Lost Colony murder: The Holland mystery unfolds

Published 7:25 am Saturday, April 21, 2018

On Valentine’s Day 1971, a Manteo man was losing it, alone in his kitchen with his .22-caliber pistol. He placed a few phone calls as darkness fell. He was an alcoholic dentist all but ready to blast his way to oblivion, taking his secrets with him. 

TV reception on the Outer Banks was sketchy in those days before widespread cable TV. But if the dentist was tuned to one of the three networks that Sunday evening, he might have seen that North Carolina’s Richard Petty was on his way to winning the Daytona 500 way down the coast, in Florida. The Ben Hur movie would have its first showing on TV that night. 

In those days long before the real tourist boom, winters were especially desolate and hard, with locals storing up their summer earnings even more than now to make it through. The man in his kitchen wasn’t among that crowd.   

Get the latest headlines sent to you

He made a good living as a dentist in Manteo. But on that Valentine’s Day, after years of alcoholism and domestic troubles, he’d called the Dare County Sheriff’s Department and asked for the sheriff to meet with him and his local attorney at his house. The dentist also asked that a local doctor be there as well. The lawyer got there first, just before 7 p.m., not knowing what the hell his client wanted to say. 

For some, who’d long believed the dentist was the killer of Brenda Joyce Holland, the young makeup supervisor of The Lost Colony outdoor drama on Roanoke Island whose strangled and, quite possibly, sexually-assaulted body had been found floating in the Albemarle Sound near Mashoes in early July 1967, this was the pivotal point in the case.  

But for others, the dentist’s calls for that meeting were only another troubling chapter. “When I learned what happened that Valentine’s Day with the dentist, I was shocked because I had never dreamed things would transpire that way,” Kim Holland Thorn of Vanceboro, one of Brenda’s sisters, told me last week. 

I’ll report next Sunday on the outcome of that Valentine’s Day. 

For now, here is what we know after a source gave me access last week to a copy of the State Bureau of Investigation file on Brenda’s case. The SBI itself rarely, if ever, releases case files to the public. Brenda’s file of several hundred pages tells a dark story. 

She was reported missing on the first weekend of July 1967. A massive search led to the discovery of her body several days later. Her blouse and shoes were gone, and she wore a leopard-pattern bathing suit underneath her skirt. The Campbell College student wore a necklace bearing homage to her Western North Carolina homeland: The locket noted that she was Miss Congeniality in the Miss Haywood County pageant of 1966. Brenda, who had recently dyed her brown hair blond, was innocent and charming, beloved and respected by her co-workers. And she was trusting.  

She was buried back up in her mountains on what should have been her 20th turn around the sun. Instead, Brenda is forever floating at 19, her promise of Broadway and all else lost. 

In a vintage newspaper photo, Dare County Sheriff Frank Cahoon, lantern-jawed and grim, is seen at the helm of a boat that carries Brenda’s blanket-covered body. It was the beginning of a political hurricane that would dog the late and legendary lawman then and through his last years in office, even into retirement.  

Cahoon’s office probed the case with the SBI, as was the custom then and now for small departments.  His office worked hard, interviewing many suspects. It got nowhere with Brenda’s last date, a fellow Lost Colony worker who passed out after taking her back to his Manteo quarters. Brenda left on foot, apparently walking toward her nearby home. 

A longstanding theory goes that, while drunk, the dentist violently threatened his wife, and she ran away from their home. The dentist later pursued her, the theory goes, mistook Brenda for his wife, killed her and cast her body into the sound. 

The sheriff’s office knew Edwards well. One former deputy told me last week that he’d responded to numerous disturbance calls regarding the dentist and his wife at their home. The dentist would get drunk and out of control on Ballantine beer, the deputy told me, and later call him up to his dental office to ask him who had made the disturbance calls. The deputy wouldn’t tell him. 

SBI agents, according to the file, interviewed Cahoon about his findings on the case. Just weeks after Brenda’s body was found, Cahoon, in his office on July 21, told SBI agents that the dentist, Dr. Linus Edwards, was “a possible suspect in this case.” Cahoon didn’t go to the mistaken identity theory,  but did say that he had “received information” that Edwards and his wife had “some domestic difficulties” the Friday night Brenda vanished and that Edwards’ wife left for a friend’s house. Edwards had gone out looking for her. The sheriff told the SBI that Edwards “has a very good business in Manteo” but “has a very poor reputation for excessive drinking,” according to the SBI file. 

Cahoon added that Edwards’ wife “is the type of individual that would not be free to discuss her relationship with her husband to others and that it is doubtful if she would talk to investigating officers relative to her husband’s behavior.” 

The next month, the SBI interviewed Sheriff Cahoon about an encounter he’d had with Dr. Edwards. That interview took place on Aug. 21, again in Cahoon’s office. Cahoon told the agents that  “about dusk dark” on the previous Friday, the radio dispatcher called him to say that “Dr. Edwards was at the office and he thought that he had better come to his office to talk to him,” according to the file. 

“Sheriff Cahoon states that when he arrived at the courthouse and entered the main lobby, the downstairs section, that he overheard a conversation between Dr. Edwards and the radio dispatcher and that Dr. Edwards was talking in a rather loud voice and that he could hear him telling the dispatcher that he did not kill the Brenda Holland girl that he didn’t know who did; that they had the dates confused; that he was not out on Friday night … [apparently referring to the weekend Brenda was slain]. 

“Sheriff Cahoon stated that he went on upstairs to his office. Upon arriving at his office, he realized Dr. Edwards was drinking, and as soon as he, Dr. Edwards, discovered Sheriff Cahoon in the office he immediately turned and told him that he did not kill the Holland girl and that the rumor got started at the Sheriff’s office and that it was about to ruin his business and his marriage,” according to the SBI file. 

“Sheriff Cahoon states that he told Dr. Edwards that the rumor did not start at the sheriff’s office but he had heard the rumor himself. That he thought he [Edwards] should go on home and go on back to work as he had been doing and try to forget the rumor. Sheriff Cahoon states that Dr. Edwards did leave the office. That after he had enough time to get to the street, he followed him on out on the street and later that he and the Ford dealer, Mr. R.D. Sawyer, carried Dr. Edwards to his residence; that on the way home he was quite congenial and had nothing further to say about the Brenda Holland case.” 

The two interviews raise big questions. Why didn’t Cahoon and the SBI press Edwards’ wife, who would soon be his ex-wife, harder on whether Edwards might have killed Brenda? And when Edwards came to the sheriff’s office that night, why didn’t the sheriff get him into an interview room and push him for details on his alibi? Was Edwards an innocent man fighting back against wrongful rumors or a guilty man, as Shakespeare might have put it, protesting too much? 

Coming next Sunday: The troubled history of Dr. Linus Edwards emerges. 

John Railey, a freelance journalist and author who has lived and worked on the Outer Banks, is working to solve the Brenda Joyce Holland case with Brenda’s sister Kim Holland Thorn. Please relay any tips to Railey at raileyjb@gmail.com. He will share all information with Thorn and report on credible tips here.