Oct. 16, 2007 12:00

Cold Case

art4121
Today, the bathtub where the Durhams' bodies were found gives no hint of the events that occured there. (photo by Tim Bullard)

35 years ago, someone strangled and drowned a husband, wife and

White snowflakes float hypnotically through the black canvas, sifting down around three roadside ghosts who beckon and whisper. Seen through slapping wipers, high beams reveal a gruesome, chilling scene. And the bodies, submerged in a tub, leave no clues in Watauga County.

Unsolved murders are like magic tricks - they can be unraveled with god-like scrutiny, but the criminal's success is contingent on one thing: the possibility that after almost 40 years no one will care anymore.

Then it's just another ghost story.


The case

A retired NC State Bureau of Investigation agent in Boone confirmed in September that retired lawmen are assisting the Watauga County Sheriff's Department in a fresh look at the Durham family murders, an unsolved triple homicide from Feb. 3, 1972.

Bryce Durham, his wife Virginia and son Bobby were found dead in the family bathtub after a cold winter's night in Boone. It's been 35 years, and still nobody knows what happened that night.

Sheriff Len Hagaman, who took office a year ago, is behind the initiative and one Boone native, a Raleigh attorney, wants the case solved.

Rufus Edmisten was an aide and chief counsel to US Sen. Sam Ervin (D-NC) from 1964-1974 and the deputy chief counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee. You would always see him in the background during the televised hearings with his trademark pipe. He was secretary of state from 1989-1996. Now he is a partner with Edmisten & Webb law firm, practicing civil law.

"Obviously the killings occurred before I became attorney general in 1974," said Edmisten. "But almost immediately when I became attorney general, I knew about it when I was with Senator Ervin. I kept hearing about it, and people talked with me about it. I talked to the sheriff about it. I talked to the Boone Police Chief Clyde Tester about it, because it was home, my hometown. It made all these detective magazines. Every time I would fly anywhere near Boone, the Durhams would be there, Mr. and Mrs. Durham, the mother and father of Bryce Durham, the deceased father. They'd tell me that before they died, they wanted this case solved because it was the most heartbreaking thing in the world for them. Obviously it was their son, his wife and their grandson, Bobby.

"It made the national news, et cetera, and then I became attorney general, and there was a renewed interest to it from lots of people from Boone, so I said, 'This case looks to me like it is ripe for reopening.' I spent more personal time on this case than probably any other case in the department. [The SBI] had been on the investigation from the beginning, and when I reopened it, I had thousands of hours I spent on the case, going over old leads, checking out this and that. This is one of the most mysterious cases in our entire history. The Durham case is so intriguing. Almost everybody is a suspect. All the theories in the world started piling up on that... the military. When something like that happens... every theory known to mankind will pop up. You go over it over and over again, and it defies anything I've ever encountered before in law enforcement because nothing ever came up after going over it over and over and over again."

The conspiracy theories included the military, he said, and drugs.

"It goes on and on and on. I could talk for twenty hours about that case," he said. "The house is out on 105."

John Butts, head of the NC Chief Medical Examiner's Office, said all records on crimes before 1976 have been destroyed.

"Edmisten reopened the case around 1982, and it may never be solved.

"I have my doubts when one goes that long unsolved with that much notoriety and publicity, I doubt it will be solved. ...It will be an eternal mystery," said Edmisten. "Obviously they knew how to kill people because they hog-tied them. They drowned them. There was some sinister motive other than just people walking off the street because it was a cold, wintery, blustery night. You know, they had to go to great lengths and great trouble to do it.

"Who you need to talk to is Charles Whitman," he said. "He's been retired a long time. Back when I reopened the case I put Charlie Whitman on it."

The investigator

Feb 3, 1972. It is a day Whitman will never forget, and he recalls the events of this homicide with calculated memory untouched by time, narrating the events without hesitation because he has told it many times.

"Boone winter. It started snowing at about three o'clock that afternoon, and it got worse, and it got worse, and it got worse. At nine o'clock that night there was a good three inches of snow on the ground. It was still coming down fiercely. The winds were blowing and howling. I doubt seriously the next door neighbor could have heard anything going on. The wind was really howling. Had there been any shoe tracks or car tracks, they would have been covered up almost immediately.

"It was a Thursday night," Whitman said. "Of course the pivotal thing was the three bodies in the bathtub. If you come in the front door, and I think that's the door I came in, that's almost the first thing you would see after taking a couple of steps in, you see the bodies headfirst into the bathtub. Mr. Durham was in the middle. Bobby was closest to the drain and Mrs. Durham was at the far end, Virginia. I did not know them. They had only lived in Boone about 18 months. They came here from Mount Airy."

The victims were clothed, he said.

"Bobby and Mrs. Durham did not have their shoes on. However Bobby's shoes were laced up Oxfords, and Mrs. Durham's, at the time we called them fashion boots. They came up to the knee and zipped. Mrs. Durham's fashion boots and Bobby's shoes were neatly placed inside the front door. That was indicative of somebody coming in with snow on them. I examined the undersoles, and both of them were still damp. Now Mr. Durham had been wearing Totes. It's just a rubber pull-on outer boot. He still had on his dress Oxfords, however, the totes were upstairs in the master bedroom which would indicate that Mr. Durham got upstairs.

"In addition to his Totes, his overcoat was also upstairs, and it was just more or less draped over the edge of the closet door. So Mr. Durham got upstairs. We would have to assume that he got back downstairs. It would be a guess as to whether he was forced downstairs or if things had not started to happen when he came back downstairs."

Durham was supposedly going to go into the auto business in Boone with an unknown partner, Whitman said.

"For some unknown reason, and I don't know, the partner backed out, leaving Mr. Durham with the entire load, if you will. I don't recall that his name ever surfaced. In Mount Airy Mr. Durham was in the auto loan business. There was an [SBI] agent living in Mount Airy, and he was assigned, and later on other agents were assigned to just look into things around Mount Airy trying to establish a motive."

There were three arrests, but Whitman noted that there was an incredible amount of pressure on the sheriff back then to find a solution.

There was a confession out of one suspect, who is now deceased, Whitman said.

"It did not get past the probable cause hearing," he said. "All the charges were dropped. There was just insufficient evidence at that time. One of them had a fairly secure alibi."

Theory 1: drugs

Were the culprits drug-addled?

"I do not believe so. I've always believed that this was a contract killing," Edmisten said. "It was not a drug-addled person because as I recall they were all three hog-tied in military fashion, submerged in the bathtub. There had to be a number of people there to do it. It's one of the great mysteries of North Carolina."

The evidence

"I think it would be safe to assume that it would require several people because we're talking about two adults and one muscular nineteen-year-old boy," Whitman said. "He was already at [Appalachian State University]. [Virginia Durham] helped out at the Buick dealership. Her nose was bloodied, and there was a small blood pattern in the den. This was on shag carpet."

Is there any DNA evidence from the crime?

"No because the only blood was hers. There was no other unidentified blood in the house," he said. "There was no unidentified hair that I recall.

"We even had the director Charles Dunn here to look this over. We looked into the possibility that this was a house burglary gang, and there was a team of SBI agents moved into Wilkes County because at that time there was one or two house burglary gangs operating. We had no reason, plausible reason, to think that they may have been involved, but it was one of those things that you had to eliminate. However nothing was turned up there. I think there were six agents on it for about a year."

Theory 2: the military

"At the time that this happened there was a detachment of Green Berets going through ski training at Appalachian Ski Mountain between here and Blowing Rock" Whitman said. "In fact that's where Mr. Durham and the Rotary Club met that night."

The victims were strangled with a rope, he said.

"It was just a sash rope. It's about a quarter to a half-inch in diameter, and it's woven cotton strands," he said. "This was found on Mr. Durham's neck loosely. It was about six feet long with a large rope tied in one end. Now Mrs. Durham showed evidence of strangulation. Mr. Durham did, and Bobby did. Mrs. Durham was already dead when she was placed in the tub, and she was the last one to go in."

"Just about everything brought to our attention was purely speculative," Whitman said. "For example I told you about the Marines here. We had some people tell us that that was the way the Green Berets killed people in Vietnam."

More story

"The detachment of Green Berets was supposed to give the Rotary Club a demonstration of their skiing ability," Whitman said. "However, keep in mind that it started snowing about three o'clock that afternoon, and it got worse and worse and worse. So they could not give this demonstration. Mr. Durham, they normally met at the Holiday Inn, but on this particular night they met at the ski mountain.

"They got over their meeting about eight-fifteen, and Mr. Durham was part of what I would call a loose caravan of other Rotarians who were leaving about the same time. I forgot his name, but one of the Rotarians followed Mr. Durham all the way to the Buick place."

Durham pulled in there at 8:30 p.m., Whitman said.

"That afternoon because of the snow he asked one of his salesmen to gas up a Jimmy, a four-wheel drive. It was one of four that just came in that afternoon or the day before. The salesman gassed it up because Mr. Durham didn't feel like his regular car would make it up that hill. So when Mr. Durham came back, it is my contention that he came to pick up his wife. At about six o'clock or a few minutes after, and I don't know who called whom, the lawyer called Mrs. Durham about a tax matter. She made the comment to this attorney that, 'I've got fourteen hours of work staring me in the face.'

"So we feel that she stayed at the Buick place until Mr. Durham came and picked her up. We know that almost straight up and down that they arrived home at around nine o'clock. We also know that they did not make the night deposit because it was on the dining room table with money in it. 'Weird' is one word, yes.

"We also feel like that Bobby was there also. Both his car and the Durham car that they would normally drive were both in the parking area of Modern Buick. Now there was no snow under Mr. Durham's car, so we feel it had not been moved. There was some snow under Bobby's car, but not a great deal. We've got Bobby talking to a friend at about seven-thirty. And she says that she's reasonably sure that he had just come in because the snow in his hair had not melted. We still feel that Bobby was at the Buick place waiting on his daddy."

Discovering the bodies

"We've got a daughter," Whitman said. "Her name was Jenny. She had recently married this guy by the name of Troy Hall, and they lived near the A&P. The backstreet, there was a Baptist church and as you go on past there, there was a trailer park on your left. This is where Jenny and her husband lived, two miles from where her parents lived.

"What we've got here is the husband, Troy Hall, supposedly left the trailer about five, give or take, went to the library and studied. According to her, he came back about five minutes 'til ten. He wanted to watch the Winter Olympics. She says that he was coming in about the time that they were playing the theme song for the Winter Olympics.

"They watched television for 10 to 15 minutes, and the television went on the blink," he said. Then they put on music.

"Somewhere around ten-fifteen the telephone rang. Troy answered it, and Jenny hears him say, 'Virginia, is that you?' And he came back and made the comment, 'Would your mother play a trick on us?' They tried to call back and got a busy signal."

The call, he said, is a clue.

"It was local so there would be no telephone record. They decided to go over to the house. Here again, there is speculation. But this was around ten-fifteen. Keep in mind, Troy had just come in at ten o'clock. But they could not get their car started. In talking to the daughter, I talked to her with deep interest about how the car sounded. She said, 'It just clicked.' That can mean several things, but primarily a dead battery. That would be my opinion.

"So they go down to a guy who lived two trailers down from them, a manager. Cecil Small was his name. He was sort of the manager of the trailer park, and he was also a private detective. So they come down and get Cecil to drive them over to the Durham house. This is approximately two miles. As you go out 105 like you're going to Linville, you go out and turn right and that brings you out to the bypass and 421.

"The house is on that road. It was on 105 bypass. The house is still there. It's among eight or ten houses. It's up on a hill. It was a two-story house. At any rate they either tried or felt like they could not drive up to the house because of the snow. So Troy and Cecil Small leave Jenny in the car, and they walk up to the house. They walk around the house, look in," he said.

There is a garage door.

"The spring that holds down one of these doors. It malfunctions sometimes. It had come loose, and it had come up about eighteen inches. This is how they got into the house. From the garage, that took them into the den. From the den you can go to the left and go into the living room or you can go to the right and go down a hall to the kitchen and also to the living room.

"There is a telephone in the kitchen. It had been jerked out of the wall. It has a cradle and an earpiece and a coiled cord. It had been jerked out where the coiled cord goes into the base. Now keep in mind that supposedly Mrs. Durham called her son-in-law or daughter or whichever. This is why when they tried to call back they got a busy signal, allegedly.

"They, Troy and Cecil Small, Cecil goes to the left, and he has to pass the bathroom, and he looks in the bathroom, and there they are. According to Cecil, he thought he heard something, and he got Troy and got out of there. They go back to the car. This is the thing that makes it so peculiar. They leave, but they got stuck in the snow. I asked Cecil, 'What were you going to do?' He said, 'I was just going to get away from there.' So since they couldn't get away from there, they go to an apartment right close by and make a telephone call from then which was at ten-fifty p.m."

More evidence

"The Jimmy was seen coming off of a residential area at ten-thirty," Whitman said. "They almost ran the driver off the road. This guy, he followed them on out to the main 105 where you would turn right, which he did, to Linville. He said the car turned left going back toward Boone, the Jimmy. It turned left like coming back toward Boone.

"He got home at 10:30, the guy who turned right. About the first road you could turn left on, the Jimmy was found abandoned, but it was in a ditch. This is a four-wheel drive. There was no indication that it slid into the ditch. It was just there with the lights on and the motor running."

This was about two miles from the scene of the crime.

"Speculation. Speculation. Speculation. Keep in mind the telephone call. Why the perpetrators need the Durham Jimmy to get away from there? I don't know. I do not know. However we can account for every vehicle that went up that road that night during this critical period of time. We know the Durhams got home about exactly nine o'clock.

"So there are just so many things. Could this have happened? Could that have happened? Bobby and Mr. Durham showed evidence of drowning as well as strangulation."

Theory 3: contract killing

"That would fit as well as anything. If there was a contract, you've got to ask yourself why an entire family? I can tell you that Bobby was the first one to go in the tub. I can tell you that Mr. Durham was the second one to go in the tub, and Mrs. Durham was at the far end.

"If so, who was the main person they were interested in? The house was made to look like it had been ransacked, all the drawers pulled out, the contents dumped on the floor. When you first come in, things are chaotic. It just has the appearance of a burglary. But when you stand back and sort of look at it with an experienced eye, if you will, the whole thing was staged. Now I don't know why.

"Why was it necessary to go to all this trouble? Now if it was going to be a contract killing, it would seem that you would go in and bang bang and strangle. You go in and do the job and then you leave," he said. "I have found this to be significant. There was not one drop of water on the floor outside the tub which means none of them floundered around or resisted a great deal after they went in the tub."

Profile

"In 1982 or '83 I took the file to the FBI's profiler, not because I was involved in this case, but the profiler looked over the case, and we spent a total of twelve hours with him. Now I say this objectively, he says that 'We do not spend normally more than two hours on a case.' But he said, 'This case not only intrigues me, but I do not know if I have ever seen one as well put-together as far as documentation.' That made us feel pretty good.

"The main thing that I remember the profiler saying was that the perpetrator probably felt comfortable in the house. I'm not sure how to evaluate that. If you're dealing with total strangers like in a contract killing, perhaps the perpetrator would feel comfortable because he is dealing with strangers. If the FBI profiler was correct, what type of person would be in a comfortable atmosphere when three people were being murdered at the time?

"The FBI profiler, another thing he told us was the longer the perpetrator can go without confessing to anybody the easier it becomes and finally it's like you've got an out-of-body experience that there is somebody else doing this. Now this has been since February 1972." He laughs.

Speculation and dead ends

"I don't know that I have ever experienced [a case] of that magnitude. Certainly not in this part of the country," Whitman said.

"If I could satisfy myself as to why. We know how. That's no problem. We know when. That's no problem. But personally, I don't know why. There are so many things. Was the son involved in any kind of dope traffic? Negative. Was Mr. Durham involved in something in Mount Airy? Negative. Everything that we have done has come up negative although we had a confession. I thought you would perk up on that.

"It was another one of those dead ends. He confessed to it. His cellmate at Central Prison backed him up. There was one slight problem. He said he shot him. Then there was another slight problem. He was in prison when it happened. This is the thing. You've got to check it out. It was another one of those dead ends."

"A Pure oil station was on the road years ago, and at the intersection there was a pay phone there. About 20 years later a person reported that they rode by that night and saw someone in the booth. We never did find out who it was. The caller was sincere," he said. "It's not there now."

Today

"There is no time limit on murder," said the former agent. "It could be 50 years from now. It doesn't make any difference. Obviously time clouds people's minds and their recollections. I've had several meetings with Sheriff Hagaman up here about this case."

Len Hagaman was elected sheriff of Watauga County in 2006.

"Len Hagaman and I go back many years. I personally think he is doing a crackup job as sheriff. He is certainly knowledgeable. This case was one of the first things that he jumped on after becoming sheriff. We had a meeting, some other investigators like myself. We spent probably one whole afternoon going over, 'What do you remember?' He's interested even though this case is as old as it is. There's not another one around, a triple murder, like that around here?

"We have met with some of the other investigators, most of whom like myself are retired, but they still have an interest, like [former] Sheriff Ward Carroll who was sheriff at that time. I see him occasionally. Of course this is one of the first things that he brings up. The people who lived here at that time and know that I worked on that case, this is one of the first things they bring up. Usually it's before they say, 'Hello. How are you?' So the case is still alive, and as I said, it may take fifty years. The rope that was around Mr. Durham's neck is still accounted for. There are still pictures that could be introduced. It very definitely is not dead and can be prosecuted at any time.

"One can never give up. That's the key. You just do not give up hope. At some point in time just when you might think that it's not very good for the home team, so to speak, something will pop up, and it can solved overnight."

Another former SBI agent, Steve Cabe, now the chief investigator for the Wilkes County Sheriff's Department, became involved in the case in 1975.

"Another agent and myself were assigned to review the case to pick up any leads that we saw and pursue them," he said. "For about eight or so months we worked that case and nothing else. Throughout the years there have been numerous agents. The SBI worked it along with local law enforcement."

Cabe said solving a case feels good. "Well it's a very gratifying feeling to know that you were there and you saw this person and they have been brutally murdered. One way to look at that individual there is to say, 'I am going to find out who did this to you.' And when you do, that is your payment. When that person is hauled to prison for the rest of their life or placed in the gas chamber or the electric chair, then there is some more satisfaction. You have rendered a service to the pursuit of justice."

Who did it?

"I haven't the slightest idea," said Whitman. "In the infamous words of John Walsh who is the host of 'America's Most Wanted,' the only thing that I can think of someone like this is that they are dirtbags, the scum of the earth, a dirtbag. That's two adjectives that I can think of that come to mind. The other ones may not be printable."

The ghosts are quiet now, as they have been for years, but still they lurk on the hallowed ground of Watauga County, mute gestures and whispers lost to the wind. A father. A mother. A son. Only they know the truth behind their passage into the ethereal world, and they cry out for justice.

If the ghosts speak to you, call the Watauga County Sheriff's Department with any tips, information or leads at 828.264.3761.

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