After DNA test, murder victim still unknown
A forensic sculpture shows the likely appearance of an unknown woman whose skull was discovered in rural Randolph County in 1997.
Unidentified is a weekly series examining the more than 120 cases of unidentified human remains discovered in North Carolina. News Editor Lindell J. Kay produces each installment for The Enterprise of Spring Hope and other Restoration NewsMedia newspapers.
Click here to read previous installments in the series, along with case updates and additional resources, on Kay's Unidentified blog.
ASHEBORO — Only 10 years old when his mother disappeared, Frank McNair has spent decades searching for her.
Shirley Ann McNair vanished from St. Pauls, a small town in Robeson County, in 1994. Her blue Dodge was found abandoned a short time later in Lumberton.
Looking online for any clues about his mother’s fate, Frank stumbled upon a 2014 freelance investigative report in The Courier-Tribune of Asheboro about an unidentified skull found in 1997 in rural Randolph County, which is 100 miles from Robeson County.
Frank felt many of the details of that story matched his mother’s situation. Plus, photos of Frank’s mother bear an eerie resemblance to the forensic sculpture of the unknown woman that ran with the story.
Frank’s mother, a Black woman, vanished from Robeson County on March 27, 1994. She was 36 years old.
The unidentified Black woman’s skull was found in Randolph County on May 28, 1997. The estimated age range at time of death is 30 to 49.
After Frank contacted them, detectives with the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office interviewed him for hours, eventually feeling strong enough about the possible match that they ordered a sample of Frank’s DNA for comparison.
But due to a lack of funding, Frank found out that results could take up to a year to come back from the lab.
“I’ve been without my mother for 30 years, and now I have to wait longer,” Frank said at the time.
State Sen. Lisa Barnes, R-Nash, took interest in Frank’s plight after learning about the case from this reporter. Barnes made a few phone calls, and the wait time dropped from a year to a month.
When the news came back, it wasn’t what Frank wanted to hear — the unidentified skull didn’t belong to his mother.
The only ray of light in the dark is that Barnes pledged to find money in the state budget to expedite DNA tests in other unidentified body cases.
Frank’s mother remains a long-term missing person. He continues his search for her. He said he will never give up because he knows she would have never given up on him.
Next to nothing is known about the woman whose skull was found in rural Randolph County nearly 20 years ago, except that she’s most likely a murder victim.
Children playing in a creek near railroad tracks in the South Road area found the skull. The woman is believed to have been dead for a couple of years.
Despite an extensive search — including use of a cadaver canine — no other remains or clothing was ever found in the vicinity.
The jawboneless skull was partially filled with sand, had moss growing over much of its outside and was infested with insect larva on the inside. There was also evidence of animal gnawing, according to an autopsy conducted the day after the grisly find.
Beside the animal markings, there was a 1-inch injury to the frontal bone parallel to the left eye socket. The fracture was consistent with blunt force from a narrow and heavy object like a baseball bat or a two-by-four piece of lumber, Dr. John Butts recorded in his medical exam.
“If this blow were administered during life, it could represent the cause of her death,” Butts wrote in his report, which listed the cause and manner of death as undetermined.
A clay model of what investigators believe the woman looked like was created in 1998 by Roy Paschal, a forensic artist with the S.C. Law Enforcement Division. The size and shape of the woman’s eye sockets, nose, forehead and cheeks are accurate. The woman’s jawline, skin tone and hairstyle are approximations based on average looks.
The woman’s remains are kept at the N.C. State Medical Examiner’s Office in Raleigh. Name unknown, she is referred to as 96-3740, her autopsy number.
The skull is stored in a cardboard box, stacked with dozens of other boxes on metal shelves in the state’s Osteology Room, nicknamed the Bone Room, the repository of all of North Carolina’s unidentified departed.
All the remains are cared for and cataloged by Clyde Gibbs, a medical examiner specialist who spends most of his time among the dead.
What may seem morbid to many is normal to Gibbs, who grew up working in a mortuary. Both of his parents were in the funeral business in Dare County.
As a child, he remembers his parents waking him up in the middle of the night to pick up bodies after a homicide or fatal wreck. Gibbs slept in the back of the hearse as they drove to each scene.
“I grew up being around death all the time,” Gibbs said. “Having that training also helps dealing with death on a daily basis.”
Gibbs said trying to figure out a body’s identity is like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. Partial skeletons are the most frustrating puzzles to try to solve because so many of the pieces are missing.
THE WILD ONE
A suspect in both the Shirley Ann McNair missing person case and the death of the woman whose skull was found in Asheboro, Sean Patrick Goble stands 6 feet, 3 inches and weighed 310 pounds in the mid-1990s. His family and friends thought the long-haul trucker was a big teddy bear.
Maybe at home, but while on the highway, Goble revealed himself to be a monster to the hitchhikers and prostitutes he picked up, raped, strangled and tossed onto the roadside shoulder.
Goble, an Asheboro resident, spent years driving up and down the Eastern seaboard with the words “The Wild One” emblazoned across the cab of his black Peterbilt.
After years of preying on hapless women who crossed his path, Goble slipped up by leaving a thumbprint on a plastic bag found wrapped around one of his victims’ necks.
That was the mid-1990s. Goble has been locked up ever since, convicted of three murders.
Authorities in Asheboro found an assortment of women’s shoes and panties in Goble’s home. At the time, they expressed fear that the items represented a trophy collection from multiple victims.
Beside the woman’s skull found in Asheboro, several cases fit Goble’s pattern. In North Carolina, victims in those cases include:
• An unidentified woman last seen at a Burlington truck stop in 1990.
• Cheryl Mason, a prostitute whose body was found in Guilford County in 1991.
• Nona Cobb, whose body was found along Interstate 77 near Elkin.
• An unidentified woman whose body was found in western Guilford County on Feb. 19, 1995.
Goble is just one of two dozen former truck drivers serving life sentences for murder in U.S. prisons. To fight back against the rising tide of highway killings, the FBI in 2009 launched the Highway Serial Killings Initiative, focused on killers who chose victims and dumped bodies along highways.
Some of the 500 victims are hitchhikers and stranded motorists, but most are truck stop prostitutes, according to the FBI.
To provide information on any highway murder case, call the FBI Major Case Contact Center at 800-225-5324.
Anyone with information in Shirley Ann McNair’s case can call the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Team at 910-671-3100. The team is composed of retired law enforcement officers who investigate unsolved missing persons and homicide cases. They use their training and resources on a volunteer basis to probe cold cases and have solved two homicides.
Anyone with information in the Asheboro skull case can call the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office at 336-318-6699 or Randolph County Crime Stoppers at 336-672-7463.
Crime Stoppers tipsters do not have to reveal their identities. Rewards are available in most cases.
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