Episode 1: “John Doe”
Cliff Bumgardner: This podcast contains frank descriptions of physical violence and human remains. Listener discretion is advised.
[[Fade on: Chicago Bulls crowd noise]]
Amanda Lamb: Summer, 1993. Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, is on top of the world…
Sports Announcer: … three straight NBA Championships.
Michael Jordan: What if my name wasn’t in lights? What if my face wasn’t on TV every other second.
Fan: “He’s a wiz kid”
Fan: “He’s brought the Bulls back to life”
Fan: “He’s pretty cool, he puts on a show for everybody.
[Song – Be Like Mike]
Amanda: But soon, Michael’s success is clouded by tragedy…
Law Enforcement: A body located in Bennettsville, South Carolina has been positively identified as the body of Mr. James Jordan.
Amanda: Michael’s father, James Jordan. Found shot to death. His body decaying in a swamp.
News Reporter: an autopsy revealed Jordan had been shot once in the chest.
Sheriff: We were able to arrest Larry Martin Demery and Daniel Andre Green…
News Reporter: Eighteen-year-old Larry Demery and 18-year-old Daniel Green with first degree murder.
Amanda: Two young men in North Carolina are arrested, tried, convicted…
News Reporter: Daniel Green thought he’d walk out of the Robeson County courthouse a free man, instead he now faces the death penalty for killing the father of one of the most famous athletes of all time.
Amanda: And James Jordan wasn’t just Michael’s dad — he was one of the architects behind the icon. He was Michael’s first fan. He stoked his son’s competitiveness, fed his desire for greatness.
James Jordan: I’m lucky to be here, I’m lucky to be a part of it. Do you ever think of that? I am lucky to be part of what he is, what he stands for and what he’s doing right now.
Amanda: And now — James was gone. His death had far reaching consequences for Michael.
Michael Jordan: I’m very solid with my decision of not to, uh, play the game of basketball, uh, in the NBA.
Amanda: And fed into the reputation of a rural southern community known for violence.
Interviewee: The minorities here can not get justice through the legal system, through the law enforcement agencies.
Amanda: It left behind questions that have remained unanswered for nearly three decades.
Dan Weiderer: Where did that bullet hole come from?
Interrogation: Tell me why Mr. Jordan got hurt.
Gilbert Baez: Is it possible for a man to be shot in his car and authorities not find any blood?
Lawyer: And you’re badly mistaken about a lot of other things in this case, aren’t you?
Chris Mumma: Our ballistics experts say it couldn’t have happened as described.
Reporter Gilbert Baez: Why did the family wait so long before reporting his disappearance?
Amanda: My name is Amanda Lamb and I’ve been covering crime for WRAL-TV in North Carolina for 27 years.
And for more than a decade, I’ve been in contact with Daniel Green, the man convicted of killing James Jordan. And he says — he didn’t do it.
Amanda Lamb: I ask you this question every time we talk because I think sometimes it’s the question that’s the easiest to not ask. Um, did you kill James Jordan?
Daniel Green: No. I know that if this was not Michael Jordan’s father, I wouldn’t be in prison…
Amanda: Daniel believes the spotlight of celebrity blinded those responsible for carrying out justice; putting him behind bars for more than half his life for a crime he says he didn’t commit.
And listening to Daniel over the years, I’ve had to wonder: could he be telling the truth? Could everyone — from the courts to the media to the public — have gotten this story so wrong for so many years?
On this podcast we’re going to completely re-examine this case and all the evidence. I invite you to set aside what you think you might know about this story. We’ll go beyond the headlines, guided by people who were there and voices that’ve never spoken publicly before.
And I’ll warn you, the story is complex. It’s full of contradictions. But throughout my career as a journalist, I’ve been guided by a straightforward principle: the truth makes sense.
Through all the controversy and conspiracy that has clouded this case for decades, there is a path grounded in fact… that will lead us from murky swamps to Chicago skyscrapers, from isolated interrogation rooms to open courtrooms where all the world is watching…
From WRAL Studios, this is Follow the Truth, the story of the James Jordan Murder and the man who says he didn’t do it. I’m Amanda Lamb.
[Sounds of Driving]
Amanda Lamb: It’s in the middle of nowhere, that’s for sure.
Amanda: In 2019, my producer, Cliff Bumgardner, and I came here, to a rain-soaked two-lane highway in South Carolina. The North Carolina state line is just a hundred yards away.
We’re standing on Pea Bridge. Flowing beneath it are the black waters of a creek the locals call Gum Swamp.
Amanda Lamb: It’s pretty overgrown now. I think the path where they originally would go in to fish has been overgrown now. And you’ve heard stories, I’ve heard stories, about feral dogs under the bridge and snakes and everything else, so I’m not sure it’s a popular fishing spot anymore.
Amanda: We’re here because of what happened at this spot in August of 1993. That’s when a fisherman discovered a body in the woods, on the edge of the swamp, not far from where we’re now standing.
Amanda Lamb: So it was right back there, you can even see it now from here.
Cliff Bumgardner: Yeah
Amanda Lamb: it was right back in that… see where that branch is sticking out, see where that tree is sticking out?
Cliff Bumgardner: Yeah, so it didn’t go far at all
Amanda Lamb: No, it didn’t, it didn’t go far, which is crazy when you think about how many days it was before he was found.
Johnson Britt: A gentleman by the name of Hal Locklear was going fishing, um, in an area called the Gum Swamp.
Amanda: This is Johnson Britt. He’s the district attorney who prosecuted Daniel Green.
Johnson Britt: And he looked, he was just looking around and he saw what appeared to be a body that was hung up on some limbs or on some roots of a tree. I don’t think at first he realized exactly what it was.
News Reporter: Half out of the water, and draped over a stump
Observer: Yeah, he was more or less on the log [fades out].
Amanda: I’ve seen a picture of what Hal saw that day. It’s frankly pretty horrible to look at. It’s shot through the woods, looking back across this inky black water. A tree limb sticks out of the swamp and on it, there’s this large, well, let’s just call it a shape. It has clothes, you can see that much, but otherwise, it’s hardly recognizable as a person.
Johnson Britt: Um, he then examined further and realized it was a body. Um. Of what appeared to be an African American gentleman.
Amanda: Hal calls the cops. They remove the body from the swamp, but there’s no way to identify who it is. If the person had any ID when they died, it’s gone now. And worse, the body has decomposed to the point where identification is almost impossible.
They transfer the body to a hospital in Newberry, South Carolina, where a doctor named Joel Sexton performs an autopsy.
Sexton describes the body as that of a quote, “Approximately 6-foot 170-195 pound Black male, who is bloated due to decomposition” and that he had sustained a quote, “fatal, penetrating .38-caliber gunshot wound” to the right chest.
Johnson Britt: The striking part about the autopsy was the extensive dental work that, um, the person had had. So, the jaws were literally removed for purposes of later, um, trying to identify who this person was as well as the hands were removed to preserve the fingerprints.
Amanda: As for the body itself, the coroner in Marlboro County doesn’t have a way to preserve it, so they cremate the remains. You heard that right. The body is almost immediately cremated. No one seems to think it’s a very important case. And the clothing, which was removed before the autopsy, frankly, it smells so bad they decide they can’t keep it around. So — and I still haven’t gotten a good explanation for why they did this — but the clothes are put into a bag and buried in the ground behind a warehouse.
So at this point, the cops don’t have anything else to work with. The body is a John Doe. And as far as how he wound up in the swamp? That’s an open question.
More after the break.
Amanda: On August 5th, a day after the autopsy on the John Doe in South Carolina, authorities more than sixty miles away get a tip about an abandoned car found in the woods near Fayetteville, North Carolina. And it’s not just any car, but a shiny red Lexus SC400 with gold trim. At the time it was worth close to fifty grand. That’s like 90 thousand dollars today.
Again, District Attorney Johnson Britt:
Johnson Britt: A highway patrolman actually had gotten some information that there was this car parked out in the woods. Wheels were off. It had been vandalized and he saw that the car was bought at a dealership, Lexus dealership in Chicago. And that it was sold to Michael Jordan.
Amanda: Remember, this was 1993. I’ve heard it said that back then, in the archaic pre-Internet, pre-social media celebrity days, if anyone can remember that, to be truly famous you either had to be a serial killer, a movie star, a big-name politician — or a top athlete. And Michael Jordan, well he was the kind of famous that even famous people think is impressive.
Gatorade Commercial: [Singing] If I could be like Mike, I wanna be like Mike, Like Mike, If I could be like Mike. If I could be like Mike.
Amanda: He was everywhere, from Nike commercials…
Buggs Bunny: Hare Jordan and Air Jordan
Michael Jordan: Who did you expect? Elmer Fudd?
Amanda: …to the Wheaties box. Only months before, he’d lead the Chicago Bulls to yet another championship victory — their third in a row.
And now, here’s a car with his name attached to it, left to rot in the woods — in rural North Carolina.
This place is Michael Jordan country. Less than two hours from UNC-Chapel Hill, where he rose to stardom playing ball for the Tar Heels.
Sports Announcer: Goes back to Michael Jordan, jumper from out on the left, good. [inaudible] the Tarheels are going to win the National Championship. [cheers]
Amanda: And right here, this quiet moment in the woods near Fayetteville, is key, because it’s the first time Michael’s name appears in this case.
And that changes everything and it’s why we’re still talking about it today.
Because suddenly, it’s not just any car, it’s Michael Jordan’s car.
Pretty quickly, calls start flying around. First, the highway patrol officer who locates the car calls the Lexus dealership in Chicago. The dealership refuses to give them Michael Jordan’s contact information and instead they call Michael’s personal security team to notify them of what’s going on.
News Reporter: Authorities say the car was discovered by a passerby. It had been stripped, the speakers taken out, the windows smashed and all four wheels were gone. Just yesterday, authorities say they discovered the vehicle belonged to Michael Jordan’s dad.
Amanda: Michael Jordan’s dad, James Jordan. And James? Investigators suddenly learn he’s missing.
News Reporter: Authorities have been in contact with Jordan’s security personnel in Chicago. They and the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department are working the case. But so far, no one knows the whereabouts of James Jordan.
Amanda: The last time anyone heard from him was on July 22nd, 1993. He went to Wilmington, North Carolina to attend a friend’s funeral. The following day he was supposed to catch a flight from Charlotte to Chicago to attend a golf tournament with Michael. But he never showed. That was almost two weeks before the Lexus was found. In the meantime, James’ fifty-seventh birthday came and went. And yet the family didn’t report him missing. They said it wasn’t unusual for him to go out on his own for a while. And if that seems strange, don’t worry. We’ll come back to this down the road.
For now, I want to stay on the trail with investigators, because it’s here District Attorney Johnson Britt says the cops started piecing together Jordan’s movements.
Johnson Britt: One of the things that ultimately became very important evidence in the case was they accessed his phone records.
Amanda: The Lexus was equipped with something pretty new at the time: A car phone. For those of you too young to remember, this was a precursor to the cell phone. This phone was actually mounted in the Lexus. So when the authorities pull the phone records, they can see who James was calling in the days before his disappearance. At first, they see calls to places they would expect: Wilmington, where he’d been that day, Charlotte, where he lived, and Chicago, where Michael lived.
Johnson Britt: And suddenly the phone calls started changing: Rowland, North Carolina, Pembroke, North Carolina, Lumberton, North Carolina, and he had no connections here. So the issue became who was making these phone calls.
Amanda: Within days, James Jordan’s face is all over the news. He’s officially a missing person.
News Reporter: Investigators in Cumberland County have been swamped with calls and clues since the story broke this afternoon.
Law Enforcement: A lot of agencies calling in now with information of bodies and stuff that have been found in different areas that’s unidentified and we’re trying to run the leads and, you know, hopefully they’re not Mr. Jordan, but we’ve got to run every lead out we get.
Amanda: Within hours of the news breaking that Michael Jordan’s dad is missing, the cops get one very important call…
Johnson Britt: Dr. Sexton, who did the autopsy, sees the newspaper articles, sees the news and realizes this may be connected. And so he contacts them and says, I did an autopsy on an unidentified Black man that was pulled from the Gum Swamp in Marlboro County, South Carolina. I have his hands. I have his jaws.
Amanda: Authorities go to South Carolina to investigate the remains of this John Doe. They send someone to dig up the clothes that were inexplicably buried out behind a warehouse. Because now, it’s all evidence in a murder case.
The identification is made pretty quickly. James Jordan’s dentist is able to compare his dental records with the jaw preserved by the coroner in South Carolina. They also take fingerprints from the hands that were saved. They’re both a match.
Law Enforcement: Today it is with regret that I advise you that a body located in Bennettsville, South Carolina has been positively identified as the body of Mr. James Jordan. The body was originally found [trails off]
Amanda: After James’ death is announced, the public is heartbroken. You expect that whenever a celebrity dies. A lot of sympathy, support for the family… even more so when it’s a murder. But this was something else altogether. Because it wasn’t just James the public grieved for, it was Michael. He became the focal point for all the attention and sadness. For days, people gathered at the gates to Michael’s home. They left flowers, cards, balloons.
News Reporter: A spokesman for the Jordan Foundation appeared at the front gate with a typed, written statement from Michael. It reads, in part, “we ask that our friends respect our needs for privacy while we mourn the loss of the head of our family.”
Debra Morgan: This is not just a typical crime. This is Michael Jordan’s father, the beloved Michael Jordan’s father.
Amanda: Debra Morgan is an anchor and reporter for WRAL-TV. She covered the story at the time.
Debra Morgan: Not only because people around here love Michael Jordan, but they felt his pain as a son and knew how close that he was with his father. So definitely, I think that the, there was, um, kind of a more intense anger about this crime than there were other stories that I had covered.
Amanda: Everyone I talked to about the public response stressed the same thing: what was so shocking about this story wasn’t just the murder, which was horrible enough on its own, but that it had unfolded on the biggest stage imaginable, the national stage where all the grisly details were revealed.
So not only did Michael and his family have to grieve their loss, but they had to do so publicly — with cameras pointed at them and people digging for details, asking about James’ past, Michael’s future. It wasn’t just a private loss. It was a public death.
News Reporter: People came with fruit baskets, flowers and cards
Bystander: You know, it’s just real sad
Bystander: And I feel very badly for the Jordans, especially for Michael because James is very dear to his son Michael
Debra Morgan: As more family and friends arrived for the service so did stargazers hoping to catch a glimpse of Michael Jordan. Dean Smith, Jordan’s coach at UNC, was here, as were some of Jordan’s Chicago Bulls teammates. [trails off]
Amanda: But pretty quickly, that public mourning became rage.
News Reporter: Now, hope of finding the elder Jordan alive has turned into a burning desire to find his killer.
Amanda: And as for whoever killed James Jordan? Man, they didn’t stand a chance.
Law Enforcement: The investigation then was who is this fella, identify this body. And once you get that done, then you start working the murder investigation. That’s going to be the next phase.
Amanda: On the next episode of Follow the Truth:
Investigator: I notice you shaking real bad, is there something wrong?
Daniel Green: I’m scared.
Investigator: What are you scared of?
Daniel Green: Being in here.
Investigator: Now don’t be scared.
Investigator: I mean you don’t have anything to be scared of.
Amanda: The pressure to find a killer.
Investigator: If you want to tell us the truth, you need to start now.
Daniel: I mean I already told y’all.
Investigator: No. You told us enough to get yourself in trouble, Daniel.
Investigator: The way investigators work is they work off the lies just like they work off the truth. You’re giving me more ammunition to hurt you than you are to help me.
Amanda: Follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen.
Follow the Truth is written by me, Amanda Lamb, and Cliff Bumgardner.
Cliff also produces the show.
Shelly Leslie is our executive producer.
The show is edited and mixed by Wilson Sayre.
Our production manager is Anita Normanly.
Original music is by George Hage and Lee Rosevere.
Audio repair help by Isaac Rodrigues
Additional reporting by Clay Johnson, Jay Jennings and the many other WRAL-TV journalists whose coverage you hear throughout the story. The show is represented by Melinda Morris Zanoni and Legacy Talent Entertainment with branding and digital marketing by Capitol B Creative. Special thanks to Dave Beasing.
This episode uses additional audio from the following organizations: the National Basketball Association, NBC-5 Chicago, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Gatorade, and Nike.
Thanks for listening.