• 79°

Lost Colony murder: The case against Dr. Linus Edwards

Editor’s note: The State Bureau of Investigation assigned cold-case investigator Tony Cummings to the unsolved homicide of Brenda Joyce Holland in response to our series of investigative columns that began on April 15. 

Hours before dentist Linus Edwards of Manteo put his .22-caliber pistol to his head on Valentine’s Day, 1971, he left a set of dentures one of his friends, W.W. Harvey Jr., the town’s general practice doctor, had ordered. The boxed dentures, without a note, were placed neatly on the Harveys’ dining room table.

The Harveys were at a Valentine’s Day party at the home of friends. The Harveys had left their house unlocked, as was sometimes the custom at that time in their neighborhood. Dr. Harvey’s widow, Margaret Harvey, told me recently that she’d always felt that “leaving the dentures was Dr. Edward’s last obligation that he wanted to complete before he left this world.  This … says a lot about Dr.  Edwards.”

Ohers say that last act simply spoke to Edwards’ detail-oriented personality, especially since, hours later, he requested that Dr. Harvey, among others, respond to his house as he prepared to kill himself.

Edwards, a Durham native and Army dentist who’d served as a lieutenant colonel, was brilliant, a man who enjoyed working crossword puzzles and talking of his membership in Mensa, an organization of people with high IQs. He was also a violent drunk known to beat and demand loyalty from his second wife, Dotty Fry, and be intensely jealous of her. In the pre-dawn hours of July 1, 1967, Edwards’ mix of drunkenness, rage and jealousy may well have led him to fatally strangle Brenda Joyce Holland, the makeup supervisor at The Lost Colony outdoor drama on Roanoke Island, mistaking Brenda for his wife and dumping her body in the Albemarle Sound.

I hope the SBI will finally close this case, for the sake of Brenda and her survivors, whether that means the SBI says the killer was Edwards or someone else. Closure is the most important thing. But for now, here’s the case against Edwards.

  • Edwards repeatedly confessed to killing Brenda, who was 19. His wife at the time, Dotty Fry, who went on to serve as the Dare County Register of Deeds, said it. As early as 1979, she implied that Edwards had confessed to her. The late Ken Whittington, who was Manteo police chief shortly after the killing, worked the case on his own time as a private detective. According to Whittington’s handwritten notes his widow, Marilyn, shared with me last week, Fry told him in 1979 that, on the night Brenda was killed, she and Edwards had a violent fight during which he threatened to kill her. She told Whittington she fled. According to the SBI file, the next night, Edwards went to the sheriff’s office and reported that his wife was missing. Whittington wrote that when Edwards found Fry at their home when she returned, “his face was white as a ghost and he said ‘I thought you were gone forever.’” He told her that, “if anyone asked, to tell them he stayed home” the night Brenda vanished, according to Whittington’s notes.
  • Fry said she tried to talk to Dare County Sheriff Frank Cahoon and SBI Agent O.L. “Lenny” Wise about the case several times, but they seemed uninterested, Whittington wrote. He did not indicate when Fry tried to reach out to law enforcement. In the month after Brenda was killed, according to the SBI file on Brenda’s homicide, Cahoon told SBI investigators that Fry would be unlikely to talk about her husband. Cahoon and the SBI never pressed Fry or Edwards hard on the matter, judging by the file.
  • Whittington, apparently, did not report Fry’s statement to the SBI. But in April 1986, Fry told SBI agents that Edwards had confessed the crime to her. SBI agents, prompted by local journalist Ray Py, who interviewed Whittington on the case, had reached out to Fry. The following August, Fry told her story to Py in the Virginian-Pilot. In 1997, she reiterated that story to the News & Observer of Raleigh. Fry, who is elderly, indicated to me in April that she does not remember the case.
  • Edwards had the motive, means, proximity and opportunity to commit the crime. Both his wife at the time, Dotty Fry, and Brenda were blondes, softly attractive in their features, right down to their long necks. Brenda vanished on Saturday, July 1, 1967 after a post-show date with a fellow Lost Colony worker, chorus singer Danny Barber. He eventually told investigators he went to sleep and awoke to find her gone from the Burnside Road residence he shared with two other men, including a co-worker of Fry’s at Westvaco of whom Edwards was jealous. On the night Brenda vanished, Edwards had threatened to kill his wife, causing her to flee their soundside home on what is now Puddle Lane in the Mother Vineyard area of Manteo. Neighbors heard the fight and saw the cars leaving, hers first, then his, according to the SBI file. Edwards went searching for his wife in the early morning hours of July 1, according to the file. He may have driven around Burnside Road, thinking he would catch his wife there. Fry, riding around with a close friend, had apparently made a quick stop at the house earlier that night.
  • At some point after Danny Barber fell asleep sometime after 2:15 a.m on July 1, Brenda may have started walking the few blocks to her rented room at Dick and Cora Gray Twiford’s house on what is now Ananias Dare Street. Robert Midgett, the local ABC supervisor, who lived just a few houses up from Barber’s house, told investigators he heard a car stop and a woman’s “ungodly” scream around 3:00 a.m. That could have been Brenda. Edwards, riding around looking for his wife, may have spotted Brenda from his car and mistook her for his wife. That could easily have happened, especially if Edwards had come upon Brenda from behind. It was dark and the only light would have come from his headlights. Edwards was also drunk. He might have stopped his car, bolted out of it and attacked Brenda. She was 5-feet, 7-inches tall and about 120 pounds. He was 6-feet, 2-inches tall and about 195 pounds, much of it muscle. She might have gotten out the scream before he strangled her, threw her body in his car and drove it to the top of the old bridge to Manns Harbor, throwing the corpse off at the highest point on the bridge.
  • Edwards’ statements about his whereabouts around the time Brenda vanished conflict with those of other witnesses.
  • Edwards is by far the strongest suspect of several in the case. Cahoon and the SBI kept their focus on Barber, who died in 2011. But if Barber would have killed her in his bedroom in the Burnside Road residence, it’s highly unlikely that one of his two housemates, both of whom were home, wouldn’t have heard him bringing her body out, leaving in his car and returning, much less hearing sounds of the crime being committed. They reported nothing of the sort to the SBI.
  • Edwards fatally shot himself in 1971. He and Fry had divorced in 1970. He did not leave a note, according to the SBI file. SBI agents wrote that he’d been eliminated as a suspect in Brenda’s homicide. But it’s worth noting that, after Edwards killed himself, when Brenda’s homicide wasn’t yet a 4-year-old case, neither Cahoon nor the agents took much more action on the investigation.

It was almost as if they might have privately believed that Edwards was the killer.

Coming next Sunday: The Lost Colony should honor Brenda’s strong legacy.

Previous columns:

Danny Barber’s ordeal

Here comes the break
In the dentist’s shadow
SBI reopens investigation
The Holland mystery unfolds
Help resolve the Brenda Holland murder

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.