Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Eyewitness to Murder, Part Two

On April 13, 2010, I wrote a blog piece entitled “Eyewitness to Murder,” in which I recounted my involvement with a 1975 shooting spree in Wheaton, Maryland. Seven people (all African-American) were shot; two of them died. The killer also died, shot by police. He was white.

Although I drove within feet of the killer and his fourth victim, I completely misread the situation. It was so inconceivable to me that a killing spree was taking place on a sunny Sunday afternoon in downtown Wheaton that I failed to process anything going on around me. I couldn’t have picked out the killer from a police lineup even though I saw him clearly. There was just enough askew about the situation that I decided for safety’s sake to drop by the police station on my way home — and it was there I learned that I had been an eyewitness to murder.

The incident itself quickly dropped off the front pages and has largely been lost to history. With the killer dead, there was no trial, and the number of victims was too small to register with the national media. The incident — and my failure — have stuck with me for many years, and armed with Google, I decided to find out what I could learn, and uploaded my blog piece on the 35th anniversary of the shootings.

For the record, and because it can’t be stated often enough, the victims were:

  • John L. Sligh, 43, of Rockville, Maryland: died.
  • Laureen D. Sligh, 40, his wife: wounded in both legs, survived.
  • Dr. Ralph C. Gomes, also of Rockville: minor injuries when his car crashed.
  • Harold S. Navy, Jr., 17, a freshman at the University of Maryland: wounded in the abdomen, but survived. Navy was the victim I saw.
  • Connie L. Stanley, 42, of Washington, DC: killed.
  • Rosalyn Stanley, 26, of Annapolis, Maryland: wounded.
  • Bryant Lamont Williams, 20, of Rockville: wounded.

The killer was Michael Edward Pearch, an unemployed carpenter living with his mother in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Since I first published the piece, I’ve heard from several other people connected to the incident.

About six months after “Eyewitness to Murder” appeared on my blog, I got an email from the daughter of John and Laureen Sligh. We exchanged emails and a few telephone calls, and finally arranged to have lunch on April 13, 2011, the 36th anniversary of the shooting. She told me her story. Her parents normally went to the movies on Sunday afternoon, and were just leaving the Wheaton Plaza theaters in separate cars when they encountered the shooter. The daughter herself was watching television when a special bulletin interrupted her show — and that’s how she learned her father was dead and her mother in the hospital. No one had bothered to sequester the news until the next of kin could be informed.

Both John and Laureen Sligh were scientists working for the Department of Defense. John Sligh was also a businessman and had purchased several small businesses. After his death, Laureen Sligh moved back to her home in Mississippi, and the businesses were left to the care of a relative who unfortunately was unable to keep them going, leaving the daughter without much in the way of means. We’ve kept in touch, and I’ve been pleased to hear that her daughters in turn are doing well; the youngest has ambitions to go to medical school.

I next heard from a man who was investigating the disappearance of the Lyon sisters, an unsolved case of two young girls who vanished in Wheaton in 1975.  Although there’s no known direct connection between Pearch and the disappearance of the Lyon girls, Pearch’s killing spree makes him an obvious potential suspect.

An anonymous comment in June 2012 gave me some more information about Harold Navy, Jr. He wrote, “I'd just like to add a correction, if I may? I remember Harold Navy Jr, being shot in the upper leg and it affected his basketball playing as he had a long recouperation. I remember him returning to High School basketball after the shooting, so I don't think he was yet a freshman in college.”

In August, I heard from another eyewitness, who wrote, “I was in early elementary school at the time of this horrific crime. My family was in the Wheaton Pharmacy (now long gone, but it was in the shopping center with Planters Peanuts,etc.on Georgia Ave.). My memories are vague, but I do remember hearing the gun fire, hiding in the small bathroom with the wife of the owner, my mother and my brother while my father and the pharmacist grabbed heavy objects, ducked behind the counter and waited (seems silly in hindsight, but it was all they could do). I had supressed my memories until the sniper shootings several years ago. I was surprised that this crime never re surfaced in the media. We also found out after the attacks that as a white family, we most likely were safe, but there was no way to know that at the time.”

And finally, a little over a month ago, I heard from one more person — someone who had known the killer.

“My connection to this event is before the fact. I had met Mike Pearch a couple of years before the shooting and spent a lot of time with him camping over three days. With only one exception, our paths did not cross again for about two years, until I happened to randomly wind up doing yard work at his mother's house about 24 hours before the shooting began. 

“Mike recognized me and came out of the house to talk. The conversation lasted about fifteen or twenty minutes and mostly covered the past two years. I know that there was much more behind his actions, but I have always been haunted by the question of whether something about that conversation may have been the final trigger for him to snap. I strongly suspect that the whole time he was speaking with me that he already had at least some idea about what he was going to do and perhaps he had already planned every detail. 

“Not that I think it would have made much of a difference but I was never interviewed by the police. I don't think they ever knew much of anything about me or that I had just spoken to Mike. I was only fifteen at the time and could not figure out what to do with what I knew. My parents were even afraid to talk to me about it beyond being the ones to inform me about the shooting.

This whole episode is to me like a manila file folder that has no place in the file cabinet. I try to put it somewhere; maybe in the wrong drawer, maybe in the trash, maybe I try to bury it under other things but sooner or later it keeps reappearing on top of the file cabinet. I suspect you and others, connected to this event, feel the same way. And always the question, ‘Is there anything I could have done?’

Obviously, there is not a thing I can do to change the past but if there is any way that sharing what I know can bring some relief to someone else affected by this tragedy then perhaps I could finally put this in the file cabinet under, ‘Something good finally came out of that part of my life.’”

For the story of how we met, and what I’ve learned since then, stay tuned.

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