In the subtle way that information filters through mountain communities over time, a vague alternative scenario of VISTA volunteer Nancy Morgan’s death emerged from my interviews. It centered on “local boys.” Specifically, people kept guiding me toward one group of young thugs in Hot Springs.
One day, I read a tentative list of suspects to Clyde Parks, a native who retired to Madison County after a military career. He said I had missed one likely participant and named Richard Johnson, son of Hot Springs police Chief Leroy Johnson and one of Sheriff E.Y. Ponder’s regular informers. Other old-timers, although they had no proof to offer, also seemed to steer me toward Johnson. Clearly, here was someone I needed to know more about.
By all accounts, Johnson was an arsonist, rapist, thief and vandal. I soon learned that he wasn’t just thought by his neighbors to be capable of murder, he was actually serving time for it. In 1984, he had been convicted of first-degree murder for fatally poisoning his own 5-year-old daughter in the course of a custody dispute with his estranged wife.
I located him at Yancey Correctional Center in Burnsville, and in May 1998, I interviewed him. Without hesitating, he began an eerie narration of the Morgan abduction, mostly in the third person, as if he had been just an observer.
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Four other men had been involved, he said. That Sunday afternoon in June 1970, they were drinking beer at the bridge over the French Broad River just outside Hot Springs. They saw Nancy as she drove past en route to VISTA colleague Ed Walker’s home for dinner, and they were still there hours later when she drove back early Monday morning.
‘She was scared as hell’
The men followed in two cars, boxing Nancy in at a wide place on the highway. One of the men held up a pistol and ordered her to the passenger side. They drove out of the county into Tennessee. “She tried to pay them to let her go, to contact her parents for money,” Johnson said. “She offered to leave and not return. She was scared as hell.”
Johnson said he and the others had abducted and raped women before and gotten away with it. But Nancy’s abduction was a crime of a different magnitude, something even an out-of-office sheriff recognized. To E.Y. Ponder, attacking a vulnerable local woman was one thing; abducting a federal volunteer was another. Johnson said that on Tuesday, Ponder contacted him with the message that if he and his friends had Nancy, they had better turn her loose.
On Tuesday night, Johnson said, Nancy, still alive, was brought back to Madison County, to an area near Hot Springs called Mill Ridge. Johnson insisted that he himself was not responsible for her death. “She was abused in every way possible. She was crying, hollering, everything else.” How Nancy died late Tuesday night, Johnson wouldn’t say. About 1:30 Wednesday morning, the men drove her car, with the body in it, to the nearby wooded area of Tanyard Gap where it was found later that morning.
‘E.Y. Ponder knew ... within hours’
A series of rambling letters from Johnson to me followed. In one, he again implicated the sheriff, this time in more detail. “E.Y. Ponder knew without question what happened to Nancy Morgan within hours, not days or weeks.”
In October 1998, Walker came from Florida to join me for a second interview. Again, Johnson seemed eager to talk. He included more details and spoke mostly in the first person, acknowledging that when he had spoken with me the first time, “I left my part out.” Turning to me and then to Walker, he said, “This man had nothing to do with it.” As in the earlier interview, he named the other men involved, including his friend Henry Sharpe, who was still free.
Of particular interest to Walker and me were his descriptions of what occurred on Tuesday night. He included information never disclosed in printed accounts of the events or at Walker’s 1985 trial.
One key detail was that Nancy had been tied up and held captive in an old barn. An SBI report on the nylon cord used to tie Nancy had found stains on it described as having been made by “dirty oil or grease” and “reddish brown modeling clay,” along with strands of “yellowish brown animal hair.”
That night, Johnson said, while he had gone home in Hot Springs to eat, “E.Y. called me. He said, ‘If you know anything about that girl, you better get her to where she can be found … because all hell’s getting ready to break loose.’ ” The problem, Johnson said, was that “we were afraid to bring her off the mountain.”
Nancy’s death was unintentional, Johnson maintained. “No one forced her into choking like that.” He would not speculate about how it occurred, insisting he was not present when Nancy died. “I won’t add nothing I don’t know for a fact.”
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I didn’t speak to Johnson again for 11 years. Career and family obligations intervened, and I was weary of the case’s twists and turns. But in 2009, approaching the 40th anniversary of Nancy’s death, I felt it was growing late for me to produce some resolution.
This time, Johnson, now 61, was at Central Prison in Raleigh, being treated for heart problems. Although he sometimes seemed vacant and distracted, he immediately began answering my questions.
He told me that “15 times” over the years, he had told E.Y. Ponder the true story of what happened, but Ponder “didn’t want to believe it.”
I asked what effect his confession might have on his prospects for parole, especially since he had been turned down five times.
“All they could do is charge me,” he said. “But I’m now doing life, so they can’t give me no more time. It’d be a waste of the state’s money.”
Finally, I asked him what he would say now to George Morgan, Nancy’s brother, if he could speak to him.
He said his words would be, “I’m so sorry that it happened. Things just got out of hand. There ain’t no good way to put it.”
Tomorrow: Seeking corroboration