For 28 years, Julia Pierce has tried to reopen the investigation into the 1988 murder of her father, who was killed during the final days of a historic political campaign in Robeson County.
Julian Pierce, a civil rights lawyer, would have been the state’s first Native American judge. But weeks before the election, Pierce was killed with three shotgun blasts in his home outside Pembroke. Three days later, the Robeson County sheriff announced that Pierce’s killer had committed suicide and the case was solved.
Julia Pierce has never believed that. She contends that the sheriff, Hubert Stone, was behind the murder. Her father had campaigned against drug trafficking, racism in the justice system and corruption in the county. And troubling evidence from the crime scene has raised new questions about state investigators’ account of the murder.
Last year, Pierce finally succeeded in getting a second look at the crime. Roy Cooper, then the state Attorney General, reviewed a detailed investigative report by Pierce’s lawyer and asked the State Bureau of Investigation to reopen the case.
That request went nowhere.
On June 6, Pierce, her mother, the Lumbee tribal chief and her lawyer met with two SBI agents in their Fayetteville office. The meeting was contentious from the moment they walked into the building.
“They did not say hello, they did not introduce themselves, they did not shake our hands,” Pierce said in an interview. “And we were blindsided that Mr. Bowman was there.”
The third man in the room from the SBI was James Bowman, the retired agent in charge of the 1988 investigation. Bowman did almost all of the talking for the SBI.
“If your theory is true, I’m either incompetent or dishonest,” Bowman said on an audio recording of the meeting. “So which is it?”
Near the end of the meeting, Pierce promised to pursue her quest.
“From the second we hit the door, I feel there’s been a high level of hostility,” Pierce said. “I am a squeaky damn wheel.”
On June 8, the SBI agents declined to re-investigate the case. In a memo to the N.C. Department of Justice, SBI agent C.T. Bullard said the family had provided no new information. The agents had not followed any of the new leads or interviewed any of the suggested witnesses, according to the memo.
Julia Pierce never heard back from the SBI. She only learned it had rejected her request after The News & Observer used the state public records law to obtain the SBI’s correspondence, the audio recording of the meeting, and the investigative report from Pierce’s lawyer.
“We wanted their help to answer questions,” Pierce said. “Yet it seemed like they were angry that we asked for the meeting, as though we were attacking them.”
Bowman and Bullard, who is now retired, could not be reached for comment.
Pierce acknowledges that she doesn’t have a smoking gun that solves the crime. The 50-page investigative report points out unanswered questions, unfollowed leads and contradictions in the state’s case. Two people interviewed by Pierce’s lawyer pointed to law enforcement relatives as being involved in the murder. The son of a local drug dealer said his father was allied with Sheriff Stone and that his father was involved in the murder. The dealer was never investigated.
But in a case where 28 years have passed, where witnesses and suspects have died and where memories have faded, perhaps the most powerful evidence is physical: an autopsy and crime scene evidence cast doubt on the official account of the suicide of Pierce’s purported killer.
A volatile time
Robeson County is roughly divided among whites, blacks and Lumbee Indians. Whites dominated the county for ages, but their hold on power began to loosen in the 1980s.
1988 was a volatile time in Robeson County. In February, two Lumbee activists took the staff of The Robesonian newspaper hostage, demanding an investigation into government corruption and drug dealing. In early March, voters approved a referendum to consolidate the county’s segregated school systems into one.
And Pierce, a lawyer for Lumbee River Legal Services, was running in a judicial district designed to elect a minority judge. His opponent was Joe Freeman Britt, the district attorney listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the World’s Deadliest Prosecutor, with 47 death-penalty convictions.
Pierce had campaigned to merge the schools. He complained to family and friends that the sheriff’s office was corrupt and protected local drug dealers. Several witnesses said Pierce had an old briefcase filled with documents that would expose drug-related corruption within the sheriff’s office. It has never been found.
Subsequent events bore out the talk of corruption. Hubert Deese, a Robeson County drug dealer sent to federal prison in 1994, was Sheriff Stone’s unacknowledged son, according to the investigative report. Stone wrote a letter of character reference to federal prosecutors in 1987 for a man whom the current district attorney recently called one of the biggest drug dealers in Robeson County history. In the decade after Stone’s retirement, Operation Tarnished Badge brought guilty pleas from 22 Robeson County officers on theft, assault and drug-related charges, the biggest police corruption scandal in North Carolina history.
But in 1988, the widespread talk of corruption consisted only of allegations.
Stone pressured Pierce several times to drop out of the race, according to Pierce’s campaign manager, his daughter, his ex-wife and others cited in the report from Pierce’s lawyer. Stone admitted as much in a 1990 interview with documentary producer Nicole Lucas Haimes; Stone said he didn’t want Pierce to run against Britt, his friend and ally.
Murder, then suicide?
Pierce was found murdered in his remote home in the tiny community of Wakulla on the morning of March 26, 1988. He had been shot in the chest with a shotgun from a distance, and then point blank in the back and at the base of his skull.
The candidate’s death sent shock waves through the Lumbee community. Pierce went on to win the election posthumously.
Three days after the murder, Sheriff Stone called a press conference to say the case had been solved. He said the murderer was a 24-year-old Lumbee named Johnny Goins who had just committed suicide. Goins had been dating the daughter of Pierce’s girlfriend. The mother had filed trespassing charges against Goins to keep him away from the young woman.
Goins blamed Julian Pierce for sabotaging the relationship, Stone said, meaning the murder was a domestic affair, not a political killing.
Stone said that police found Johnny Goins in a closet in his father’s house, his head blown away by a shotgun blast. The sheriff said Goins had help in the murder from a 24-year-old Lumbee named Sandy Chavis, who was charged with first-degree murder.
The investigation prepared for Julia Pierce raises several questions about Goins’ death:
▪ The report by the local medical examiner said Goins left a suicide note admitting that he shot Julian Pierce and that Sandy Chavis was present. That suicide note has never been found.
▪ Julia Pierce notes that because Goins was listed as a suspect in her father’s shooting, police had been staking out Goins’ house on the day of his death. “How did he get back into the house when it was so closely watched?” she asked.
▪ An SBI summary of Goins’ death concluded “Johnny A. Goins committed suicide by placing a shotgun in his mouth and firing the weapon.”
The autopsy report, however, reached a different conclusion. Dr. Deborah Radisch found that the shotgun was placed against the right side of Goins’ head, near his ear – a difficult position for a self-inflicted wound.
▪ Crime scene photos show the shotgun in Goins’ lap, an unusual place for someone who shot himself in the side of the head. The gun was also broken open, raising the question of how that occurred if Goins was alone.
Jim Coman, a retired state special prosecutor who tried the case against Sandy Chavis, said he thought the gun’s recoil could have caused it to open. In a recent interview, Coman said he thought that Goins had shot himself in the mouth or under the chin. Goins was found sitting on the floor in the corner of a tiny closet.
“There is no way in that closet that he could have taken that shotgun and put it on the side of his head,” Coman said. “There is no way.”
A surprising plea deal
The prosecution of Sandy Chavis fizzled out dramatically.
Chavis’ health records show he was mentally ill and known for telling tall tales. According to the files of his lawyer, Wade Byrd of Fayetteville, law enforcement sources said Chavis gave multiple stories: he was there when Goins shot Pierce; Goins was there when Chavis shot Pierce; Chavis entered the house before dawn with a Robeson deputy after Pierce had been murdered, but hours before Pierce’s murder was officially reported; he waited in a car on the road while Goins killed Pierce.
In the summer of 1990, the state cut an extraordinary plea deal with Chavis, dropping the first-degree murder charges and letting Chavis walk out of court on unsupervised probation. Coman said that as prosecutors gathered more evidence, they concluded Chavis only learned of the murder after the fact.
Chavis’ lawyer says the whole case was misguided.
“Johnny Goins didn’t have anything to do with Julian’s murder,” Byrd said in a recent interview. “Neither did Sandy.”
Coman said he’s certain that Goins killed Pierce and that Chavis left the scene of the murder with Goins. He said he understands that mistrust of law enforcement is common in Robeson County. He acknowledged his own doubts about Sheriff Stone, who died in 2008.
“Julia Pierce lost her father, and she wants to believe this was an assassination,” he said. “If there had been, we’d have followed it, but there’s not a scintilla of concrete evidence to take to court.”
Will Cooper intervene?
Julia Pierce, 46, followed her father’s footsteps into the law. She is the senior lawyer for Indian Health Services, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As she has worked her way up through the federal government and raised a family in the D.C. suburbs, she has tried to reopen the case.
She got help recently from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. Staff attorney Ian Mance interviewed more than 100 people, reviewed hours of videotaped interviews and went through 10,000 pages of documents. Many of those records were collected by Nicole Lucas Haimes, a documentary producer who has been following the case since 1988.
Pierce used Mance’s report to persuade Cooper to ask the SBI to reopen the case. As Attorney General, Cooper did not oversee the SBI, and could only request a second look at the case.
As governor, Cooper oversees the SBI.
Cooper did not respond to questions about whether he was satisfied with the reinvestigation.