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Shelby Murder Mystery Revived: Kansas shooter has ties to 1987 bookstore murders
Updated: April 25, 2014 at 7:52 am
[Ed. Note — The online version of this story contains some updates not included in our April 25, 2014, print edition.]
The April 13 murders of three people at a suburban Kansas City Jewish community center and retirement home has brought back memories and increased scrutiny of a 1987 triple slaying at a Shelby, N.C., gay bookstore, as local law enforcement officials now say they are sending investigators to question a man who may have ties to the brutal killings committed nearly 30 years ago.
Frazier Glenn Miller, the 73-year-old white nationalist charged with the Overland Park, Kan., murders, was “involved” in the brutal execution-style murders of three men at the adult bookstore in 1987, attorneys who worked on the case said in a version of this report first published by Raw Story on April 18.
The two defense attorneys encountered Miller during the first and only Shelby murder trial in 1989. Miller appeared as a witness in that case, but the attorneys say he should have been considered a prime suspect in the crime that, to this day, is unsolved.
Police say sometime shortly before midnight on Jan. 17, 1987, three armed gunmen entered the Shelby III Adult Bookstore located outside Shelby, N.C. The men ordered the four customers and clerk to the floor. Once there, the five men were shot execution style in the back of the head. Police say a .22 caliber weapon and .45 caliber weapon were used in the shootings. Following the shooting the masked intruders took cash from the register and rigged up plastic gallon jugs filled with gasoline with detonation fuses.
Three of the men died from the gunshot wounds. Travis Melton, 19, Kenneth Godfrey, 29, and Paul Weston were found dead inside the burning store. Two men — James Parris and John Anthony — survived the gunshot wounds to their heads and managed to escape the burning building. Emergency first responders found both men in their cars in front of the burning building. Fire and police officials testified that had the fire continued to burn another 10 or 15 minutes that none of the victims would have been recognizable.
The case is largely forgotten in popular memory now, even if some locals in and around Shelby remember it. At the time, though, the murders were front-page headlines across the state. The Shelby Star covered it extensively, as did The Charlotte Observer.
But, it was in the LGBT community where the most shock was felt, as community members scrambled to understand the implications.
“What actually happened in the Shelby shooting? Was it anti-gay violence?” a headline from the Raleigh Front Page read on March 17, 1987.
Hate-related crimes — including others committed by local Ku Klux Klan chapters — were recent, not distant, memories in North Carolina. Even as the Shelby investigation unfolded and later turned to focus on white nationalists, Klan members were publicly targeting gay men and those living with AIDS in places like Greensboro.
No leads, and then Miller
For months following the gruesome and brutal murders, investigators in North Carolina posited many theories about their cause. Investigators opined the killings could have been the result of mob ties or business battles over the adult bookstore industry, or a homosexual relationship that “had gone sour.”
But in April 1987, Miller, Douglas Lawrence Sheets, Robert “Jack” Eugene Jackson and a fourth man, Anthony Wydra, were arrested in Ozark, Mo. Federal agents arrested the quartet with a stockpile of weapons and charged them with federal arms violations. The group was also distributing a “Declaration of War” issued by Miller.
The declaration was made on “niggers, Jews, queers, assorted mongrels, white-race traitors and despicable informants,” according to a May 1989 report on the case in The Charlotte Observer. According to that report, the declaration also provided a point system for killing various people. One point was given for killing “a nigger,” the paper quoted Sheets as reading. Five points were assigned for “a queer,” while 10 points were assigned to a Jew. Twenty points were assigned for murdering an abortion doctor, while 50 points were assigned for killing a judge or race-traitor politician or a government witness.
But, Miller’s hatred for government witnesses seems to have been a more-or-less pliable guideline than a hard-and-fast rule. Shortly after his arrest in the weapons case, Miller turned. He took a plea deal with federal investigators and agreed to testify against other members of the White Patriot Party and later entered the witness protection program.
Miller pointed the finger for the Shelby murders squarely at Sheets and Jackson.
Little evidence, too much ‘hearsay’
Sheets was tried in April and May 1989, and Jackson’s trial was scheduled to take place once it was done. News clippings of the time report that it was known Miller was testifying against former members of his White Patriot Party as part of a plea deal.
Miller told the court that Sheets and Jackson had told him they had committed the killings in Shelby. Three other witnesses also said they’d heard Sheets talk about the killings while they were incarcerated with him in prison. One was a former White Patriot Party member who had abandoned the Miller group in the Ozarks, allegedly after hearing the story of the bookstore murders from Sheets and Jackson. That witness, Rob Stoner, received $5,000 from the federal government for his role in the indictments against Sheets and Jackson, as well as entry into the witness protection program after a bounty was put on his head by members of the Tennessee Ku Klux Klan.
Prosecutors also presented evidence that gloves found in the weapons cache from the April 1987 Missouri raid were linked by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to fibers found on the plastic jugs used to torch the bookstore.
But prosecutors couldn’t put Sheets or Jackson at the scene. In fact, they had alibis that put them in other states around the time of the bookstore killings. Sheets had evidence that he’d been in Kansas the day before the killings, and a blizzard that struck made it virtually impossible for him to have been in North Carolina to commit the crime.
As the trial went on, Sheets and his attorneys pointed out that it was Miller who didn’t have an alibi for the night of the murders.
On the stand, Sheets said that Miller had told him that “he damn sure made a big boom in Shelby.” Miller, meanwhile, in pretrial statements had referred to a feature in the bookstore — a two-way mirror — that suggested he might have taken part in the killings himself.
Don Bridges, one of Sheets’ attorneys, also recounted to jurors a conversation between Miller, Sheets, and Jackson. “Don’t worry boys,” Bridges said Miller told them, “I’m going to be pointing the finger at you, but don’t worry. You can’t be convicted because it’s all hearsay evidence.”
That turned out to be true. With no way to put Sheets at the scene of the murders, he was acquitted. Jackson’s trial was then canceled. To this day, there’s been no other trial or conviction for the murder of the three men in Shelby.
Was Miller involved?
Nearly 30 years later, attorneys who worked to defend Sheets against the Shelby murder charges remain convinced Miller was involved.
“I still believe Miller was involved with those murders. I do,” said Kirk D. Lyons, an attorney known for defending white nationalists. “And, I’ve got a lot more proof than I’ve ever had because he’s done it again — killed more people.”
The chief counsel of Sheets’ defense team was Leslie ‘Les’ Farfour, and he too believes Miller was responsible for the 1987 murders.
“I fully believe that,” said Farfour, who still practices law in Cleveland County.
Lyons said Miller was in Raleigh the day after the Shelby murders, while Sheets and Jackson had alibis placing them in other states.
“The day after the bookstore murders, he was in Raleigh at a march for the White Patriot Party for Robert E. Lee’s birthday,” Lyons said. “Now, granted the storm comes in and makes travel impossible if you’re in Oklahoma, but, come on, I think somebody from Raleigh could have gotten to Shelby that night in a car.”
A May 25, 1989, report on the Sheets’ trial in The Charlotte Observer notes that Raleigh Police Lt. Randy Deaton testified that Miller was in that city on Jan. 18, 1987, “watching a parade by members of the Southern National Front, formerly the White Patriots.”
Farfour and the defense team repeatedly told jurors Miller was responsible for the murders.
“He was, as far as I am concerned, was directing everything that occurred — anything [the White Patriot Party] did, he had his fingers in,” Farfour said in a telephone interview. “I can’t imagine if this was actually a hit by the White Patriot Party that he was not personally involved, directed it somehow. I don’t have anything to back that up. It just seems to be the case, especially with the White Patriot Party claiming responsibility. Who else is going to be directing it other than the leader of the White Patriot Party?”
Farfour says Miller’s organization issued a claim of responsibility in a pamphlet about a year after the trial.
But, by then, prosecutors had moved on. After Sheet’s acquittal and Jackson’s dropped charges, it didn’t seem to matter which organization claimed responsibility for the murders, which remain unsolved 27 years later.
Lyons believes that federal authorities — and their plea deal with Miller — prevented them from looking at Miller more closely.
“If they thought [the prosecutor] had screwed up somehow, they had the right to come in behind him and file civil rights charges, by virtue of depriving the people in the bookstore of their civil rights by murdering them,” Lyons says. “That was never attempted. The problem was — and what it comes back to me is — Miller got to them first and they kind of took him for all they could get out of him. My thinking is that it is very possible they just looked the other way and were not very interested in following the path to Miller and I think they should have.”
Sheets’ and Jacksons’ families, too, believe Miller was involved in the Shelby murders.
“We mourn for the tragic victims of the recent murderous rampage in Kansas. Our prayers go out to their grieving families,” read a statement from the families, provided by Lyons. “If the federal government and their intel partner, the Southern Poverty Law Center, had acted responsibly in bringing Frazier Glenn Miller to justice for masterminding and participating in the Shelby Bookstore Murders back in the 1980s, this Kansas tragedy could never have taken place.”
Memories and closure?
The Kansas shootings in April brought a flood of memories back to those who remembered the Shelby case or worked on it.
For Farfour — the lead attorney in the murder trial — the experience has been palpable. He had worked on several capital murder cases prior, but the Shelby trial was, by far, his largest, he said. It shocked him and the rest of the community at the time.
“It was very significant. It was big. It’s something that just doesn’t happen in small-town Shelby — to have execution-style killings of three people and the burning of an adult bookstore,” Farfour said.
The people of Shelby weren’t prepared for the case’s brutality or its aftermath.
“We’re in the Bible belt and a lot of people frowned on there being an adult bookstore there, but they would never have gone to the extent of killing and burning,” Farfour said.
As the case progressed and came to trial, the community braced for trouble. Shelby had had its share of tragedies and murders, Farfour said, but nothing like the bookstore shootings.
“There was a lot of concern that the White Patriot Party or the Klan might have put a hit out on [Miller] to keep him from testifying,” Farfour recounted. “There was a lot of publicity and anxiety in the community. We had FBI agents on top of the court house with sub-machine guns during the entire trial.”
Farfour continued, “The trial took a little over a month to complete with all the publicity and attention, we were worried about if somebody was going to bust into the courtroom and start shooting or if a bomb was going to go off.”
Despite the attention and discussion, Shelby didn’t seem to change much.
“I didn’t see views toward gays or toward the Klan change a lot one way or the other,” Farfour said. “I don’t think it particularly changed anybody’s perspective on things. I’d like to say it did, but I don’t think it did at all.”
At the time, Farfour said Shelby’s citizens simply wanted to put all the controversy and shock behind them.
“We had always been a very progressive, friendly, small-town atmosphere,” he remembered. “I think we wanted to try to build that image back up and put it behind us and move forward.”
But, moving forward requires closure — something the families of the Shelby murder victims never received.
Miller, now in federal custody for the Kansas shootings, could be questioned again on the Shelby case.
“If they wanted to try to get closure for the families of the victims, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to ask,” Farfour said, but he doubts Miller would ever admit to anything.
Without a confession, the brutal Shelby murders will likely never be fully solved. But, Farfour will continue to have his suspicions.
“To me, in my mind, it was solved when the pamphlet came out and the Ku Klux Klan or the White Patriot Party or whichever one took credit for it,” Farfour said. “You’ve got the organization that did it, but you don’t have the individuals. As far as knowing the individuals, no, I don’t think it will ever be solved.”
Local investigators react
Despite Farfour’s fears the case might not ever be solved, local investigators in Cleveland County told local media late this week they would be looking into the case again and will be traveling to Kansas to question Miller, according to a report Thursday from Charlotte news station WBTV.
“We are going to coordinate an effort between the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office and the Kansas authorities to make sure that avenue is explored,” Sheriff Alan Norman told WBTV.
We tried to speak with officials at the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office multiple times last week hoping to ask them more about the cold case. They didn’t get back to us, but now they are on their way to Kansas to question Miller.
A follow-up call to the sheriff’s office Thursday afternoon was not returned. : :
An in-depth version of this report exploring more details of Miller’s ties with the 1987 murder and the resulting 1989 trial was published by Raw Story on April 18 with an update published April 24. Portions reprinted here with permission.
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About the author: Matt Comer is the editor of QNotes. Todd Heywood is a freelance writer based out of Lansing, Mich.