One of the most famous unsolved murders in North Carolina history was the 1967 strangulation of 19-year-old Brenda Joyce Holland outside Manteo.
Holland, a Campbell College drama student, was working as a $45-a-week makeup artist for “The Lost Colony,” the long-running summer outdoor drama on Roanoke Island. Pretty but not classically beautiful — she had been Miss Congeniality in the Miss Haywood County beauty pageant — Holland was a popular, conscientious worker. So, when she did not show up by curtain time on Saturday, July 1, cast members called the police.
I remember how the late Wilmington actor Tommy Hull — who played “Old Tom” for years in “The Lost Colony” — described combing the Roanoke Island woods with other cast and crew members in an effort to find Holland.
Then, on July 6, Holland’s partially decomposed body was pulled from Albemarle Sound. Investigators theorized her body had been thrown from the Umstead Bridge, linking the village of Manteo to Manns Harbor on the mainland.
No one was ever charged in Holland’s murder. Now, however, veteran journalist John Railey offers a possible solution in “The Lost Colony Murder on the Outer Banks: Seeking Justice for Brenda Joyce Holland.”
Railey, a former editorial page editor for the Winston-Salem Journal, spent much of his youth on Roanoke Island and has family roots there. He interviewed dozens of local residents and ex-cast members who were involved in the case, and he gained access to the State Bureau of Investigation’s files.
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It’s a compelling story. As Railey reminds us, 1967 was the Summer of Love. Brenda Holland was no hippie, but she was making changes. She deliberately avoided going home to her folks in the paper-mill town of Canton, N.C., before catching a ride to Manteo. And, before she left, she cut her long hair to a bob and dyed it blonde.
Holland appears to have been popular with both the cast and the island locals. (One man recalled how she taught him to swim when he was a boy.) Without a steady boyfriend, she dated several men but could hardly be classed as promiscuous. Railey’s research suggests she was still a virgin when she landed on the island.
Dare County’s semi-professional sheriff’s department — which normally handled fishermen’s bar fights and the occasional moonshiner — was out of its depth, so a team of five SBI agents was quickly called in. (It didn’t hurt that then-Gov. Dan K. Moore was also from Canton.) Still, Railey argues, a lot of the investigation was bungled.
A state trooper, called to take crime scene photos, spoiled his roll of film. Photos were therefore taken by the head of the local tourist bureau — who removed Holland’s necklace, a key piece of evidence, then cleaned it and turned it over to her family instead of the investigators. Holland’s clothes were shipped to the FBI for testing — but not before the Manteo police chief had a local girl wash them at a local laundromat and fold them up.
Suspicion first fell on Danny Barber, who sang tenor in the “Lost Colony” chorus. Many people had seen Barber and Holland leaving for a date after the June 30 performance. Worse, Barber changed his story over time. First, he claimed that he had dropped Holland off at the house where she was boarding. Then, he admitted he had Holland up to his room, where they “made out” — although Barber insisted there was no sex. He claimed he fell asleep and she apparently set out to walk home on her own.
Agents could never find enough evidence to arrest Barber, although her father — a hard-drinking World War II veteran nicknamed “Shotgun” — had to be talked out of gunning down Barber himself.
Suspicion focused on outsiders in the tight little island community. At least two African-Americans were pulled and quizzed on the Jim Crow-era theory that “Black thugs” lusted after white flesh. Another Manteo police chief later browbeat a mentally challenged man — known as the “night watchman” of Manteo for his nocturnal rambles — into a “confession” that was soon discredited.
Instead, Railey argues, the most likely killer was a pillar in the Manteo community, a man with a known violent streak. He was soon eliminated as a suspect, though, perhaps because he and the sheriff were friends. If his theory is right, by a cruel irony, Brenda Holland was a victim of mistaken identity; in the dark, the killer thought she was the blonde woman he really wanted to kill.
Railey’s prose often turns purple when he’s straining for effect. He’d do well to follow Sgt. Joe Friday’s advice and just stick to the facts, which are enthralling enough. He does a fine job, however, of catching the atmosphere of old-time Manteo, before the tourists took over totally and “artsy” actors mixed with the easygoing locals. This book is as much a love song as a murder mystery, a love song to a place that’s largely vanished.
As for justice for Brenda Joyce Holland, it will have to come in the Next World. Railey’s suspect committed suicide a few years after murder — ironically, on Valentine’s Day.
Ben Steelman can be reached at 910-616-1788 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“THE LOST COLONY MURDER ON THE OUTER BANKS: Seeking Justice for Brenda Joyce Holland”
By John Railey
Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, $21.99
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