BC Students Investigate Local Cold Case
Bluefield College students take a new look at a local cold case involving two murders.
June 27, 2011
Dark waters: Wolf Creek Murders Spark Renewed Interest
By Amanda Evans, Southwest Virginia Enterprise
Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series about the cold case slayings of Jeff Scott and Karen Noble. Occurring just across the Giles/Bland county line 33 years ago this past May, the deaths will be reopened for investigation.
Timmy Vaughn was out driving with his girlfriend on a dark, narrow, backwoods road the night his life changed forever.
He was 20 years old, riding along Virginia 61 near the Giles/Bland County line when he saw the searing glow of flames. At first, he thought a trash bin had been set ablaze at a popular hangout spot on Wolf Creek. But as he drew nearer, he realized it was not trash or brush on fire. It was the cab of a pickup.
Pulling over, he approached the vehicle to see if someone needed help. He peered over the side of the truck into the bed. A body. Immediately, he jumped back into his vehicle, drove to the nearest house, which was his friend's mother's house, and called the police. His friend was at the house and together, he and Vaughn pulled the body from the truck.
Getting an eerie feeling, Vaughn later told police he looked up across the truck and in the direction of the creek, where another body would later be found by firefighters, facedown in the creek.
What he didn't realize at the time was that he had stumbled upon a crime scene.
The murders of Jeff Scott and Karen Noble on May 28, 1978, rattled the surrounding area like nothing had before. The safe, quiet community had been unmistakably shaken.
The Bluefield Daily Telegraph recently ran an article on the case, marking it as the point in time that the "age of innocence" was lost.
After months and months of investigation, no new leads and with their prime suspect dead, authorities decided to place the case on "inactive status." Perhaps the murders themselves were the culprit for wreaking emotional havoc on the area. Or perhaps it's the fact that the case, to this day, remains unsolved. There has never been closure, never been a definitive subject with whom to place the blame for the crime. That, many say, might be the most unsettling part of it all. The trail, their tragic tale went cold.
Now, 33 years later, a renewed interest in cold cases by West Virginia and local police forces may help find long sought-after answers for a double murder that, many say, changed the community forever. But it's not just law enforcement agencies that want to see closure with these cases. For the past five weeks, four Bluefield College students have attempted to resurrect the buried case of the Scott/Noble murder. Mandy Davis of Bluefield, David Vass of Carroll County, Courtney Dutton of Abingdon and Andrew Jarvis of Bland, are all upperclassmen studying criminal justice at Bluefield College.
Through an intensive May semester class that focused exclusively on a cold case from their hometowns, the students have waded through piles of paperwork, pored over countless evidence files, conducted field and academic research and interviewed many people who had anything to do with the case, whether they were the lead investigator or a next door neighbor.
They chose to title their presentation "What Potent Blood Hath Modest May," borrowing a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote the poem about how everything comes alive in the springtime and things are brought to light. The students thought it was both explicitly fitting and unnervingly ironic for their project about their attempt to uncover truth about this dead-end murder that occurred so many Mays ago.
On Friday, they presented their findings in front of their professors, parents and a few particularly interested guests. Eric Nolley of Bluefield was one of the visitors. Nolley, now a web designer living in Spartanburg, S.C., and his sister Michelle, who still lives in Bluefield, created a website specifically devoted to the Scott/Noble murder case, which has become known as the "Wolf Creek Murders."
The site, which provides links to old newspaper articles that covered the event, a timeline for the evening of the incident and a forum for discussion, is dedicated to keeping the memory of Scott and Noble alive.
"There's something that draws people to this case," he said, which is why he started the site in the first place. He has no personal connection to Scott or Noble; he was barely a teenager when it happened. But the case, and their story, has always been close to his heart and mind.
Nolley hopes that by people having a place to share their memories of the couple, who everyone describes as some of the best people they have ever known, it will bring attention to the case and that hopefully someday the mystery can be solved. But only facts and verified claims or plausible theories are allowed on the site.
"We don't want people talking rumors," Nolley said. "We want things that are substantiated."
Nolley said he and his sister have considered adding a section to the website, with a disclaimer of course, that would allow people to share circumstances they remember or heard about that night—not in a gossip kind of way, Nolley explained—but in a way that might bring out a detail that, perhaps seemingly insignificant, could actually help solve the case. He's been extremely cautious about doing this because he does not want the site to turn insensitive, garish or macabre. "These people still have families," Nolley said, "and we want to respect that."
Students began their presentation with an outline and timeline of the events of that notorious night:
Earlier that day, Jeff Scott, a 21-year-old accounting major at Marshall University, had been playing pick-up games of basketball with his friends, waiting for his girlfriend Karen Noble, 20, who had recently transferred to Marshall to be with him, to come home. She had been in Kansas visiting her sister.
Around 7:30 p.m., Robert Lowder of Bluefield, who owned a cabin just across the county line in Bland County, had an unsettling encounter with a strange man. The man, Lowder told the police, was physically disabled and had a pint of whiskey in his back pocket.
Around 9 p.m., Scott picked Noble up from her house near Bluefield, W.Va., and the two set off together for their date. They didn't tell anyone where they were going.
Lowder said around 9 p.m. he saw a blue Datsun with West Virginia tags pull up near his cabin and a young couple matching Scott and Noble's descriptions got out and headed toward the creek. About an hour later, he saw three individuals return to the vehicle and get in, driving off "at a leisurely pace." Lowder couldn't identify the three people due to the darkness. Later, under hypnosis, Lowder positively identified all three as Scott, Noble and George Voster Bird, an infamous criminal from Bland County who had escaped from the Giles County jail in February the year before.
Bird was in jail for charges related to a December 1976 rape, but he already had two previous rape convictions. Reports from the Bluefield Daily Telegraph state that he had escaped from jail by removing a window bar with a saw. With the lead provided by Lowder's testimony, police began the manhunt for Bird. In March 1979, Bird is believed to have kidnapped, raped and assaulted a young couple from Tazewell. The couple was able to escape after the young man drove his vehicle into a gas station and the suspect fled. Five months after the kidnappings in August, authorities tracked Bird to his mother's house along Route 61 in Bland County.
Lt. Tom Lawson, a lead investigator on the case at the time, told the students during an interview that he would never forget the day they found Bird. After searching the whole house and not finding him, investigators went up to the attic where they discovered an irregularity in the wall, Lawson recounted. After pulling out the insulation in that section of wall, police found Bird, cooped up in a hollowed out section of the wall, holding a gun to his head. It took authorities an hour and a half to talk Bird out of suicide, out of the attic and to place him under arrest.
Bird was sentenced to life plus 120 years in Russell County on convictions stemming from the kidnapping of the Tazewell County couple. Then, not long after he had been in jail, 14 minutes after a routine check, Bird hanged himself with strips of bed linen.
With Bird, the most promising suspect in the case, dead, some thought justice had been served. Others weren't so sure. There were too many unanswered questions, too many holes in the evidence. Even today, more than three decades later, people in the area familiar with the case still ask, "Who killed Jeff Scott and Karen Noble?"
The four students researching the case are wondering the same thing. "I think it's still on everyone's hearts," said Mandy Davis. And now, after collaborating with local police, they think they might have another idea of who did it, someone who was never originally considered as a suspect.
Dark waters II: Two Murders, Two Suspects
By Amanda Evans, Southwest Virginia Enterprise
Editor's Note: This is the second installment of a two-part series looking at the May 1978 cold case murders of Jeff Scott and Karen Noble near the Bland/Giles County line.
Sometimes cold cases burn like fire in the minds of a community, of a law enforcement team that was unable to deliver justice, of a family that hasn't found closure.
The double homicide of Karen Noble and Jeff Scott in 1978 along the Bland/Giles County line, known as the "Wolf Creek Murders," is one of those cases.
"I think it's still on everyone's hearts," said Mandy Davis, a Bluefield College senior from Bluefield, W.Va.
Davis is one of four upperclassmen criminal justice majors at Bluefield College who recently completed a May-term project that took an in-depth look at the murders.
Through weeks of research the four students—David Vass of Carroll County, Courtney Dutton of Abingdon, Andrew Jarvis of Bland and Davis—have come to the conclusion that they're certain the chief suspect in the case was the correct one.
"For us it's alive; it's still happening," said Davis. "It's not 33 years ago; it's now."
The case for Bird
His reputation preceded him. George Voster Bird, a notorious criminal in Bland County, was a serial rapist. He had been convicted in Giles County on counts of rape in 1977 and escaped from prison a few months later. Rumor had it, students explained, Bird had fled the area at that time, but when a young couple from Tazewell County almost fell victim to kidnapping and rape in 1979, Bird was identified as the perpetrator by the young woman. In the incident, the couple were abducted from a parking lot outside John's Restaurant in Tazewell County. Bird's possible intentions of killing both and raping the girl were cut short when the young man drove the car into a gas station, allowing them time to escape and Bird to flee.
According to police reports, the suspect's gun, left at the scene, was a .22-caliber short revolver loaded with .22-caliber long-rifle ammunition that had been shorted to fit the gun. This is the same type of weapon believed to have been used in the Scott/Noble murders.
Another point that led investigators at the time to believe Bird had committed the double murders, was the fact that Bird lived with his mother and stepfather on Route 61 about a mile away from the scene of the incident. The young couple from Tazewell told police the man who tried to kidnap them had instructed them to drive toward Route 61. This is the same direction Scott and Noble headed once they left the creek near Robert Lowder's Bland County cabin the night of their death.
When police questioned Lowder, who wasn't considered a suspect, about the conversation he had with the strange man who appeared on his property hours before the incident, Lowder said the man mentioned the name "Mulky," which was Bird's mother's maiden name.
Lowder said the man also talked about hating everybody, another characteristic Bird was known by the local community to have.
When police questioned Bird about his whereabouts the evening of the murders, Bird gave them an alibi that he was in Middle Point, Ohio, where he had witnessed a secret rendezvous of a "short, fat deputy" and a "tall, thin dark-haired waitress" at a pickup truck parked in a field. Coincidentally, those descriptions of the "deputy" and the "waitress" match those of Scott and Noble, respectively, and the location where the bodies of Scott and Noble were found were a pickup truck and a grassy area. Bird's alibi did not check out.
News articles from the Bluefield Daily Telegraph at the time show police ready to lock away Bird for good, but their case fell short when the prosecuting attorney put the case on "inactive status" for lack of substantiating evidence.
"When the case went to inactive status the shoulders of the entire region just dropped," said Jarvis.
And when Bird hanged himself in jail after being convicted on charges associated with the kidnapping and attempted rape of the young couple from Tazewell County, the community wondered whether they would ever know the truth of what happened that fateful night in May.
Randall Lee Smith was never considered a suspect in the Scott/Noble murders. Decades later, a fresh look at patterns in similar, seemingly unrelated crimes has given students pause to question, What if George Bird didn't do it?
In 1981 a young couple hiking in the Dismal Creek area of the Appalachian Trail, were reported missing and later found buried. Laura Susan Ramsay and Robert Mountford Jr., both 27-year-old social workers from Maine who had decided to hike the AT to raise money for the mentally ill, were stabbed and shot, respectively.
Ramsay had been stabbed 13 times with a long nail and also had knife wounds, reported the Washington Post. Blood found beneath the floorboards of the Wapiti Shelter, where the incident was believed to have taken place, was later identified as Mountford's. Police were able to match the fingerprint on Ramsay's bloody paperback book to Smith.
Weeks of investigation and scouring the area made police certain Smith had committed this crime.
They later found Smith in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he had been hiding deep in the woods.
"He had bug bites all over him," said Wytheville resident Al Crane, a lead investigator with the Virginia State Police on this case. It was his first homicide.
Crane said when they questioned Smith about the murders he was "cooperative, but he just didn't know anything about the crime." Smith pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 30 years in prison, but was released 15 years into his sentence with 10 years of mandatory parole because he was a "model inmate," reported the Washington Post. His parole ended in 2006.
Then, in 2008, Smith struck again. Just over two miles from where he killed Ramsay and Mountford in 1981, Smith shot two local fishermen who were eating their evening meal. Scott Johnston, 37, of Bluefield, W.Va., and Sean Farmer, 33 of Tazewell, Va., had invited Smith, who happened upon their camp, to eat trout and beans with them.
After some seemingly friendly conversation, Smith pulled out a gun and shot both of the men, but a misfire with the gun and old ammunition gave time for the two men to escape and find help.
"I remember when that call went out," said Jarvis. "It seems like yesterday." He was 19 at the time and a new recruit for the Bland County Rescue Squad. Working on this case as an investigative student, Jarvis said, has opened his eyes to see what Smith was capable of doing. "It kinda blows my mind," Jarvis said. "We had a serial killer in our backyard." Smith later died from complications from the truck wreck that led police to capture him and take him into custody.
The case for Smith
Dr. Kelly Walls, the professor who originally proposed the idea of focusing on the Noble/Scott murders, was a police officer in Bluefield during the time of the '78 murders. He was not assigned to the case, being a rookie cop who was writing parking tickets at the time. Walls said even though he has a law enforcement and academic background, he tried to look at this case from the behavior aspect. He said there were "striking similarities behaviorally," that support the theory that Smith killed Scott and Noble.
"Serial killers don't just wake up and kill people one day," said Dr.Kim Farmer, leading professor for the May-term class. She was a cheerleader for her middle school at the time of the murders and since Noble was a cheerleader at the high school, Farmer knew her and looked up to her. From looking at cases that followed, Farmer and her students agreed, "Bird picked up his victims in public. Smith picked up his victims in private."
It's interesting to note some of the patterns associated with the Scott/Noble murders and the murder and attempted shootings on the AT.
All three incidents happened in the month of May.
All three incidents were attempted double murders.
All three incidents occurred in remote places near the woods where Smith lived, just over the mountain.
In all three incidents, the suspect apparently befriended his victims.
In the two sets of murders, items belonging to Scott, Noble and the two hikers were either placed or buried in methodical, meticulous patterns. Scott's belt was tightly and neatly wound and looped through, placed next to him in the bed of the truck.
Items belonging to the hikers were buried or covered in leaves in a complex pattern of compass points near the area where their bodies were found buried.
For the students who have spent the past five weeks buried in police reports and talking to anyone who might remember anything from those cases, the patterns and evidence were convincing enough to change their minds.
"Until last week," Davis said, "I was Randall Lee Smith party of one." Even her mother, who came to watch the presentation, said, "When ya'll started," she said, "I just thought 'George Bird did it, George Bird did it'...There's a possibility that's not true."
Dutton thinks it's good the case never went any further than it did at the time. "I think they would have convicted Bird," she said. "And that might not have been the truth."
The investigation of the Scott/Noble murders was as thorough as anything Walls had ever seen. "[Law agencies] did everything they possibly could have done to solve this case, given the forensic constraints at the time," he said.
Now, however, advances in technology allow investigators the advantages of DNA testing. It is the student's hope that a renewed interest in this case by law enforcement and the community will allow further investigation using modern forensic techniques. Unidentified blood found on the tailgate of Scott's pickup truck, for example, could be tested against both Bird's and Smith's to determine—or at least, rule out—one of the suspects.
Students said that throughout their research, local police agencies have pledged their support to look back into the case and try to settle this murder mystery. When asked what it felt like to be done with the project, students agreed unanimously, "We're not done. We're just getting started."
Anyone with information regarding this case is asked to call the Giles County Sheriff's Office at 540-921-3842 or the county tip line at 540-599-7867.