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Crime still unsolved

Posted 8/8/08
Thirty two years ago today, the bodies of a young couple were found lying on the shoulder of Locklair Road, a dirt road between Interstate 95 and S.C. 341, near the Florence County line. The man and woman, thought to be in their late teens to …

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Crime still unsolved

Posted

Thirty two years ago today, the bodies of a young couple were found lying on the shoulder of Locklair Road, a dirt road between Interstate 95 and S.C. 341, near the Florence County line.

The man and woman, thought to be in their late teens to early 20s, had been shot to death with a .357 Magnum, two bullets to the body and an insurance round under the chin for each.

Young. Attractive. Unknown.

Despite desperate efforts from local law enforcement and Coroner Verna Moore, who worked the scene as deputy coroner, authorities are no closer to solving the mystery than they were on Aug. 9, 1976.

For Moore, the focus is narrow.

“It doesn’t matter anymore who killed them,” she said.

“I just want to find out who they are. Hopefully, somebody will come forward, but it’s in the hands of the Lord.”

Moore said she began working on the case — which is still technically open — about 10 years ago because “it is the coroner’s job to find out who they are.”

She has said repeatedly that she wants to identify the couple before she leaves the coroner’s office, which, as it turns out, will be in January.

Not much is known about the couple aside from their physical attributes. She was about 5 feet 5 inches tall, 105 pounds with brown hair and blue-green eyes.

Moore said she had two unique moles near the left side of her mouth and long, beautiful eyelashes — an attractive woman. He was about 6 feet tall, 155 pounds with brown hair and brown eyes. They were both white, with olive-toned skin, reports said. Neither had identification, no purses or wallets.

Moore dismissed the notion that they could have been homeless or hitchhikers. They had recently showered, she said, and each was wearing nice jewelry, including a gold watch on the man’s wrist.

Four months after the slayings, police in Latta arrested a North Carolina man, Lonnie George Henry, for driving under the influence. While searching his vehicle, they found a .357-caliber handgun that they thought was used in the killings. Henry was never charged in the slayings and anything he might have known about them was buried along with him. Henry died in 1982.

Speculation abounds about where the couple came from and why they were killed, but there is no evidence to corroborate any of it. Moore said lead after lead has fizzled into nothingness.

She is cautiously optimistic, however, about the latest avenue she hopes will bring closure to the situation. In a report written a year after the slayings, the late Lt. James Gamble of the state Law Enforcement Division said he got a phone call from a man who said he recognized the dead man. David Batson, whose wife worked at the KOA Campground in Santee, said he met a couple at the campground who said they were on their way to Florida.

He said the man told him he was a former school teacher from Canada whose family was unhappy with him because he didn’t want to be a doctor, like his father. Batson also said the ring the man was wearing when his body was found looked like a ring the man tried to sell him: a ring inscribed with “JPF.” Batson said the man’s name was “Jock,” Gamble’s report said.

It is unclear why this lead was seemingly never pursued by law enforcement, but Moore did a little investigative work herself. Batson had died and the campground had closed, but she had to do something.

“I called my deputy and said, ‘I’m going to Santee,’” Moore said. “She said, ‘What for?’ and I said, ‘To look for a needle in a haystack.’”

What Moore found were the owners of the campground and, in the end, more disappointment. The detailed records they had kept of all their campers had been destroyed in a house fire.

The case was profiled on the NBC show “Unsolved Mysteries” and more than 200 leads, Moore said, led to nothing. A search for the dead man’s teeth — which Moore said she thinks bore a mark that would identify the dentist who performed “elaborate” dental work — led to more disappointment; they were donated to a local school and eventually disposed of. The gold Bulova Accutron watch the man was wearing was manufactured in 1974, but no one can determine where it was sold.

“It’s frustrating,” Moore said. “Everything we have tried has gotten us nowhere.”

Reader’s Digest Canada is planning to publish a piece in its September issue on the mystery, and Moore hopes that will prove fruitful. In June 2007, the bodies were exhumed and bone samples taken. The samples sit in a laboratory at the University of Texas, and Moore is hopeful DNA can be extracted.

If a potential family member is located, samples could be compared.

Moore has followed leads for a decade and while she said it’s her job to find out who the couple is, it’s clear that her desire for closure is more than one of duty.

The couple is buried in donated plots in the Bethel United Methodist Church cemetery in Oswego under tombstones that simply read “Male — Unknown” and “Female — Unknown.” Moore wants to unearth them just one more time. She wants to send them to a resting place where they are known. Loved, maybe.

“My main thing is to find out who they are and send them home, because somebody, somewhere, has got to be missing them,” Moore said.

Contact Staff Writer Heath Hamacher at hhamacher@theitem.com or (803) 774-1270.