A Serial Killer in Fayetteville, NC? The Cluster of Murders is Haunting
By Maurice Godwin
Throughout the 1970s and 80s Fayetteville, North Carolina, because of its proximity to Ft. Bragg military base had the nickname “Fayettenam.” The nickname was given even more fuel when Fayetteville made headlines after Army Doctor Jeffrey MacDonald was suspected of murdering his pregnant wife and two daughters in their Ft. Bragg home in 1970. Back then the city’s reputation was based largely in part on its downtown Hay Street area with its neon lights advertising bars and strip clubs.
Over the past two decades the City of Fayetteville has worked hard to change its image and reputation. Hay Street is now lined with coffee shops, restaurants and exclusive apartments. Crime in Fayetteville is another matter as it has not changed all that much; still sensational and headline grabbing.
Seven murders of prostitutes in the Fayetteville/Cumberland County area occurred between 1987 and 1999. Many of the victims were beaten and strangled. Using the FBI’s definition of serial murder; that is, the killing of two or more on different dates, then there is no doubt that Fayetteville has had a serial killer in its mist for years.
The first murder dates back to August 1987. Brenda Melvin was found in a motel room bathtub on Person Street, she was 25. Melvin had been strangled. The next murder victim was Shelby Williams, 32. She was found strangled under a bridge in June 1990. The serial killer kept adding victims to his resume with anonymity.
Theresa Blackwell, 27, was found beaten and possibly strangled near a freeway exit ramp in October 1995. Rachel McArthur, 29, body was found near an abandoned apartment building in June 1997 (Associated Press, 2000). She died of a blow to the head and her throat had been cut after death. The killer was not forensically aware because he left a piece of glass used to slice McArthur’s throat in her neck. Four months later Deborah Jones, 37, was found shot in the head near the DuPont plant south of Fayetteville. The sixth victim, Amanda Bagley’s body was found in a woody area off Bragg Boulevard in Fayetteville. Her body was so decomposed that it took months to determine the manner of death. Officially the medical examiner ruled Bagley’s death as a drug overdose; however, her mother still believes that her daughter was murdered.
The seventh victim, Patricia Lapinskes, 50, was discovered in a lot on C Street in downtown Fayetteville. Lapinskes was a resident of Lumberton, NC which is about 35 miles from Fayetteville. She died of asphyxiation, possibly from strangulation, according to medical examiners (Associated Press, 2000).
Both city and county law enforcement realized they had a difficult situation on their hands. The business of prostitution is one with no known relationship between the two parties. Stranger murders are difficult to solve. A homicide task force was formed which included local, county and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. The investigators were looking into 15 unsolved murders including those of the seven prostitutes.
In 2000 the task force thought they had a possible break in the murders when Reinaldo “Rey” Javier Rivera was arrested for the murders of four women in South Carolina and Georgia (Hodson, 2004). During his statement to police, Rivera claimed he once raped a woman in Fayetteville, NC. Mr. Rivera lived briefly in 1996 in Fayetteville after his military discharge.
Rivera, 37, originally from Spain was a former sailor and lived Augusta, GA at the time of his arrest. He was arrested in a motel room where he tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists after a woman he tried to stab and rape helped police locate him (Hodson, 2004). After Mr. Rivera’s arrest in 2000 police investigators received a plethora of inquiries from women who said they were approached by Rivera at the University of South Carolina. He had tried to lure them into his car saying that he was opening a modeling agency and asking them about their sex lives.
None of the seven Fayetteville prostitute murders have never been officially linked to Rivera. Task force members from three states entered their data into the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP) system but to date there has been no matches.
In 2004 Fayetteville police investigators got a lucky break with the help of DNA profiling. In April 2004 a Cumberland County grand jury indicted Samuel McCullum, 39, in the 1995 death of Teresa Faye Blackwell (Leskanic, 2004). At the time of the indicted McCullum was serving a 35-year prison sentence in Kentucky for sodomizing a teenager in 2002. Police do not think he is connected to the other prostitute murders. However, considering that serial killers hunt their prey in small comfort zones it is unlikely that several serial killers are operating within the same geographical area.
When a city has a series of unsolved prostitute murders it is reasonable to conclude that there are more victims. Despite the eventual arrest of Samuel McCullum a serial killer is still eluding police in Fayetteville, NC.
Police investigators in Fayetteville never publicly admitted that they had a serial killer on their hands. In an Associated Press article in April 2000 Fayetteville investigators admitted that “some of the murders maybe linked” but they stopped short of talking about a serial killer (Associated Press, 2000).
Recent analysis of the unsolved prostitute murders in Fayetteville and Cumberland County, North Carolina by investigative psychologist Dr. Maurice Godwin found disturbing patterns that point directly to a serial killer. For example, in the late 1990s there were a number of murdered female remains who could not be identified due to decomposition. Serial killers modified their behaviors all the time and they quickly learn to discard their prey in locations where the victims likely will not be discovered. How many more victims are there in Fayetteville that have not been found? The cluster of murders is haunting. The list of unsolved female murders, in the Fayetteville area, dates back to the mid-1970s.
In addition to research from his book Hunting Serial Predators (2008) on American serial killers Dr. Godwin also used a database created by veteran journalist Thomas Hargrove of the Scripps Howard News Service to search for similar murder patterns in Fayetteville. Hargrove complied computer records of 525,742 homicides committed between1980 and 2008 in the US (Hargrove, 2010). The data were collected from the homicide supplemental reports of the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), which is managed by the FBI. Data for UCR comes from local and state police agencies and is reported to the FBI voluntarily. Because reporting is voluntary not all crimes are reported to the FBI. Consequently, Scripps had to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain additional homicide records of 15,322 killings that law enforcement did not originally disclose to the FBI (Hargrove, 2010). The final database platform, which some experts have claimed to be the most complete record of homicide victims ever assembled in the US purpose was to determine if patterns of serial killings could be identified from the aggregated homicides of 185,000 victims.
There have been other successes using the Scripps’ homicide data base. In January 2012 Kevin Fallow, an information technology analyst from Buffalo, New York examined the homicide data in Rochester, NY and found a cluster of unsolved strangulations. Rochester police later acknowledged the strings of unsolved killings of women (Hargrove, 2012).
The term linkage blindness describes law enforcement’s failure to share case information on possible serial killings across different jurisdictions. Over the years, due to improvements in computer linking databases and regional task forces, the sharing of information has improved. However, absent any forensic evidence, there still remains a fundamental flaw in serial murder investigations; that is, the failure of police to recognize a similar pattern of a single killer within their own jurisdiction. One example is the serial killer Gary Ridgway who killed 50 victims over a 20 year period in Seattle, Washington. Another serial murder case where police failed to link the murders was John Williams, Jr. in Raleigh, North Carolina (Jarvis, 1997). It took a year and public pressure before police finally arrested Williams while he was attacking another women.
While Fayetteville detectives in 2000 did compare the cases the murders still remain unsolved. In an effort to solicit clues on the unsolved murders, now, Fayetteville-Cumberland County Crimestoppers has issued a set of playing-deck cards that contains information, photos when possible, about some of the unsolved murders. The cards will be distributed to inmates at the local county jail and throughout homeless shelters in the area (McCleary, 2012).
What is needed is an outside expert with no law enforcement affiliation to look for missed or ignored evidence and behavioral patterns.
Justice awaits the serial murder victims in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Godwin, M., (2008) (2nd Edition). Hunting Serial Predators. Jones & Bartlett Publishers, MA.
Hargrove, T., Serial killings study prompts police to launch investigations. (2010, November 21). Scripps News Service.
Hargrove, T., Amateur sleuth finds serial murders in old case files. (2012, January 18). Scripps News Service.
Hodson, S., Jury selection to begin in Rivera trial. (2004, January 1). The Augusta Chronicle.
Jarvis, C., Academic sleuth made startling predictions. (1997, March 20). News & Observer, Raleigh, NC.
Leskanic, T., Inmate indicted in 1995 killing. (2004, April 29). Fayetteville Observer.
McCleary, N. Crimestopper program to put cold-case cards on the table. (2012, March 24). Fayetteville Observer.
Police search for clues in series of prostitute deaths. (2000, April 3). Spartanburg Hearld-Journal, Associated Press.