Edgecombe County’s sheriff says continued public help is necessary in solving the deaths of at least six Rocky Mount women found dead in a rural part of the county and a seventh in neighboring Halifax County.
“What we need is for citizens to come forth – anyone who knows anything, even though you might think it’s nothing,” Sheriff James Knight said last week. “Let us say there’s nothing to it. Don’t try to decide yourself.”
The bodies of Taraha Nicholson, 29, Jarneice Hargrove, 31, Jackie Thorpe, 35, Ernestine Battle, 50, and Melody Wiggins, 29, were all found in fields within a 10-mile radius of one another over the past four years. The body of Christine Boone, 43, was found this month about 20 miles away in Scotland Neck.
Each woman was black, reported missing and had a history of drug use or prostitution. Family members and friends have said that many knew each other.
A special task force of local, state and federal authorities has been investigating the deaths, as well as the disappearances of two other women with similar profiles, to see if they might be connected.
Authorities have also charged a suspect, Antwan Maurice Pittman, 31, with first-degree murder in Nicholson’s death. But they have been relatively quiet about whether he might be suspected in any of the other deaths.
A search warrant returned last week, however, indicates that investigators are looking at Pittman in the deaths of four of the other women.
Boone was found in a wooded area behind an abandoned trailer where he used to live, authorities said.
He was arrested on a driving while impaired charge the same day Hargrove was reported missing after a state trooper found him sleeping in his car 200 yards from where her body was found two months later.
Halifax County investigators were at Pittman’s former residence last week talking to neighbors who knew him. They said they also plan to further search the area behind the home.
Knight declined to comment on any possible involvement Pittman might have in the deaths and whether investigators planned to search any of the residences where he has lived over the past four years.
Investigators do have “thousands of pieces of information,” he said, that they look at on a daily basis but need more information.
“You want to satisfy the citizens and let them know that you are doing all that you can do, but you can’t just take a case to the district attorney and not have hard evidence,” Knight said.
“A lot of cases are won on circumstantial evidence, that’s true, but a lot are lost on circumstantial evidence.,” he continued. “You want to make it a winnable case for the DA to try.”
The deaths of several women found in a 10-mile radius near Rocky Mount might never result in a conviction of the person or people responsible for their deaths, if they are determined to be homicides.
That’s according to retired Raleigh police detective Chris Morgan, who says there might not be enough evidence to build a case.
Morgan, who isn’t connected in any way to the investigation, says that based on what he can tell from autopsy results on the six victims – each discovered within a four-year period – prosecutors face an uphill battle in taking the cases to trial.
That’s because, of the six women, medical examiners have only been able to determine how two of them died.
“Undetermined cause of death is a huge challenge,” Morgan said, adding that most prosecutors are reluctant to take a case to court without it. “You have to be able to articulate something from the witness stand about how an individual died. You have to have some workable theory about how the murder happened.”
Of the two cases where a cause of death is known, Morgan says there is little likelihood that physical evidence, such as fingerprints or DNA, could have been recovered to help link the victim to her offender.
All of the bodies were found in a rural area that is abundant with wildlife and insects, and they have been exposed to the elements for weeks, months and in some cases, years.
“All these things, once death occurs, start working against the investigator,” Morgan said. “A body that’s been left out for a week, in particularly in the warmer months in North Carolina, is going to be, in many cases, devoid of some of the most useful evidence that investigators look for in homicide investigations.”
A special task force of local, state and federal authorities is looking for possible links among the six cases.
The victims – Melody Wiggins, Jackie Thorpe, Ernestine Battle, Taraha Nicholson, Jarniece Hargrove and Elizabeth Smallwood – fit a similar profile. Each was black, had a history of drug use, prostitution or both, and family members and friends said many knew each other.
Investigators, however, have said very little about the case publicly, and family members say they have not heard much else.
The last time authorities spoke of the case was in September, when they charged Antwan Pittman in Nicholson’s death; an autopsy found she died of strangulation.
Hoping for further developments in the investigation – possibly more charges against Pittman – family members say they are now frustrated and upset that questions about their loved ones’ deaths remain unsolved.
Hargrove’s skeletal remains were discovered June 29 in a wooded area off Seven Bridges Road – more than a month after her family reported her missing.
“It’s just sad that it’s taken all this many months, and they haven’t succeeded on anything. If they have, they haven’t let us know anything,” her sister, Pepita Hargrove, said. “I know they can’t let out but so much information, but they can let the families that are grieving and crying constantly every day – they can let us know something.”
Autopsy results were inconclusive about how Hargrove died.
“They’re saying (her death) can’t be determined. That’s not enough information for me, and I’m not going to rest until somebody says something more,” Hargrove said. “My sister wasn’t out in the field picking daisies and fell on a rock and hit her head and rotted out there in the woods.”
Investigators can also look at circumstantial evidence to help in the investigations.
“You start looking at the circumstances – where these women were, who they were seen with, how they knew each other – and start trying to link cases and find common links,” Morgan said.
He says that after physical evidence, the next step is to build a profile and a timeline on a suspect and for investigators to reach out with as much information as possible.
“You have to engage the public,” Morgan said. “They are your best weapon in working a case like this, because people see things. It’s just sometimes they don’t realize what they’ve seen.”
One of Morgan’s biggest unsolved cases, the 2002 rape and murder of Stephanie Bennett in Raleigh, was solved after more than three years, in part, because he kept the case in the media spotlight.
Edgecombe County Sheriff James Knight, who is overseeing five of the six cases, has generally declined to comment about them, and calls to his office have gone unreturned.
Rocky Mount police, who are handling the investigation into Smallwood’s death, as well as the missing persons cases of three other women fitting the same profile, are “actively working those cases” and seeking new leads from the public, a spokeswoman said.
“(The media) is the best weapon I’ve got to communicate with large numbers of people throughout the community and if I’m not willing to talk with news reporters, then I’m not using one of the most important potential weapons that I have in getting information,” Morgan said.
“You’ve got to replace that lack of physical evidence with something else, and that is most often times information that is buried somewhere deep in the community,” he added. “But it’s in that community, and you’ve got to pull it out.”
The following women have been found dead in and around Rocky Mount the past seven years, prompting suspiscions of a serial killer.
- Jarniece Latonya “Sunshine” Hargrove, 31, was identified in July after a worker found skeletal remains off Seven Bridges Road in the woods June 29. She had been missing since May 2.
- Taraha Shenice Nicholson, 28, of North Raleigh Street was found dead March 7 off Marriott Road by people riding 4-wheelers through the woods. Authorities said she was strangled. Antwan Maurice Pittman, 31, is charged in her murder.
- Elizabeth Jane Smallwood, 33, of Hill Street, was found dead Feb. 13, 2009, off Melton Drive. She had been dead between six months and year when a prison work crew discovered her body. The cause of death is unknown.
- Ernestine Battle, 50, of Branch Street was found dead March 14, 2008, in a wooded area off Seven Bridges Road, more than a year after she was reported missing. She was last seen entering an unfamiliar car with an unknown man, police said.
- Jackie Nikelia Thorpe, 35, of Owens Circle was found dead Aug. 17, 2007, in the woods off Seven Bridges Road. She had been missing since May of that year.
- Christine Boone, 43, was last seen at 801 S. Grace St. in August 2006. Her remains were found March 5, 2010, in a wooded area behind 98 Nasturtium Lane in Scotland Neck in Halifax County, the former home of Antwan Maurice Pittman.
- Melody Wiggins, 29, of South Grace Street was found May 30, 2005, in the woods next to a field on Old Farm Road. An autopsy indicated she died from a blunt strike to the head and was stabbed several times.
- Denise M. Williams, 21, of Center Street was found dead June 2, 2003, in the Cokey swamp off Clover Road by a fisherman. She was last seen a week prior getting into a brown SUV in East Rocky Mount, family said.
Authorities also are looking into the following case for possible connections.
Travis Raregus Harrison, 24, was found by a fisherman and his son on June 25, 2006, discarded in a thicket off Virgina Avenue. Harrison, 24, was a known crossdresser. He was found wearing nothing but his socks.
Mapping a tragedy
The blue markers on this map represent locations where bodies have been found. Red markers are past known residences of Antwan Maurice Pittman, who is charged with the murder of Taraha Nicholson. Click on the image to view the interactive map.