Asbury Respus: North Carolina’s First Serial Killer?

September 30th, 1931. Randelman Road, six miles outside Greensboro, North Carolina.
It’s about 9 AM in the morning, and a man passing by notices smoke coming from the Leonard farm. When he rushes to investigate the source of the blaze, he finds that the Leonard home is burning.
It’s as he is attempting to save the family’s possessions from the fire by dragging them outside that he notices pools of blood about the house.

A photo from the Leonard farm, believed to be items pulled from the house by the good Samaritan.
State Archives of North Carolina

The homeowner, Thomas D Leonard arrives shortly thereafter and with help from others, manages to extinguish the flames. After the fire is dealt with the house begins to be searched, and Leonard’s daughter, 9 year old Vera is found wrapped in a quilt, placed underneath a bed. Her skull has been crushed and her body had been charred by the flames.
100 yards away a bloody coat and signs of a struggle are found, leading investigators to believe Vera was murdered there and dragged inside after she had succumbed.
Vera had been waiting for the school bus that morning, which passed by at 8:15, and didn’t see the young girl.

As more and more people find their way onto the farm, they begin to notice an older black man who seems to come and go several times. Eventually police will take him into custody for questioning later that day, and when his house is searched, they will find bloodstained overalls and shoes. Shoes that match bloody footprints found at the scene of the crime.
The man, who calls himself “Will Moore”, is a hired hand who works the property next to the Leonard farm, and denies any involvement in Vera’s death, but will change his story once police show him his own blood soaked overalls.
Moore will eventually be discovered to be Asbury Respus, a man from the extreme northeast part of the state. Under questioning, he will admit attacking Vera Leonard while she was waiting on the school bus, beating her to death with a stick, dragging her body into the house, and setting the home ablaze to hide his crime. Police will attempt to get Respus to admit to sexual offenses against Leonard, but Respus claims he only murdered her. He vehemently denies any claim of sexual assault, saying he was in a violent mood due to use of drugs and alcohol, and “the devil must have gotten hold of me“. He claimed to have been drinking and using cocaine at the time of the murder.
What the police questioning him could never have guessed is just how many times this had occurred in Respus’ past.

Asbury Respus, sometime after his arrest for Vera Leonard’s murder.
State Archives of North Carolina

Respus was born sometime in the late 1870’s to Miles and Ellen Respus, probably near Northampton, NC. We don’t know much about his early life, but Respus would claim later that sometime during his childhood he had fallen off a barn and hit his head. As an adult, the indentation from the impact was still visible on his skull, and many have suggested that this accident might have been the start of Respus’ violent tendencies and mental instability.
In 1900, he would marry Ophelia Harrel. How long the marriage lasted is unknown, but Ophelia would remain in Northampton, and is listed as living there in 1940, in a small town called Severn.
Respus becomes something of a vagrant at some point after being married, traveling in state and out. It’s these years that would become relevant later on, after his capture.

One of the few documents we have pertaining to Respus’ early life.

But back to 1930.
After his arrest, a massive lynch mob formed, demanding “justice”. Because of this, Respus is moved on October 2nd to the Central Prison in Raleigh to avoid any sort of pre-trial violence. By the 26th of that month, he had been arraigned for the murder and assault of Vera Leonard, and arson for burning the Leonard home. Despite the change of venue, a mob formed outside the new courthouse as well, and the national guard was called in the keep the peace.
On October 28th the trial began. The prosecution ended up only trying Respus for the murder, and the defense attempted to counter by bringing into account Respus’ mental health, likely believing an insanity defense might keep Respus from the death penalty.
During the trial people who had worked with Respus as well as a mental health professional who had interviewed Respus several times contradicted this notion. No witnesses could be found to testify to Respus’ mental instability.
The trial would only take a single day, and the jury would deliberate for just an hour before finding Asbury Respus guilty. The judge would pass sentence. Death in the electric chair to be carried out on January 8th of the following year.

But that’s not the end of the matter. During the trial, Respus had mentioned possibly killing several others while being interviewed by his own attorneys and a psychiatrist. The full extent of these killings wouldn’t be known until after the Leonard trial, when Respus was on death row. It would in fact be the day before his execution, talking with warden H.H Honeycutt. Respus would finally tell his story.

Respus’ first attack was on a black woman named Becky Storr in Boykins, Virginia around 1910. Like the young Leonard girl, Respus beat her to death with a stick.

According to Respus, the next two murders were sometime before 1912 but after Storr’s death. During those years he killed two black women. The first, Lizzie Banks was killed with a gun. The second, Zenie Britt was beaten to death. Where these murders took place and where the victims were buried is currently unknown to me. It’s unfortunately a pattern when looking for African American graves and records that you realize there unfortunately aren’t as many, and what there are aren’t very well organized.

Chronologically, his next confessed killing, and the first that would be discovered, would be a man in his home county, in the town of Severn. Ed B. Wynne was about 53 years old at the time of his death, and Respus shot and killed him in some sort of domestic related dispute. The difference with Wynne’s death is that local police figured it out, and Asbury Respus was charged with first degree murder for the killing, receiving a sentence of 15 years in prison. However he never served his full sentence. He was only in lockup half a year before the administration of the prison where he was declared Respus “criminally insane”, and he was moved to a state mental hospital, probably Dorothea Dix. He wouldn’t be there long before being bumped back to normal prison.

By 1916, he is working as a cook in the prison when he and several other inmates in the kitchen manage to escape with a key they fashioned themselves. They scaled the wall of the prison and were gone before anyone knew what was happening.
What follows that is not terribly clear, but Respus probably took odd labor intensive jobs for money and wandered around Virginia and North Carolina.
During these years he also married an “Estelle”. Possibly in an act of bigamy. This was in Norfolk, Virginia. Unfortunately, finding her or anything related to Respus is made more difficult due to the fact that his surname can be spelled “Respess”, “Respass”, “Respes”, “Respus”, and any other number of ways in written records. It’s also highly likely he wasn’t going by his real name at the time.

In January 1918, he’s back in NC, and kills his first victim after being out of jail. Jennie Gilbreath, a woman in her 60’s was murdered, probably with an axe, and her body would be placed in her home and set on fire, just as Vera Leonard was. In this case, however, the fire worked to cover Respus’ crime, and until his confession it was assumed Gilbreath simply died in a house fire. No one knew she had been murdered. It might have been Vera Leonard’s fate as well if circumstances hadn’t conspired to bring the truth to light. Unlike Respus’ other victims thus far, Gilbreath was white.

In the summer of 1920, he would kill again. This time a 4 year old white boy named Robert Neal Osborn, who was drowned when Respus held him under water with his feet. Respus would claim to “find” the boy dead, and police believed him. Like Gilbreath, no one knew Osborn was murdered until Respus later confessed to the killing.

In 1925, Respus would commit his final murder before Leonard.
Eunice L. Stevenson was an elderly white woman in her 80’s. Respus broke into her home, beat her to death, and tried to cover his crime by hanging Stevenson’s body from the rafters. This ploy didn’t work as well as arson, and authorities recognized Stevenson had been murdered, but never considered Respus a suspect. Instead they pinned the crime on an intellectually disabled man.

An electric chair from the state prison in 1929. Possibly the same one Asbury Respus was executed in.
Via State Archives of NC

Respus confessed all these killings to warden Honeycutt the day before his execution, January 7th, 1932. He believed there may have been more he couldn’t remember. In particular, he thought he might have killed an unknown white woman in the woods near his hometown in Northampton county.

That night, Respus would be given his requested last meal. Sardines and crackers.
The next morning he would be lead to his fate in the octagon shaped death chamber. As he walked in the room and as he was strapped into the chair, he continued singing “Lord, I’m Leaving This World”.
Warden Honeycutt asked if Respus was “ready to go”, to which he replied “Any time you all is ready”.
At 10:26, he was shocked the first time with 2,000 volts for two and one half minutes. When the shock was over it was found he still had a heartbeat, so he was shocked a second time, which ended his life.

After his death, no one came forward to claim his body, not even his “widow” Estelle. The local papers noted his body would likely be donated to science, with the possibility that maybe through dissection doctors could find the defect in his brain that had caused his violent behavior.

Asbury Respus may very well be North Carolina’s first documented serial murderer. It could also be argued he may not have been one at all. What he actually was depends greatly on definitions of what a serial killer or serial murderer is and how truthful his confessions were.

The modern and popular definition of a serial killer says that the killer has a modus operandi- a particular way in which they operate and a particular preference in victims. Respus does not fit into this neat little academic box, as his victims were young, old, white, black, male, and female. His methods were beating, shooting, bludgeoning, and drowning. He was not a rapist, he was not a traditional arsonist, he held no grudge against any specific ethnicity or sex. He simply wanted to kill.
In this way, that means he is not able to be conveniently placed into the same category as people such as Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy. He doesn’t fit established structures created by profilers and law enforcement. However, I believe there are reasons for this.

First of all, the injury he suffered in childhood very may well have affected his brain in ways that would not have been tangible to scientists and psychologists at the time.
Second, his substance abuse problems would have made any instability much worse.
We mostly think of the 1980’s when we think of cocaine, but as early as 1914 the US government was creating laws making it’s sale and use illegal. Respus was an admitted user, but we don’t know for how long.
Cocaine use has a well documented history of affecting the brain, causing paranoia, feelings of invincibility, and even violent tendencies. In someone with a preclusion to violence, it’s not hard to believe drug use could exacerbate those urges. However, Respus would claim in prison that these urges or “spells” could happen with or without drugs.

When I had them spells, I went funny in the head. I wanted to kill somebody, I wouldn’t know why. I just wanted to kill. I’d run. If you ever see a dog with running fits, that’s like me when I was in a spell. I’d run.

There is also of course a slight possibility Respus might not have killed everyone he admitted to killing. He lived in a time when local police had a reputation for blaming “negro” offenders for any unsolved crimes they might be able close.
I, however, don’t think this is the case. For starters, the confessions Respus made included people who were not even considered murder victims. It’s conceivable a police officer or sheriff might suggest open crimes to an offender in hopes they would claim them, but who would have suggested the deaths Respus confessed to that weren’t even known to be crimes? How about the murder a man was already in jail for?
Moreover, these confessions were all made to warden Honeycutt in one sitting, before Respus was executed. If anyone were to influence what he would have said or confessed to, it was really only Honeycutt. How would Honeycutt have pulled together such a random assortment of deaths from two states and several counties? It doesn’t seem very plausible.

So what was Asbury Respus? He was most certainly a violent man, and a killer. Was he a serial killer?
According to the most bare definition from the FBI, a serial killer is distinguished by “The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events“.
With this description in hand, we have to assert that yes, Asbury Respus was a serial killer. Maybe North Carolina’s first.

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Published by Abandoned NC

I went back to my old home and the furrow of each year plowed like surf across the place had not washed memory away. -A. R. Ammons

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