Explain to me Chief
BY BARRY SAUNDERS – STAFF WRITER
Say, Chief. I understand why you didn’t call me back. Really, I do. Heck, nobody could blame you if you chose never to speak to another reporter again – not after what you allegedly said to the one from that national magazine.
Here’s the deal. In a story in this month’s GQ magazine about 11 missing and murdered women in Rocky Mount, that city’s police chief, John Manley, was quoted as saying the families of the victims bore some responsibility for the slow or inadequate police response. The bodies of several women were found within the same area before police realized they might have a serial killer on their hands.
So, what responsibility do family members bear, you ask?
“They’ve got to stay on law enforcement,” Chief Manley was quoted as saying. “They have to stay on us. Let us know that you’re not going away until you know we’ve done everything we possibly could do. Because if you don’t care, I don’t know why we should.”
Great day in the morning! How about you should care because those were real human beings who were murdered. So are the survivors who – despite their and the victims’ lack of social status – are grieving. How about because it’s your job, and justice demands that you care. Finally, how about because the death of any woman – even a strung-out streetwalker who spends her nights getting into cars with and taking off her clothes for strange men – diminishes each of us.
Since reading the chief’s comments, I’ve called his office several times, not to excoriate him, but to give him the opportunity to say that the national fashion rag misquoted him or took his comments out of context. (You’re right: It is hard to imagine any context where it would be appropriate for the city’s top cop to say, “Because if you don’t care, I don’t know why we should.”)
Andre Knight, president of the NAACP in Rocky Mount and a city councilman, doubts that Manley, who is black, would’ve denied it even had he called back. The story, Knight said, “pretty much told it like it was. The police have been rather hostile from the beginning” when it came to aggressively pursuing leads in the case or reassuring residents that the case was a priority. “They should’ve told us, ‘We’ve got Seven Bridges Road [the area where some of the bodies were found] under surveillance’ or, ‘We’ve got men on the street.'”
Cops have a tough job – no, the toughest – and they’re never going to satisfy everyone. That’s why I’ll always try to give them the benefit of the doubt and why I don’t want to believe they ignored the obvious evil lurking among some of their citizens until it couldn’t be ignored any more.
Last year, though, when several hundred Rocky Mount residents gathered at Martin Luther King Jr. Park for a candlelight vigil to pray for the disappearances and killings to stop, I asked a top police official why none of them appeared or spoke at the event. In a remarkable display of candor, she admitted that they didn’t even know about it.
Oy. Double Oy when you consider that the park is mere blocks from the police station – where I’d stopped to ask directions.
You know how they say any publicity is good publicity? Don’t tell that to Rocky Mount Mayor David Combs. “I’m certainly not happy with the way the writer portrayed Rocky Mount. I think he took this situation as an opportunity to come to our area” to bolster a book he’s writing on race in America. “He painted it as ‘east side’ and ‘west side.’ We’re all Rocky Mount, and I’m the mayor of the wholecity. Overall, it was an unfair portrayal. He tried to make it totally a race issue. I don’t agree.”
In the magazine, Mayor Combs was quoted as saying, “I don’t want everybody in town just to focus on the murders. … Because life has to go on … and we’ve got a lot of great things here. And I don’t want everyone that thinks about Rocky Mount to think that, well, that’s where those murders occurred.”
Combs told me he became aware of the possible connection of the six-year series of murders and disappearances only in June 2009. “People assume the mayor knows everything that’s going on in thecity,” he said. “We had all these ‘missing person’ cases until the bodies started turning up. We should have had some press conferences after that, but when we decided to, the SBI told us to hold off.”
The one time the mayor, usually an even-tempered fellow, sounded livid was when he talked about the GQ article’s implication that Antwan Maurice Pittman was not the real killer but merely a scapegoat arrested to get the city and police off the hook. “He [the writer] made it look like police just went out and arrested somebody,” he said. “We have a very good D.A. who wouldn’t do that.”
Of the anonymous sources upon whom the writer relied for some information, Combs said, “If this cabdriver knew so much, maybe he should’ve gone to the police.”
So far, Pittman has been charged only with the murder of Taraha Shenice Nicholson. But Knight, the city councilman, said he and other residents fear the cases of the murdered Rocky Mount women might become “like the Atlanta child murders.” Nearly three decades after Wayne Williams was convicted of the deaths of two black males in Atlanta and police closed the remaining 25 cases, many people still feel that Williams was a convenient scapegoat who was responsible for few, if any, of the deaths.
Despite its unflattering national portrayal of his hometown, Knight said, “I think we’re getting more momentum since the GQ article came out. I still think more could’ve been done, that more resources could’ve been put to this case, but I think we’re of one accord now.”
If you go looking for the GQ issue with the story on “The Lost Girls of Rocky Mount,” it’s the one with a nearly naked model on the cover seductively taking off her Victoria’s Secret bra for strange men.