Hello, my loyal true crime readers! I’m excited to present a guest post by Greg Fox. Greg is a true crime researcher and writer from the Gold Coast, Australia. If you want to chat with Greg about this case, reach out to him on LinkedIn.
Enjoy the guest post. ~ Christine
Malice or Jealousy: The Unsolved Murder of Sharon Jones
By Greg J. Fox
Seven days after the brutal murder of Sharon Beatrice Jones in her dorm room during spring break of 1984, Elizabeth City State University Chancellor Dr Jimmy R. Jenkins addressed a specially gathered student and faculty assembly in the Vaughan Center on campus.
Jenkins, was a regal looking man and a graduate of the university with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology – and would go on to have a highly successful career in university administration with future stops as Chancellor at Edward Waters College (FL) and Livingstone College (NC). At this time, he was the first alumnus of ECSU to serve as its Chief Executive Officer.
However, on Monday 12th March 1984, Jenkins was sombre and immediately looked to calm the nerves of the student body, and reassure parents, by laying out his plans to put the university into a security clamp-down by taking “extraordinary steps,” until at least the end of the current spring semester.
He outlined the new safety initiatives coming into immediate effect, which would include 24-hour supervision within all dormitories, elimination of the co-ed visitation policy (with students in violation of this policy to be immediately suspended by the university), new peep holes to be installed at any dorm room occupied by a female, and the installation of more sophisticated security alarm systems on doors leading into dormitories. Further, any non-students found on the university grounds were to be arrested on the spot by campus police. “We do not know who did this very, very tragic deed, and we must be on the lookout for anything that looks out of the ordinary,” implored Jenkins. “We all must be security officers.”
In an odd twist to the direction of his security update to the gathered students, Jenkins broke off into a broader diatribe about recent anti-social behaviour and campus violence at the state university. “In recent weeks we have been confronted with various acts of barbarism – gang fights,” Jenkins told the gathering. “This type of behaviour will not be tolerated as it has in the past. I’m prepared that if we need to reduce the size of the enrolment of the university (by expelling students) then I’ll do that.” Jenkins then emphatically stated that some current students at ECSU were “not ready to attend a university.”
To close the assembly Jenkins affirmed his desire for the university to create a reward fund, starting at $50,000, for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrator of the recent tragedy. He further specified that if the reward was not collected then the money would be directed to funding a memorial scholarship in honour of Sharon Jones.
Whilst the debate about the necessity of the new security measures would persist on campus over the coming days, investigations into the Jones murder by the Elizabeth City Police Department and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) continued – as a killer remained at large within the small coastal community.
On the evening of Sunday 4th March 1984, Sharon Jones returned to the campus of ECSU, after spending a weekend at her family home in Moyock, NC – approximately 24 miles to the northeast of Elizabeth City. It was the start of spring break at ECSU and school would not officially recommence for another week. The vast majority of the student population of 1500 were nowhere to be seen and the campus was eerily deserted. Jones was back on campus early to prepare for her student-physical education teacher requirements at H. L. Trigg and P. W. Moore Junior High Schools – as she was due to graduate in May as an Education major. As evidence of her capabilities and her commitment to her local community, Jones has already been offered a teaching position at Moyock Elementary School upon graduation.
After arriving back on campus on this fateful night at approximately 9:30pm, Jones spoke briefly with Assistant Housing Director Herbert Williams and his cousin Adrian Douglas to gain entry into Mitchell-Lewis Dormitory, located on the south-eastern side of the campus. Mitchell-Lewis Dormitory was an unremarkable looking three-storey residence hall constructed in 1969 to house female students.
Williams would later mention to police that Jones had on returning to campus expressed some level of concern about a light that was showing from a dorm room on the upper level of the residence hall. Williams and Douglas would escort Jones on their entry to the dormitory and investigate the exact source of the light on the second floor. According to Williams, the light in question came from the room of another young woman staying within Mitchell-Lewis Dormitory – Angela Denice Jones, aged 22, (no relation to Sharon Jones) from Oak City, NC. She too was an undergrad at the college and had remained on campus over the holiday period to fulfil her duties as intern security officer.
Later, it was offered up to authorities by Dr Harry Ghee, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, that both Sharon Jones and Angela Jones were to have been relocated to a newer dormitory complex on Monday where a number of other students were already being accommodated. Unfortunately, this would never eventuate as a tragedy was about to unfold.
The following morning, Monday 5th March at 8:35am, the nude body of Sharon Jones was found by a dormitory supervisor facedown on the tiled floor of Room 125 with a white cloth belt ligated around her neck and connected to a bedpost. The supervisor had gone to investigate after being concerned by the sighting of a broken window from outside the dormitory. Police believe at approximately midnight an unidentified assailant or assailants entered Room 125 (located on the first floor) of Mitchell-Lewis Dormitory and viciously attacked Sharon Jones.
The autopsy report from the Pasquotank County Medical Examiner Dr Joe Robertson would state that Jones had died from strangulation. Other injuries sustained in the attack included a blunt force trauma over her right eye and bruises behind her left ear. Dr Robertson would also report that evidence of sexual assault was inconclusive.
Evidence of some sort of struggle was indicated within the dorm room, with a window being broken from the inside and a small amount of blood found on the window frame. Broken glass was found on the ground outside the window, directly underneath the first-floor room. A blood-stained dumbbell was recovered from the murder scene by detectives, found under one of the beds within the room.
In hindsight the investigation into the murder of Sharon Jones looked to be floundering almost immediately. Within the first 36 hours of the discovery of Jones’ body, Elizabeth City Chief of Police W. C. Owens had stated that his preliminary findings had indicated (to him) that “neither robbery nor rape was a motive for the killing, (so) that leaves malice or jealousy.”
After this rush to judgement on motive, local police and the SBI’s investigation immediately locked onto Angela Jones as a potential suspect in the murder – as she was residing on the second floor of Mitchell-Lewis Dormitory on the night in question.
So too an individual identified as Delantry Terrial “Tee” Trafton, aged 31 from Elizabeth City, the then boyfriend of Angela Jones. Also an education student at the university, Trafton was said to have been a US Army Special Forces soldier who had served in the Vietnam War. In the two weeks prior to the murder, Trafton had come to the attention of campus security concerning inappropriate behaviour and harassment toward female students within Mitchell-Lewis Dormitory and had been placed on a 14-week suspension by school officials, which barred him from further co-ed dormitory visitations. According to statements he provided to police, Tafton spent the night inside the dorm room of Angela Jones and then departed the dormitory at 7:00am the following morning.
Both Trafton and Angela Jones claim they received a knock on her dorm room door between 11:00pm and 11:30pm on the night in question. The person on the outside of the door was alleged to have asked: “Can I know your name?” “What’s your name?” Both Trafton and Angela Jones say they did not reply to these questions through the door and the person moved on. At midnight, Angela Jones left the room to commence her rostered shift as an on-campus trainee security guard.
In all approximately 40 people were interviewed by the Elizabeth City Police Department and a half dozen persons of interest submitted to lie detector tests administered by the SBI. Further, the SBI conducted tests on blood and hair samples as well as latent fingerprints found at the murder scene – but none of the test results proved to be conclusive in incriminating a suspect or suspects.
According to Robert “RJ” Walker, the Editor of the student newspaper “The Compass” for the 1983 – 1984 period, ECSU was completely unprepared for this sort of tragedy to occur at the small university. Walker had shared some classes with Sharon Jones and was due to be part of the same graduating class at the end of the spring semester.
“The Compass” mourns Sharon Jones
“Coming back onto campus after spring break to find out Sharon had been killed was devastating,” Walker said. “She was the last person you would think would become the victim of this sort of crime. Sharon was quiet and studious. Just the nicest person.”
The effect on the student body was one of paranoia and finger-pointing as his fellow-students tried to determine who had taken the life of Jones is the most brutal manner. Walker recalls in his role as the Editor of “The Compass” that university officials were keen to control the narrative about the murder and the subsequent investigation by local authorities. He added, “The ECSU leadership were under immense pressure to manage the fall-out from this tragic event. On top of this there were ongoing safety concerns that killer could strike again.”
By then end of March 1984 Police Chief Owens sounded almost pragmatic about the ability of local law enforcement to charge a suspect with the murder of Sharon Jones. “We will actively pursue any leads and witnesses will be re-interviewed,” Owens said. He further pledged, “This doesn’t mean we are out of the ball game. There’s no way we are going to give up on this.”
And then, the investigation went cold.
Located on page 10 of the 1983 – 1984 ECSU Yearbook “The Viking” is an almost cryptic memoriam to the students of the university who “fought a battle and conquered their oppressor.”
It goes on – “Their reward, eternal life was granted to them by the master of all forms of life.” The verse closes by optimistically stating, “Because of this, we are assured our fellow Vikings – who have sailed the seas of life with their banners waving high – are without misery and strife. Peaceful eternal security is theirs.” Strangely enough there is no specific dedication or obituary to the recent passing of Sharon Jones within this yearbook which celebrates the past school year.
Truth be told “security,” or more specifically the lack of on-campus security afforded the students of ECSU, appears to have been an on-going issue at the university. Recently ECSU has once again been in the public spotlight after the Elizabeth City Police Department found that 126 campus crimes dating from 2006 – 2013, including 17 known reports of sexual assault, had not been investigated by campus police.
In early 2013 the SBI was reported to be examining the university’s reporting of crime on the campus including the institutional response to the reports of sexual assault. The SBI’s probe also investigated alleged witness intimidation and obstruction of justice, after student Katherine Lowe brought to school officials a claim that she had been sexually assaulted by a dorm security officer in Butler Hall. Specifically, Ms Lowe later testified within the Pasquotank County Court that not only did campus police fail to investigate her complaint as a matter of due course, but also college administrators from the Human Resources Department pressured her to drop the complaint.
Ultimately in June 2013, Anthony Butler Jr, a temporary residence security officer and volunteer women’s basketball coach at the university, was convicted by the county court of two counts of sexual battery, two counts of breaking and entering, and one count of sexual assault – all related to the Lowe case. The scandal over the lack of accountability toward campus safety and crimes reporting would ultimately lead to the resignation of Campus Police Chief Sam Beamon and the retirement of Chancellor Willie Gilchrist.
In October 2013, ECSU was later assessed by campus and public safety consulting firm Margolis Healy to be “substantially out of compliance” with the Clery Act – a federal statute that requires all colleges and universities that participate in federal aid programs to keep and disclose information about crime on or near their respective campuses. The report completed by Margolis Healy would state that ECSU officials did not understand Clery Act requirements and lacked the systems, processes, and trained staff to ensure compliance with the statute.
Apathy abounds us all. Mostly, when it fits into personal schedules, we attempt to keep each other safe. Whether it’s our significant others or the appointed leaders of the community, stakeholders within a society work together to ensure the population goes about their daily lives without fear of random attack or retribution. What are the broader sociological factors that enable some serious crimes to remain unsolved and quickly forgotten and those crimes that capture the attention of the general population, the media, and law enforcement officials? Lack of resources. Poor coordination between authorities. Underlying racism within our public institutions. Or just plain indifference. Where lies the will to serve justice on the perpetrator and to provide solace to the family of those who have been harmed? What allows the wider citizenry to be powerless to act in the face of great injustice to one of their own?
Most perplexing in the Sharon Jones cold case is the almost complete lack of digital footprint regarding the events around the aforementioned 1984 period and the subsequent investigation by authorities. Even more troubling is that the unsolved murder is not listed as a “cold case” on the North Carolina SBI website. This is a crime that took place at a state university – being a member institution (one of 16 public institutions) of the University of North Carolina system. One wonders the type of media attention a tragedy of this sort would garner at a higher-profile state or prestigious private university, as opposed to a historically black college located in an economically disadvantaged region of the state. As an example of this media bias and disproportion, research the relatively recent case of the unsolved murder of undergraduate Faith Hedgepeth, from Hollister, NC, beaten to death within her apartment close to UNC-Chapel Hill campus in September 2012. This unsolved murder received national and international media attention over a six-year period, as police (and internet sleuths) continue to actively pursue leads in the case.
As the 35-year anniversary of the Jones murder approaches, hope still exists after recent advances in DNA technology and genetic genealogy have led to numerous arrests in cold cases across the US – in the past year most notably the April 2018 arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo in Sacramento, California as a suspect in the Golden State Killer / East Area Rapist crimes – a series of home invasions, rapes, and murders that terrorised Californian communities during the 1970s and 1980s.
Just this past November the Orlando Police Department arrested a suspect in the 21st October 2001 murder of University of Central Florida education student Christine Franke who was 25 at the time. Tragically, Franke died just two months short of her graduation. Benjamin Holmes, 38, is facing a first-degree murder charge for the killing, which police have speculated was a robbery gone wrong. The victim died due to a single gunshot wound to the head.
Franke had been slain in the foyer of her own apartment located in Orlando’s Audubon Park. Police found semen on her body although it was determined by the medical examiner that she was not raped. At the time crime scene investigators examined the DNA but were unable to find a match within law enforcement databases. Police had speculated that on the night of her murder, Franke came home from work at 4:00am from Cigarz Bar located on University City Walk in Orlando. She had just completed a double shift as a bartender and waitress at the bar, and had $300 in her possession when she returned to her apartment – which police officers first to the crime scene were unable to find.
In 2016 the Orlando Police Department ran this DNA sample with Parobon NanoLabs, a company based in Reston, Virginia, that provides DNA snapshot phenotyping services for law enforcement agencies. From the sample provided, the lab was able to create a computer-generated composite of the suspect using phenotyping technology. In May 2018 this DNA profile was sent to GEDmatch, a personal genomics database located in a Lake Worth, Florida, where people can upload DNA profiles and search for distant family members. Fortunately the DNA profile in this case was matched to three persons in the database who were distant relations to the killer. From there police were able to build an extended family tree and narrow the suspects down to one – Benjamin Holmes.
To confirm the DNA match Orlando Police placed Holmes under immediate surveillance and were able to secure his DNA from a Budweiser beer can and several small cigars he had thrown away outside of a friend’s house. At the press conference on Monday 5th November 2018 at Orlando Police Headquarters to announce the arrest of Holmes, Tina Franke, mother of Christine Franke expressed her heartfelt gratitude to local law enforcement. “I honestly thought we would never find him. We are relieved just having it settled in our minds and knowing he’s behind bars and can’t hurt anyone else,” Mrs Franke said.
Also offering encouragement for North Carolina families devasted by the unsolved murders of loved ones is a “Cold Case” Project being led by the SBI. Since 2015 the SBI has engaged retired SBI agents to investigate cold homicide cases brought to them by local enforcement agencies in the state. The initiative focuses resources toward investigating the state’s most notorious murders and is funded by a grant supplied the Governor’s Crime Commission. Ten retired SBI homicide investigators have been allocated to eight SBI regions within North Carolina and are also being supported by several law school students from across the state.
In 2017 the project paid dividends in the 19th April 1979 unsolved murder of Karen Johnson in Jacksonville, NC. Roger Pollard was sentenced to 20 years to 35 years in prison on 25th August 2017 in the Onslow County Superior Court, after previously entering an Alford Plea with the District Attorney. An Alford Plea in the case allowed Pollard to acknowledge there was enough evidence to convict him in a criminal court proceeding, but he still asserted his innocence nonetheless.
Johnson was 20 at the time of her death and was only married to Lance Corporal Gray Johnson for one month. Corporal Johnson was away from home on night of 19th April 1979 serving in the field on a training exercise in his role as a Marine. It was alleged that Pollard was aware that Corporal Johnson was away on this evening and came by the Johnson’s home to make advances on the new bride. Karen Johnson body was found the next day by neighbors on her bed within the home, severely beaten and bloody. The Medical Examiner would state that the cause of death was most likely strangulation.
The reopening of the cold case was led by SBI Special Investigator Tony Cummings and utilized DNA technologies to reexamine physical evidence from the crime scene. Ultimately Pollard was tied to the victim through his DNA after blood was found on the jean shorts the victim was wearing on the night in question. According to Detective Cummings, the “Onslow County Sheriff’s Office had properly maintained the physical evidence and we were able to get a match of Pollard’s DNA.”
Highlighting the successful joint investigation was the coming together of resources from the SBI, the Jacksonville Police Department, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and the Onslow County Sheriff’s Office. Cummings added, “This is the perfect example of a group effort from beginning to end. Even the original case agent compiled an excellent investigation, but the conclusive DNA evidence was not available at that time (1979).”
“They didn’t have to do this to her,” Lisa Jones reflects on the killing of her older sister Sharon and the ferocity of the murder of a young person, who was about to enter the prime of her life. When you speak with Lisa Jones you can tell almost immediately that you are conversing with a thoughtful and sincere person. Her voice is measured but matter of fact as she describes her sister, Sharon. “We were like twins,” says Lisa Jones. “She was my best friend.”
To add to the immediate trauma over the loss of her sister in March 1984, Lisa Jones endured the most devastating phone call at her home in Moyock on the day of the funeral of Sharon Jones. While at ECSU, Sharon Jones by coincidence became good friends with another Sharon Jones who also attended the university. According to Lisa Jones she answered the ringing phone to hear what sounded like a young man say apologetically, “I’m sorry – I killed the wrong Sharon Jones.” Completely overtaken by emotion Lisa screamed to her mother across the house, “Mama, someone’s on the phone saying they killed the wrong Sharon Jones.”
Completely devasted and unable to psychologically process the shocking phone call, Lisa Jones kept this information to herself for over 20 years. By chance while in Elizabeth City one day in 2005 she decided to visit the Elizabeth City Police Department and discuss the events of the day of the funeral, more specifically the phone call. The response she received from police was staggering. Lisa Jones says the police berated her for coming to them after many years with this new information. “I cried like she (Sharon) was killed all over again.”
In late 2013 Elizabeth City Police Department issued a public announcement that the Sharon Jones cold case would be re-examined and reinvestigated. It was stated by the department representatives that recent advances in DNA technologies maybe be useful in closing this case. The Jones family was not contacted by the ECPD about the re-opening of the case. From what can be surmised, nothing came of the renewed investigation. No further comment on the matter was provided by the ECPD. Silence.
If you have any information regarding the unsolved murder of Sharon Jones at Elizabeth City State University, please contact Elizabeth City Police Department at 252-335-4321.
“Police find woman dead in dorm room” (Currie, J.) – The Daily Advance; 5 Mar 1984
“Authorities continuing death probe” (Currie, J.) – The Daily Advance; 6 Mar 1984
“Slaying of student puzzles investigators” (Frank, J.) – The Virginian Pilot; 6 Mar 1984
“Authorities questioning suspects in ECSU murder” (Currie, J.) – The Daily Advance; 7 Mar 1984
“Slain student is mourned” (Currie, J.) – The Daily Advance; 8 Mar 1984
“Security is increased after killing” (Frank, J.) – The Virginian Pilot; 13 Mar 1984
“ECSU puts down security clamp” (Lucas, R.) – The Daily Advance; 13 Mar 1984
“Jenkins addresses university family” (Mabry, A.H.) – The Compass Newspaper, Elizabeth City State University; March 1984
“Leads few in ECSU murder case” (Haskins, J.) – The Daily Advance; 30 July 1984
“ESCU death probe goes on – questions are numerous” (Lucas, R. & Currie, J.) – The Daily Advance; 29 Mar 1984
“The Viking” (Student Yearbook) 1983-1984 edition – Elizabeth City State University; P. 10
“Suspect’s prints don’t tie in with older case” (Crofford, C.) – The Daily Advance; 22 June 1986
“ECSU Chancellor Wille Gilchrist resigns amid state investigation into campus crime reporting” (Kingkade, T.) – https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2013/05/21/ecsu-chancellor-willie-gilchrist_n_3308484.html(online); 25 May 2013
“ECSU dorm security officer guilty of sexual assault” (Hampton, J.) –https://pilotonline.com/news/local/crime/ecsu-dorm-security-officer-guilty-of-sexual-assault/article_ead5bf43-3afc-5844-a48a-4a670b5ee4f0.html (online); 11 June 2013
“Study: ECSU was substantially out of compliance with Clery Act” (CS Staff) – https://www.campussafetymagazine.com/news/study-ecsu-was-substantially-out-of-compliance-with-clery-act/(online); 16 Oct 2013
“1984 ECSU student murder among cold cases to be re-examined” (Jasek, M.) – https://wtkr.com/2013/12/09/1984-ecsu-student-murder-among-cold-cases-to-be-re-examined/(online); 9 Dec 2013
“Sister of strangled ECSU student pleads for answers” (Jasek, M.) – https://wtkr.com/2014/02/14/sister-of-strangled-ecsu-student-pleads-for-answers-30-years-later/(online); 14 Feb 2014
“SBI reviews cold cases with new technology” (North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation) – https://www.ncsbi.gov/Home/News-Releases/SBI-Reviews-Cold-Cases-with-New-Technology(online); 21 Apr 2017
“Man sentenced to at least 20 years in 38-year old cold case” (Whidden, N.) – https://www.jdnews.com/news/20170825/man-sentenced-to-at-least-20-years-in-38-year-old-cold-case(online); 25 Aug 2017
“Orlando police solve 2001 cold case murder using DNA, genealogy database” (Tziperman Lotan, G.) – https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/crime/cold-cases/os-ne-orlando-police-cold-case-murder-arrest-20181105-story.html(online); 5 Nov 2018