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A local fisherman thought he reeled in a turtle shell until he turned it over in his hand to find himself staring into the empty eye sockets of a human skull.
Nearly 25 years later, the identity of the skull fished out of the murky waters of Wilson’s Buckhorn Reservoir remains a mystery.
Looking for a lantern he’d lost the night before while catfishing, 33-year-old Elton Mitchell of Kenly stood on the Bailey Road bridge in April 1993, tied a homemade hook to a rope and dragged the bottom of the 12-foot-deep waters.
On his first attempt, Mitchell pulled out the skull. He said it was blackened instead of white and he didn’t immediately recognize it for what it was. Medical examiners would later say the discoloration was due to the skull being submerged in sludge for several years.
On his second try, Mitchell pulled up a bag filled with rocks. He stopped at that point and notified authorities.
The bag had a 9-pound rock and several smaller asphalt chunks. Investigators figure the killer put the severed head of a victim in the bag with rocks to keep it weighed down.
While hardly anything is known about the skull, it most assuredly belongs to a murder victim. Medical examiners found two small-caliber gunshot holes in the back of the skull and major exit damage on the right side.
The skull belongs to a white man, possibly Hispanic, 17 to 22 years old, estimated to be 67 inches tall and weighing 140 pounds. Medical examiners originally believed the skull to be female, which might have led authorities down wrong paths early in the investigation.
The skull wasn’t determined to be male until 2008. There were two notable missing men at around the time the skull was found. Drug dealer Timmy Watson, 26, disappeared in February 1988, and Pealon “Wink” Mercer, 35, vanished in 1989, according to archived Wilson Times reports accessed at the local library.
Authorities thought they found more human remains at the site, but it turned out to be dog bones. Also found along with the skull was a pair of tattered Levi’s blue jeans with a 36-inch long belt, indented at 28 inches. The belt buckle was white metal. A white slip-on woman’s shoe also was found in the same area.
I’m not convinced the clothes have anything to do with the skull. Once discovered, I’m sure local law enforcement dredged up whatever could be found in the area, which almost assuredly contained at least one old tire, a tin can and a boot — items seemingly at the bottom of every body of water.
Obsessing over the shoe and blue jeans seems a waste of time. Why take time to cleave the head from the body, tie it up in a bag and then dump the body’s clothes — sans the body — at the same spot?
So either the bag or the clothes are unrelated.
Several years ago, I tagged along with deputies on a search and recovery effort for a young man who drowned while fishing in a saltwater marsh. I learned firsthand about what happens to a dead body in the water. In temperate climates, a dead body goes to the bottom, then resurfaces after a day or two.
Perhaps the person or people who tied the skull in a bag of rocks knew that just dumping the body in the reservoir wouldn’t be enough to keep their grisly secret. They meant business in weighing down the head of their victim — but secrets don’t stay submerged indefinitely.
DNA information and dental charting for the skull is available, so an identification is a possibility.
In life, the man who ended up as a decapitated skull suffered from bruxism. I had to look it up; it means he grinded his teeth. Also, his nose may have tilted slightly to the right, according to medical examiner reports.
The state medical examiner will continue to store the skull until the decedent is positively identified, said Kelly Haight Connor, press assistant for the Office of Communications at the state Department of Health and Human Services.
“We are committed to supporting law enforcement efforts to provide resolution on this case,” Haight said.
The Wilson Police Department routinely reviews its cold cases. The unidentified skull is known as Case No. 93-014120.
Anyone with information about the skull is asked to call Crime Stoppers of Wilson at 252-243-2255. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Raleigh can be reached at 800-672-7024.
Lindell John Kay is a staff writer for the Rocky Mount Telegram. His Kay Files column explores cold case homicides in eastern North Carolina.