Editor’s note: In a new book, John Railey, who grew up hearing about the Holland case, uses his access to insiders and a sealed SBI file to detail all the turns of the investigation, ranging from seances to a supposed shallow grave to the 1971 Valentine’s Day suicide of a key suspect. Railey, a veteran investigative reporter and the former editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, makes his case for how the killer got away. This excerpt is adapted from The Lost Colony Murder on the Outer Banks: Seeking Justice for Brenda Joyce Holland, published by History Press Books.
It’s the summer of 2018 on the Outer Banks, but it might as well be half a century before as a man is asked about the nineteen-year-old woman found dead in the sound in July 1967. Brenda Joyce Holland’s body, bloated past her beauty, was zipped up in a black bag and placed in a black hearse that drove her to a cold autopsy slab in Norfolk, Virginia. This man knows things. And he just might talk. He hints, “You have to remember: In Manteo, there are no secrets.”
Brenda’s case has been reopened. Nobody wants to talk about it to outsiders. But Manteo never forgets. After I find my way through a byzantine maze to our meeting spot, my host receives me warmly and agrees to talk as long as his name is not used.
Near our meeting spot is Shallowbag, the yacht-splashed bay that elbows around downtown Manteo. Hundreds of tourists are walking the sun-kissed streets, revitalized to the point it’s sort of a cosmic blend of a New England seafaring town and a sanitized Key West. Manteo is the seat of Dare County, which takes in eighty miles of dreamy beaches, but Manteo, near the center of Roanoke Island, is very much its own deal—always has been.
It’s the larger of the two villages on the island, a spot of sand between mainland Dare and the Outer Banks beaches, surrounded by sounds and anchored by pines, live oaks, yaupons, marshlands and its own sense of right and wrong. Manteo has always had its share of brutality, bruising fights in beat-down bars like Nick’s House of Joy bar in “California,” one of the Black sections of town, or in the modest white neighborhoods surrounding it. There was also hard partying and occasional brutality in the well-to-do area, “Mother Vineyard,” where local children often played with the children of Andy Griffith, who lived nearby.
There has always been a magic and meanness to Manteo. Holland, who’d just completed her sophomore year at Campbell College in Buies Creek, got the magic in the summer of 1967. It was her first time in Manteo. As a makeup supervisor at The Lost Colony, the nighttime outdoor drama on the island, Brenda reveled in the company made up of locals and artists from around the country.
My host tells me about the suspect who sang like an angel in The Lost Colony choir. Danny Barber, Brenda’s date on the night she vanished, was a key suspect in the case. We talk of other main suspects, including a dentist and a troubled party boy who was the grandson of the local Episcopal priest. We talk about an African American suspect who was informed on by his white lover.
Brenda Holland is out there still, calling to us from her last hours, the darkness before dawn on the first day of July 1967. Then as now on Outer Banks nights, car headlights flash on girls and young women walking by the road. In some of those passing cars, local folks of long memory worry that those girls will not make it home. They think of Brenda. In the summer of 1967, the mystery of what happened to her went nationwide.
Investigators closely guarded the real story. The civilians didn’t know about all the turns the case would take, ranging from an apparent shallow grave to a candlelight séance to a surprise found hiding in a “coffin.”
They didn’t know about the mentally challenged local man, the town’s unofficial “night watchman,” being targeted by a Manteo lawman. There was homophobia and racism as North Carolinians from afar urged investigators to check out “well-known homosexuals” or certain “colored people.”
Brenda spent just one month in Manteo, but her name will forever be linked with the town. One of the best months of her life ended, and her body was found floating in the Albemarle Sound as July began. She’d been strangled and, possibly, raped. There are hundreds of thousands of stories about the lost colonists and hundreds of books about them, but little is penned about Brenda. She floats alone in that summer of 1967.
The trauma of what happened to her never ebbed for her parents, Gerri and Charles Wiley “Shotgun” Holland of Canton in the North Carolina mountains. Four centuries before, John White, the governor of the Roanoke Colony, may never have gotten over the mystery of what happened to his daughter Eleanor Dare, his granddaughter Virginia and the rest of the lost colonists.
It was personal for him, just as the mystery of what happened to their daughter Brenda was for her parents, gnawing at them all their days. Just as Virginia Dare is locked away in memories of her as an infant, Brenda is locked in memories of her at nineteen.
When not on dates, Brenda and her roommate Molly Black hung out, rolling into the Outer Banks night. They could ride, as the locals put it, “up the beach,” stopping for beers at the Drafty Tavern, a dive bar on the sound just before the bridge to Nags Head. At the Drafty, commercial fishermen just in from long tours at sea, still in their white rubber boots baptized in fish blood (“Wanchese slippers”), would be blowing wads of greenbacks, their share of the seafood haul, on oceans of beer.
The Colony crowd and folks of all types from Manteo hung out at the Drafty, talking over cold beer, staring out at the changing moods of the sound, playing tunes on the jukebox and shooting pool under clouds of cigarette smoke. Folks from up the beach, both vacationers and locals, also drank at the Drafty. You could perch on a worn barstool and see both the lights of Manteo and those of the Nags Heads soundside, whiling away the hours, drinking and dreaming.
Driving across the bridge into Nags Head, Brenda and her friends could go to the Casino, a frame building painted white and yellow right across the road from Jockey’s Ridge where barefoot dancers rocked the second-story dance floor. Ras Westcott of Manteo had bought the place thirty years ago, the year The Lost Colony opened, and soon put it on the map by booking bands such as Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey. Louis Armstrong played there as well.
By Brenda’s summer on the Outer Banks, the casino was booking beach music bands such as Bill Deal and the Rhondels and Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts. Their music shook the building and drifted out the open windows, tantalizing young teenagers not old enough to be admitted to the second floor. Up there, crew-cut bouncers with tattooed arms and big bellies bulging out of their T-shirts kept order, tossing long-haired rowdies out. Preppies and locals clashed over girls. Blood sometimes flowed. Men would spit out teeth during fistfights.
On Thursday morning, July 6, 1967, at 10:15 a.m., Major John A. King of the North Carolina Civil Air Patrol spotted something far below in the Albemarle Sound, gray and flat that day. He circled his small plane in for a closer look, making out what might be someone floating in the water. As he took his plane lower, he took in a sight he’d never rub out of his mind: a body floating face-up near the shore. King had his copilot radio the coordinates, just north of Mashoes, to the Dare County Sheriff’s Office in Manteo.
Mainland Dare County was Sheriff Frank Cahoon’s world. The 60-year-old sheriff roared out from Manteo in his cruiser, his blue lights flashing. He crossed the bridge over the Croatan Sound and then, as soon as he got off the bridge, took a hard right and raced down the desolate dirt road to Mashoes, the big car fishtailing, the pines and marshes blurring, dust in his rear-view mirror.
Cahoon was soon in the bow of a friend’s boat, watching the water closely. He spotted the body in the shallows by the shore. The body was markedly bloated and decomposed. The sheriff had studied Brenda’s photo from The Lost Colony program. The body bore but scant resemblance to her. But he knew from descriptions of the last clothes she wore, given by her roommate, that this was Brenda.
Cahoon and his friend, using a tarp, loaded the body in the boat and brought it back to Mashoes, where the body was loaded in a hearse. A deputy, at Cahoon’s request, drove Danny Barber in. He was the last person known to have seen Brenda alive. The sheriff led Barber over to the hearse, its tailgate open, the body clearly visible. He wanted Barber, a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, to identify her, in hopes of breaking him, of driving a confession out of him.
“Can you identify her, Danny?” the sheriff asked. He stood close, looming over the chorus singer. Barber took a look, walked a few feet away and then returned. “That’s Brenda,” he told the sheriff.
Cahoon wondered how he could know that, given the massive decomposition and what might have been Barber’s booze-hazed memory of what she was wearing. As Cahoon kept that question to himself, Barber said something else to him. He knew it was Brenda because of the necklace on the body. It was the one she was given from her beauty pageant back home last year. Checkmate. The sheriff had thought he had something on Barber. The boy was smart. Cahoon was not done with him. This was going to be a long game. “You’re free to go,” the sheriff told Barber.
A source had given me a copy of the SBI’s classified file on Brenda’s case. It was the Holy Grail, detailing the twists, turns and failures in the case that had never been made public. Using the file as a start, I tracked down case insiders and interviewed them.
I had grown up with the case, spending summers at my family’s place nestled against a high oceanfront dune in Nags Head. It was a flat-topped cottage of cement painted the same shade of turquoise as the best Bahamian waters. My parents, riding the post–World War II boom, bought it with a partner for about $14,000 in 1961. My father had served in the U.S. Navy in the South Pacific.
One of his fellow officers on the ship was Billy Tarkington, a good man from Manteo who became one of my father’s best friends. He was in my parents’ wedding and led them to Nags Head. Billy, whom we children called “Uncle Billy,” visited our cottage often and made us feel like locals, telling us the inside stories of Manteo and the beach.
In the summer of 1967, Uncle Billy showed me the Lost Colony program, pointing out Brenda’s photo and saying that she’d recently been killed and her body was found in the Albemarle Sound. Then he turned a few pages forward and showed me a photo of Danny Barber. I got a chill down my back, envisioning that pretty girl floating dead in the sound and hating Barber.
As I dove into Brenda’s story in the spring of 2018, I realized why Uncle Billy thought Danny Barber killed Brenda: Sheriff Cahoon and Uncle Billy, related by marriage, were good friends and owned the Ocean House together. The motel was headquarters for the SBI agents working on Brenda’s case.
Cahoon had lost control of the crime scene. In taking photos, local shooter Aycock Brown removed Brenda’s necklace, tearing decomposed skin away with it. He washed it off in the water by the nearby dock, a good man meaning well but not a lawman, and took photos of the necklace. Then he handed the jewelry to the sheriff.
Sheriff Cahoon drove to Manteo, gave Brenda’s parents the sad news, and handed Brenda’s necklace to her father. Brenda’s necklace stayed with Shotgun Holland from that Thursday on, even after the cause of Brenda’s death was ruled as “ligature strangulation” and a pathologist noted thin marks around the body’s neck.
In the days ahead, the clothes found on the body would be inexplicably washed before being sent to the FBI for testing, and one key suspect, a prominent islander, would be treated with deference not shown the other suspects, just a few of the many troubling aspects of the case.
As I became obsessed with Brenda’s case, I began to wonder if Cahoon might have gotten this one wrong, as guilty as I felt about questioning this good friend of my Uncle Billy.
In a garden of stone in a mountain valley, cool on a July afternoon in 2018, I knelt at Brenda’s grave, absorbing the words carved into cherrystone: “Always thinking of others, she walked in beauty and grace.” I could envision her playing with the little children at the adjacent church. I was there in Canton with her little brother, Charles Hoyt Holland, forever broken by Brenda’s death. “I have anxiety attacks if I get around people too long,” he said. “I’m damaged. I’ve never gotten over it.”
He’s a big, gentle man who moves slowly. His right leg was crushed in an industrial accident, and he lost vision in his right eye in a stroke. One of his sons died of an opioid overdose in 2012 and is buried in the family plot with Brenda and her parents. Charles Holland, working at the Canton recycling center, lives on with his pain. He drove me around Canton in his beat-up Nissan Pathfinder, two of his smallest dogs happily riding up front with us. He showed me the field where he and Brenda had that long talk on her last Christmas Eve.
By Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head, one of the stops on Brenda’s last date, I reunited with Buddy Tillett, who’d reopened the case in 1995 as a Dare County deputy. We did a TV interview on that August afternoon in 2018 and talked to Kim, Brenda’s baby sister. Kim had brought along the silver necklace Brenda was wearing when she was killed. I held it, feeling a powerful connection to Brenda. She had worn it on her last night just over fifty years ago, a blink in time when you’re sitting by the ocean.
John Railey, the former editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, is the author of The Lost Colony Murder on the Outer Banks.