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Mark I. Pinsky

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My Phantom Valentine: Across the Years With Another Woman

Posted: 02/13/2012 7:05 am

For more than 40 years, a decade longer than I've been married to my wife, another woman has had a hold on me, and shaped my life: A young community organizer named Nancy Dean Morgan, murdered in the mountains of North Carolina. It's a one-sided relationship to be sure, one based on sympathy, admiration and burning devotion, rather than love or even intimacy. Yet, I think of her often, especially on Valentine's Day, wondering who or what she might have become had she lived -- and, almost obsessively, who killed her.

It all began on June 18, 1970, as I was sitting in the deserted office of the Duke University Chronicle, where I wrote a column called "The Readable Radical." I opened a newspaper and read that the body of a kidnapped, 23-year-old, federal anti-poverty worker had been found in Madison County, N.C. Accompanying the article was a yearbook photo of a fresh-faced woman who looked like many of my friends.

The Duke campus was quiet because six weeks earlier the killing of four students at Kent State University in an anti-Vietnam War demonstration had set off others that closed colleges across the nation, including my own. Later, in "Ohio," songwriter Neil Young would ask about one of the young people shot that day: "What if you knew her, and found her dead on the ground?"
I didn't know Nancy Morgan, and hadn't been the one who found her the day before, raped and murdered in a southern Appalachian glade 250 miles away. Yet I felt an instant, incredible pull, a kinship and a mysterious attraction. At first it was political, a matter of generational solidarity, an antique throwback from the 1930s slogan, "An Injury to One is An Injury to All." Over time, the feeling would become personal, both psychologically and emotionally.

So I've spent a good portion of my life trying to find who was responsible for her death and bringing them to justice. Ripping the article about Morgan from the newspaper, I started a clip file, vowing to keep faith with her. After graduation, I became a free-lance, investigative journalist, specializing in capital murder cases around the Southeast, death penalty cases involving defendants who were poor, black and often innocent. I spent a lot of time in courtrooms in small Southern towns, scrutinizing arrest and autopsy reports and, at one point, taking a week-long course in blood-spatter and death-scene analysis with homicide detectives and coroner's investigators. Sometimes my reporting was credited with helping derail defendants on the fast track to Death Row, from Tarboro, N.C. to Dawson, Ga.

Inevitably, I suppose, given my feelings toward Nancy, I gravitated to reporting on cases in which the victims were young women, and the accused murderers white, middle class and often guilty, cases like serial killer Ted Bundy and Green Beret Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald. In 1979, after covering the sensational shooting deaths of several of my Duke classmates and friends at the hands of Nazis and Klansmen in Greensboro, N.C., I was so shaken I decided to let go of murders.

Yet over time I couldn't forget Nancy, or leave her behind. I made several trips to what had then been an isolated, impoverished and corrupt county where she worked as a member of VISTA -- Volunteers in Service to America -- often referred to as the domestic Peace Corps. I collected more newspaper clips, which described Madison County, N.C., in near-Faulknerian terms, for decades in the grip of two brothers, one the political boss and the other the sheriff. The hamlet where she lived was infamous for a Civil War massacre of civilians, which left the county with the name "Bloody Madison." Naturally -- the year of Nancy's murder was the same year James Dickey's novel Deliverance was published -- I constructed a Southern Gothic scenario in which the killing was a political response to an insurgent challenge to the entrenched status quo. As it turned out, my search evolved into something else, a tangled tale of rural noir and shared memoir -- Nancy's and mine.

Then for years I tried to push Nancy out of my mind. Ultimately, I fell in love -- real love -- married and moved to the West Coast, where we started a family. In 1994, while covering cops and courts at the Los Angeles Times, and a series of horrendous murders, I felt the pull again, stronger than ever, like a dormant virus returning. This time my fascination with this "other woman" was a factor in changing employment. I took a job back in the Southeast that would make travel to Madison County easier. And I determined to get a deeper understanding of who Nancy Morgan really was and who killed her.

Journalists solving murders are a staple of movies, mysteries and television, but as a longtime police reporter I knew that in real life that rarely happens. Still, I needed to try, calling on all skills I had developed. So for 15 years I traveled around the country a few weeks annually as my schedule permitted, used the Internet, telephone, alumni publications and even the mail to locate Nancy's childhood friends and family.

While biographers say it is not uncommon for them to fall at least a little in love with their subjects, for a time my ardor for Nancy cooled, as I read her teenage letters to friends in the early 1960s, filled with a superficial preoccupation with boyfriends, cooking and sewing. Then, inexorably, as it did for many of us in that era, the early and middle 1960s drew Nancy to concerns about civil rights, the Vietnam War and economic and social justice, maturing into the woman I fell for. I attended her 30th college reunion and tracked down her surviving professors and classmates, reliving the pain of her unhappy love affairs and, yes, feeling a little jealous. Posted on a cork board above my computer screen at home were half a dozen photos that captured her gamine good looks. As I wrote, I sometimes felt she was looking down at me.

In Madison County, I learned, Nancy worked on nutrition, youth recreation and community empowerment, making a difference, if only a marginal and transitory one for the people she came to help. She was a peacemaker among her ideologically fractious VISTA comrades. Once she finished her year of service in the mountains, she planned to go to nursing school and return to Appalachia for the long haul. Some of the people she worked with adored her, but because like other women of the '60s generation she smoked, drank beer, used offensive language, and once sat on a young man's lap at a dance, others in Madison County considered her loose and -- incredibly -- thought she was at least in part responsible for what happened to her.

Committed to do right by her, I made twice-annual trips from my safe, Sunbelt suburb to the North Carolina hollers, tracking down anyone who knew Nancy or anything about her death. Some weeks I couldn't decide whether I was Ward Cleaver, Raymond Chandler or Walter Mittty. In the end, I believe I did solve the case, complete with a confession from an inmate already serving a lengthy prison sentence for another horrific killing. Despite my initial, conspiratorial suspicions, Nancy's death was a drunken crime of opportunity, with no political dimension. But after reopening the case, based on my investigation, local and state police did not accept my conclusion -- to do so would acknowledge the incompetence and corruption of some of their colleagues.

However, as I stood at Nancy Morgan's grave in Baton Rouge with her brother 40 years after first reading of her death, I felt I had been true to her memory. By now I had a daughter near Nancy's age, at Duke and part of a new college cohort of idealistic and determined young people who have come of age under a president who was himself a community organizer. They, like Nancy Morgan, want to make the world a better place. One of her friends spent last summer on an anti-poverty program in Madison County and, like Nancy, plans to return. I think Nancy would be proud.

Mark I. Pinsky, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and Orlando Sentinel, is completing a book on the life and death of Nancy Morgan.