March 5, 2014

From the SBI, a reluctance to look back

Despite Richard Johnson’s confession, the bureau doesn’t pursue charges. And it won’t answer the author’s questions. Last of five parts.

Had I been working on the story of Nancy Morgan’s murder for a newspaper, I’d have written an article about Richard Johnson’s confessions and let law enforcement pursue my findings later. But in a case this cold, I didn’t think that would work.

So early in 1999, I met in Boone with District Attorney Tom Rusher, who years earlier had prosecuted Ed Walker and Johnson, and I revealed what I had learned about and from Johnson.

Two State Bureau of Investigation agents, David Barnes and Bruce Jarvis, soon visited me at my home in Florida to go through my material. Oddly – to me – the agents seemed uninterested in the Richard Johnson scenario and remained focused on Ed Walker, despite his 1985 acquittal.

I should have known better. After covering many murder cases, I knew that once law-enforcement officials settle on a suspect or a theory, they can rarely be shaken from it.

Barnes and Jarvis did pursue the investigation for a while. They visited Johnson in prison, where he repeated his confession. He also took a polygraph test. The agents found the results ambiguous. As time passed, they apparently lost interest; in any event, they stopped responding to my inquiries.

Ally in sheriff, denial in suspect

When their interest wilted, I felt so disappointed and frustrated that I considered giving up on the project. But anger and determination replaced discouragement, and I decided to go back over as much of the investigation as I could.

With help from Madison County’s new sheriff, John Ledford, I located Henry Sharpe, whom Johnson had implicated in the crime. We met at his home near Asheville, and I asked about his memories of Hot Springs and Johnson. Initially wary, he soon shifted into storytelling mode. “Me and him ran together,” Sharpe said. “We would stay out all night, running wild.”

Gradually, I steered the conversation toward Nancy’s murder. Johnson, I told him, had admitted he had something to do with it. Did he believe that?

“Sure don’t,” Sharpe said, although he acknowledged being in the group drinking beer that Sunday evening by the bridge at Hot Springs. “Richard would lie a lot, but he didn’t do nothing like that.” Sharpe’s vehement denial effectively ended the interview.

‘That’s ... dead wrong’

I also managed to track down Johnny Waldroup, the main witness against Ed Walker, in Cocke County, nearby in Tennessee. When I mentioned Richard Johnson and his Hot Springs friends as possible suspects in Nancy’s murder, it set Waldroup off. “That’s wrong,” he said hotly. “That’s bad wrong, dead wrong.” The person responsible, he insisted, was Walker.

Frustrated by Sharpe’s and Waldroup’s denials and troubled by the lingering doubts the SBI agents had raised, I allowed myself to go slack on the case for a few years and moved on to other things. But by 2009, approaching the 40th anniversary of Nancy’s death, it was growing late to produce some resolution. I had to try one more time.

For me, the most troubling loose end was the conclusion by SBI agents Barnes and Jarvis that Johnson’s account of the abduction and rape was not credible. I wanted to confront them once more, now that both men had retired after distinguished careers. I asked Sean Devereux, a friend from my Duke undergrad days and one of Asheville’s leading defense attorneys, for help. He agreed to arrange a meeting.

We met in Sean’s office. Barnes quickly took control, recounting the agents’ efforts to pursue my leads in 1999 and 2000. He reiterated what he had told me in 2000 – that the two had visited Johnson in prison. Johnson had repeated his confession, including the list of his alleged accomplices, and initialed a written statement.

The agents also had located Jackie Tweed, one of the men Johnson named. Jarvis went to see Tweed at his home in Virginia, but Tweed denied knowing anything about the killing. He willingly provided fingerprints and a blood sample. Neither the prints nor the DNA matched those in the SBI’s possession, Barnes said.

* * *

Beginning to put Nancy’s story into writing helped distill my unanswered questions. But how was I to conclude this tale when its loose ends marred a neat resolution? Excluding the possibility of a random act – say, a lone hitchhiker at 3 a.m. – there remained two plausible but fundamentally different narratives: Richard Johnson’s and E.Y. Ponder’s, implicating Ed Walker.

What do I believe happened?

A jury rejected the Ponder account in 1985, and nothing I had turned up made me think the jury was wrong. Rejecting the Walker scenario propels me to Richard Johnson’s version, or some variation of it. I believe that Johnson and his friends, or at least people he knew, hijacked Nancy as she drove past Hot Springs on her way home early that Monday morning. The death was the result of a rape that began as a crime of opportunity.

This conclusion fits the evidence I have gathered and evaluated. Although doubts persist about Johnson’s credibility, his confession is plausible. The three versions he gave to me, while differing in some particulars, were fundamentally consistent, and consistent with the crime-scene evidence and testimony.

The public may never know the truth, especially if the DNA samples in the custody of the SBI are never tested against the prime suspects other than Richard Johnson (who was not a match), as I suspect they have not been and will not be. The evidence supports that Nancy’s death came at the hands of more than one individual. But the additional living parties whose names have come to light – Henry Sharpe and Jackie Tweed – strongly deny involvement.

Will Nancy’s murder ever be officially resolved? I doubt it. For 15 years, the staff at SBI headquarters in Raleigh steadfastly refused to respond to my queries or to pursue the evidence I uncovered.

Whichever account of the killing is accurate, I believe a force larger than a single man, or even five men, must share the blame. Nancy Morgan’s murder took place in a political culture in which people in authority turned blind eyes to the actions of men like Richard Johnson. And yet such crimes take place every day in America. Corruption can contaminate justice anywhere. Madison County is no more insular and violence-prone than many other places.

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