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When a killer terrified my hometown

National chaos, local panic


Much has been written and broadcast this year about the 40th anniversary of 1968. Usually, anniversaries herald specific events, but 1968 is remembered as the wildest, scariest year on record in America since the Civil War and was filled with so many unsettling, chaotic events, it actually deserves the media attention it's received.

Things are a mess these days, but imagine, if you weren't there, a single year in which a major enemy offensive made it clear the Vietnam War was unwinnable; student uprisings rocked and bloodied American campuses; the leader of the civil rights movement was assassinated; dozens of American cities exploded in racial violence; the besieged President ended his re-election campaign (we're only up to April here, folks); generational hopes skyrocketed and then were butchered by the candidacy and assassination of Robert Kennedy; uprisings in Europe overthrew governments; the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia; young protesters were brutally beaten in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic convention; and, just to round out that joyful year, Richard Nixon was elected President.

But despite 1968's various cataclysms and their affect on my generation, one of my strongest memories from that year is the sheer terror felt that February by people in my hometown. A man whom the media called the Gaffney Strangler held that small textile town in the cold grip of fear for about a month, led neighbors to suspect one another, made parents keep their children indoors, changed citizens' nighttime routines, and frightened them even more after their own fear became the subject of national television news.

It started the first week of February when a man telephoned reporter Bill Gibbons at the local newspaper, The Gaffney Ledger, and told him to take out three sheets of paper. The caller then gave Gibbons three names and three locations and told him, "Don't you go to these places alone without the Sheriff." The reporter and deputies drove to the three locations, where they found the bodies of three white women, 20-year-old Nancy Parris, 14-year-old Tina Rhinehart, and 32-year-old Lucille Dedmond. Parris and Rhinehart had been missing for days, but Dedmond had been presumed dead months earlier, and her husband was in prison for having ostensibly killed her.

The newspaper reported the gruesome discoveries, and the town, in effect, froze in fright. Gaffney was known in those days as a "rough place," a gritty mill town where a number of its citizens preferred to settle their differences violently, but townspeople weren't ready for a multiple murderer in their midst.

Four days after his first call, the killer phoned Gibbons again and told him, "I'm psycho. If they don't stop me, it will keep happening." The next morning, it did.

Opal Buckson, a 14-year-old African-American girl, was waiting for the school bus when a white man stopped his car next to her, grabbed her, and shoved her in the trunk. At the last minute, he turned and saw Opal's older sister, Gracie, looking at him, then drove away.

After Buckson's abduction, the town essentially went crazy with fear. The sheriff appealed to parents to pick up their children at school that day, and to accompany them to school or the bus the next morning. Reporters and cameramen swarmed into town, few people ventured outside after dark, parents didn't let their children play outside, and sales of firearms soared. Suspicions hung like a veil over the town, one mother walked her kid to school with a shotgun on her arm, and gossips started hinting that maybe Bill Gibbons himself should be looked into a little more closely.

Gracie Buckson had gotten a good look at the abductor and his car, and investigators feverishly hunted them. Within a couple of days, they spotted the man and his car in a wooded area outside Gaffney. He sped away, but police traced his license plate. A couple of days later, investigators found Opal Buckson's body near where they had spotted the man. She had been strangled, like the three other victims. Later that day, police walked into one of Gaffney's cotton mills and arrested worker Lee Roy Martin, the owner of the car in question, for Opal's murder.

Some of Martin's acquaintances were stunned by the arrest. One woman told reporters she worked with Martin, had considered him a nice man, and during the Strangler scare, had even asked him to walk her to her car when they got off work in case the killer was nearby.

After Martin's arrest, things in Gaffney slowly got back to their dull normality. Kids played outside again, women walked to their cars alone in the evening, church attendance reportedly went up, and gossips still whispered that Bill Gibbons somehow had to have been involved with Martin. The town had been put through the ringer, scared out of its wits, which in an appalling way, kind of prepared it for the rest of that tumultuous year. When the further events of 1968 -- the political killings, the riots, the students, the police beatings, et al. -- came along, the appropriate tragic mood had already been set for the people in my hometown.

Lee Roy Martin, incidentally, was sentenced to life in prison. That life ended when he was killed by a fellow inmate three years later.

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