I met Drew Adamek in a Chapel Hill bar. He'd emailed me after reading a piece of mine in the INDY, where he was also a contributor at the time. He said he thought I'd be a good collaborator for an idea he had brewing: to find a story with local interest and write a deep investigative piece. We decided to meet again in a week, armed with five ideas each.
For me, there was only ever one.
The 1971 murders of Patricia Mann and Jesse McBane had all the sensationalist trappings of a classic horror story. The young lovers disappeared after a Valentine's Day dance at Watts School of Nursing. For two weeks, the entire state of North Carolina was on the lookout for them. Then, on February 25, their bodies were discovered in the woods on the edge of Orange County. They had been tortured and strangled, then covered with leaves. Their killer or killers were never identified.
When Tim Horne, the major of the Orange County Sheriff's Office's criminal investigation division, reopened the case in 2010, the publicly available information about the murders would barely fill a quarter page of tablet paper, and his press releases became this century's only news source. But there were some new details: A mysterious confession had been traced to a payphone in Loehmann's Plaza. Horne now believed the primary suspect was a doctor with ties to Watts Hospital, a person who was still alive and residing in the area.
Our initial attempts to gain access to case information were rebuffed by both Horne and the spokesperson for the victim's families, who considered it over the 2016 Thanksgiving holiday and then politely declined. But we continued to research the case, crisscrossing the state to explore public records and scan microfiche in libraries and city halls.
Every morsel of information we uncovered drove our desire to find more. By March 2017, we had amassed enough to point our suspicions at a single suspect, and we asked Horne to meet with us again. He took one look at our packet, placed his coffee on it so that the name of our suspect was obscured, and again declined to give us access to the case files. We chatted about basketball for a few minutes. He wished us luck and sent us on our way.
But five minutes later, my phone rang. It was Horne. He told us to visit him the next day at his office to meet a lawyer and sign some papers because he was opening the case file to us.
"Let's stop kidding around," he said. "You've figured out the name of our primary suspect."
- Photo by Eryk Pruitt
- Tim Horne
I've written films, stories, and books, but one of the most transformative experiences I've had with storytelling was none of those. It was listening to Serial. I got caught up in the twists and turns of the case against Adnan Syad and the murder of Hae Min Lee. Each week, I pulled out tufts of my hair waiting for the latest installment. When it was over, I reckoned I'd do anything to replicate that.
When I met Drew, I saw my chance. But we realized we wanted to tell a larger story than traditional print media could accommodate. As we lined up interviews with family members and friends of the victims, we knew their voices would share much more than our words ever could. We added local sound engineer Piper Kessler to the team. We were going to make a podcast.
Drew and I ended up taking an active role in the investigation. We must have seemed harmless because the case was so cold. (Throughout the process, we were continually reminded that they never do this.) We helped Horne acquire new DNA profiles and introduced new information into the case file. Law enforcement had always been unable to rule out three suspects. In exchange for access to the case file, we were given one caveat: We had to build a case against all three suspects, not just the one. The goal was to not only show that one person committed these murders, but that the other two did not.
Conducting the interviews was both exciting and heartbreaking. Some were eager to share, hoping to provide insight or a missing piece of information. Others needed reassurance from a family spokesperson or Horne. One time, a subject's wife coincidentally suffered a heart attack while we were talking to him, and we waited with him while she was taken away in an ambulance. (We spoke to her the next day. She's OK.) Another time, we feared we had agitated a man to the point that he wanted to harm us. Another time, we had to deliver the news to a man that his father had died nearly eight years ago.
After we interviewed every willing family member and friend, we sought out law-enforcement officials who had been involved. Many had passed away. Others were wary of speaking with journalists. Horne often vouched for us, which opened doors. We spoke to surviving police officers and SBI agents in Durham, working from a list of more than two dozen names from six different law enforcement agencies.
But the most exciting part was when we interviewed the primary suspect. He was notoriously wary of the press and often refused to be interviewed by anyone, including law enforcement. Armed with five hidden microphones, we ambushed him at his medical practice. Needless to say, the next hour of our lives was the most nerve-wracking of my career.
You can learn about this and other threads I've left dangling here in our eight-episode podcast, The Long Dance, which we've just independently released for free on all the usual platforms. I wrote the scripts. Drew and I narrated them around original audio interviews. Piper Kessler edited the episodes. Mike Rollin composed a simple, eerie score that heightened the tension.
As we were wrapping up production on The Long Dance, we got word that the Carolinas Cold Case Coalition had taken an interest. They asked Horne and me to present the details at a forum in Greensboro, where an MVAC machine—which analyzes DNA—owned by the Guilford County Sheriff's Office would be presented.
It took forty-five days for Bode Cellmark labs to analyze the DNA on a forty-seven-year-old piece of rope. As we waited, we entertained several offers from major media corporations. But on June 14, the results came back inconclusive. The amount of DNA that could be extracted was too minuscule to be successfully compared against the profiles.
While this was a blow, it was by no means a defeat. Not for us or for Horne. Throughout this process, I had to remove myself from thoughts of justice and morality and remember I'm not law enforcement. My job was to research, write, and produce a story that would serve my needs, those of law enforcement, and those of the families and public.
For his part, Horne says he continues to field calls every day now, some offering other advanced technologies he might try or memories the new attention dredged up. Will they successfully analyze the rope or provide a missing piece of the puzzle? If they do, maybe we'll have a second season on our hands.