Episode 4: “The Devil’s Backyard”
Cliff: If you’re new to this podcast, go back and listen from episode 1, it’ll make a lot more sense.
Amanda Lamb: Over the years, I’ve talked to dozens of people about the James Jordan case: prosecutors, investigators, journalists, relatives, witnesses, you name it. Most of the time, they don’t agree with each other. This is the kind of story that splits people into camps, pointing fingers and saying the other side is lying, or misremembering, or involved in some conspiracy. It’s just something I’ve just learned to accept as a journalist.
But throughout all these conversations, there seems to be one thing that everybody, regardless of where they stand, thinks is true: That the setting for this story – Lumberton, North Carolina, in the heart of Robeson county – is as important a character as any person involved.
Dan Wiederer: I think Robeson County as a stage for this murder is a very important thing to acknowledge.
Amanda: That’s Dan Wiederer, a journalist for the Chicago Tribune who’s written extensively about the Jordan murder.
Dan Wiederer: Because of the DNA of the County, because of the, the racial divisions in the county. Because of the long standing history of suspicion in the County of corruption within law enforcement. And so I think having this as a stage for this crime only adds to to the mystery, to the unsettled feelings that come with all the details in this case.
Amanda: Robeson County is just shy of a thousand square miles on the southern border of North Carolina. Yet somehow it’s drawn more negative attention, more conflict, and more headlines than nearly anywhere else in the state in the last thirty years.
News Reporter: Between 1983 and 1987, Robeson County’s homicide rate per capita was the highest in the state, double the state average.
News Reporter: With it’s racial mix and complaints of social injustice, Robeson County seemed the perfect place for Jesse Jackson, a week before Super Tuesday.
News Interviewee: Uncover what has been covered up for 200 years.
News Interviewee: The political, economic and social conditions here breed powerlessness, breed despair, breed violence.
Amanda: Robeson is a complicated, contentious place. And it begs the question: if James Jordan had pulled his car over somewhere else, in a different town, a different county, would the investigation have been handled differently? How about the outcome? And is the fact that it did happen here, in this community, is this fact a game changer?
In this episode: What is the deal with Robeson County?
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.
Scott Raab: Hello?
Amanda Lamb: Hey, Scott. This is Amanda Lamb [fades under]
Amanda: Scott Raab is a writer and reporter, a self-described Yankee who writes much the same way he talks: quickly, eloquently, and with unbridled passion, as if he’s simultaneously running out of time and yet has all the time in the world. He’s retired now, but in 1993, he went to Robeson County to write an article for GQ magazine. It was supposed to be about the James Jordan murder case and the two young men arrested for the crime. He was even kicking around the idea of writing a book about it.
Scott Raab: I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. And you know, North Carolina and Robeson, in particular, were mysteries to me. I’m a, I’m a Jewish guy, you know, with a graduate degree. All that I factored in looking back, but I had never been any place like Robeson County, and you know what I’m saying? It was, it was in many ways a mythic place.
Amanda: For Scott, going to Robeson County was a little like visiting a foreign country. Then, as it is now, Robeson was a racial melting pot–with a lot of baggage that we’ll go into. That, along with high poverty rates, caused an ongoing tension between the various communities.
And then, there was crime, much of it related to the drug trade. Interstate-95 runs right through Robeson County, 39 miles of it to be exact.
News Reporter: 600 Miles from Miami, 600 Miles from Manhattan.
Amanda: In the center of a drug-running corridor known as cocaine alley.
Scott Raab: You know, it’s obvious once, once someone tells you that, that this is a major route for drugs, has been for decades, will be as long as there’s an interstate highway system.
Amanda: Right away Scott gets the feeling this isn’t just some small, podunk rural Southern community, and it certainly isn’t Andy Griffith’s Mayberry.
Scott Raab: I realized there’s a lot more going on than just a random roadside murder of, uh, you know, a basketball superstar’s daddy.
Amanda: Scott arrived knowing no one and nothing about this place. But pretty soon, he’s talking with the most powerful law enforcement officer in the county: four-term Sheriff Hubert Stone.
Scott Raab: And Hubert, when I met him, was that mythic guy. It wasn’t Smokey and the Bandit, and it wasn’t, it wasn’t Walking Tall. It was a genuine human being who’d spent his life there and was media friendly in the sense that here I’m a, I’m a GQ magazine writer and a Yankee coming down there and there was no friction whatsoever.
Amanda: Hubert Stone was everything you might imagine a rural county sheriff would be: an older white guy – wrinkled and graying. He was stern, set in his ways, unapologetically irreverent and, to put it lightly, very politically incorrect.
News Reporter: Sheriff Hubert Stone and the Robeson County Jail, together they symbolize much of the racial tension in Lumberton.
Amanda: Stone was the kind of sheriff characters in movies are patterned after. He led an office that at the time was accused of corruption, excessive force, even drug-dealing. But Stone wasn’t ruffled by the talk, in fact, he wasn’t ruffled by much of anything.
Scott Raab: I wasn’t so much scared of Hubert Stone as I was kind of stunned.
Amanda: In Scott’s article, he quotes the sheriff as saying, and this is a direct quote: “Anytime you look down the street and you see a Black and an Indian guy, you’ve got crime. You’re not supposed to look at things like that, but that’s the way it is.”
Scott Raab: I found it repugnant. And it just reinforced everything I had heard in terms of a guy who felt perfectly comfortable saying to a New York writer. I, you know, I don’t think he was impressed at all with me, but it was just, it was just, you want to talk, we’re talking. It didn’t make me less threatened by Hubert Stone. It just made me feel like I better, I better be as careful as possible.
Amanda: This interaction Scott had with Sheriff Stone, it’s an introduction to what he’s stepped into in this small, southern community. It would set the tone for how he thought about Stone and his deputies after the James Jordan murder.
Scott Raab: Yeah, they had to arrest someone. They had to do it quick. And they had to make it stick by any means necessary. And the way the criminal justice system works, it did 60, 70% of the job anyway.
Amanda: And the fact that one of those arrests, Larry Demery, was a member of the Lumbee Tribe was especially devastating to a community that had been in turmoil for years.
Nancy Fields: Because everybody in, in all corners of society just idolized Michael Jordan and respected him. He was just, you know, he was God-like in a way. I mean, he was just like the ultimate celebrity during that time.
Amanda: Nancy Fields spent a lot of time in Robeson County back then. She’s Lumbee.
Nancy Fields: And it was just kind of a shameful thing, you know, that, that now, here’s this really horrible crime that’s associated with Lumbee people. And you know, I think a lot of people were concerned as, as it was unfolding, like, is this gonna, you know, have a negative light on us? And it did.
Amanda: Nancy is the Director of the Southeast American Indian Museum at the University of North Carolina in Pembroke. She’s passionate about documenting the history of her people.
Fields says even today, 28 years later, people still remember that someone from the Lumbee community was involved in the murder of James Jordan.
Nancy Fields: You know, there’d sometimes be people like “Lumbee, your people killed your people killed Michael Jordan’s dad” or “Didn’t one of your people kill Michael Jordan’s dad?”
Amanda Lamb: That’s crazy that it’s a detail that’s so well known?
Nancy Fields: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Because I think it was a, it was a big part of the kind of interest in the story. Like the story still doesn’t make any sense. Right? So you have an African American and an American Indian who killed Michael Jordan’s dad. It’s kind of like, all of it is sort of like this unicorn story, really. You know? It’s just so unheard of.
Amanda: Today, there are 55,000 members of the Lumbee Tribe in North Carolina. After years of fighting with the federal government, they were finally recognized as a tribe in 1956, under an agreement that does not grant them the benefits of other tribes. They don’t have land or a U.S.-sanctioned governing body, which are things they’ve continued to fight for. But the Tribe is very active in the Robeson community. And as far as they’re concerned, they don’t need the federal government’s distinction to be proud of their people and their heritage.
In 1993, the county was almost equally divided between Native Americans — mostly Lumbee — African Americans, and whites. And back then, Fields says there wasn’t a lot of interaction between the three groups.
Nancy Fields: You know, Indians stayed with Indians, African Americans stayed with African Americans. Whites stayed with whites. And there were these friendships, of course, if you’re in classrooms together and hanging out together at school or even neighbors. But, um, there was still just kind of this looming antiquated fog of like we shouldn’t really fully be together.
Amanda: And this thing Sheriff Stone said on the record about when you see a Lumbee person and a Black person together, Fields says the Sheriff wasn’t alone in that way of thinking at the time.
Nancy Fields: Like, oh my God, trouble’s going to happen. You know you’re for sure, if you’re just riding down the road, you can guarantee you’re going to get pulled over. Like I, you know, back in the nineties, if I was in a car with an African American person, you know, I can vividly picture police officers just looking at the car, looking at us, whipping the car around and you get pulled over.
Amanda: Racism like that, Fields says it wasn’t new around the time of James Jordan’s murder. It was something generations of Lumbee and Black people here had dealt with, stretching back well before the days of Jim Crow.
Nancy Fields: You know, what a lot of people were hearing growing up is that you’re a piece of dirt. You’re a piece of trash. You’re no good. You know, you have to step off the sidewalk, you have to go in rear entrances to buildings. You had a separate water fountain.
Amanda: Over the decades, tension mounted between the disenfranchised and the local government they believed were holding them down, particularly law enforcement.
Eventually the tension snapped.
News Reporter: Police in Lumberton needed plenty of backup today as they surrounded the local newspaper building, which had been locked shut by two gunmen demanding racial justice in Robeson County.
Amanda: More after the break.
Amanda: The morning of February 1st, 1988, two men–Timothy Jacobs and Eddie Hatcher–entered the Robesonian Newspaper in Lumberton. They were armed with several shotguns and a handgun and barricaded themselves inside with seventeen hostages.
Witness: The man coming in the door last had a chain in his hand and he chained the door. And as he did that, the other guy pulled out a gun. It looked like a pump shotgun, sawed-off shotgun.
News Reporter: What did they say?
Witness: He told the receptionist this is a holdup.
News Reporter: Parker escaped through the back door, but by the time police arrived they found out there was no holdup. Instead, 17 people had been taken hostage inside the Robesonian.
Amanda: Hatcher, of the Tuscarora tribe, had a list of five demands to then North Carolina Governor Jim Martin on behalf of what they called the “Robeson Indian Movement.”
While authorities surrounded the building, then WRAL anchor Charlie Gaddy called the newspaper from the television station. And they rolled cameras on the whole thing.
Renee Bollinger: Robesonian.
Charlie Gaddy: Hi this is Charlie Gaddy at Channel 5.
Renee Bollinger: Yeah?
Charlie Gaddy: Can you tell me who you are and what the situation is there, please?
Renee Bollinger: My name’s Renee Bollinger. I am um, I work in advertising and we’re still being held hostage.
Charlie Gaddy: Are any of you in any danger, Renee?
Renee Bollinger: Not yet, unless something, I mean, unless they try to storm the building or something, I think we’re okay. Once nightfall comes they say they’re going to tie us up and put us around the windows and the doors.
Amanda: Gaddy convinces the hostage he was talking to to see if Hatcher would come to the phone.
Renee Bollinger: Um, just a second.
Eddie Hatcher: Eddie Hatcher.
Charlie Gaddy: Eddie, this is Charlie Gaddy. How are you?
Eddie Hatcher: Uh huh. Well, it’s a tense situation and it’s getting more tense by the hour now that dark’s coming. And I’m afraid they’re going to make an unwise move.
Charlie Gaddy: Eddie, what kind of move? what will you do?
Eddie Hatcher: What will I do? Well, if they push it, then somebody’s going to get hurt.
Charlie Gaddy: If the governor talks to you, what are you going to ask him?
Eddie Hatcher: I’m going to give him our demands. Which are plain and simple, and not extraordinary.
Charlie Gaddy: What are they? Can you tell me?
Eddie Hatcher: Yeah, I’ll tell you. We demand that the governor of North Carolina immediately initiate an investigation into the corrupt Robesonian County government including the sheriff’s department, District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt and the SBI agents in this area.
Charlie Gaddy: Ok.
Eddie Hatcher: We demand that the recent death of a young Black man, who died in the Robeson county jail while begging for medical attention, be fully and completely investigated by a special prosecutor and that criminal charges be brought against Sheriff Hubert Stone for that death. [trails off]
Amanda: Hatcher and Jacobs, the hostage takers, said they had information proving there was deep corruption throughout the Robeson County government. They even claimed to have evidence that Sheriff Hubert Stone and his deputies were involved in drug trafficking. All they wanted was to be listened to.
News Reporter: Then, just after 1:00 this afternoon, three more hostages were set free in a reported exchange for food.
Released Hostage: If they can get Governor Martin to come down or to call on the phone. I think the situation will be over.
Amanda: The standoff lasted ten hours, going late into the night. Finally, Hatcher and Jacobs agreed to a peaceful end, releasing the hostages unharmed. The men were arrested and charged with federal crimes, including hostage taking.
News Reporter: Hours later, the two men surrender. The court orders them held without bond.
News Reporter: Monday’s standoff ended with an agreement by the Governor’s office to investigate the claims of racial injustice here. Those claims directly involve Sheriff Hubert Stone and bring into question his fairness and his competence.
Amanda: The governor appointed the head of the State’s Crime Control and Public Safety division as well as the state’s chief legal counsel to investigate the claims by the men. Sheriff Stone challenged state investigators to find anything.
Hubert Stone: If they find anything that’s wrong in this department we the first that want to know about it and straighten it out, but I’m sure that they won’t find nothing.
Amanda: When reporter Scott Raab landed in Robeson County five years after the newspaper takeover to report on the Jordan murder, he met with Hatcher and Jacobs’ families.
Scott Raab: These were political acts to try, try and speak on behalf of the totally disempowered people. That’s that.
Amanda: Scott wanted to understand how the racial divide, overt racism and allegations of corruption in the county might impact the Jordan case. After all, this is the same Sheriff’s Department — the same Sheriff — who now had a young Black man and a young Lumbee man in his custody.
News Interviewee: The Minorities here can not get justice through the legal system, through the law enforcement agencies. There’s no justice here for minorities.
Amanda: For Scott, and a lot of people who’ve looked into this case, it felt like the people who were in charge of the law were part of a system… a pattern of behaviour and scandal… where it just didn’t feel like justice could be served for these two young men.
After the Takeover–as it came to be known–Hatcher and Jacobs were ultimately acquitted. Both later went to prison on unrelated charges.
The task force never found any evidence to back up their claims of corruption. Even so, many people in the county saw the Takeover as a sea change in the battle they’d been fighting for so long. Finally, someone had taken action… and set the stage for what was to come.
News Reporter: The Red Springs Police Department has been transformed into a command post investigating what lawmen are calling the assassination of Lulian Pierce. [trails off]
Amanda: On March 26, 1988, just six weeks after the Takeover, a Lumbee lawyer in Robeson County was murdered.
Witness: I found him laying on the floor in a puddle of blood. Where someone had apparently shot him with a shotgun.
Amanda: And he wasn’t just a lawyer. Julian Pierce was an activist.
News Reporter: Pierce had promised to improve treatment of Indians in Robeson County.
Amanda: He’d spent his career providing legal services for low-income people. And he was investigating cocaine trafficking in the area that had ruined many young lives in his community.
Specifically, Pierce told people close to him that he suspected Sheriff Hubert Stone and his officers were involved in the drug trade. And that they were on the take.
News Reporter: Since the Pierce murder, some residents of Robinson County have claimed they’ve been threatened to keep quiet with information they know about drug trafficking here or they would be next. The SBI is investigating that.
Amanda: If this didn’t make him enough of a target, Pierce was also running for Superior Court Judge against longtime Robeson County District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt.
If that name sounds familiar to you, it should: We’ve talked with his distant cousin– Johnson Britt, who would go on to be the prosecutor in the James Jordan case.
But before you read too much into that, it’s important to know, the two Britts have never seen eye to eye. In a New York Times article a few years ago, Johnson Britt called his cousin, who died in 2016, a bully who ran over people.
Joe Freeman Britt was once in the Guiness Book of World Records as the deadliest prosecutor in America. He helped send 38 people to death row during his career. And a study found evidence of misconduct in more than one-third of those cases. Several of them were later exonerated and Britt faced accusations of intentionally overlooking evidence in order to secure a conviction.
Gov. Pat McCrory: Based upon the available evidence that I have personally reviewed, I am granting pardons of innocence to Henry McCullom and Leon Brown
News Reporter: As brothers, they may be one of the most egregious examples of injustice ever seen in this state or any other. After spending three decades in prison for a murder they didn’t commit.
Amanda: Incidents like that plagued Britt’s career and reputation in the community, so when the beloved Julian Pierce was shot three times in his home just weeks before he was supposed to face Britt at the polls, people didn’t believe it was a random act of violence.
News Reporter: Campaign workers say they think the murder was politically motivated. They say Pierce had been warned to be careful.
Interviewee: Is this really America, you know? People who are out running for elected office can be snuffed overnight? You know, just come in and blow him away.
News Reporter: Meanwhile community leaders called a meeting of Indians to urge calm, still, some said the atmosphere in Robinson County now, is like a powder keg ready to blow.
Amanda: Hundreds of Lumbee gathered at Pierce’s home to mourn the loss. Sheriff Stone even came to the crime scene with his officers and addressed the crowd, telling them it looked like Pierce had been assassinated.
News Reporter: There are indications someone is trying to keep people from talking.
Amanda: The crowd got angry. People yelled that Stone was corrupt. Authorities worried they were about to have a riot on their hands. Later, a witness recalled that Stone was visibly shaking in fright.
But when he spoke with the media about the case, he seemed his regular, nonplussed self.
News Reporter: The people in the community who are screaming that this investigation is not going to be clean. What does the Sheriff of Robeson County say to them?
Hubert Stone: I don’t say nothing to them. I go out and do my job and go on to the next case.
News Reporter: Two days after the murder, investigators say thay have leads but no arrests.
Amanda: The guy investigators thought killed Pierce was found dead. They ruled the man’s death a suicide. Charges were dropped against the man’s co-conspirator. No one went to prison for Pierce’s murder.
It’s worth noting, these incidents all took place years before James Jordan would have his fateful brush with Robeson County. But even so, this background framed everything that was to come in the investigation and the trial.
Because here again, you had two young men, Daniel Green and Larry Demery — Black and Lumbee — at the mercy of the same system their communities had come to distrust.
Nancy Fields: And of course when you’re talking about older, white police force in the South, and especially in Robeson County, that is ultimate power.
Amanda: Again, historian Nancy Fields:
Nancy Fields: I mean that, for a long time, had been defined as, um, you know, a license to do whatever you wanted to essentially. I’m not saying that it exceeded the law, but at times I think it did.
Amanda: Years later, after the James Jordan case was finished, much of the community’s worst suspicions about the Sheriff’s Office would be proven true in an investigation called “Operation Tarnished Badge.”
The investigation began in 2002 and was headed up by none other than prosecutor Johnson Britt himself.
He says it started after suspicions arose that some deputies were spending money well beyond their means.
Johnson Britt: It became apparent to me that these guys were doing things that they really didn’t have the financial, that I didn’t think they had the financial means to. You would hear them talk about going on cruises. You would hear them talking about buying new personal vehicles. You would hear the talk about, “Oh, I’m starting a side business. I’m going to cut grass and I’m going to buy a very expensive type of, you know, commercial lawnmower.”
Amanda: Britt says an informant told him some deputies had committed a home invasion cleverly disguised as a sting operation. The police report went missing, along with a gun confiscated at the scene. Both were later found hidden in a deputy’s locker.
Johnson Britt: I’m like, this stinks. And so based on that, I asked the SBI to come in and investigate. That ultimately is what kicked off what became known as Tarnished Badge.
Amanda: The State Bureau of Investigation charged 22 people, including Hubert Stone’s successor, Sheriff Glen Maynor, with a long list of crimes that included everything from armed robbery to drug trafficking.
News Reporter: The former Robeson County Sheriff’s Deputy pleaded guilty to a conspiracy where he kidnapped two suspected Virginia drug dealers in 2004. Investigators say Ferguson tried to steal money from the men, when he didn’t get the cash, one of the dealers was shot in the leg.
Amanda Lamb: Barbara Strickland says her husband was framed on a drug charge by these same deputies.
Barbara Strickland: Like the judge said, they had the gun and the badge and the authority and they abused it.
News Reporter: Authorities say rogue officers beat him and burned his home.
Interviewee: Drug dealers who were telling us that they’d been robbed or abused in some manner by law enforcement.
News Reporter: Deputies were stealing tens of thousands of dollars during traffic stops and paying informants with drugs
Amanda: In all, an estimated one-sixth of Robeson County’s Sheriff’s Office was indicted as part of Tarnished Badge.
Amanda Lamb: The real winners after Maynor’s guilty plea and sentence are the citizens of Robeson County.
Interviewee: It gives them an opportunity to be free for the first time in a very long time from the political corruption that has been haunting that county.
Amanda: For many people, Tarnished Badge was the proof they’d wanted for decades. The vindication that their struggles had been real: Something was going on in Robeson County, even if it took years and destroyed many lives to get to the bottom of it.
Johnson Britt: And I have publicly stated years back after it all came to light that perhaps Eddie Hatcher was right in what he alleged in the 1980’s about the corruption in the Sheriff’s Office.
Amanda: But even so, Britt and others say that while, yes, there were systemic issues in law enforcement in Robeson County around the time of James Jordan’s murder, the arrests, and the trial, there was no connection. That this case was untarnished by all that.
For one thing, Hubert Stone was never indicted as part of Tarnished Badge or any other investigation. He retired in 1994, before the Jordan case ever went to trial, and well before the investigation into his former department got underway. He died in 2008.
And while the Jordan case began under his supervision, people we talked to said he was mostly hands off.
Tony Underwood: The insinuation by some that would indicate or suggest that Hubert Stone was somehow directing this and this. That’s laughable.
Amanda: This is Tony Underwood again. He was the resident special agent for the Robeson County office of the SBI, who took over the Jordan investigation early on.
Tony Underwood: He had minimal, and I mean, extremely minimal involvement in this case as with any case. He was a longtime older gentleman who, he didn’t get hands-on in investigations. And so, he wasn’t directing in any way, shape or form the direction of this case.
Amanda: And Tony says that whatever motivations or beliefs Stone may have had, the facts of the case spoke for themselves, and that’s all that matters to him.
Amanda Lamb: In your mind. You got the right guys.
Tony Underwood: Absolutely. There’s no doubt. Um, you know, that in my opinion, based on the evidence that existed in this case, that these two guys were the two responsible for his murder. Daniel Green is as guilty as any person as I’ve ever been involved in.
Amanda: Look, we have no evidence that the corruption that was eventually revealed by Operation Tarnished Badge directly impacted the James Jordan case. But concerns about corruption and the well-documented racial tensions in Robeson County certainly raise questions about how this case and potentially other criminal cases were handled at the time.
Some of that is hindsight, but there’s no doubt these issues were in the back of peoples’ minds, from the investigators to the media to, ultimately, the jurors.
Who, in 1996, took their seats in a small, wood-paneled courtroom, where they would decide the fates of two of their own: Larry Demery and Daniel Green.
Amanda: On the next episode of Follow the Truth:
News Reporter: The next several weeks will be the most important for the man accused of murdering Michael Jordan’s father. These are just the opening shots of what should be a lengthy courtroom battle.
Amanda: The trial.
Judge Gregory Weeks: Place your left hand on the bible, raise your right and face the [fades off]
Johnson Britt: I mean, it looked like you were broadcasting the Super Bowl out there in the parking lot.
Daniel Green: I thought he was intentionally was saying that to force the judge to give us a mistrial.
Woody Bowen: Demery’s lying about that. And if he lies about one central part of the case, he’ll lie about any of the case.
News Reporter: Just sprinted down the steps the verdict coming in moments ago here in Robeson County.
Woody Bowen: That’s why they call it law practice. Nobody ever gets it perfect.
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 by George Hage and Lee Rosevere.
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.
Thanks for listening.