A suspect cut loose

by Brian Clarey

If this were a TV show, it would all be over by now. If this were on TV, the murderer of William “Ransom” Hobbs would have been shown in gauzy, soft focus or stark silhouette as he approached his victim and strangled him with his bare hands.

Perhaps the camera would have panned to Deb Moy, shrinking back into the corner of her apartment as the killer came near, a POV shot that faded to black as her screams rose then fell. Cut to a shot outside the castle on Summit Avenue, where the flames would become visible through the apartment windows before licking at the eaves. Perhaps we’d see a shadowy figure absconding the scene.

If this were on TV, a well-dressed team of police techs would descend with their vials and swabs within hours of the attacks, far too good-looking to be real cops. They’d confer with the besuited detective on the lawn of the castle. Maybe a uniformed patrolman would shout from the doorway, “This one’s still breathing!” Or something like that. Cut to a shot of the head tech and the detective crouching together over Deb Moy, the surviving victim made charred and bloody in a matter of minutes. Maybe they’d cast concerned glances at each other before the lead investigator stared off into the distance and said something clever.

“This fire will come back to burn him,” or some such thing. And then the rock music would start, the opening credits would roll and the next time we saw our team of investigators they’d be well on their way to flushing out the murderer, who would likely see justice before the end of the prime-time hour.

If we need a reminder that real life bears little resemblance to television, we should look no further than the twisted and tragic case of Ransom Hobbs and Deb Moy, whose lives took a terrible turn on that sunny morning in Greensboro’s Aycock Historical District.

The case moved slowly from the very beginning. “I got persons of interest who I am concentrating on. We’ve got items of evidence. I’m still getting information every day,” Detective Tim Parrish told me back when I first wrote about this horrific event [“It happened in Greensboro”; Dec. 3, 2008].

“You take all the information you can get and work it. I got this case on the thirteenth of September and I’ve pretty much worked this case the whole time. People have shock and awe about this case, but we still gotta do it right. We gotta be fair.”

He added, “This isn’t an hour-long TV show. These things take time.” Months, then years went by without an arrest. The case went cold. Parrish retired in November 2010, reluctantly turning over the thick case file he’d compiled to Detective Antuan Hinson, who picked up the reins.

Hinson made an arrest in June 2011, nabbing Michael Wade Slagle from Jacksonville, Fla. Slagle, known as “Micah” in my early reporting on the story, was the last person seen with the victims on that morning — he drove Ransom and Moy from an after-hours gathering near the Westerwood Tavern back to Moy’s place at the castle to keep the party going.

Slagle languished in the Guilford County Jail while he was indicted by a grand jury in January 2012 and his case was moved to superior court.

And then, last week, as his trial for murder, attempted murder and arson loomed, he was released and all charges were dropped.

From the Greensboro Police Department press release: “The lead suspect in the case, Michael Slagle, was released from custody yesterday afternoon after the District Attorney dismissed the charges against him due to administrative and documentation shortfalls with the investigation that could impair the trial.”

This was news to Parrish, who was blamed for “shortfalls in documentation of investigative efforts” in his initial investigation.

Parrish is not ready to go on the record this time around, but it is worth noting that he did not make an arrest while he was on the case, he told me years ago, because he felt he didn’t have enough to go on.

Hinson told me last year he had additional information on which he based Slagle’s arrest, though he kept that info close to the vest so as not to dash the hopes of a prosecution. Today, he can only answer questions directed through the department’s public information officer, Susan Danielsen.

If this was a TV show, we would see the discussion the cops are having about this case, huddled around a conference table with mugs of coffee and neckties loosened. We’d know the specific reasons that DA has declined to prosecute, going against a grand jury indictment that gave the green light for a criminal trial. We’d be privy to the blamestorming session that surely must have gone on behind closed doors instead of being issued cryptic press releases and repeated recitations of the policy against discussing ongoing criminal cases with the press.

If this were on TV, I’d be the rakish reporter — much more handsome than I am in real life, of course — who doggedly pursues the trail until he uncovers a crucial piece of information that cracks the thing wide open.

Instead I’m rehashing my notes, banging my head against the wall, fielding phone calls and e-mails from friends and family of the victims who are looking to me to provide something I am unable to find.

The GPD has pledged to keep this case alive — it is perhaps the most brutal murder and assault that has ever taken place within the confines of our fair city, and it doesn’t do to have the murderer still walking around. They’ll be pursuing leads, I suppose, gathering suspects and witnesses for more rounds of questioning. And I’ll keep sniffing around too.

I do have something in common with our fictionalized TV reporter: This case bothers me today as much as it did when I first learned about it just days after it happened.

One thing that sticks out: The murder of Ransom Hobbs and the savagery that befell Deb Moy, the premeditated fire that was set to cover the evidence — these are not entry-level crimes. It takes more than the heat of the moment to strangle a man to death. A first-time arsonist does not take the time to dismantle smoke detectors before setting his blaze. Whoever did this was no stranger to the darker side of human nature; logic dictates that the killer would have had some contact with the criminal justice system before perpetrating this masterstroke.

And Michael Wade Slagle, Danielsen told me, had never been arrested before being picked up in Jacksonville for this crime. Not for assault. Not for arson. Not for anything.

I’m reminded of something Parrish said to me way back in 2008, when I first began digging into the fire at the castle and wanted to know when we could expect an arrest and conviction.

“This isn’t an hour-long TV show,” he told me. “These things take time.”

Anyone with information about the murder of William Ransom Hobbs Jr., the assault of Deborah Ann Moy or the fire in the Castle on Summit Avenue should call CrimeStoppers at 336.373.1000.