The Murder of Julian Pierce Provokes Grief and Grievances in Troubled Robeson County

updated 04/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The mourners began to gather around noon for the 1 o'clock service. Solemn and dignified, they filed into the Performing Arts Center of North Carolina's Pembroke State University nearly 1,700 strong—farmers with calloused hands and silk-tied state officials, blacks, whites and Indians. They had come to honor the memory of Julian Pierce, the Lumbee Indian attorney who was murdered in his Wakulla, N.C., home on the evening of March 26 with three shotgun blasts. Local law enforcement officials were quick to label Pierce's killing an act of private revenge—and it might turn out to have been one. But in the supercharged atmosphere of violence, racial tension and paranoia that has gripped Robeson County's piney woods in recent months, Pierce's death by any hand was an alarming and galvanizing event.

"He was our hero," says Christine Griffin, an assistant to Pierce at the Lumbee River Legal Services center. A lawyer who took a master's degree in tax law at Georgetown University and once worked for the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C., Pierce, 42, had returned to his hometown in 1978 to run the poverty law office. Four months ago he officially announced that he would run against local prosecutor Joe Freeman Britt for a newly created superior court judgeship. Robeson County's beleaguered black and Indian population—about two-thirds of its 108,000 residents—saw Pierce's bid to become Robeson's first Indian judge as their last best hope to restore some sense of justice in the county. Instead, Pierce's murder just six weeks before the election threatened to bring Robeson County's simmering hostilities to a full boil.

"I think the people of Robeson County understand this was just another murder," says Sheriff Hubert Stone of Pierce's death. "All involved were Indians." Stone, a pleasant good ole boy with a fondness for bass fishing, credits fine law enforcement with solving the Pierce crime in less than 48 hours. The official version of events is this: Johnny Goins, 24, a part-time security guard' and honors student at Wake Technical College with no criminal record, had been dating Shannon Bullard, the 16-year-old daughter of Julian Pierce's longtime girlfriend, Ruth Locklear. But the relationship soured, and Locklear convinced the authorities to issue arrest warrants against Goins, charging him with trespassing and harassing her family. In this reckoning of events, Goins suspected that Pierce had given her legal advice and proceeded to plot his revenge. Sandy Chavis, 24, an unemployed pal of Goins, confessed to police a few days after the killing that he had gone with Goins to Pierce's house and had heard a shot as he sat outside waiting for his friend. Unfortunately, Goins cannot corroborate this account because he, too, was found dead—three days later in a closet at his home with a shotgun on the floor and a hole in his head. Goins left "several" suicide notes on top of his car, says Stone. Yet 24 hours after his body was discovered, the sheriff admitted, "We haven't had time to read them yet. We've been busy." Meanwhile, Chavis was led smiling off to the local jail. "We're watching him very close," says Stone. "We think he's suicidal too."

"You insult my intelligence by asking if I believe that's what happened," says Lumbee Indian and four-tour Vietnam vet Ray Littleturtle, expressing the widespread skepticism in Robeson County about the sheriff's solution of the crime. The minority population is particularly dubious, and on a short reading of local history, it's not hard to see why. The murder rate in these parts, where nearly everyone carries a gun, is the highest in North Carolina and twice the national average. And an alarming percentage of these violent deaths befall blacks and Indians and go unsolved. In December 1985 Joyce Sinclair, a 36-year-old black mother and supervisor at Burlington Industries, was kidnapped, raped, stabbed five times and dumped in a local field; no one was ever charged with the crime. In January 1986 three Indians who went fishing in the Lumber River were found shot dead; there were no arrests. Finally, in November 1986, Sheriff Stone's son and deputy, Kevin Stone, shot an unarmed Indian drug dealer in the face because, he says, the man was swinging a bucket at him. A coroner's inquest ruled it "an accident and/or self-defense." It couldn't decide which.

At that point North Carolina Gov. James Martin ordered an official investigation into the state of law enforcement in Robeson County. That 10-month study, headed by Henry McKoy, confirmed the string of unsolved black and Indian deaths. It also found a pattern of "discrimination and institutional racism in the Robeson County judicial system," which has been dominated for 14 years by prosecutor Joe Freeman Britt. He is touted in the Guinness Book of World Records as the deadliest prosecutor in America for having sent 47 people to death row.

Moreover, locals say that what was always a rough justice in Robeson County began getting a whole lot rougher a few years ago when white powder from Florida replaced white lightning as the local hedge against unemployment and minimum-wage factory work. "When you have this kind of poverty, you have a system for a second economy based on drugs and corruption," says Rev. Mac Legerton, a white man, who adds, "You can't separate drug traffic from politics in Robeson County. It would be easier to start a union than to stop the trafficking." While whites control the drug trade, minorities charge, it is their black and Indian mules who catch the legal or physical heat. "You take a man with several children making $3.35 an hour, and someone offers him $1,000 to run some cocaine up to Raleigh. He'll do it," says Ray Littleturtle. "Then they got him. He can't get out or they'll kill him." State investigator McKoy confirms that in Robeson County, "Indians are arrested at a higher rate than whites, and of those arrested, a higher percentage are convicted." Such a system, he concluded, "breeds hopelessness, despair and resignation."

Indeed two Tuscarora Indians, Eddie Hatcher, 30, and Timothy Jacobs, 19, became so desperate on Feb. 1 of this year that they barged into the offices of The Robesonian newspaper with sawed-off 12-gauge shotguns and took the 20 staff members hostage. Hatcher, a college student who'd hoped to become a lawyer, explained to his captives that he had evidence linking local law enforcement officials to drug trafficking. Fearing for his life, he was demanding a federal investigation of the charges.

Once they'd heard his story, the hostages were sympathetic. "I wanted to see their demands met," says Bob Horne, editor of the paper, who, like several other hostages, pitched in to help the two men answer phones and negotiate a settlement. "I felt the only way to clear the air was to get a complete federal investigation going in this county," says Horne, who editorialized a few days later that Jacobs and Hatcher were "the conscience of the county."

Aide Phil Kirk, who negotiated on behalf of Governor Martin, was impressed that Hatcher and Jacobs "didn't want money, they didn't want amnesty. They wanted justice." But the evidence offered by the two men—who are now in jail facing possible life sentences on kidnapping charges—is "secondhand so far," says Kirk. "It's hard to get your ducks in a row on this one. I don't have a high level of frustration yet, but I'm afraid I'm going to get one. The FBI, the Justice Department and the DEA have had people down there for several weeks."

Not surprisingly, though, fewer and fewer local citizens are willing to talk in the wake of Pierce's death. "Suicides are contagious," says one Indian businessman who asked not to be named. "I think Pierce knew something and had to be killed," says attorney Horace Locklear (no relation to Ruth), a Lumbee Indian who's representing Jacobs and Hatcher with a team that includes William Kunstler and other civil rights notables. A good friend of Pierce's, Locklear, who sports a shoulder-holstered .38, says, "He called me and said he had some information he wanted to give me. I'm glad he never did, or I might not be alive today. This is Robeson County. Things happen."

Governor Martin has convinced Joe Freeman Britt to step aside and let a special prosecutor handle the Pierce investigation. He has also created an additional judgeship that will go to a minority appointee, as will the prosecutor's job when Britt takes his seat on the bench by default. Already, it seems, Julian Pierce's still-mysterious murder—like his crusading life—has brought some real changes to Robeson County. And, Rev. Joy J. Johnson assured mourners in the hushed auditorium, "We will keep up the peaceful fight; we will win the victory for Julian."

—By Montgomery Brower, with Bill Shaw in Lumberton

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