunteers joined police, sheriff’s deputies, highway patrolmen and SLED agents to scour the area. Three private planes were in the air within an hour searching the entire county. Local radio stations broadcast descriptions of the man and the car to a terrified population.

Sheriff Wright told the public, “This man is very dangerous. Every precaution should be taken by parents and children until this thing is solved.”

Within an hour most of the local schools were empty. Parents removed their children and barricaded their families behind the locked doors in their houses. By the end of the day area pawn shops and gun stores were sold out of guns and ammo.

Henry Transou, the local golf pro and Lester Skinner, a former state fire warden, met at Prices’s Store on Chesnee Highway and began to search the back roads for anything which might be related to Opal Buckson’s kidnapping. The police had given a description of the car and the man they were looking for . . . “a dark colored, early model car with a young man wearing slacks, a jacket and bare-headed.”

They headed up Highway 11 close to the Cowpens Battlefield monument and drove their car down a little-used narrow, overgrown dirt road. They noticed a 1957 Chevrolet that was backed down a cut-off trail. A young man was standing next to the car jumped into the Chevy and sped off. Transou and Skinner turned around and chased the ‘57 Chevy around the Cowpens Battlefield area. The car finally pulled into the driveway of B.L. McGinnis who was standing in the yard. The driver of the Chevy got out of the car and began to talk with McGinnis. Transou and Skinner drove past. They managed to write down the tag number and called the Sheriff’s Department.

Deputies later discovered that McGinnis had never seen the man in the ’57 Chevy. The man had stopped to ask if McGinnis sold Beagle puppies. Deputies also searched the area where Transou and Skinner had first seen the Chevy parked. Just behind the spot where the car was parked they discovered marks in the dirt, as if someone had been fighting. They also found a quarter lying in the dirt.

SLED Lt. McKinnon searched the tag number and discovered the name of the owner of the ’57 Chevy – Lee Roy Martin, age 30, of Second Avenue, Gaffney, SC. He was married with three children and worked the first-shift at Musgrove Mills. He was also a former Red Top Taxi driver.

Wednesday, February 14. McKinnon set up a SLED Investigation Control Center in the back of the Colonial Restaurant, two blocks from Martin’s house. Most local law enforcement officers did not even know of the existence Control Center. Several SLED agents were assigned the task of a round-the-clock surveillance of Martin’s house from the air conditioning unit on the roof of the Colonial Restaurant. The only time Martin was out of the sight of agents was when he was at home or inside the mill.

At 2:00 p.m., Martin left work and stopped at Harvey’s Grocery. Martin picked up the Wednesday edition of The Gaffney Ledger. Most of the stories were about The Strangler, including one where Sheriff Wright pleaded with The Strangler to release Opal Buckson and give himself up.

After reading the story, Martin told Mr. Harvey, “Sometimes there just ain’t no news and people have to do things to make news.”

Martin also went to his mother’s house and changed all four tires on the ’57 Chevy. There was an old car in his mother’s yard and Martin replaced his tires with the tires on the old clunker. He then placed the tires from the Chevy into the trunk of the clunker.

Once he was home SLED agents on the restaurant roof top watched Martin wash his car and cleaned the very visible hand prints from the windows, despite the 20 degree temperature.

Police also discovered Martin had a criminal record. In 1957, at age 19, he had been charged with assault and battery with intent to kill after assaulting a young girl in the woods behind his mother’s house. He served one year as a laborer on the Cherokee County Chain Gang.

When Cherokee County police were told by SLED that Lee Roy Martin their prime Strangler suspect, many were openly skeptical. One deputy said, “Aw, it’s not him, I know Lee Roy Martin and his whole family. He’s got a wife and three kids and works regular. Lee Roy Martin ain’t The Strangler. You’re wasting your time.”

Thursday, February 15. Tina Rhinehart’s family hosted a visitation at their home. Lemonda Rhinehart, Tina’s sister, was standing next to the open coffin in the living room when Lee Roy Martin stood arrived. He looked down into the coffin and told Lemonda, “She sure is a pretty girl. I don’t see how anybody could have done this to her.”

Martin was offered a cup of coffee and remained at the house for several hours, talking with family members and other mourners.

Friday, February 16. At 6:30 a.m. ten police cruisers filled with a dozen police officers - agents from SLED and the FBI, North Carolina special agents and the sheriffs from the three surrounding counties – and other volunteers like Henry Transou, Lester Skinner and postal worker Bryant Phillips arrived at the location where Transou and Skinner had seen Martin’s ’57 Chevy backed into the woods. The men huddled silently together, their cold smoky breaths hovering around the group. Their reason for standing in the barren woods did not provide any warmth.

Lt. McKinnon addressed the group of silent men. “She’s here somewhere. Let’s find her.”

The officers fanned out in two-man teams and began to search the woods. The cold settled into their joints; their faces were soon red and numb and their fingers grew stiff as the search continued into a third hour. Phillips and Lt. McKinnon were working as a team. While they were searching a gully McKinnon came to a stop and pointed to a spot. “Bryant, something’s not right. Dig into that area right there.”

McKinnon was pointing at a large dead limb that was lying on top of a fresh green limb. Less than a minute later Phillip’s had unearthed Opal Buckson’s foot.

Just after noon Lee Roy Martin was arrested at Musgrove Mills by Sheriff Wright for the murder of Opal Buckson.

Martin said, “”You’ve got the wrong man. I didn’t kill nobody.”

Saturday, February 17. Martin was charged with the murders of Nancy Christine Rhinehart, 14 and Nancy Parris, 20. The police searched the area on Mill Gin Road off Highway 11 for the items on the list the mysterious called had given newspaper man Bill Gibbons. When they discovered two Ford automobile keys, a small hair brush, and three books of Harris-Teeter stamps, Lee Roy Martin was also charged with the murder of Annie Lucille Dedmond, 32.

Thursday, February 28. Roger Dedmond was released from the Union County Prison Camp after serving nine months for a murder he did not commit.

Martin was ordered to a 30 day mental evaluation at the State Hospital in Columbia, SC. He was ruled competent to stand trial.

Monday, September 16. Martin’s first trials angered some of the community. Martin waived his right to a jury trial. “I don’t believe I could get a fair trial anywhere in South Carolina,” Martin told Circuit Court Judge James Morrison.

During their testimony Sheriff Wright and SLED agent Earl Collins both stated that, in their opinion, Lee Roy Martin was not sane. Judge Morrison listened to the evidence and found Martin guilty of the murders of Opal Buckson and Mrs. Annie Dedmond.” He was given two life sentences.

Sheriff Wright said, “I know I was criticized because he didn’t the (electric) chair. We absolutely had to take what we could get when those cases came to trial. With the way we had gotten some of the evidence against Martin, we just had to settle for the life sentence. I didn’t like it either, but it was sure a lot better than letting him walk out the door a free man.”

Tuesday, May 20, 1969. Martin was tried for the murder of Nancy Christine Rhinehart. Once again, he waived his right to trial-by-jury and Judge Wade Weatherford agreed to hear the case.

SLED agent Collins took the stand and revealed details of Martin’s confession to the packed court room. After Martin had strangled Rhinehart with his belt in the woods, he “went with her” about three times. Collins stated that Martin admitted that over the next week he visited the girl’s makeshift grave several times and had sex with the body “about twice” on each visit.

Martin was convicted and given his third life sentence.

Wednesday, May 21. On this day Lee Roy Martin made South Carolina judicial history. He was tried, convicted and sentenced on a fourth murder charge without ever facing a jury. He spent several months in the Mental Block of the Central Correctional Institute in Columbia, SC. Martin hated it. It was tight security, with no chance to mingle with other prisoners and there was no sunlight in the cell. He wanted yard privileges.

Martin told his mother that he was serving time for the murders “his double” had committed. “Ma, I’m two people,” he told her. He claimed he could “feel” the violent half of his personality taking control of his physical movements.

December 1969. Lee Roy Martin was moved into general population.

Wednesday, May 31, 1972. Martin was killed by another prisoner, Kenneth Rumsey who was serving an 18-year sentence for a Pickens County murder. He plunged a home-made shiv into Martin’s chest, just below the heart. Rumsey was sentenced to an additional 20 years for Martin’s murder.

April 11, 1977. Rumsey attended his regular psychiatric evaluation that afternoon at 2:30 P.M. Two hours later, his body was discovered hanging from a cell bar, his trousers around his neck.

After Martin was sent to CCI, his 1957 black Chevy was reposed and sold at auction for $150 to Tincey Batchelor. The car soon became an odd tourist attraction. Batchelor recalled

I had girls coming by all hours of the day and night wanting to take a ride in The Strangler’s car. It was a big deal. I’d always take them to the Lover’s Lane off the Chain Gang Road where he killed the Rhinehart girl or to the bridge where he three Mrs. Parris’ body off.

I’d turn off the motor and just sit there in the dark in that car with the girls. It got too weird. When things were real dark and real quiet and we were all sitting there in that car at one of those sites, something strange happened every time – the girls sitting in the back seat would start screaming and want to get out of the car. I had a terrible time with some of them, just getting to stay in the car until I could drive them back home.

They all said they could the screams of female voices crying and moaning in the trunk.

Batchelor quickly sold the car to another man who spent hours restoring the car to pristine condition. The first time the new owner took the car onto the highway, he mysteriously veered off the road and struck the tree. The driver survived, but the car was totaled.

NOTE: Local legend about Martin is strong (and hysterical) in the Cherokee County area of South Carolina that Susan Cador, a "reporter" for The Newberry (SC) Observer actually wrote a story in which the remains of Martin's body was discovered in 2006.

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