Folly Beach killer Richard Valenti up for parole; victims' families again vow to fight release
He said the Lord told him to kill them. They had the devil inside.
Those words linger at the forefront of her memories from childhood, 51-year-old Lucy Bunch Hopkins said.
She recalled seeing her older sister's killer sitting in a Folly Beach police station soon after his arrest in 1973. He clutched a Bible in one hand. A missing person's flier for her sister, 16-year-old Mary Earline Bunch, was partially tucked within its pages.
Richard Raymond Valenti confessed and was charged in the teen's death but never tried. He was, however, convicted and sent to state prison on two life sentences for gagging, binding and hanging two other teens, Sherri Clark, 14, and Alexis Ann Latimer, 13. Their bodies were found in two shallow graves on Folly Beach more than 10 months after their disappearance.
The now 71-year-old convicted murderer has waived or been denied release from prison 17 times since he became eligible for parole in 1983, according to Pete O'Boyle, a spokesman for the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.
His 18th bid for parole is scheduled for Wednesday.
A long-fought battle by the families of Valenti's victims has kept the man behind bars over the decades.
At the time of his sentencing, the law required that Valenti serve only 10 years in prison before being eligible for parole on the life sentences. He comes up for parole every two years.
Sherri Clark's younger sister Paula Clark Marion, of Summerville, said her family attended every parole hearing that Valenti didn't waive and insisted that he remain in prison.
The undertaking was initially led by her mother, Janice Clark, Marion said.
Marion took up the cause following her mother's death in 2009.
"We want to do everything that we can to keep him in jail," Marion said. "My sister wasn't able to jump out of her grave, so he shouldn't be allowed to walk out of prison."
Marion was eight years old when friends Sherri Clark and Alexis Latimer took the trip to Folly Beach that ended in their deaths.
Her mother was home napping before a night shift at Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital when the Latimer family called to say the teens were missing, Marion said.
State Law Enforcement Division agents were called to assist in the search.
Some had written the teens off as runaways but the families knew better, Marion said.
A neighbor knocked on her family's front door nearly a year later and advised her mother not to turn on her television.
News reports showed authorities unearthing graves on Folly Beach near Valenti's home. No family should have to learn of a death that way, Marion said.
"At eight years old, I still had hope that I would see my sister again but reality slapped me in the face that day," Marion said. "My parents wanted her back, of course, and always wanted to believe that she was alive. ... As hard as it was, at least we were able to find some sort of closure."
Investigators learned that Valenti, a former sailor stationed at Charleston Naval Base, had forced the teens under his house at gunpoint. He bound and gagged them, then made them stand on chairs. He then tied ropes around their necks, kicked away the chairs and watched as they died.
Police also charged Valenti with strangling Mary Earline Bunch in February 1974 and attacking five other young women, but those charges were dropped after he received the two life sentences.
When Marion attends Valenti's parole hearing in Columbia on Wednesday, she will carry with her a petition containing thousands of signatures opposing his parole, she said.
Hopkins said she also hopes to attend the hearing.
Her mother died of heartbreak a year after her sister, Hopkins said. Her father, Julian Bunch, a former Folly Beach police chief, mourned their deaths for the remainder of his life, she said.
Hopkins recalled growing up eight blocks away from Valenti's home. Her older sister baby-sat on occasion for Valenti's family, she said.
"My mom used to say he was going around picking us out one by one," Hopkins said. "He's said he's reformed since he's been in prison but I think that's just a bunch of hogwash. Anybody that could take a life like that can't just reform afterward. ... If he dies in prison so be it. I think he should have to suffer for the rest of his damn life."
Valenti was quoted in 1987 as saying getting out of prison was not the most important thing in his life. He had sought parole in the past, he said then, to get a chance to spread the Christianity he said he found in prison
"Parole is not the issue for me," Valenti said in 1987. "The quality of life I live in the Lord is the issue for me. Parole would be nice, but if it's in the Lord's perfect plan that I spend the rest of my life here I don't have a problem with that. I really don't. The sentence was right and fair for what I did."
Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC.