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The Lost Colony murder: Crime scene failures resonate

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

The physical evidence in Brenda Joyce Holland’s 1967 case has apparently been lost. While cold-case investigator Tony Cummings has worked hard in the past several weeks to solve her case, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that past mistakes made in the probe have made his assignment extremely difficult.

Asked about evidence in Brenda’s case, SBI spokeswoman Patty McQuillan said: “While the SBI makes every effort to solve each homicide case when their assistance is requested by other law enforcement agencies, some cases remain unsolved for various reasons. The SBI has been revisiting some older, unsolved cases to see if potential DNA evidence is present that could be analyzed with today’s technology. However, some of these cases may be 30 to 50 years old and most, if not all of the physical evidence has long been destroyed and the case files may have been purged, causing an insurmountable problem and not leaving much for law enforcement to go on with respect to solving cases.”

The lack of physical evidence makes the case of Brenda, the 19-year-old makeup supervisor at The Lost Colony outdoor drama on Roanoke Island, all the harder to solve. Until several years ago, physical evidence in cases in which the SBI assisted was stored at the SBI lab in Raleigh. But after a change in policy, physical evidence was returned to local law enforcement agencies to store. Whether the evidence in Brenda’s case was lost while in the care of the SBI or the Dare County Sheriff’s Office remains uncertain. That’s a question that cries out for answers. Whatever happened in this case, state legislators should explore stronger legislation to protect such evidence.

In Brenda’s case, the case file does indeed exist. From my reading of that file and my interviews, it’s readily apparent that a strong circumstantial case could have been made against Manteo’s only dentist, Linus Edwards, who may well have strangled Brenda in a drunken rage on a dark Manteo road after mistaking her for his wife at the time. She later said he confessed committing the crime to her. She and Brenda looked a lot alike, right down to their blond hair.  Edwards may have then driven to the top of the old bridge to Manns Harbor in the pre-dawn hours on Saturday, July 1, 1967 and threw Brenda’s body into the sound.

Five days later, on the morning of Thursday, July 6, a search pilot spotted a body in the Albemarle Sound near Mashoes that was soon identified as Brenda. By early afternoon, Dare County Sheriff Frank Cahoon and others had recovered the body by boat and brought it ashore.

From the start, the crime scene was mishandled.

Photos of the corpse, a basic for any homicide investigation, have yet to be found.  An Aug. 15, 1967 page in the SBI file from the SBI director to Agent D.E. Gilbert, written in response to an order for “exposures” of “the victim’s body” taken by a state trooper, says “The color exposures submitted in above subject case [Brenda Joyce Holland] by you were picked up from Capital Camera Shop, this date, and it was noted that all exposures were completely blank.” There is no record in the file of any other photos of the body. Aycock Brown, a renowned local photographer and the head of the Dare County Tourist Bureau, was at the crime scene. Two eyewitnesses say they remember seeing photos he took of the body, but those photos have yet to be found. I hope anyone who has knowledge of the exact location of such photos will come forward. Such photos could be well-utilized in modern crime-solving techniques.

A note in the file indicates that Brown and a newspaper photographer removed a necklace from Brenda: They “removed necklace, stripped away any clinging skin, washed if off in sound, and photographed it,” according to the note. Brown was a good man, and that may have been his well-meaning but crude way of preserving evidence. But Sheriff Cahoon should have stopped him. Even in 1967, the crime scene should have been better preserved. The necklace delineated Brenda as Miss Congeniality of Haywood County for 1966. Back in Manteo, hours after the body was found, investigators gave the necklace to Brenda’s father, according to a newspaper clip, and there is no record in the file of it being preserved as evidence. Investigators may well have meant that as a nice gesture to a grieving father. But, especially in a strangulation case, the necklace’s evidentiary value could have been pivotal.

In an interview with the Charlotte Observer published on Aug. 9, 1967, just over a month after Brenda’s body was found, Cahoon hinted at problems with the crime scene. The crime scene actually began a few days before Brenda’s body was found. There were searches of areas where items of hers were found scattered. “Right from the beginning, hundreds of well-wishers wanted to help search for the body,” Cahoon told the Charlotte paper. “They wanted to search the woods. I couldn’t turn them down, but I had to organize them, and that took time, when I should have been doing other things.”

The weather didn’t help. As the searchers began their work on Monday, July 3, a rainstorm hit that wouldn’t have helped with any footprints that might have been preserved.

And finally, there is that question of the physical evidence that should have been preserved. It definitely existed, according to the SBI file. Cahoon, in a July 20, 1967 letter with a heading of “Re: Brenda Joyce Holland murder case,” sent some of her clothing directly to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover for testing in relation to a suspect in the case:

Dear Mr. Hoover:

I am sending you this date a box of clothes belonging to the above named victim. Clothes that she was wearing the day she disappeared and also the clothes that were removed from the body after its recovery from waters of Albemarle Sound.

A July 24, 1967 response from the FBI to Cahoon’s inquiry says the clothing included chemise (a type of dress), brassiere, panties, skirt and a handbag.

There was more physical evidence. A July 21, 1967 page in the SBI file references “a manila envelope containing hair specimen …. from hair roller’s [sic] belonging to the victim. Said specimen was from rollers taken from her home in Manteo, N.C. after her death by her mother, Mrs. Geraldine Holland… Hair specimen taken from victim’s winter clothes. These clothes were sent home from Campbell College at the end of school term – June 1967 …. Clothing tag reportedly from the blouse that victim was wearing at time of death. Said blouse is reportedly from a store in Manteo, N.C. and bought soon before death.”

Sheriff Cahoon’s son Jack indicated to me last week that his father told him that after he called in the SBI, they were in charge of the probe. But the SBI file indicates that the sheriff took an active role. And the SBI, per the norm, was only there at the request of the local law enforcement head. Jack Cahoon also said that, contrary to what some have said, his father was not friends with Dr. Edwards, though he was friendly to all.

The five SBI agents that came to Dare County in the days before Brenda’s body was found and stayed until the following October were among the best the agency had to offer, and high-ranking supervisors closely monitored their work. Cahoon was a well-respected lawman.

Sheriff Cahoon and the SBI investigators spent countless hours during the summer of 1967 diligently pursuing suspects, checking out their stories and alibies with the help of law enforcement brethren nationwide. But Cahoon and the SBI investigators might have succumbed to an-all-too-traditional law enforcement syndrome: tunnel vision. By late summer and into the years ahead, they concentrated on one suspect, Brenda’s last date, Danny Barber,  and didn’t look as hard at others, even though Dr. Edwards, who fatally shot himself on Valentine’s Day 1971, was the much stronger suspect.  It’s telling that, after that suicide, even though SBI agents wrote that Edwards had been ruled out as a suspect, they basically relaxed their investigation.

Even before that, whatever their case theory, the investigators might have realized that, due to a compromised crime scene that left holes big enough for any decent defense attorney to drive a Mac truck through, they would have had a hard time convincing a prosecutor to pursue a case against any of their suspects.

The failure to preserve the evidence in this crucial case for modern testing, a failure that may well have happened after the time of Cahoon and the original SBI investigators, leaves Brenda forever crying out for justice. Dr. Linus Edwards may well have gotten away with murder.

 John Railey, a freelance journalist and author who has lived and worked on the Outer Banks, is writing the first nonfiction book about the slaying of Brenda Joyce Holland. He is also working to solve the 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. This is the last column in the regular series, but new developments in the case will be reported here.

 

 Previous columns:

The case against Dr. Edwards

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