Murders aren’t suppose to happen in small towns such as Boone, but 42 years ago this Tuesday, the community was shaken by a triple homicide that left people wondering for years if a killer was lurking among them.
During the early stages of a fierce snowstorm on the evening of Feb. 3, 1972, a mother, father and their teenage son were brutally and systematically murdered in their home on Clyde Townsend Road on the west side of town, just off the N.C. 105 Bypass.
Bryce Durham, 51, his wife, Virginia Durham, 46, and their son, Bobby Joe Durham, 19, were found with their heads draped into a bathtub full of water in their home.
Medical examinations later determined the presence of rope burns around each victim’s neck.
An autopsy revealed Virginia had died of strangulation and that her husband and son were strangled before being drowned in the running water of the tub.
Investigators were immediately perplexed by the motive of the killings.
Earlier published media reports stated the possibility of robbery as a motive, but a bank deposit of money was found lying on the floor.
If it were a robbery gone badly, why did the killers ransack the house, but leave the bag full of money that would’ve been an easy score to cash in on.
The case remains unsolved, but the murder case has never been forgotten by Watauga County Sheriff Len Hagaman.
In 2006, several investigators from various agencies convened to review old crime scene photographs, and case files were reviewed with notations and an open discussion followed, Hagaman said.
New ideas and strategies were then formulated.
“There have, from day one, been persons of interest, but as in any homicide, developing persons of interest into suspects is often easier said than done,” Hagaman said. “I can say that we continue to have leads and are actively looking at and following up on these leads. I can also say that many of these leads have occurred within the past two years.”
Former Sheriff Ward Carroll held jurisdiction of the case, along with lead SBI agent Charlie Whitman, but the green light was given for both the sheriff’s office and the Boone Police Department to work the case, Hagaman said.
Whitman was unavailable for comment for this story.
Personally, Hagaman said he’s been working the case since 1975 with the BPD.
New and emerging technologies were used, too, on the aging case with few results.
“We discussed with the SBI lab the potential of DNA with a specific piece of physical evidence,” Hagaman said. “It was determined that the piece of evidence had been exposed to elements that made DNA analysis very difficult. It should be noted that every year since the homicide that all fingerprints have been resubmitted for comparison. To date, there are latent prints that have yet to be identified.”
The investigation is still active and ongoing, Hagaman said.
A new home
Natives of Wilkes County, the Durham family came to Boone from Mt. Airy in November 1969 after purchasing the local Buick dealership.
“He kind of showed up here,” said former trial judge, Phil Ginn, of Bryce Durham. “No one knew much about him.”
Ginn was a close friend of the couple’s son, Bobby Joe Durham, who he was suppose to meet at an Appalachian State University basketball game the night of the slayings.
Although friendly, the family mostly kept to themselves.
“It wasn’t like he gray-shaded himself to the community,” Ginn said of Bryce Durham. “I don’t mean it in a negative way, but when someone buys a business, they really get involved in the community. … They (the family) were a bit more reserved.”
“In my personal opinion, first, the Durhams had not been in Watauga County for a long period of time to establish a larger network of folks who really knew them as neighbors and business contacts,” Hagaman said.
It is unclear if the family had any prior business dealings in the High Country, but it was confirmed that Bryce Durham graduated with a degree in physical education from ASU in 1941.
Friends of the family and state investigators don’t believe he was involved in any shady or drug related activity and their values were reflected in their son.
“Bobby was a pretty quiet guy,” Ginn said. “He didn’t talk as much as some people do. He was a good-hearted fellow, and a straight-up kind of guy.”
A call of distress
While investigators, amateur sleuths and other residents might disagree on the motive of the crimes, little has changed on the essential facts of the case.
On the night of the killings, Troy Hall, the son-in-law of the family, said he received a muffled phone call from Virginia claiming a number of African-American males were holding her husband and son in another room of their split-level home, according to earlier editions of the Watauga Democrat.
At the time, Hall was married to Ginny, the daughter of Virginia and Bryce Durham.
They lived in a trailer park near the current location of Walmart.
Hall’s conversation with his mother-in-law quickly ended after that, Hall said.
The wall phone was later found disconnected with the receiver lying on the floor.
Initially, Hall thought it was a prank call, but he and Ginny decided to check on the family, despite the frigid conditions.
Hall’s car was slow to start, so he enlisted the help of a neighbor, Cecil Small, who happened to be a private detective, to drive them to the Durham home.
By the time the trio arrived at the home, the driveway and road had become iced over so Hall and Small decided to walk up the hill to the residence, while Ginny waited in the car.
After the discovery of the bodies, Hall and Small went to a neighbor’s apartment to contact the BPD.
John Tester, dispatcher on duty, said the call came in around 10:50 p.m. and that the caller seemed to be “mighty shook up.” Tester said he almost couldn’t decipher Hall’s frantic plea for help, according to published accounts.
Shortly after 11 p.m., officers from multiple agencies dropped what they were doing and converged on the small residence on the blistering cold night.
State investigators later remarked that the number of officers present could have altered the crime scene.
A family caught off-guard
A TV was still on when investigators arrived on the scene and three glasses of soft drink, along with some food, were discovered nearby.
On the kitchen table was a partially eaten baked chicken.
The family was likely enjoying a snack and a primetime movie or television show when they were surprised, authorities said.
Officers were told that a green-and-white four-wheeled GMC Jimmy was seen leaving the residence shortly after 10:30 p.m.
Two hours later, a N.C. Highway Patrol officer found the vehicle matching the description abandoned, but still running with the windshield wipers still in use a short distance away on Poplar Grove Road.
Authorities say the vehicle came from Bryce Durham’s car dealership. He had reportedly decided to take the family home from the car lot in the rugged vehicle due to the severity of the approaching storm.
While more valuable items were left behind in the house, silverware was found inside the still running vehicle.
A top priority
Rufus Edmisten, a Boone native, was working on Sen. Sam Ervin’s staff in Washington, D.C., during the Watergate scandal when he first heard about the murder that had shocked his hometown.
“I never knew at that time that later on, I would have a significant part in that investigation,” Edmisten said.
In 1974, Edmisten was appointed attorney general for North Carolina and he made the Durham case a top priority for the newly formed unsolved murder case division.
“I was almost immediately contacted by the mother and father of Bryce Durham,” recalled Edmisten of his early days on the job. “That was the first of 40 to 50 contacts I had with them over the years.”
Edmisten said he was immediately moved by the case, and from all the cases he assigned agents to, he wanted this one case solved the most.
Maybe it was because the murder had hit so close to home. Maybe he just wanted to bring this family much needed closure.
“Mr. and Mrs. Durham (Bryce’s parents) never got peace before they died,” Edmisten said. “They were extremely frustrated. I can still see the anguish in Mrs. Durham’s eyes. ‘Please … please … before I die, solve this murder.’”
The brutal nature of the killings still haunts Edmisten.
“To this day, I cannot understand who could have systematically done this, unless they had the help of like three or four other people,” said Edmisten, who said he was further mystified by how the perpetrators overpowered a strapping young testosterone laden male like Bobby Joe.
Four white males were charged with the murder the following spring, but they were soon released after preliminary hearings, according to newspaper archives and investigators.
Today, investigators have little to say about the men’s alleged involvement.
Since the murders, theories about motives have come and fallen by the wayside as investigators searched out all possible angles.
A popular theory of the time was the Durhams had met their demise because Bryce had revealed the ringleaders of a car dealership scam in Surry County that involved rolling back the miles on vehicles before selling them to unknowing customers.
Edmisten said the theory didn’t check out because of a lack of evidence and the case was dropped.
The military-style precision of the killings also caught Edmisten’s attention.
Edmisten’s assigned agents even vetted a story about the Green Berets’ involvement in the murder. The soldiers were reportedly in the area performing a skiing demonstration at Appalachian Ski Mountain. Bryce Durham was allegedly seen at that same demonstration during a Rotary Club meeting.
That, too, turned out to be a deadend.
This type of military precision didn’t go unnoticed in Hagaman’s investigation either.
“This, too, has been reviewed,” he said. “Understand that the Durhams were tied with their hands placed behind their back and were subsequently placed side by side, bent over at the waist in a tub with their heads submerged in water with cord around their necks. There were no gunshot wounds, nor cutting wounds.”
Bryce Durham was seen as a very straight-laced type of individual, so his involvement in any criminal-like activity that might bring him unwanted attention seemed unlikely.
“Mr. Durham was a car dealer, and as such, had many, many business transactions, both positive and negative,” said Hagaman. “However, there are no illegal transactions to date.”
The possibility the murders were a professional hit was also thoroughly explored.
“It has been discussed, however, any solid leads along that line of thought have not been established, or proven to date,” Hagaman said.
Other factors make the investigation rather peculiar.
“The fact that three individuals were killed at once together is rather unique,” Hagaman said. “This, coupled with a very limited information trail as to a possible motive, plus a horrible night, weatherwise, and the unusual length of time to commit the crime versus a quick ‘in and out,’ homicide. Finally, what was the motive for such a crime?”
When Bobby Joe failed to show up for dinner with friends before the aforementioned basketball game, Ginn didn’t think too much about it.
He knew Bobby Joe still lived at home and concluded his friend likely chose against heading out in the middle of a snowstorm.
He heard about the murders the following morning after his shift at the Boone Post Office.
“It was a gut punch,” Ginn said, about when he heard the news of his friend’s demise. “No. 1, it was horrific, because Bobby was first and foremost my friend. Secondary to that, no one should die that young. And from a community standpoint, things like that aren’t supposed to happen in Boone. The community was in a state of shock for a while.”