Humans seemed naturally wired to look for patterns in life. Sometimes coincidences have meaning and sometimes they are statistical improbabilities. Either way, the mind naturally wants to create order from chaos, and the more we do that, the more likely we are to refute the randomness of events that share the same space and time .
I truly can’t say whether the bit of Statesville synchronicity I’m going to talk about today shares any real or meaningful connection, but one can’t help but look at this month in 1975 and think there must have been something in the water.
SEPTEMBER 6th – UNSOLVED RAPE AND MUDER
Following things chronologically, the month didn’t get off to a good start.
September that year was unusually warm, with highs peaking near 90 degrees several days the first couple weeks. It was good weather for getting out of the house and visiting the Iredell County Agricultural Fair, and that’s exactly what 17 year old Barbara Triplett and her friend, 15 year old Pamela Mayhew were doing on Saturday the 6th.
Like a lot of kids back then, it was no real feat for them to walk several miles to get somewhere in the absence of an acquaintance with a car. Even though they had gotten as far as a friends house after the fair for a party, it was still another five miles to where they were going, where Triplett lived on East Broad Street. With no other options, the pair set off on foot that night.
As they neared the little bridge over Fourth Creek where today the Brookdale assisted living facility and the trailhead for the Statesville Greenway are, an African American man approached in a blue car and offered them a ride, which the pair declined, as they were close to their destination.
The girls continued walking and had made it as far as the bridge before the man came upon them again, getting out on foot and chasing the girls up the hill towards where the Seventh Day Adventist Church now sits. The area today is full of houses and other structures, but in 1975 would have been mostly empty space and trees. The nearest houses, if they could have made it, would have been up the hill, past where the church is now, about 250 yards up the road. Unfortunately, the girls did not make it.
The man overtook them and pulled out a gun, which he used to force Mayhew and Triplett into his car, making them both sit up front with Pamela on the middle console and Barbara in the passenger seat.
The bizarre 20 minute ride that followed took them south, all the way to the outskirts of Troutman, with the man even telling the girls his name was Walter and he had four daughters of his own. Pam had won a stuffed Dalmatian at the fair that day, and her friend Barbara remembers Pamela clutching it tightly during the ride.
What happened when they reached an abandoned farm house on Weathers Creek road doesn’t bear repeating in detail, but I think Barbara knew what was coming, and offered to take Pam’s place.
After Pamela had been tied up and the man assaulted Barbara, he told both the girls to start walking towards the old house. As they did, he first shot Barbara in the shoulder, causing her to fall to the ground, where she tried to play dead, and then shot Pamela, who began to scream. The man shot Pamela again, killing her, and once more shot Barbara in the back, though she remained conscious. Then, he simply walked off back to his car.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, we know all this because Barbara survived. Somehow, she managed to find the courage and the strength to walk down the road to where Weathers Creek meets Shinnville road before collapsing in the dirt. It would be nearly dawn the next day before she would be able to flag down a passing truck.
Barbara would be brought into town to the local hospital, but would quickly be transferred to Baptist Hospital in Winston, where she ended up staying for two months recovering. Pam’s body was found later that day.
The identity of the man who raped and shot Barbara, and who killed Pam has never been determined.
Barbara did her best to remember details, and was able to give the police things which could have been used to prove his guilt.
According the Barbara, the car the man was driving that day was blue with bucket seats and a center console. There was a red and blue logo on the dash, and she though it might either have been a Pontiac or Buick (I personally believe it could have been an AMC logo too). It had a creaky passenger side door and the shifter for the automatic transmission was on the column, not the floor.
Though the man claimed his name was “Walter”, and he had four daughters, that could have been a lie.
One would assume the man knew the area, as the drive from East Broad street to Weathers Creek is not a direct path, and the location of the old abandoned farm house (which no longer stands) was not something a drifter or someone passing through would have known about. It wasn’t even visible from the road.
In addition, with Barbara’s help, police were able to make a sketch of the man:
The Iredell County Sheriff’s Office has looked into the case recently, with current Sheriff Darren Campbell giving an interview to the Statesville Record & Landmark in 2019. As far as I can tell, there have been no new public leads or mentions of the case since then.
Oddly enough, despite Barbara’s sketch and the other details of the case, a man was arrested and tried for the crime. A white man, who was acquitted. I have so far found no other tangible information about this man or the trial.
But if you have any information about this horrible event, or might know the identity of the man responsible, please contact the Iredell County Sheriff’s Office directly or else via the Crimestoppers hotline, at 704-662-1340.
Pamela’s parents and Barbara Triplett were all still living at the time of the last article about this case from 2019, with all hoping it might one day be solved. We sincerely hope the same.
SEPTEMBER 19TH – THE MURDER OF A JOHN DOE
By the 19th of the month, temperatures had dropped back down to more seasonable levels, but cooler heads may not have prevailed.
Midway Campground, or as it’s known today, Midway Campground Resort and RV Park, has been a part of the Statesville area for decades. Though not as well developed as it is today, in the 70’s, it was a picnic spot and was used for various things such as class reunions. The little dead end road on the east end of the county that is now named for it still connects to highway 64 near the I-40 overpass as it would have in the 1970’s, and that means it’s easily accessible to interstate and highway traffic.
Less than two weeks after the murder of Pamela Mayhew, the isolated dirt road leading to the campground, which was unnamed at the time, would be the site of another horrific crime.
Sometime on the night of Thursday the 18th or possibly early Friday morning, a man was bludgeoned in the head with a sharp object, rolled up in a rug and blankets, and transported to what is now Campground road. It was there his body was thrown in a ditch, shot twice, and set on fire.
A driver for the Jack Wooten trucking company, who had been hauling sand from the end of the road would find the man’s body on Friday, the 19th and contact authorities.
Eventually, the Iredell Sheriff’s Department and a mobile crime lab technician from the State Bureau of Investigation would try to make sense of the scene. The fire had been so bad it had charred the lifeless corpse and began to move up the bank on the side of the road, likely removing evidence, but luckily the man’s face had been spared damage from the flames due to the way it had been wrapped. In addition, investigators were able to determine that he was wearing Seafarer brand denim work pants, Pro-Keds tennis shoes which were blue in color, remnants of a belt with a metal buckle and a plain white t-shirt.
A single shell casing was also found nearby. At the time it wasn’t useful for anything much beyond determining the caliber of the weapon used.
Later, a resident who lived on the road, H.H. Riddick, would come forward to say she had noticed a “very unpleasant odor” as she had driven down the road early in the morning, as well as an orphaned shoe.
From the start, the case was plagued by a lack of evidence, and too much evidence. Even though the man’s face had been spared, no one was coming forward to identify him. If there had been any other evidence of consequence on the body, it was likely destroyed. Sheriff Tom Thompson told the press it was unlikely there would be usable footprints or tire tracks due to the nature of traffic on the road.
The case went cold almost instantly and has remained so until the present day.
Unfortunately, the man’s body was cremated and his ashes were spread at sea, which means the Doe’s DNA is unavailable. There was however a small amount of DNA collected from the spent shell casing, which may lead to the man’s killer or killers, and maybe to the Doe’s identity as well. Research into familial genealogy has come a long way, and even if the owner of the DNA is themselves now deceased, it may be possible to identify who they were based on family ties.
Our John Doe’s clothes also might tell a bit of his story. The pants he was wearing were issued in the military as work pants, and I believe specifically in the Navy. They were a bell bottom denim dungaree with deep front pockets. This led some to believe he might have been in the Navy or recently discharged. The problem with this is that the pants were also commercially available in places like thrift shops, and it doesn’t mean the deceased was issued the pair he was found wearing. I can’t help but wonder if this might have influenced how his ashes were spread at sea.
The Pro-Keds shoes are similar to what most people recognize today as flat bottomed Converse-style canvas shoes. Even though Pro-Keds aren’t as well known today, they were extremely popular in the 70’s, and had been worn by famous basketball players for decades before that. They came in a variety of colors, with high top and low top versions. They were a mass produced shoe, and unfortunately, didn’t provide any real leads for investigators.
Even though this Doe was dumped locally, Midway Road’s proximity to I-40 means that there is a distinct possibility that the man was not even a local, and may not have been murdered by a local either. If he was local to the Statesville area, one would assume someone would have come forward with his identity, especially since there are photos and a sketch of his face, but that has never happened.
I’m not sure how quickly speculation that the Doe’s death might have been linked to the murder of Mayhew started, but it probably didn’t take too long.
Even today, the Sheriff’s Department wonders if the murder of the man found on Midway Road might have been retaliation or some sort of vigilante act. They of course note however, that the sketch of Mayhew’s killer and the John Doe are not similar.
It is possible that the man was simply hitchhiking interstate 40 or in town for his own reasons and was seen by the wrong party or parties who came to the conclusion that an outsider was the most likely person to have assaulted and shot Barbara Triplett and killed Pamela Mayhew even though the only thing he shared with the killer was a skin tone.
Whatever the case, John Doe remains nameless and unknown. If you have any information about his identity or the identity of his killer or killers, please contact the Iredell County Sheriff’s Office directly or else via the Crimestoppers hotline, at 704-662-1340.
John Doe’s NamUs page.
Doe Network page.
SEPTEMBER 20TH – THE DONALD LEE HARDING MURDERS
As if building up to a grand finale, the month of September wasn’t over. The weather began to finally cool down, but the deaths continued.
Enter Donald Lee Harding, a career criminal, nicknamed “Sliprock” and a person many described as a man without a conscience. Harding had numerous run ins with the law dating all the way back to the 1950’s before his eventual magnum opus in 1975.
5 months prior, he had attempted an armed robbery on the Office Lounge, a watering hole that once sat across from where First Presbyterian Church is on North Meeting Street. During that attempt, he brandished a sawed off 20 gauge shotgun and demanded money before fleeing the business, all the while being pelted with pool balls and beer mugs by the Lounge’s patrons.
In the parking lot outside another customer named Wallace Ballard was one step ahead of Harding, and retrieved a 38 caliber revolver from his car which he attempted to stop the robber with. Harding, in response began firing wildly at Ballard with his shotgun. Ballard then returned fire with his pistol, hitting Harding in the left shoulder and knocking him off his feet. Harding eventually was able to stagger off but was found by police on Light Street, the dead end road that leads behind the old Fourth Creek Cemetery and taken to Iredell Memorial Hospital. At first, he refused to give his name, but city police eventually learned his identity. Up to that point, he had been assumed dead by his family, who had heard a story he had been killed by a State Highway Patrolman in Tennessee.
But back to September.
Harding, despite committing a violent crime is now out on bail. Saturday the 20th, through unknown circumstances, Donald Lee Harding, his cousin Douglas Macarthur Harding (who had bailed Donald out of jail after the Office Lounge fiasco), and husband and wife Clyde Ray and Mary Lee Engelbert are all at Douglas Harding’s home, which is located north of Statesville proper on highway 115 in a subdivision called Windy Hills Acres. It’s 3am, and for reasons that are never made clear by anyone, Donald Lee Harding begins killing the people present.
It’s also unclear who was shot first, but Douglas, Donald’s own cousin was killed on the spot, being shot four times in the face and then in the back as he lay on the floor of his own home. Mr. Engelbert was also shot once in the body and once in the head, but survived to see Donald Lee Harding leaving the house. He had no idea Harding was going to kidnap his wife Mary, who was waiting outside in couple’s car (an AMC Javelin) with the family dog as he fled. Harding also attempted to set his cousin Doug’s house on fire to cover his crimes, but the gasoline soaked rags burned out quickly without catching anything else on fire.
Mr. Engelbert was in critical condition, but somehow managed to get a telephone operator on the line using one of the home’s telephones, and police arrived shortly thereafter to find the bloodbath. Clyde Engelbert managed to hold onto his life long enough to tell police what had happened and who had done it, but he would eventually die at a later date in the hospital.
His wife Mary Engelbert’s body was found the next day on the banks of Third Creek, just off Wallace Springs Road about a half of a mile south of where the American Legion building now sits on the same road.
That morning, a Mrs. Peggy Troutman, who lived with her husband Edgar Troutman near the bridge reportedly heard several gun shots coming from the direction of the creek. Later that morning driving into town, she noticed a dog wondering around the area dragging it’s leash. This would have been the Engelbert’s dog that Harding had inexplicably taken when he abducted Mary.
When Mrs. Troutman returned home that evening, she noticed the same dog was still loitering in the area and stopped to investigate. It was then that she found Mary Engelbert, who had been dead for several hours. She had been shot once in the stomach, once in the back, and once in the head. The couple’s car would turn up about the same time on the other side of highway 21 at Amity Hill Road. Harding had tried to set the car on fire but only slightly burned the interior.
What followed was an extensive manhunt for Donald Lee Harding that stretched across multiple counties and involved numerous law enforcement agencies, tracking dogs, and even a helicopter.
Before too long, a tip came in that placed Harding in Georgeville, which is between Charlotte and Albemarle in Cabarrus county. Harding’s brother Charles had a trailer in the area, and that brother came forward to inform law enforcement that he thought Donald Lee Harding might be using it.
It was a joint effort by the Cabarrus and Iredell county sheriffs departments, the State Bureau of Investigation, and Kannapolis city police, who closed in on the trailer and eventually took Harding into custody, but not before he fled the trailer and attempted to hide in the local woods.
Harding stood trial not only for the murders, but the robbery for which he was out on bail and was given numerous death penalties. Harding himself made no attempt to explain the killings or shed any light on his motives for murdering one of his own family and two supposed friends in cold blood.
Harding went to prison to await his final fate, but it was appealed at an unknown date and reduced to simply a lifetime behind bars. Harding died at 69 years old in 2007, still in prison.
I can offer no explanation for what made September 1975 a month of violence. In addition to the stories I’ve told here today, there were at least two other murders I can’t find very much information about, as well as the always present petty crimes such as theft and breaking and entering. Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was a temporary madness brought on by an unseen hand. Maybe it was the culmination of many things.
Maybe there are no connections and no explanation at all for why so many horrible things happened in a span of 30 calendar days. I’ll leave you the reader to interpret the facts how you will, but it has to be noted I can’t think of a span of days in my lifetime in and around Statesville when acts were committed that can rival the utter depravity and disregard for life that made up September 1975.