Suspicion of well-intentioned do-gooders in Madison County originated long before the VISTA workers arrived in the fall of 1969. Two centuries earlier, people looked warily at Methodist missionary Francis Asbury, who traveled through on horseback, toting Christian temperance in one saddlebag and disdain for fiddle music in the other.
Generations of proponents of the social gospel followed, from northern Presbyterians to New Dealers, all trying to wean mountain people from violence and alcohol, while bringing education and raising the standard of living.
Nearly all failed to leave a lasting imprint. “They were imported people who came looking down their nose,” said Mars Hill College history professor Evelyn Underwood. “You won’t get anything from them if you come with that attitude.”
From the beginning, some of VISTA’s own officials questioned the wisdom of starting a program in such a remote, insular place. Jeffrey Hammer, who would direct all North Carolina programs, observed that all too often volunteers “were simply parachuted into communities and left on their own to fail.”
Nonetheless, Nancy Morgan had some early success in her organizing efforts – once people in the community of Shelton Laurel where she lived decided she wasn’t a federal snoop checking out welfare fraud or moonshiners. She concentrated on nutrition education and recreational activities for young people and provided transportation for those needing medical care.
‘VISTAs had no business here’
But many residents seemed to feel that however well-intentioned the VISTAs might have been, they were outsiders, and not entirely welcome. Among those taking this position were supporters of longtime political powers Zeno Ponder, the county Democratic Party chairman, and his brother E. Y. Ponder, the former sheriff. “That’s what they preached,” recalled Joe Huff, a Mars Hill attorney and Ponder foe. “The VISTAs had no business here.”
In Madison County, VISTA workers like Nancy, described by colleague Ed Walker as “a liberated woman of the 60s,” found a sexual culture of which they had little understanding. Unattached single women – especially those who smoked and drank in public, used rough language in mixed company and lived alone – were considered vulnerable and available.
On Sunday, June 14, 1970, Nancy went to visit Walker. They had dinner at Walker’s cabin and talked long into the night about their work in Madison County that would soon be ending and about what they planned to do afterward. Nancy finally left about 3:30 a.m. for the one-hour drive back across the county to Shelton Laurel.
By Tuesday, the realization spread among the VISTA workers and Nancy’s friends in Shelton Laurel that she was missing. Guessing that she had run off one of the twisting mountain roads, they divided into teams and began searching areas where they thought she might have wrecked.
A gruesome discovery
On Wednesday morning, Jimmy Lewis was driving to Hot Springs from his home near Shelton Laurel. About halfway down the mountain, he had to pee. He pulled onto an unpaved logging road in an area known as Tanyard Gap.
Lewis noticed something in a glade of towering poplars and oaks – a gray car parked in dappled sunlight. The wheels were sunk to the hubcaps. Peering through the closed windows, he saw Nancy Morgan on the back seat – naked, hogtied from behind in a kneeling position, and obviously dead.
News of the grim discovery spread quickly. Soon, the crime scene was a case study in confusion and jurisdictional chaos. As a VISTA worker, Nancy was considered a federal employee, and she drove a U.S. government vehicle. That could have made it a case for the FBI. Ordinarily, any murder in the county would be the sheriff’s case, but often when murders occurred, agents of the better-trained State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) were called in.
In The News & Observer, reporter Kerry Gruson reported that Nancy Morgan “was by all accounts a very likable person and seemed to have no enemies.” She quoted Sheriff Roy Roberts as saying,“The whole community is eager to help and that makes it a lot easier. This is a murder we cannot let go unsolved.”
Harold Reed, one of Nancy’s friends, took a darker view. Years later, he remembered thinking that “due to politics, it wasn’t going to be solved, and it never will be.”
Although FBI agents had shared control at the crime scene, the agency effectively withdrew from the case soon after Nancy’s funeral in Louisiana on June 20. That left Sheriff Roberts and the SBI to take the lead.
How locals dismissed the case
Before long, local and state law-enforcement officials developed a theory that involved a sharply different version of what happened the previous Sunday night at Ed Walker’s house. What Walker described as a quiet dinner with periodic interruptions by a few neighbors was, in their scenario, a raucous party fueled by alcohol and involving rough group sex that ended fatally for Nancy.
“There were a hundred opinions about how it happened,” said local resident Richard Dillingham. “They’re saying that surely outsiders did this horrible deed,” he recalled later. “If it were an outsider they would be hunted down and prosecuted. But if it were local folks that were responsible for that, then it possibly should be ignored.”
As sometimes happens in murder investigations, investigators settled on a suspect and scenario early and would not be dissuaded or distracted by any evidence to the contrary. Their target was Ed Walker.
Frustrated by the case, Sheriff Roberts, a Republican, announced he would not run for reelection in November 1970. Dedrick Brown, his chief deputy, ran for the office but was defeated by the former longtime sheriff, E. Y. Ponder, who used the killing in his campaign. “He made it an issue,” recalled Brown. “He said with what all he knew about this murder, with all the information he had on the case, that he could solve it within three weeks.”
Yet for more than a decade, the investigation would lie dormant.