Donald Clarke-Pearson told his parents he was going for a walk along the familiar trails of Duke Forest. It was late evening, Sept. 13, 1995. Seconds after Don emerged from his walk, the then-19-year-old was arrested by an Orange County sheriff's deputy and charged with raping a woman at gunpoint along the trails after binding her two male companions with duct tape.
The horrifying nature of the rape shocked the public. Perhaps even more shocking was the fact that Don stood accused of the crime. The eldest son of physicians Daniel and Kathleen Clarke-Pearson, Don was known to many for his gentle nature and devotion to friends and family. He also was a former Chapel Hill High cross-country standout and one of the community's best-known runners.
Nineteen days after his arrest, a DNA sample exonerated Don. But the damage had been done. His name and picture were splashed across newspapers and on TV news reports in the Triangle and in Boston, where he had been a student at Boston College. A report in the Sept. 23, 1995, News & Observer was headlined: "Once a star, distance runner hits the wall."
Following his arrest, N.C. State, where he was taking a course, banned him from campus, as did Duke University. Don was guilty until proven innocent.
In the years following that tragedy, Don struggled with post-traumatic stress syndrome. His life was never the same, said his father, a Duke University professor of medicine.
"He never really could put it all aside," Daniel Clarke-Pearson said.
On June 13, Don took his own life at age 27.
Don died without ever receiving an apology from anyone involved in the case.
Duke Police authorized his arrest because the crime was committed on Duke property. He was identified as the attacker by one of the traumatized male victims when police slowly drove him past Don shortly after the crime. It was dark at the time.
Raleigh attorney Nigle "Tex" Barrow, who advised the family during the ordeal, spoke at Don's funeral. "Most people believe that if the person wasn't guilty, the police certainly wouldn't arrest them," Barrow said in an interview. "I think that's the common perception."
The case proves "how bad eyewitness identifications are," Barrow said.
After Don was exonerated, Daniel and Kathleen Clarke-Pearson met with Duke President Nan Keohane. No apology was offered to the family. No apology ever came from the Orange-Chatham District Attorney's office, either.
At his funeral at St. Thomas More Catholic Church on June 17, the Rev. John Durbin found the right words to describe Don's pain.
Don's family "saw him struggle up close with a horrible tragedy at the age of 19 and make it through to be exonerated with the help of God and close friends," Durbin said. "The Gospel we heard helps us make sense of that. 'Blessed are you when they utter slander against you. Your reward in Heaven will be great.' "
Despite the unwarranted ordeal forced on him, Don had great accomplishments through his dedication to running. To many people, his death represents the end of an era in Chapel Hill athletics. Besides his own notable career, Don went on to become an accomplished distance running coach at East Chapel Hill High. His devotion to the sport and his years of mentoring local high school runners earned him deep respect from parents and athletes alike.
The depth of people's love for Don was exemplified by the long line of mourners that snaked out the front door of Walker's Funeral Home on Franklin Street on June 16, waiting for a chance to file past Don's coffin and to greet his parents and siblings, Michael, Mary and Emily. The wait for many was more than an hour. Teachers, 1996 Olympian Joan Nesbit Mabe, and scores of runners were among those who came to pay respects.
I knew Don for more than decade, as both a runner and coach. When East Chapel Hill High opened in the fall of 1996, the expectation was that it would spawn a great rivalry with Chapel Hill High. In many sports that was the case, but in cross-country, there was a mutual respect between the two programs.
With Don, there was an intimate link between the two teams. It was common to see Chapel Hill and East runners cheering for each other at meets. Such a bond was only possible because of Don.
Nov. 2, 2002, was perhaps the greatest day of Don's life. It also was one of the greatest days for Chapel Hill prep sports. On that day, in a span of 30 minutes at Tanglewood Park in Clemmons, both the East Chapel Hill High and Chapel Hill High boys teams won state cross country titles in separate divisions.
On that day just seven months ago, Don was in his glory. He thought about what he wanted to say for my story, and sent off an e-mail: "... quote me as saying this: 'Neither team stole one or another's thunder. Instead, it came together and culminated in a bolt of lightning straight from Blue Heaven. A beautiful XC [cross-country] experience.' "
How right Don was.
My favorite e-mail from Don came Oct. 26, a week before the big day. Don wrote several paragraphs about the town's great cross-country tradition, noting that the state title had last been won by the Chapel Hill High boys in 1982.
"There are two schools, and honestly I believe the crown is coming back to Chapel Hill in five days... where it belongs," Don wrote.
Then Don went through each of his top seven runners, writing kind remarks about each boy. After writing a personal note about each of his runners, Don wrote: "It is a privilege to coach these guys."
Don ended his e-mail with the words "Peace be w/ you, d."
After the two Chapel Hill teams won state titles, East runner Malcolm White credited Don with the good relations between the two schools.
"There's not a real rivalry to it," White said. "There's a lot of respect. There's a lot of understanding between the two. Our coach (Clarke-Pearson) ran over there. He went to Chapel Hill. He teaches us to respect them. We cheer for them, and they cheer for us. It's good."
Don also was moved when the championship runners from both schools stood together after receiving their awards.
"There was a beautiful moment on stage when, after they got their gold, (the Chapel Hill High runners) invited our guys onto the stage. So it was like one big Chapel Hill XC shindig, with mutual respect," Don wrote.
Displayed at his wake was the plaque Don received for being the state championship coach. Don had taped a hand-printed note to his mother on the back of the plaque: "I dedicate this championship to you. You've always been an inspiration; a model of integrity, compassion and devotion. It is fantastic to have you as a mother, and your guidance and faith made this possible. Love you with all my heart. Your son, Don."
At track meets, Don would always find a spot to cheer that was far away from the crowd, where his runners would be able to hear him yell splits and encouragement. He usually wore his signature bandanna and sunglasses.
Like any good coach, Don also knew how to console his runners after disappointing races. I would often see Don gently place his hand on his pupil's shoulder and say something uplifting.
Don, who struggled with his own demons, was an angel to those around him.
I had always told Don I was interested in telling his story someday. Recently, he called to tell me he was interested in talking. Sadly, Don and I never got together for that interview, a fact that has caused me to feel like I let him down. Perhaps there are others who feel that way, too.
Father Durbin offered words of comfort when he said: "For all those who knew and loved Donald, I say to you: Do not feel guilty. Do not spend time asking 'What could I have done to prevent this?' Do not second-guess every interaction you've had with Don thinking that somehow you could have changed things. The fact is that at the end of the day, given the scope and depth of all of our fragile humanities, the love we give to each other is never enough. We are not gods, and parts of us will always remain untouched, inconsummate, bursting with secrets kept silent for all of our lives. Nothing that anyone could have done could have changed this. So do not add to this tragedy by wallowing in guilt...
"Did Don know how much he was loved and appreciated? Probably not. A man should be remembered for the way he lived, not for how he died."
Don lived a beautiful, giving and meaningful life. Let's all remember that.
Contributions to the Donald M. Clarke-Pearson Runners Scholarship Fund can be sent to East Chapel Hill High, Weaver Dairy Road, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514.