A few years ago during the dissolution of a decade-long relationship I became obsessed with the JKF assassination.
I read dozens of books on the subject, not only about the assassination itself
but also accounts of the many curious penumbral deaths possibly related to the tragedy.
I watched every Kennedy documentary in existence,
scoured conspiracy websites, and spent long evenings pondering the viability of a second gunman secreted on the grassy knoll.
Meanwhile my relationship was in its death throes; I was completely unaware.
I may have noticed, I suppose, that my better half was around far less
than he used to be—it pains me now to admit this, but I was glad of his absence;
free of the obligation to chitchat or canoodle I could re-watch the Zapruder film for the thousandth time,
and maybe this time the “magic” bullet’s trajectory would make sense.
My JFK obsession had become a mania that consumed my every waking thought. I was on the cusp of a great discovery,
I believed; that I was also on a great precipice in my personal life somehow escaped notice.
One of the many disquisitive tangents on my assassination investigation involved the claims of a private investigator named Cecil Small.
Small, described in media accounts as a “middle-aged, heavy-set good ole boy from North Carolina,”
happened to be passing through Dallas on November 22nd, 1963,
returning home from a visit to California.
According to Small, after passing by the tail end of the president’s motorcade
he espied a Hispanic man in the crowd with a poorly concealed scoped rifle;
this being rootin’ tootin’ Texas, however, at the time Small gave this sighting nary a second thought.
Knocked off course by the motorcade and unfamiliar with the area,
Small pulled over in front of the soon-to-be infamous Book Depository to ask for directions.
In a fortuitous bit of happenstance
the passerby he hailed was heading in the very same direction Small intended to travel,
and thus Good Samaritan Cecil offered the calm, neatly-dressed stranger a ride.
This man, Cecil avowed to his dying day,
was none other than Lee Harvey Oswald.
If Cecil’s account of this meeting is true,
Lee Harvey Oswald may not have been the shooter ensconced
in the Book Depository window—-it’s unlikely the assassin would have been so blasé
moments after the fatal shots rang out in Dealey Plaza. That Cecil Small’s random offer of conveyance
could possibly re-write history, in and of itself, is astounding.
Even more astounding, however, is the fact that this alleged meeting
with the man largely believed to be the 20th century’s most famous assassin
is not the most intriguing episode
in the life of Cecil Small, private eye—there is yet another crime
with which the legend of Cecil Small has become irreparably enmeshed.
The weather forecast was grim that day in the sleepy college town of Boone, North Carolina,
and the events soon to unfold there grimmer still.
Snow began falling in the late afternoon
and by nightfall the downy drifts were buffeted by gusting,
40-mile per hour winds.
Before long the rapidly plunging temperature encased the roadways in a treacherous sheet of ice, yet on these very roads traveled local businessman Bryce Durham, 51, too hardy a soul to be held hostage by the elements.
The owner of a successful Buick dealership, Bryce was loathe to miss a special event scheduled by his local Rotary Club:
a detachment of Green Berets were slated to perform a demonstration of military skiing prowess
at Appalachian Ski Mountain in nearby Blowing Rock,
and Bryce had pledged to attend.
Not unexpectedly, few Rotarians shared Bryce’s valiant disregard for the inclement weather;
the event’s turnout was dismal and the Green Berets’ demonstration cut short by the mounting blizzard.
By 8:15pm Bryce was en route to Modern Buick-Pontiac to pick up his wife Virginia, aged 44,
and his 19-year old son Bobby Joe, a freshman at Appalachian State University.
Upon arrival at the dealership, in his sole concession to the storm,
Bryce abandoned his car and the family instead departed in a newfangled Jimmy, a four-wheel drive vehicle
suitable for travel across ice-bound tundra.
As they motored off into the frosty shroud the Durhams’ earthly tenure drew short;
the family’s last known sighting occurred at 9pm when neighbors spotted the doughty Jimmy
cresting the hill upon which the Durham homestead loomed. Bryce, Virginia and Bobby Joe—their penultimate moments ticked inexorably away amidst the keening wind and glimmering snowflakes.
the Durhams’ son-in-law Troy Hall arrived at the trailer he shared with his wife Ginny Durham Hall, age 19.
Troy had, he claimed,
spent the entirety of the evening studying at the Appalachian State University library nearby.
As the Halls tell it,
shortly after the couple settled in for an evening of routine domesticity
their pastoral pas de deux was shattered by the ring of the telephone. This call, it is alleged,
was placed by Virginia Durham and answered by Troy. Three “niggers,” his mother-in-law reportedly whispered,
were in the family home assaulting her husband and son; the line then abruptly went dead.
After several attempts
to reach the Durham home were unsuccessful—Troy claims he repeatedly received a busy signal—a decision was made
to trek to the Durham homestead to ascertain if three rampaging African Americans
were in fact therein.
The novel idea of calling the police to render aid was apparently not discussed.
Troy claimed that at the time he assumed his mother-in-law was joking; one can not help
but wonder—has comedy really changed that much in forty years? Help, we’re being murdered by people of color—not exactly a knee slapper, to my 21st century ears at least.
Making a leisurely road trip to the Durham home may not have been the most expeditious response
to a whispered plea for assistance, but even this meager proposition was soon thwarted.
Despite working perfectly a scant quarter hour before
the Halls claim their vehicle refused to start in the arctic weather. The couple thus knocked on the door
of the mobile park’s manager for help—help for Troy and Ginny, that is.
Apparently asking the manager to call the police for the imperiled Durham family was, again, not discussed.
Instead the Halls requested a lift to the Durham home,
possibly to see if Virginia had any more of her comedy repertoire she’d like to share.
Interesting events in North Carolina, to be sure,
but what in the world do the snow-swept denizens of a mobile home park in the 1970s
have to do with the Kennedy assassination in 1963?
Congratulations, intrepid reader;
you have asked this question at exactly the right moment in time, for it just so happens,
in an odd twist of fate,
that the manager of the tatty trailer park in which Troy and Ginny Hall dwelt
was none other than Good Samaritan Cecil Small—a man whose affinity for volunteering transportation to folks in need
had embroiled him in one of the most famous shootings in American history a decade before
and a thousand miles distant.
Never one shirk the call of history,
Cecil agreed to accompany the Halls on their snail-paced mission of mercy.
The threesome then clambered into Small’s vehicle and drove off into the forbidding, snow-bespeckled darkness.
There is no mention of this fact in the newspaper articles of the time,
but I can’t help but wonder—was this the same rattletrap truck in which Small had chauffeured
the alleged lone gunman moments after JFK was slain? Good deeds and a proximity to crime scenes—two constants in the life of Cecil Small, private eye.
Although the distance from the trailer park to the Durham residence is less than four miles
twenty minutes elapsed before the meandering rescue party reached the vicinity
of the family’s handsome, split-level colonial
at 187 Clyde Townsend Road; as is befitting on this blustery night,
the purported rescuers’ pace can best be described as glacial.
As they reached the Durham’s street a final complication ensued:
Cecil Small may have been willing to accompany the Halls to the fateful end of their nocturnal errand,
but his ornery car opted out—the vehicle refused to climb the steep hill which preceded the Durhams’ dwelling.
Thus Troy Hall and Cecil Small proceeded on foot,
leaving a defenseless Ginny alone in the car—if ebony-skinned marauders lurked in the darkness
the young newlywed was on her own. It seems that rational decisions
were scarcer than sunbeams on that woebegotten, snow-bedazzled night.
Although their reasons for eschewing the front door are unclear,
upon arriving at the residence Hall and Small gained entry by sliding under the Durhams’ malfunctioning garage door;
once inside they found the usually-immaculate home in a state of disarray.
The sound of running water drew the dawdling duo
to the first floor bathroom, and there they observed a gruesome sight—all three Durhams had been bound
and drowned in the bathtub,
their fully-dressed corpses still aligned at the tub’s edge,
their lifeless heads bobbing in the still-running water.
Finally, almost an hour after Virginia Durham’s alleged panicked SOS call
the exigency of the situation could no longer be denied; yet in keeping with the evening’s theme,
the rendering of first aid to the still-warm Durhams was apparently not discussed.
Hall and Small instead burst out of the ransacked home,
barreled down the hill
and attempted to drive away. After all, they’d made it this far without calling law enforcement;
three dead bodies later, they evidently saw no reason to start now.
Cecil’s balky car had other ideas, however; mired in the ever-deepening drifts, the jalopy refused to budge.
It was only then, with all other options exhausted,
that Cecil and the Halls at long last knocked on a neighbor’s door and summoned the Watauga County Sheriff’s Department.
When investigators arrived at the Durham residence they immediately noticed several irregularities;
although the home had been pillaged the scene appeared staged.
The phone had been yanked from the wall, pictures torn from their moorings, sheets stripped from the beds,
yet a bank deposit envelope containing several hundred dollars lay in plain sight on a dining room chair.
If robbery had been the motive the killers had been staggeringly inept;
yet if the killers were amateurs how had they managed to easily overpower three good-sized adults,
one of whom was a brawny nineteen-year old eagle scout?
on Poplar Grove Road police discovered the Durham’s still-running Jimmy,
lights on and wiper blades astir.
Although the vehicle was found in a ditch there were no skid marks at the scene—it was almost as if the vehicle had been purposely positioned to draw attention.
On the back seat detectives found a pillowcase containing a cache of silver plates, the only items of value missing from the Durham home.
The likelihood that the family had been killed in a robbery gone bad was becoming increasingly remote.
Though the motive for the family’s slaughter remained opaque
the method of their butchery
was soon revealed.
An autopsy established that although rope burns were evident on the necks
of all three Durhams
Bryce and Bobby Joe were alive when their heads were forced underwater;
Virginia alone had been strangled to death before being plunged headfirst into the tub.
The bodies of Bryce and Virginia also exhibited evidence of blunt force trauma—Bryce had a skull fracture
and Virginia’s nose had been bloodied before her death, crimson traces visible in the home’s shag carpet.
None of the corpses bore defensive wounds,
which lead the coroner to surmise the Durhams had been slain
by more than one assailant. The family had seemingly been overpowered with lightening speed;
against a lone assassin more evidence of a life-or-death struggle would have been present,
the coroner concluded.
As is typical in a small town,
rumors swirled around the killings—one popular theory postulated the Durhams had been slain
by the visiting coterie of Green Berets from Blowing Rock. The murderous Marines, according to this hypothesis,
randomly selected Bryce to follow home and annihilate,
perhaps as a trial run for the horrors of Vietnam.
Hogtying, according to proponents of this theory, is a classic military maneuver;
and a blitz attack by a horde of trained assassins would explain the Durhams’ lack of defensive wounds.
Virginia’s SOS call, however, is difficult to reconcile
with an attack by the Special Forces—in every image I’ve been able to locate
the Green Beret ski patrols of the 1970s appear
white as the driven snow.
Other Boone residents theorized the Durhams had in fact been randomly slaughtered
by the trio of African Americans mentioned in Virginia’s alleged distress call.
Although on its face this scenario seems promising—after all, Virginia’s whispered plea
had been quite clear regarding the attackers’ ethnicity—the threesome of color theory poses a bit of a puzzler:
a thorough vacuuming of the scene failed to locate even a single negroid hair,
an unlikely finding lest black assailants committed the carnage sporting hazmat suits and hairnets.
Furthermore, many Boone residents scoffed at the notion that homicidal maniacs, randomly trawling for victims
in the midst of a raging blizzard,
would lay siege to the Durham abode—the steep hill
upon which the house perched
was difficult to navigate in foul weather, making the Durham residence an implausible target at best.
other locals speculated
that one or both of the Halls had orchestrated the massacre
to gain possession of the Durham family estate;
Ginny Hall, sole heir,
received nearly a quarter of a million dollars after the murders—a tidy sum in the 1970s.
And it was no secret in Boone that the Durhams’ relationship with their son-in-law was strained;
as one investigator later stated, “It’s interesting that not all was well with [Troy and Ginny’s] marriage. The Durham family was pressuring their daughter to leave Hall.”
An interesting state of affairs indeed.
The peculiar actions of the Halls on that ill-fated night
provided further grist for the rumor mill. The couple’s refusal to alert law enforcement in a timely manner
seemed suspect to many Boone residents; would any rational person,
amateur detectives queried, respond to a plea for help by making an hour-long, four-mile journey to the scene?
And if a besieged Virginia Durham had access to a phone,
would-be sleuths wondered,
why didn’t she simply ask the operator to send the police,
as was the protocol in pre-911 days of yore?
The alleged phone call from Virginia Durham and the Halls’ subsequent response
were so bizarre
that at least one member of the Watauga County Sheriff’s Department
doubted the call had actually transpired. As investigator Wade Carroll later told the Winston Salem Journal,
“In my opinion Mrs. Durham never made that phone call.
When some people come into your house to kill you, they are not going to let you make a phone call.”
Troy Hall, perhaps sensing detectives’ skepticism, obtained a lawyer after a single police interview;
his legal fees were for naught, however—on April 26th, mere weeks after the crime,
authorities arrested the perpetrators deemed responsible for the Durhams’ slaughter.
The identity of the accused baffled many Boone residents;
defying neighborhood scuttlebutt the men were not Green Berets,
or connected to the Halls,
or African Americans three—the Sheriff’s Office had instead arrested four men, Caucasians all,
who hailed from the town of Asheveille,
nearly a two-hour drive from Boone.
The accused had come to the attention of law enforcement
during the investigation of a burglary ring; upon being charged in that case
one of the men,
perhaps hoping to cut a deal,
claimed to have been present when his friends shotgunned the Durhams in a robbery gone bad.
The Asheville burglar’s confession was problematic at best—the Durhams had not been shot
and their house had not been burgled,
two facts which seem to have escaped the notice of the Sheriff’s Department at the time.
When further investigation revealed the confessor had been incarcerated the night the Durhams were slain
the district attorney declined to prosecute the men and the charges were quickly dropped. The public pressure to solve the crime was clearly taking its toll on local law enforcement.
Troy and Ginny Hall moved out of town shortly after the murders and the couple eventually divorced.
Cecil Small is long-dead, no longer able to shed any light on his connection to the Kennedy assassination
or his knowledge of the Durhams’ slaughter. To the end of his days, however, folks in town whispered
about Small’s involvement in the family’s demise;
although most armchair detectives considered the private eye a patsy,
lured to the scene to establish an alibi and solidify the Halls’ narrative of the crime,
others believed Small had actively conspired
in the Halls’ deadly accelerated-inheritance scheme.
the FBI never believed Small’s account of his serendipitous meeting
with Lee Harvey Oswald at the Book Depository; the private eye’s inability to correctly describe Dallas area landmarks
led agents to dismiss his claims as a fanciful bid for attention.
Watauga County detectives, however, clearly had more faith in Small’s veracity, as neither Small nor the Halls
seemed to engender much law enforcement scrutiny. In fact, according to Michael Capozzo’s The Murder Room,
an investigator later stated “police never considered [Troy Hall] a major suspect.”
If Cecil Small had been invited along to serve as an alibi witness on that stormy night
he did a magnificent job.
Watauga County authorities claim they’re still actively investigating the Durham murders,
and a $40,000 reward has been offered for information leading to an arrest for the crime.
As SBI agent Charlie Whitman told the author of Haunted Watauga County North Carolina,
although some evidence has been lost over the years
the woven cotton sash rope found around Bryce Durham’s neck “is still accounted for.”
Modern DNA technology can detect and identify even a smattering of epithelial cells;
the answer to this forty-year old mystery may have been sitting in a police evidence locker all along.
As you may have guessed, I never did manage to definitively solve the Kennedy assassination;
after the demise of my long-term relationship
I couldn’t bear to hear a single word about the assassination of our nation’s 35th president—I don’t care
if Oswald was in cahoots with Cubans, the CIA, or tap-dancing extraterrestrials.
Call it sour grapes, but in my heart of hearts I suspect the truth of JFK’s assassination
will never be revealed—most of the suspects and witnesses are now deceased
and the chances of a third congressional investigation being launched at this point
are deader than JFK himself.
The Durham family murders, however, are another matter entirely;
although I’m constrained by the laws of libel,
let’s just say that solving this crime won’t require an act of Congress,
merely a soupçon of common sense.
Investigators’ steadfast unwillingness to identify the culprits is perplexing to me;
I can only think that much like my inability to notice my relationship crumbling before my eyes
detectives have been too distracted by ephemera to notice evidence
glaringly visible at first glance
to casual onlookers and the blind.
That four decades have passed since the Durhams’ annihilation is completely immaterial;
there’s still time to secure justice for Bryce, Virginia and Bobby Joe.
Romantic relationships may have a statute of limitations, unfortunately;
but murder, like love,