The first reports were vague. A young anti-poverty worker had been kidnapped, raped and murdered in the mountains of North Carolina, her body discovered almost within sight of the Appalachian Trail. Although the brutal details were downplayed, they would come out soon enough.
The woman’s college yearbook photo, her life and work, and the circumstances of her death were sketched out across the front page of the Durham Sun on June 18, 1970. Authorities had no suspects. I read the article sitting at a pitted wooden desk in an office of the Duke student newspaper, where I had spent – some might say squandered – much of my five years as an undergraduate.
I learned from the Sun that the murder victim was Nancy Dean Morgan, 24, a recent graduate of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. She was a community organizer for the Volunteers in Service to America, or VISTA, a domestic Peace Corps, and she worked in rural Madison County with children and helped set up a thrift shop that sold used clothing. Her service was to have lasted only a few more weeks; she planned to attend nursing school in New York in the fall.
I took Nancy Morgan’s death personally, feeling a palpable kinship. I didn’t know her, and I didn’t find her in that mountain glade, but I remember feeling as though I had. Politics and idealism ignited us both. She had been shaped and transformed by the civil rights and anti-war movements, feminism and the fight against poverty. She had been drawn by, and killed in, my adopted state. And I had friends serving elsewhere in VISTA, so it hit close to home.
I tore out the article and placed it in a folder on which I scrawled “Morgan.” That file grew for more than 40 years. On spare weekends, I visited Madison County. I spent days in the library and the government records offices. I sought out anyone who might have known Nancy or who lived in the county at the time. I asked questions that many people did not want to hear. What unfolded was a tangled tale of rural noir, miscarried justice and systemic political corruption.
Meanwhile, I learned to work as a journalist – a freelance reporter covering the murder beat in the Southeast. I developed a specialty, investigating and writing about criminal cases that evolved into political causes.
Eventually, my professional focus took an unlikely turn from crime to religion (and a better class of felon, I used to joke) and from North Carolina to California and then Florida. But murder was always in the background. Nancy Morgan’s murder. And when in the upheaval of 21st-century journalism I found myself unemployed, I returned to Madison County to finally figure out who killed Nancy Morgan, and why.
* * *
In June 1970, Nancy Morgan was nearing the end of a one-year stint with VISTA. Some of the people she worked with found her plain, others pretty. She had lively brown eyes, auburn hair and a faint band of freckles across her nose. All who knew her agreed she had a quick smile, a love of puns and an effervescent laugh.
Her home in Madison County, in the rural community of Shelton Laurel, was a two-bedroom, 100-year-old cabin owned by Clarence and Glendora Cutshall, who ran a grocery store nearby. The store served as an informal community center, which enabled Nancy to make invaluable organizing contacts, thanks to her association with the Cutshalls.
The previous autumn, Clarence and Glendora had taken Nancy under their wing. Glendora felt especially close to Nancy. “She never knew a stranger,” Glendora often said. Nancy “was always friendly to anyone and had confidence even in strangers.” Still, Glendora was troubled that Nancy insisted on driving people home from evening meetings, regardless of how remote their houses were, but Nancy just brushed aside the older woman’s concern.
On Saturday, June 13, Nancy borrowed a county van, collected some young people and headed to the town of Mars Hill for a swim at the pool on the campus of Mars Hill College. There, she ran into Ed Walker, a fellow VISTA worker, who had brought a group of young people from another part of the county.
“I said to Nancy, ‘Why don’t you come over on Sunday evening if you’re not doing anything?’ ” Walker recalled. The two wanted to talk about their VISTA projects because of Nancy’s imminent departure for nursing school. “It was very casual,” Walker said. “If she showed, fine. If she hadn’t showed up, it wouldn’t have been a big deal.”
On Sunday, Nancy strolled over to Cutshall’s store to chat with Glendora and some of the customers. She told Glendora she planned to have dinner that evening with Walker, who lived in Bluff, a community about 10 miles away but almost an hour’s drive on winding mountain roads. “We told her she ought not to be out at night by herself,” Glendora recalled, “that someone might harm her in some way.”
Nancy arrived at Walker’s house around 5:30. His was also a 100-year-old cabin, its logs concealed behind white clapboard siding. Walker showed her the property – the barn, the well, the spring and the woods. “I showed her the garden,” he said,“and we picked some lettuce and onions.”
Nancy, who took pride in her cooking skills, made an omelet and a side dish of lettuce wilted with bacon grease. After dinner, two boys from the neighborhood stopped by, and the four watched the comedy movie “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” on television. “I remember after the movie, there was the news, and the guys left right after,” Walker recalled.
After that, the two adjourned to the wooden couch on the porch, lingering on its lumpy cushions for hours. They talked shop about the difficulties of community organizing in Madison County. Each had connected in small but significant ways with people in their respective communities.
They reflected on their time in that beautiful, hardscrabble place, how it had marked them and helped them grow, how it might influence the rest of their lives. Walker wanted to know what Nancy was going to do after VISTA. She expected to travel a bit, visiting friends, then start nursing school in New York. Her cap and uniform had already arrived, and she had modeled them for her friends. She had promised some of the people she worked with that, after her studies, she would return to Madison County armed with skills that could benefit the area, where poor health care was commonplace.
They discussed the future of VISTA and what Walker planned to do next. Walker went inside for a cigarette and noticed how late it was – about 3:30 a.m. Because the road to his house was steep and narrow, he turned Nancy’s car around for her. He watched until he was sure she had made it through a small creek that flowed over the road. “It was possible to get stuck,” he said. “I remember standing there and watching the headlights go until she got out to the hard road.” Once he saw the car lights turn and disappear, he returned to the house and went to bed.
He would never again see her alive.