Column: Help resolve the Brenda Holland murder

Published 9:40 am Sunday, April 15, 2018

Watching the new movie about the young woman who drowned after U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy drove his car off that bridge on the New England coast in July 1969, I kept thinking about another young woman, one who was found strangled to death in Outer Banks waters two years earlier, in July 1967. Our case, which attracted nationwide attention as “The Lost Colony murder,” has more chance for resolution than the late Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick one ever will. 

The victim in the local case, Brenda Joyce Holland, worked as a makeup artist at The Lost Colony outdoor drama on Roanoke Island and was just as much an innocent as was the victim in Kennedy’s case, Mary Jo Kopechne. Kopechne’s case was covered up by the powers that be. And one of Brenda’s sisters, Kim Holland Thorn of Vanceboro, believes Brenda’s case was also covered up by powerful people. “It was the good old boys’ club and that’s how things worked,” she told me last week. “It still works that way to some extent.” 

Brenda’s murder, which shocked Manteo when it really was a quiet little town, has never been officially solved. It cries out for that. Now. 

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The Coastland Times, 1967 front page  junp_The Coastland Times, Page5, 1967-07-07

A prominent Manteo man confessed to his wife of the time that he killed Brenda. He did so in a drunken rage, mistaking Brenda for her, the ex-wife indicated in newspaper stories years after Brenda’s body was found floating in the Albemarle Sound near Mashoes – and years after her ex-husband had committed suicide. The ex-wife’s story, most recently reported by The News & Observer of Raleigh in 1997, has never been seriously challenged. She is elderly now and indicated to me Thursday that she doesn’t remember the story. 

But Thorn told me that the woman told her the same story several years ago. She says the Dare County sheriff at the time, the late Frank Cahoon, blew the case, as did the State Bureau of Investigation, which was called in to assist. She has long wanted the SBI to declare that the man implicated by his ex-wife was the killer. The agency should do that. 

And, Thorn says, The Lost Colony should put up a big memorial plaque to Brenda, who was a respected and popular member of the crew. That should be done as well. 

Just as Kopechne, who had worked on Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, was full of potential, so was Brenda. Thorn imagines her sister succeeding as a makeup artist on Broadway, or in whatever else she wanted to do. “I’ve always thought: What in the world would Brenda be doing now or what would she have accomplished?” Thorn asked. 

Instead, Brenda is forever floating in that terrible summer of 1967.  

“We buried her on her 20th birthday,” Thorn said, “It’s just not normal. Brenda looks a lot like me. I might just be a little older now.” 

Thorn, the baby of four children in her family, is 59 now. She often thinks of Brenda, who was 12 years older. She was 9 when her sister was slain. 

“After Brenda had been murdered for two years, my mother called me ‘Brenda,’ she said, “She would call me ‘Brenda’ and I would answer. I wouldn’t take offense to it.” 

Their heartbroken parents are gone now. 

As the years went by, Thorn said, there were other reminders, notes from old friends saying, Brenda “taught my son how to swim” and “babysat me and my siblings.” 

Thorn said: “It’s like Brenda’s still out there trying to keep her memory alive. You know, ‘Don’t forget me.’” 

They grew up in Canton in the North Carolina mountains. Brenda was a student at what was then Campbell College in Buies Creek that summer of 1967, the first of her family to go to college. Even before her summer job at The Lost Colony, she’d cut her brown hair short and dyed it blonde. She was finding and facing a new world on her own terms. 

Much has been written about that and about Brenda’s last hours on that first weekend of July 1967, most notably about a date with a Lost Colony employee who took her back to his home and passed out to find her gone. Soon thereafter, she was reported missing. Several days later, after a massive search, her body was found. 

Thorn, now semi-retired, has never stopped trying to find what out what happened to her big sister. She visited the Outer Banks and talked to the woman who came out with the story about her ex-husband killing Brenda. She told Thorn the same story. Thorn believes her. “I can definitely see that there was a mistaken identity,” she said. 

Once, she said, she asked the SBI to declare that the man implicated by his ex-wife was the killer. The agency refused, she said, but did say she could ask them to close the case. 

“I said ‘Oh hell no. It will not be closed until you say who the killer was.’” 

Indeed. It’s past time for resolution on Brenda’s case. 

If you have tips on Brenda’s case, please email John Railey at raileyjb@gmail.comRailey, a veteran North Carolina journalist who has lived and worked on the Outer Banks, will share all information with Brenda’s sister Kim Thorn and report here on credible tips.