Detective to dust off an old mystery

Witnesses said George Payton ignored threatening phone calls in his office, saying he wasn't afraid. His killing, almost 40 years ago, has been reopened by Charleston police.

A Charleston murder case that has baffled investigators for nearly 40 years is getting another look.

George Payton Jr., a well-known black attorney with a reputation for challenging the status quo, was shot to death in his Spring Street office while talking on the telephone about 2 p.m. March 18, 1975.

Some said he was killed by a professional hit man because he was representing Hilton Head landowners who were standing in the way of developers from Washington, D.C.

Others said he was probably killed by a disgruntled former client. Some speculated he was shot because he was a lady's man who had angered several women.

Angel Payton-Harmon was 4 years old when her father was killed. She has spent her life wondering why.

"I just want to know the truth," she said. "If I ever was to come face to face with the person who killed my dad, I would not want them punished. I just want to find out why."

She convinced the Charleston Police Department to assign longtime homicide detective Mike Gordon to the case, as it will be nearly 40 years since her father was killed.

"We will simply go out and give it our best effort and hope something comes our way that will move us in the direction to resolve it," he said. "That's my big hope, that something new would come up."

The boldness of Payton's killer was the most striking thing about his murder.

His secretary told investigators at the time that a young black man came into the office at 65 Spring St. about 2 p.m., identified himself as James Walker and asked to speak with Payton. While he was sitting in the reception area, he said he had to use the bathroom and walked down a hall that went past Payton's office.

There are conflicting accounts whether the secretary heard gunshots, leading some to speculate the killer used a silencer. The man who called himself Walker walked past the secretary with a gun at his side on his way out the door.

Police said Payton died of a single gunshot to his right eye. A .38-caliber slug was imbedded in a cinderblock wall behind the desk. He was dead when he arrived at a hospital emergency room.

Payton still had his wallet with $27 cash, a school class ring and a key case with eight keys.

Eugene Frazier, a retired Charleston County Police detective who helped investigate Payton's murder, championed the theory that Payton was killed because of his dealings in Hilton Head.

He included the Payton investigation in a book he wrote in 2001, called "From Segregation to Integration: The Making of Black Policemen: A True Story."

Frazier wrote that he was in Payton's office a few months before his death when he heard the attorney talking on the phone to somebody who seemed to be threatening him. Frazier said he heard Payton say, "You don't scare me." Frazier asked him what that was about. Payton said the caller was somebody from Washington, D.C., involved in a land-transaction deal in Hilton Head Island.

Frazier wrote that nobody took his theory seriously at the time, and that's why the case was never solved.

Gordon said he initially leaned toward the theory that Payton was killed by a hit man from out of state but has come to believe the killer had local connections.

"The Hilton Head angle was investigated pretty thoroughly in 1975 with no conclusions drawn," Gordon said. "Some additional information obtained in the early 1990s points toward it being more of a local issue, but with no specifics as to names or locations. The 1990s information is very consistent with how the crime occurred, so I have to attach some credibility to the source of the information. I can't completely rule out Hilton Head, but I believe it's more local."

Payton-Harmon, a caseworker at Medical University Hospital, said she's not ruling out other theories for her father's death.

"Apparently my dad was quite the lady's man," she said.

After he died without a will, his first wife sued the estate, saying they had never been legally divorced.

Payton had four children from his first wife. Three of them live in the Tampa area, Payton-Harmon said. The one who lives in Charleston did not respond to requests to talk. Payton-Harmon said she's not sure if Payton's other children have any interest in reopening the case.

She was born Rivers and changed her name to Payton when she turned 18. She has Payton on her license plate.

She has photos and a newspaper article of her dad's death on her Facebook page.

"His name was important to me," she said. "I just want people to think of my dad."

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.