Lucky Stiffs: A Rifle & a Trip to Eternity

Posted: July 7, 2019 in Uncategorized

Luck is relative.

Central Prison: when all the good prison names are already taken

We might as well start at the end; backwards or forwards the story adds up to zero.

On August 27th, 1992 the North Carolina Department of Corrections announced the death of inmate Roy Lee Fox in Raleigh’s Central Prison.
According to a DOC spokesperson Fox, age fifty-five,
had perished three weeks previously on August 8th of natural causes—although officials will claim privacy regulations prevent further disclosure they will privately ascribe his death to brain cancer.

No one who knew Fox, the boogeyman of Buncombe County, believed he was actually dead.

A long, long time ago in a holler not so far away: an illiterate fifth-grade dropout was given an honest day’s work helping farmer Charles Lunsford with his annual hay sale.
The date was November 9th, 1964 and the hired hand was sixteen-year-old Arrlie Fox, brother of Roy Lee Fox, then twenty-seven.
Criminals both, the Fox brothers, along with two accomplices—cousin Donald Fox, age twenty-three and Robert Carson McMahan, nineteen—were seasoned stick-up men,
specializing in elderly and female victims.
Charles Lunsford and his wife Ovella, age fifty-five, looked like easy pickings to the Fox gang—as history will attest, this assessment will turn out to be fatally flawed.

Chez Lunsford

11:30pm, November 10th, 1964. Imagine your wife is bleeding to death. Imagine your wife is bleeding to death and your phone’s been yanked out the wall so you can’t call an ambulance.
Imagine your wife is bleeding to death and you can’t call an ambulance so you get in your car to drive to a hospital and realize your tire’s been slashed.
Imagine driving twenty miles to the nearest hospital on three tires and a rim while your wife, the love of your life, bleeds out onto the seat beside you.
Charles Lunsford wouldn’t have to imagine; thanks to the Fox gang he could simply remember.

An unlikely badass but a badass nonetheless

Right out of the gate the robbery went sideways; the gang had planned a blitz attack on the sleeping Lunsfords
but when Donald and Arrlie entered—clad in Halloween masks to shield their identities—Charles was in the kitchen preparing a midnight snack.
The farmer threw his bowl of applesauce at the intruders and a melee commenced;
Roy Lee Fox, also masked, heard the ruckus and ran inside to help his brother and cousin.
Awakened by the commotion, Ovella jumped out of bed upstairs and grabbed a rifle she’d recently won in a church sales contest.

With Charles outnumbered three to one Ovella waded into the fray but there was a catch—a literal catch.
The rifle was new and she couldn’t dislodge the safety and two of the assailants drew their own weapons and fired,
one bullet lodging in a wall and the other in her chest.
The Foxes’ home invasion plans had no contingency for murder, it seems,
so the trio fled into the darkness where lookout Robert Carson Mcmahan awaited.
Not only had they committed homicide but the robbery was a bust;
Ovella’s rifle was the sole item pilfered during the commission of the (now capital) crime.

Despite her wound Ovella was still conscious during the three-wheeled trek to the hospital; she would die upon arrival and Charles, beaten savagely during the fracas, was hospitalized.
Acting on a tip, Buncombe County detectives arrested the Fox gang four days later.
All but Roy Lee Fox confessed, although the identity of the fatal triggerman remains a topic of debate.
Irrespective of the triggerman’s identity, however, under a felony theory of murder all four gang members were eligible for Old Sparky, the (generically-named) North Carolina electric chair.

That deputy’s belt is the hardest working apparatus in Buncombe County

Even blood bonds have their limits. Arrlie Fox, to the horror of his family, testified against his three codefendants in exchange for a single life sentence on burglary charges.
“They could’ve pulled out my nails with pliers and I wouldn’t have done nothing like that [testifying against a family member],” an unnamed Fox sibling told a reporter.
All three confessions and Arrlie’s testimony portrayed Roy Lee Fox as the chief instigator of the robbery spree but the jury spared Fox and his two codefendants as well.
Double life sentences were meted out to all instead—one for first degree burglary, one for first degree homicide. The jury blinked . . .

Donald Fox was killed in a prison riot in 1968; in 1969 Robert Carson McMahan’s conviction was reversed on appeal

. . . And Roy Lee Fox lived to kill another day. Two decades later, on January 4th, 1985 Fox was back on the streets.
The machinations which spurred his release from prison are peculiar—North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt, signatory of Fox’s pardon, claimed clemency had been granted at the behest of the FBI.
While imprisoned, according to FBI officials, Fox provided information regarding a high-profile Texas homicide—Fox was never called to testify at trial, however, rendering his cooperation moot.
(Incredibly, one of the men eventually convicted in the case was Charles Harrison, infamous hitman and father of Cheers actor Woody Harrelson.)

The obituary of Arrlie Fox, paroled in 1985, describes him as a “servant for the lord;” Ovella Jean Lunsford and irony, killed with the same murder weapon

Regardless of whatever help Fox did or did not give federal officials he was freed with a single year of parole;
this despite a prison disciplinary record which included weapons possession, assault to commit a sexual act and possession of illegal funds.
Although this information is uncorroborated, according to former Ashville Citizen-Times reporter Lewis Green
Fox, clutching a suitcase stuffed with cash, was flown home from Central Prison on a private plane.
Nothing to see here, folks, so let’s move right along.

July 16th, 1986. Beware of strangers bearing fresh-grilled burgers. Eighteen months after Fox strolled out of Central Prison he encountered thirty-nine-year-old farmer Morris Sams at the Riverside Grocery.
Although they’d never previously met
Morris agreed to accompany Fox and his three companions—Ronnie Ragan, Maggie Fox Ragan, and Raymond Lee Powell, henceforth the three amigos—to a cookout on the banks of the French Broad River.
Fox, for reasons unknown, drew a .38 caliber firearm during the festivities and shot Morris several times in the torso.
The three amigos, allegedly in fear for their lives, subsequently helped Fox submerge the body of their friend-turned-victim in the river.

The French Broad River, surprisingly narrow

After the shooting the three amigos considered themselves Fox’s hostages—or that’s their story, anyway. A few days after the crime the group returned to the cookout site and discovered Morris’s body afloat on the river’s surface.
His corpse was then retrieved, allegedly at Fox’s suggestion, and dumped in a nearby sewer system.
Five days later,
while investigating a blockage waste technicians discovered Morris’s body wedged in a pipe;
a short time later the three amigos were (allegedly) able to free themselves from Fox’s grasp and (separately) contacted authorities.

Seems like old times; Roy Lee Fox was again arrested for murder. Morris Sams was a law-abiding farmer shot in cold blood without warning;
with the three amigos’ eyewitness testimony and his previous conviction by all rights Fox should’ve been en route to death row but the prosecutor’s office had other plans.
Inexplicably, Fox was given deal on a forty-year sentence for second degree murder plus a life sentence on kidnapping charges vis-à-vis the three amigos;
the terms were to be served concurrently, with parole eligibility in ten years.
Pardoner-in-chief Governor Jim Hunt will later tell the press Morris Sams’ murder left him “very, very saddened;”
this was a great comfort to Morris’s loved ones, I’m sure,
especially the three little girls left fatherless by the crime.
After a brief hiatus from politics Jim Hunt will again be reelected Governor, citing his “tough on crime” bona fides.
Voters, to the delight of politicians everywhere, have notoriously short memories.

Forever linked, in a perfect world at least

He was down but not out; the wily Fox still had one ace left to play. After a few months in Central Prison Roy Lee Fox contacted Buncombe County investigators and expressed a willingness to talk about an unsolved double murder.
There was one caveat: he would only be willing to share information, Fox told detectives,
while ensconced in the county jail.
Because voters aren’t the only ones with short memories the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office ignored the red flags and took the bait.

Do you feel lucky? Well, do you? Six weeks before Morris Sams’ final picnic Ohio resident Wesley Dale Mahaffey did;
he won a three-day trip in a raffle staged by Major Heating and Air Conditioning, his employer.
On May 17th, 1986 thirty-three-old Wesley and his twenty-nine-year-old wife Bonnie traveled to the Great Smokies Hilton in Asheville, North Carolina.
Just like Ovella Lunsford’s church-won rifle, the Mahaffey’s vacation would ultimately turn out to be a (blood-spattered) booby prize.

At 12:15am on October 20th the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office received an anonymous call reporting a white male “in bad shape” at Buzzard Rock,
an obscure forest outcropping with a breathtaking view and reputation as a teen hangout.
Upon arrival first responders found a fully-clothed male and female located approximately seventy-five feet apart, deceased.
The male’s pockets have been turned out and the couple’s wallets are missing.
A 1978 Oldsmobile station wagon at the scene is traced to Ohio residents Wesley and Bonnie Mahaffey, killed on the last day of the last vacation they will ever share.
A subsequent autopsy determines both have been shot with a .38 caliber weapon—Bonnie in the neck, chest and stomach and Wesley in the head, neck and arm—three times.
The medical examiner will affix their times of death as occurring between 7 and 9pm.

The couple—described by a neighbor as “real friendly and real nice people”—had no acquaintances in the area and no known risk factors in their backgrounds.
According to all who knew them the Mahaffeys were middle-class Middle Americans with lives steeped in traditional values.
The couple had two children—Janis, age eleven, and Jason, age seven.
Wesley was employed as a service manager at Major Heating and Air Conditioning in Hamilton, Ohio;
Bonnie was a homemaker who sold Avon to help make ends meet.
The first two days of the Mahaffeys’ trip had proceeded uneventfully; Wesley and Bonnie were last seen alive at 9:30am by a housekeeper as they exited the Hilton for a final day of sightseeing.

The couple’s pristine backgrounds weren’t the only factor rendering their murders inexplicable; their presence at Buzzard Rock defied logic as well.
Aside from the occasional cadre of partying teens the area was little-used.
Commercial GPS systems had yet to be invented and the overlook was invisible from adjoining roads; access also entailed navigating a steep dirt road, a risky proposition in a ‘78 station wagon.
The area was so obscure even many local residents were unaware it existed;
as Buncombe Deputy Mark Ivey told the Asheville Citizen-Times, “There are people right here in this county who don’t know where Buzzard Rock is.”

A 1978 Oldsmobile station wagon, chariot of the gods

Although clues were scarce the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department did its best; yet one by one the leads which dominated the initial stages of the investigation fizzled into nothingness.
Early newspaper articles reported footprints at the scene indicated more than one assailant—this assertion will later be backtracked.
A homicide at a different rest stop in the same time frame was found to be unrelated.
A “brushy-headed” man spotted peeping into the Mahaffey’s car was eventually identified and cleared,
poor grooming an unindictable crime.
As the investigation entered its second year the case began to cool and detectives’ frustrations began to simmer.
Into this void stepped Roy Lee Fox, a bottom-feeder who never encountered a situation he wasn’t eager to exploit.
As per his request he was removed from Central Prison and installed in the Buncombe County Jail.
He had pledged to confess and confess he did.

Text excerpt from Roy Lee Fox’s confession:

“In regards to the Buzzard Rock incident this was a contract murder. I was paid $100,000 to kill these two individuals on Buzzard Rock by Buncombe County (official’s name redacted) who gave me a .38 revolver to do these murders at his suggestion at his request. He did request me to return the weapon to him . . . this incident happened on May 20th. I am only taking (official’s name redacted) that the reason of him hiring me to kill these people is that a drug transaction went sour. The Mahaffey’s did have a kilo of coke. I was told the kilo would be a bonus to me in addition to the $100,000.”

View from Buzzard Rock, present day

According to Fox’s confession, the Mahaffeys had been slain in a drug hit contracted by an unnamed Buncombe County official.
This seemed, at best, far-fetched—everyone who knew the couple agreed their coke exposure was limited to the beverage sold in red cans.
In fact, nothing about Fox’s confession jibed with reality;
the Mahaffeys hadn’t traveled to Ashville for a narcotics drop—Wesley won the trip by chance, and the destination was selected by his employer.
Investigators knew Fox’s confession was bogus—a blatant attempt to frame the (name redacted) Buncombe County official—but were nonetheless certain Fox had perpetrated the crime.

Desperate for physical evidence tying Fox to the murders, detectives unearthed an informant who claimed he’d witnessed Fox dump a gun in the French Broad River.
Buncombe County Sheriff Buck Lyda devised a plan to part the waterway like the Red Sea to scour the bottom for the murder weapon.
The logistics of the plan were actualized but the search was a failure;
no gun was found despite a meticulous search of the riverbed.
Although several bullets were located forensic analysis would later prove none had been fired from the Mahaffey murder weapon.

Prepping for the river search

Despite this setback Fox was charged with the Mahaffey homicides on April 13th, 1987. For the next six weeks Buncombe County detectives waged an all-out hunt for forensics tying him to the crime.
“We have enough to try him now but every piece of evidence helps,”
Captain Lee Warren told a reporter for the Ashville Citizen-Times.
The Captain’s confidence will prove misplaced; using a handcuff key secreted under his dentures,
Fox staged a brazen escape attempt from the Buncombe County Jail on June 3rd.
His bid for freedom was quashed by quick-thinking guards but within twelve hours the homicide charges against him were dropped.
Fox’s “confession” was looking more and more like a ruse,
an excuse to leave maximum security for the less-secure county lockup to facilitate a planned escape.
Without corroborating information a conviction on murder charges was now looking extremely unlikely;
Fox was shipped back to Central Prison and the Mahaffey investigation evaporated.

Five years later a spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Corrections announced Fox’s death at Central Prison.
According to local reporter Lewis Green, the circumstances surrounding Fox’s demise were riddled with anomalies, including but not limited to: a failure to notify the Fox family,
a three-week gap between the event and the announcement, and an unheard-of hand-printed death certificate (a more official-looking copy was eventually issued, however).
When the journalist asked to view the inmate’s grave the DOC claimed Fox had been cremated, and this absence of proof convinced Lewis Green and many other locals,
law enforcement and civilians both, that Fox’s demise had been a staged event.

River Search II, French Broad Boogaloo

If Fox were alive today he’d be eighty-four years old. Although I am generally skeptical of conspiracy theories
his enrollment in the Witness Protection Program wouldn’t surprise me—nothing about his 1985 commutation or plea deal in the Sams case comports with past precedents.
Someone was pulling strings behind the scenes,
although the motivation and identity of Fox’s patron will likely remain a mystery.
His (possibly) staged death aside, the aspect of this Br’er Fox tale that most intrigues me is the Mahaffey murders.
Bogus confession aside, there’s no evidence tying Fox to the slayings—yet there’s also no evidence definitively exonerating him, making the prosecution of another suspect a daunting proposition.
Even if Fox didn’t kill the Mahaffeys he effectively killed the investigation into their murders;
Roy Lee Fox was a lot of things, none of them good, but he did make an excellent scapegoat.

It seems almost inconceivable but Wesley and Bonnie Mahaffey are dead because they won a raffle; the phrase “good luck” will never sound the same.

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