How the Media Treat Murder

Ten women have been found slain or have been declared missing in Rocky Mount, N.C., in recent years. But the rest of the country hasn't heard about a possible serial killer stalking the young women in this Southern town of 60,000. The latest victim, Elizabeth Jane Smallwood, was identified on Oct. 12. Why have the Rocky Mount homicides been largely ignored?

"When you think about the famous missing-person cases over the last few years it's Chandra Levy, Natalee Holloway, and Laci Peterson," notes Sam Sommers, associate professor of psychology at Tufts University. All these women had a few things in common—they were white, educated, and came from middle-class families. The victims in Rocky Mount—which residents describe as a "typical Southern town," and is about 40 percent white and more than 50 percent black—were different. They were all African-American, many were poor, and some had criminal histories including drug abuse and prostitution.

"If it was someone of a different race, things would have been dealt with the first time around; it wouldn't have taken the fifth or sixth person to be murdered," says Andre Knight, a city-council member and president of the local NAACP chapter. "All these women knew each other and lived in the same neighborhood; this is the sign of a potential serial killer. When it didn't get the kind of attention it needed, it made the African-American community frustrated."

Police have not officially linked all the murders and disappearances, but community members claim the similarities among the women, their lifestyles, and the location of their bodies make a connection all too obvious. "If you find two bodies in the same location, this could be the work of the same person or people," says Rocky Mount Police Chief John Manley, who would not comment on a connection, but implied the possibility.

Rumors are running rampant around the town about the identity of the serial killer. There is not much physical evidence, leading some to speculate it's a former law-enforcement officer or someone in the military. Others have deduced that the killer is targeting specific women as a form of revenge for contracting HIV from a prostitute. Along with Smallwood, the murders of Taraha Nicholson, 28, Jarniece Hargrove, 31, Ernestine Battle, 50, Jackie Nikelia Thorpe, 35, Melody Wiggins, 29, and Denise Williams, 21, remain unsolved. Authorities are also searching for Yolanda Lancaster, 37, Joyce Renee Durham, 46, and Christine Boone, 43.

One man is in custody for the murder of Nicholson, who was the fourth victim, discovered back in 2005. This past September, police charged Antwan Maurice Pittman, 31, with her murder. He is accused of strangling Nicholson and dumping her partially clothed body in the woods. So far, authorities have not linked Pittman to the other murders. "There's a lot of mixed sentiments about Pittman," says Knight, referring to community speculation about whether police have charged the right man.

"In this Information Age, cases get solved through sheer publicity, whether it's an Amber Alert or America's Most Wanted, anyone could have a tip or be a potential source of information," Sommers says.

But the national media did show some interest in the story after it was revealed that five women were murdered in or around the town. "Nancy Grace called and wanted to have some of us on her show, but before it aired there was a white woman from Georgia that went missing. The Nancy Grace show was canceled," Knight says. HLN network, which broadcasts Nancy Grace, confirmed that Knight was booked for the show, which was ultimately canceled to profile the disappearance of Kristi Cornwell, a white woman from Blairsville, Ga., who went missing during an evening walk. Representatives from Nancy Grace told NEWSWEEK, "The booking was changed due to news that was breaking that day," and emphasized the change had nothing to do with the race of the victim. On Aug. 12, Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees covered the story.

That bit of media exposure brought new resources to the investigation. Originally, only a small amount of reward money was collected for information about the case. After the story aired on CNN , New Jersey philanthropist Peter Pinto, of the Kefalas-Pinto Foundation, donated $10,000 from a personal trust. In late September, the city donated an additional $5,000, which was matched by a $5,000 county donation, bringing the amount of reward money to $20,000. If there were no media coverage, there might have been no reward. The money isn't just going to help with the investigation, it's helping the families of the victims, specifically their children.

The money proved to be a blessing for Jurary Tucker, the mother of Yolanda Lancaster, who has been missing since February 2008. "We were able to use some of the money to get [Yolanda's] children ready for school," Tucker says. "They have to wear uniforms to school and they are very expensive; the money came at a good time." Tucker became the primary custodian of her granddaughter and grandson after Lancaster's disappearance.

When Annie Le, a 24-year-old Yale pharmacology graduate student, went missing on Sept. 8, it only took three days for the university to offer a $20,000 reward. In the case of the Rocky Mount women, it took more than six years to raise that same amount of money for 10 women.

Concerned residents of the town tried to promote the case by distributing fliers and purchasing a billboard advertisement featuring the women, but their efforts may have backfired. Mug-shot photographs of the victims, many pictured in orange jumpsuits, sometimes appearing disheveled or under the influence of alcohol or drugs, were used in their efforts. Unlike the images of a smiling Annie Le, these images showed the women during darker times.

"Everyone has a dark side at some point, but you want to put your best out front when you are trying to appeal [to the public] for help," Chief Manley says. "When you look at obituaries in the newspaper, [the photos] show a bright time in someone's life; you really want to show the person when they are doing well."

Manley says the police department used the victims' driver's license photographs to help with search efforts. "You don't need to air dirty laundry. Seeing someone's dark side doesn't appeal to the conscience of other people," he says.

Concern over the buried headlines and lack of national media attention isn't the only thing upsetting residents; some say there are deeper festering racial tensions in the community. When a candlelight vigil was held to commemorate the murdered women, only black community officials attended. When other vigils were organized for deaths in Rocky Mount, there was no racial divide, and community members, both black and white, attended the events in droves. "When a prominent attorney's wife died, we all came together and the church was full, but when the community was coming together to share their pain and reach out to these families, only black elected officials were there," Knight says. "They [white officials] didn't have an excuse, they just didn't come."

White officials, including the mayor, say they weren't invited to the memorial. "It's hard to attend something that you don't even know is occurring," says David Combs, mayor of Rocky Mount. "I was glad that we had the vigil and had people who were involved."

For the families who just want to locate their daughters or bring closure to their murders, the investigation has been a long, drawn-out process. Tucker speaks about her daughter in the past tense, quickly catches herself, and shifts to the present tense, emphasizing her commitment to finding her daughter. "As far as the investigation goes, I just hope they continue to do the best they can to put closure to the missing girls and the girls that have been found," Tucker says. "Whatever it is, we are here waiting."

"Regardless of drug addiction or other problems, that still doesn't give a person the right to kill another," says Knight. "If we can give a terrorist a day in court, we can get these women justice."

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