27 Years Later, Murder of Nurse Found In Rural Fayetteville, NC Pond Is Still Shrouded In Mystery
By Maurice Godwin
It was December 1985 in rural Fayetteville, North Carolina when the body of a young healthy nurse named Debbie Wolfe was suspiciously found in a pond near the small cabin where she lived with her two dogs, Mason and Morgan. Cumberland County, population 350,000, is home to Fayetteville and one of the nation’s largest military bases, Ft. Bragg - home of the 82nd Airborne.
Fayetteville has never been immune to bizarre and sensationalized murder cases. In 2002 Special Operations solider Maj. David Shannon was shot to death while he slept in his home near Ft. Bragg. His wife, Joan Shannon and her teenage daughter were charged and eventually convicted of killing Maj. Shannon. The couple was involved in the alternative lifestyle of swinging in the Fayetteville community. Joan Shannon became involved over time with one of their swinging partners and it is believed that she wanted out of their marriage. The Shannon murder was featured on NBC Dateline - The Mystery of the Murdered Major. Another Fayetteville murder that happened in 2002 and received national attention was the murder of Air Force pilot Marty Theer. Mr. Theer’s wife, Michelle Theer was charged and convicted of participating in the murder of her husband along with John Diamond whom Michelle was having an affair. Diamond was a sniper-trained sergeant in the U.S. Army. He was also convicted of killing Marty Theer. A true crime book on the Theer case was published in 2006 titled The Officer’s Wife. The bedroom community of Fayetteville with its transitional population of military personnel has continually piqued those interested in crime.
In the winter of 1985 crime in Fayetteville was no different than it is today. Just as odd. Nine months prior when the body of Debbie Wolfe was discovered in a pond on the outskirts of Fayetteville a mother and her two children were found brutally murdered in their home on Summer Hill Road - near the entrance of Ft. Bragg military base. Commonly referred to as the Eastburn murders the case received national media attention with the eventual arrest of a solider name Timothy Hennis, soon after the discovery of the bodies. Over the course of the next 20 years Mr. Hennis would face three trials. He was convicted in State court and sentence to death in 1986. The original death sentence was overturned and in a subsequent trial in 1989 Hennis was found not guilty. Retired from the Army in 2004 Hennis would face a court-martial trial in 2010 after DNA linked him to Kathryn Eastburn. Mr. Hennis continues to claim his innocence. A CBS mini-series titled Innocence Victims about the murders aired in 1993.
Nested among tall Carolina pine trees about hundred yards from a main road was the small unassuming cabin that Debbie Wolfe called home. It was a Wednesday afternoon when, after completing her nursing shift at the Veterans’ Hospital on Ramsey Street in Fayetteville, Debbie Wolfe presumably was headed home. It is unclear whether Debbie made it or not but her family became concerned when she did not show up for work the next morning at 8:00 am. On December 26, 1985 Debbie’s mother, Jenny Edwards phoned the cabin but there was no answer. Debbie was always punctual Ms. Edwards would later say, so she called a family friend named Kevin Gorton and both immediately drove over to the rural cabin. Debbie always kept a tidy home and took good care of her dogs.
Wolfe Cabin (2010). ©Maurice Godwin
When Jenny Edwards and Kevin Gorton arrived at the cabin things just didn’t seem right - out of place. Beer cans were lying in the yard, the dogs had not been fed and Debbie’s nursing uniform was lying on the floor, in the kitchen. There were other personal items scattered on the floor. Something was not right here, they thought. Looking around the bedroom Kevin Gorton found Debbie’s purse shoved under her bed. It was not in its usual location.
Deciding what to do next, Debbie’s mother thought to check her daughter’s answering machine. Maybe there would be a message giving a clue where Debbie was? What they heard was a stranger’s voice on the tape; the two then really became concerned. The message had been left earlier that day. The voice was a man calling from the Veteran’s hospital to see how Debbie was doing. The man’s message indicted that Debbie had missed many days of work. This struck Jenny Edwards as odd because she knew this was not true. At the time the message was left Debbie had not missed days of work only a few hours at best.
Jenny and Kevin expanded their search for Debbie outside the cabin and to a nearby pond. They did not find Debbie. Becoming even more concerned Jenny called the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department. Responding to the call was Captain Jack Watts of the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office. After arriving Capt. Watts was under the assumption that Jenny and Kevin had already searched the pond, so no official request was made that day for divers. The search that Mrs. Edwards and Kevin had done was only cursory one; they were not equipped to search in the water. Bloodhounds were brought to the cabin but couldn’t find anything.
Not satisfied with the Cumberland County Sheriff’s investigative response Jenny Edwards decided to hire her own dive team. In the freezing weather, on January 1, 1986; Kevin Gorton and his friend Gordon Childress entered the pond searching for any sign of Debbie Wolfe. Both men were familiar with rescue work. Childress looked for any evidence. Soon after the dive started, Childress found two sets of foot impressions pressed into the thick mud along with what appeared to be drag marks. Two minutes later after entering the murky water Gordon Childress came across a body.
Debbie’s body was found about 30 feet from the bank in 5 ½ feet of water.
Recalling later, Childress said “The body was inside what looked like a burn barrel; that’s a rusty, 55-gallon oil type drum with holes in it” (Unsolved Mysteries, 1990)
Soon after the discovery of the body the sheriff department was dispatched to the scene. The body was identified as Debbie Wolfe.
The autopsy on Ms. Wolfe was performed by Dr. William Oliver on January 2, 1986. Dr. Oliver worked for the North Carolina Medical Examiner’s Office. Interestingly the manner of death was reported as underdetermined. The medical examiner could not determine if the drowning was an accident or homicide. Often in suspicious deaths investigators look to other factors to help them conclude if a death was an accident or murder. Clues found both in the cabin, outside and on Debbie’s body should have suggested to investigators that they were dealing with a murder.
Findings from the autopsy should have also raised red flags about Debbie’s death. First she had multiple abrasions on several of her fingers. These could have been defensive wounds. It is reasonably to conclude that in typical drowning situations the deceased eyes and mouth would be opened along with their hands and arms in a clawed position as though they were fighting for their life. However, Debbie’s eyes and mouth were closed and her body appeared as though she was in a relaxed state.
Also, in a typical drowning case the deceased would have a white froth or foam like substance in their airways and/or exuding from their mouth or nostrils (Davis, 1986). No froth or foam substance was found on or in Ms. Wolfe’s mouth or airway. The presence of either froth or foam is a vital phenomenon and often indicates that the victim was alive at the time of submersion (Davis, 1986). Was Debbie unconscious prior to entering the pond? The autopsy found only a half teaspoon of water in Wolfe's upper bronchial area.
Investigators for the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office disagreed with the murder theory. Detectives proposed their own theory (Unsolved Mysteries, 1990):
“Possibly, Mrs. Wolfe was playing with her two dogs and she fell in the pond, or maybe she was trying to save one of her dogs that walked in the pond and became frightened and disoriented in the water.”
County detectives proposed that Debbie may have succumbed to immersion syndrome. Immersion syndrome (also referred to as “immersion foot” or “trench foot”) is a nonfreezing peripheral cold injury caused by prolonged or repetitive exposure to damp, cold temperatures (cool or cold water or mud) (Davis, 2005). The extremity first becomes cold, numb, pale, edematous, and clammy. This is followed by blistering.
However, autopsy findings did not find any symptoms related to immersion syndrome plus Debbie’s feet and legs were covered.
Sheriff’s detectives also denied that Debbie’s body had been found in a barrel. Rather they proposed a theory about the barrel (Unsolved Mysteries, 1990):
“What appeared to be a barrel to some of the divers could have been Debbie’s jacket which may have ballooned out as she was lying at that angle in the bottom of the pond.”
However, the two divers, Kevin Gorton and Gordon Childress, refuted the police theory. There was a barrel Gorton contented (Unsolved Mysteries, 1990):
“You know, metal, rusted, 55-gallon type drum, that the body was in.”
Pond where Debbie Wolfe's body was found (Phone taken Dec. 1985) © Godwin
Mrs. Edwards then remembered that were was indeed a barrel sitting beside of Debbie’s cabin where she kept firewood. Jenny walked over to the spot where the barrel would normally be but it was gone. She could see the indentation in the ground were the barrel’s weight had made.
Police failed to collect the barrel the day they responded to the scene. When Debbie’s family returned to the cabin the next day the barrel was gone. Vanished! Police denied that there was ever a barrel. However, Cumberland County Sherriff’s Deputy, Don Smith, admitted that he saw a barrel.
Debbie’s family at this point just felt that certain things about Debbie’s death just didn’t add up. Police were firm that this was an accident. Jenny Edwards’ suspicions about her daughter’s death were even more confirmed when two months later she received from the medical examiner’s office the clothing that Debbie was wearing.
Mrs. Edwards was then convinced her daughter was murdered.
She examined the clothing that her daughter had on when her body was pulled from the pond. Something is very odd here, Jenny thought. These are not Debbie’s clothes.
§ Brown corduroy pants were too big and long and unzipped
§ Bra-cup-size was three sizes too large and around-size it was two sizes too large – Debbie was found wearing a size 38-C, Debbie wore a 34-B
§ The Nike shoes were three sizes too large and were men’s shoes. She was found wearing men’s size 6 – Debbie wore a ladies size 7
§ When Debbie was found she had on a new regulation Army field jacket that did not belong to Debbie or anyone associated with her. The jacket had no nametag and no way to trace its original owner.
§ When found she was wearing a black t-shirt with Pittsburgh Steelers on the front. Debbie’s family or her boyfriend could not identify the shirt claiming they had no idea where it came from.
With many questions unanswered from the autopsy, unusual clothing found on the victim and odd items found around her cabin Debbie Wolfe’s family felt certain that foul play was involved.
Clues just kept adding up that pointed to murder but were ignored by county detectives. A family friend, Franz Shoaf, who had gone to the cabin to feed Debbie’s dogs found Debbie’s wool stocking cap, in mud at the opposite end of the pond from the location where she was thought to have entered the water. The family thought this was odd because there was a thin layer of ice on the pond and it was unlikely that the cap could have floated to the other side of the pond.
Mrs. Edwards also found it odd that when the NC State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) returned the white Nike tennis shoes to her they had no mud on them. She inquired to the SBI and they insisted that the shoes had not been washed or clean; they were the same as they were when they were removed from Debbie’s body. This is a fact which discounts the immersion-syndrome theory.
Debbie’s step-father went to the cabin on December 27, 2005 and he found a white, short-sleeved nurse’s uniform lying on the kitchen floor. According to a co-worker of Mrs. Wolfe’s at the VA hospital, this uniform was not the one Debbie had worn at work a day earlier. The co-worker said that while the two were having coffee at work on December 26 he accidentally spilled coffee on the sleeve of her uniform. He later said that he was positive she was wearing a uniform with long sleeves.
Mrs. Edwards thought long and hard about the events surrounding her daughter’s death. She remembered the odd message left by the male stranger on Debbie’s answering machine. The man had lied about the status of Debbie’s work absenteeism.
Was the man on the machine the killer?
Listen to phone voice message
by a man stalking Debbie (Dec. 1985)
Listen to phone voice message by a man stalking Debbie (Dec. 1985)
Detectives would later claim that they investigated several patients with mental problems from the Veterans’ Hospital including the man who left the voice mail message.
Soon after being interviewed by sheriff detectives the man who left the voice mail left the State of North Carolina.
There is a saying in the realm of criminal investigations that goes something like this: A dead body can speak from the grave. It seems that Debbie Ann Wolfe is doing just that.
Debbie’s mother the late Mrs. Jenny Edwards worked tirelessly for over twenty years trying to solve her daughter’s murder.
Newly discovered information from the case files suggested that semen was present in the victim – was she raped before being murdered? DNA profiling was not available in 1985. A new private investigation is ongoing.
The murder remains unsolved.
Davis, J. H. (1986). Bodies Found in Water, Am. J. Forensic Med. Pathology., 7, 291-297.
Davis, J. H. (2005). Drowning, Near Drowning and Immersion Syndrome, J R Army Med Corps, 151: 250-255.
Fayetteville Observer, (1988, January 1). Drowning is still a mystery
Fayetteville Observer, (1990, October 25). An unsolved mystery
Cosgrove, J. (Producer). (December, 1990), Unsolved Mysteries (Episode #78). Los Angeles, CA: Cosgrove-Meurer Productions, Inc.
E-mail Maurice Godwin
Dr. Maurice Godwin is a former police officer in the State of North Carolina. He was one of the first project coordinators for a National Institute of Justice grant for implementing community policing in a rural area. Dr. Godwin is also the author of numerous books and journal articles on psychological, serial murder, and geographical profiling. He has worked as a consultant to police and others in developing psychological and geographical profiles. He has lectured in the United States and Europe on serial murder, cyber stalking, and criminal investigative analysis. Dr. Godwin received his Associate's degree from Vance-Granville Community College, a Bachelor's degree from Trevecca Nazarene University, a Master’s Degree from Indiana State University, and his doctorate in investigative psychology from The University of Liverpool in England. He is a criminal investigative psychologist who has accurately profiled the Washington, DC sniper case plus many more serial cases. He has appeared on numerous national TV shows such as Hardball, Connie Chung, Fox News Live, MSNBC, CNN, and Geraldo Rivera. His expertise and scientific research in areas of psychology, criminal behavior, and criminology distinctly sets him apart from the vast number of forensic, clinical, and psychological consultants who rely on intuitive based opinions.
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