What you will: They certainly know how to package a story:
The elderly black woman sits on her couch and rummages through a cardboard box until she finds the newspaper article—raggedy and faded like the town of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where her daughter Melody spent her final years. The headline reads, POLICE SEEK MORE CLUES IN MURDER.
“That’s what Melody’s son used to ask me all the time,” says the woman. Her weary voice assumes the pitch of a little boy: ” ‘Grandma, have they found out who did it to my mama?'”
And then she mimics a grandmother’s loving cadence: “I’d say, ‘Not yet. But the Lord knows who did it.'”
She falls silent. Then the woman points to a large photograph propped against the wall of her modest home. Below her grandson’s name and grinning face are the dates “October 15, 1997-November 15, 2008.” A tornado had engulfed their house that November night while she and her husband and her murdered daughter Melody’s son were all asleep. She remembers how the astonishing white light made her gasp, “Jesus…” Then she remembers her grandson flying away from her, as her daughter had three years earlier.
“Now he’s up there with her,” the grandmother murmurs as she looks down at the newspaper clipping on her lap. “Now he knows, too.”
The farmer who discovered the second body found off Seven Bridges Road, a few miles north of Rocky Mount, had been taking down his electric fence, and what drew him to the tree stump was a foreign odor. He initially mistook the carcass in the woods for that of a rotting deer. But then he saw the hands raised above the small round skull, as if waving for help. The skeletonized woman lay facedown, naked. Maggots and beetles dug into what was left of her leathery flesh.
When Corneta Battle saw the news that day in March 2008, she knew that her prayers—Lord, you’ve got to show me where my sister is. Let me dream it. Let me see it—had finally been answered. Corneta called the authorities. They asked her to swab her mother’s mouth for DNA. After the tests came back indicating a 99.9 percent probability of kinship, the police showed Corneta the photographs taken out at Seven Bridges Road. Corneta Battle looked at them and nodded silently. Though there was almost nothing left of her sister, she still recognized Ernestine.
For almost six weeks, Ernestine Battle had been missing. It was well known that she walked the streets of Rocky Mount all night, selling her body to support her crack habit, that she had stopped taking care of her two young children, that she had been in and out of jail for the past nine years on drug- and prostitution-related charges, that when her family gave her food, she would trade it on the streets for a rock of cocaine. Her disappearance was nonetheless alarming for two reasons. The first was that Ernestine, no matter how strung out, always managed to stay in touch with her family. The second was that in the past five years, several other African-American women who wandered the streets of Rocky Mount at night had never been seen alive again.
Among the disappeared, Ernestine had known Nikki Thorpe best. Nikki lived down the street from her. And on her way to the park to score some drugs, Ernestine would wave to Nikki’s mother sitting on the porch drinking a Pepsi and call out, “Hey, Miss Jackie! Nikki there?” Or “C’mon, Miss Jackie, I know you’ve got another cold Pepsi.” As with Ernestine—who once had a respectable job with the cable company and took pains to do herself up, almost like a fashion model—there had been something to Nikki before all this. Nikki grew up playing football with the boys in the projects on Stokes Street. She’d been a cheerleader in high school. She wrote poetry and spent entire evenings at the O 64 Bingo Parlor. Nikki’s talent for braiding hair was highly regarded by the crack dealers, who sometimes gave her a rock in exchange for a hair job instead of a blow job.
Then, in the summer of 2007, Nikki’s became the first body left to rot away alongside Seven Bridges Road. So little remained of her, or of Ernestine the following year, that the pathologists who examined the corpses could not determine a cause of death. All that could be said with certainty was that the Rocky Mount women had died far from home—like Denise Williams, whose bloated body was discovered floating in a swamp southeast of town in 2003; like Melody Wiggins, found in the woods in May 2005; and perhaps like Christine Boone and Joyce Renee Durham, who in 2006 and 2007, respectively, simply vanished from the streets.
Someone was apparently taking drug-addicted black women from the drab streets of Rocky Mount—women who were not well connected or captivating to the media—and ending their sad lives and gambling that it would not matter.
Six years running, someone’s bet was paying off.
The cabbie believed that the someone was like him. Someone who knew the girls. Someone they would feel comfortable with. Let their guard down with. Jump in a car with, no problem.
He’d been driving these girls—Nikki, Ernestine, Denise, pretty much all of them—for years. Sometimes the cabbie (who asked not to be named) would drop them off at one of the grubby motels on Highway 301, where a john had bought them a room and where they’d turn tricks and smoke crack till checkout time. Then the cabbie would get a call on his cell and pick them up. In their state of dubious afterglow, he would see them strung out beyond comprehension, bruised and cut up, their clothes reeking from having been worn days in a row. Oftentimes they had no money despite their long evening of work, and the cabbie would give them a few bucks or drop them off at a church where they could get a hot meal.