Gaffney, S.C. Haunted By Murderous Memories

Nine days of terror for residents of Gaffney, S.C., have apparently come to an end. Early Monday morning, police in Gaston County killed Patrick Tracy Burris, 41, the man suspected of murdering five people in Cherokee County, 30 miles away. Cops found Burris, who has a 25-page rap sheet, at a private home and tried to haul him in for a parole violation. When he opened fire and hit an officer, they shot him dead.

For residents of Gaffney (population: 13,000), the episode revives memories of another killer who stalked the town 41 years ago. Lee Roy Martin murdered four young women over the course of nine months in 1967 and 1968. He picked up his first victim, Annie Lucille Dedmond, on a roadside after she'd fought with her husband, then strangled and raped her. After months of lying low, he targeted Nancy Christine Rhinehart, who was walking home from a friend's house. Martin took her to a wooded area, where he choked and raped her. Soon afterward, he did the same to Nancy Carol Parris, who'd been sitting on the side of the road with her dog. And finally he snatched Opal Diane Buckson on her way to school. When she fought back, Martin stabbed her to death. Authorities finally caught him after a nine-day chase, following a series of phone calls to the then managing editor of the Gaffney Ledger, Bill Gibbons, who went on to write "Martin: Profile of the Gaffney Strangler." To learn more about the parallels between the two rampages, NEWSWEEK's Catharine Skipp spoke to Gibbons, now retired. Excerpts:

How did the town respond to the latest killings, compared with the ones four decades ago?
[The manhunts] were both about the same length. But the old one seemed longer to me. The reaction was the same as this time—stores selling out of ammo, people packing guns, people locking doors and turning on lights. You didn't dare go onto anyone's porch or go in their yard for fear of being shot, and it worsened as time went on.

Tell me about the first killer, Lee Roy Martin.
He was a textile worker in Cherokee County and a part-time taxicab driver. He was an all-around good fellow, everyone thought.

How did your interactions with him unfold?
It all started with a phone call to me [in February 1968]. I thought it was a kook and a crank call. He said, "Take out three sheets of paper," and he told me he would give me three stories. He gave me some information and I wrote [the three messages] down in my shorthand. At the end he said, "You take the sheriff with you. Don't you go by yourself." I had just returned from lunch and our reporter and photographer were out, or I probably would have sent them. But I did go over to the jail, where the sheriff used to live at the time. He said, "There is probably nothing to it, but we better check it out." The sheriff said it seemed more plausible to [check out] the second message because it was easier. It was to go to the bridge on Ford Road and look in the water on the down side. We thought we'd look right in the water and see a dog or a goat. We thought it might be some trick or even a liquor deal. We looked over the side of the bridge, and partly in the water and partly in the sand was Nancy Carol Parris, nude and dead. We knew then, my God, this is real. The Parris girl was dead only about a day and thrown over probably the night before.

What did the other messages say?
The first message was to go to the second ridge, turn left at the woods, and walk a quarter mile to a pile of brush. Nancy Christine Rhinehart had been dead for several days. In fact, the body was already deteriorating. He had gone back several times to have sexual relations.

And the third message?
The third message was: "March 9, 1967, Jerusalem Road, Union County. Annie Lucille Dedmond." Everyone knew the Dedmond deal. Her husband was serving an 18-year sentence for her murder. I don't think he would have called me except he said that another man was serving his time. He was concerned about it.

So he had a conscience?
He had a split personality. One side was a good guy. He said that this thing comes over him and he can't control it. He feels like he is standing on a hill looking down on himself. He said that he felt bad about the Parris girl because she was hungry and he should have gotten her something to eat. She had a little dog with her, and he killed the dog also.

Did he call again?
We had pooh-poohed the Dedmond thing, and this is what kept him calling. He called four days later to tell me about some items Mrs. Dedmond had with her and where to find them. I told him, "This thing has to stop. Let's get together." He said, "No, they are going to have to kill me like the dog that I am." That was at nighttime. The next morning, the sheriff calls to say he has gotten another one. This was an African-American girl on her way to school. He picked her up on the roadside on his way to work. He threw her in the trunk, but her sister got a good look at the car and gave a description to police. Our paper put out a description of the car. That was the Buckson girl, Opal Diane Buckson, 14.

How did he kill his victims?
He stabbed Buckson. He had to [because she fought back]. The others he choked with his belt. He would strangle them and rape them, in that order. He told me that "fat and ugly women, they don't need to fear me, and the men don't need to fear me either." [All his victims were attractive young women.]

How was Martin caught?
Two citizens were out looking around, and they spotted a car matching the description. The car took off and he gave them the slip, but they got the license-plate number. It went on another couple of days, but the police pretty much decided it was him and had their eye on him. [The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division] and the local authorities kept a close watch on the car. They were gathering evidence and came to the conclusion he was the Gaffney strangler. They arrested him one morning at the mill. He was tried, convicted, and went to prison. While in prison, he had a little disagreement with another prisoner. They liked the same guy. He was stabbed and killed by the other prisoner, and that's the end of the story.

Why did he wait so long after the Dedmond killing in 1967 to commit the other three murders in 1968?
He attended the Dedmond trial, and that had a lot to do with him doing the other murders. He was upset with the miscarriage of justice, and that was the crowning blow. He turned from his good side to his bad side.

What's known about the new spree-killer suspect, Patrick Burris?
We don't know that much about Burris yet, but he had a 25-page rap sheet from Maryland, Florida, West Virginia, North Carolina—all those places. He had been convicted of armed robbery in North Carolina and served time until April. He was on work release, but he had immediately left. That is why [the Gastonia Police Department] was looking for him for a parole violation. That's why they went to the house. The two people he was with, he had just met a few days earlier in a bar. He apparently was just going around with no motive, just wanted to kill someone, and whoever ran up on him, he did. The gun was not registered to him. The auto wasn't registered to his name. He took some stuff off several victims, but he didn't get much. It all happened in the same time frame, in the afternoons.

Why do you think your small town has been terrorized by these two series of killings? Is it just bad luck?
The first one was a Gaffney native. The second one is pure bad luck. [Burris] has no connection to Gaffney. He just happened to go up Highway 11. Highway 11 is the scenic highway off I-85. If he came up, like it seems, from Gastonia, it would be natural to go off on Highway 11, and all of [the murders] were on or just off 11. If he'd gone up on 5, he would have gotten people in Blacksburg, or on 74, it'd have been Shelby or Kings Mountain.

Any chance there's a connection to your giant peach water tower, the Peachoid?
If we thought it did, we'd drain that sucker. But we didn't have it the first time.