THE BLOG
11/21/2013 12:46 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

Juggling Faith and Forensics

HOT SPRINGS, North Carolina

When I switched from the crime beat to covering religion -- during the height of the televangelism scandals in the 1980s - I joked to my newspaper colleagues that the only difference was that I would be encountering "a better class of felon," or at least less violent ones. But newsroom snark notwithstanding, it was a big shift.

Throughout the 1970s, as a young free-lancer, I covered capital murder cases in the South involving racial justice and, later, sensational trials like those of serial murderer Ted Bundy, and Green Beret Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald. I learned my way around arrest and autopsy reports, and courtrooms, and got pretty good at it. Crime coverage launched my journalism career. Yet with the Greensboro, N.C., Klan-Nazi shootings of 1979, in which several of my leftist Duke University friends and classmates were killed or wounded, I had my fill of covering murder; it had gotten too close. So the move to religion was a welcome relief.

And, as it turned out, most of the religious people I reported on as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and the Orlando Sentinel -- primarily Sunbelt evangelicals -- were good-hearted and well-intentioned. True, as I also wrote, there were some colorful scoundrels, as well as evangelicals who could be intolerant of those outside their theological tents and suburban megachurches. Years of newspaper reporting evolved into four books focused on religion and its impact on politics and popular culture and, most recently, faith and disability. Few of my religion writing colleagues were ever aware of my criminal (reporting) background.

But there was one unsolved murder that kept calling to me from my past, distracting me from the religion beat: the 1970 kidnap, rape and murder of a federal anti-poverty worker named Nancy Dean Morgan, here in the mountains of western North Carolina. From the day I read about the VISTA worker's death, while sitting in the office of the Duke University Chronicle, I was touched by her life, and angered by her killing.

As the years and then decades passed with no one brought to justice for her death, I determined that I would try to do what I could as a journalist. Ironically, it was a verse from the Bible that stuck in my mind as I returned to my old beat, Deuteronomy 16; 20-22: "Justice, justice, you shall pursue."

So, for 50 weeks a year, I was a religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel and suburban husband and father. For two weeks annually, in the fall and the spring, I walked the hollers of Madison County, N.C., along the Tennessee border. Throughout this research and reporting, my goal was not only to tell the story of the life and death of Nancy Morgan, but to solve her murder.

Although a staple of mysteries, movies and television, journalists rarely solve murders in real life. I'm a longtime fan of crime fiction, especially the work of my former Los Angeles Times colleague Michael Connelly and veteran Baltimore Sun police reporter David Simon, creator of "The Wire." But despite my years of covering crime, cops and courts, I soon learned that literally solving a case was much more difficult than literarily solving one. Honestly, while up in the mountains I sometimes I felt more like Walter Mitty than Raymond Chandler. Yet, I believe I did solve the killing in what evolved into a tangled tale of rural noir in a place once known as "Bloody Madison," for a Civil War-era civilian massacre.

A more mundane matter arose. As the publication date finally approached for my book, Met Her on the Mountain: A Forty-Year Quest to Solve the Appalachian Cold-Case Murder of Nancy Morgan, there was a marketing challenge. I imagined that few of the people who read my books and articles about religion would be a transferable fan base for true crime.

Then fate -- and convergence -- took a hand. While I long ago promised myself that Nancy Morgan would be the last murder case I would cover, it hasn't been. In 2012, I was in the final stages of editing when Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was shot to death 25 minutes up the road from my home. Local and national religious leaders first dragged and then propelled the case into the national spotlight.

The call of the courtroom, and the cause of racial justice that brought me to journalism, were irresistible. Once again, my beat was murder -- and the biblical pursuit of justice.