Betty M. Turner has never spoken a word to Reginald Mack, but he has been a fixture in her life for the better part of four decades.
The Mount Pleasant woman had her fate chained to Mack’s fortunes one chilly December morning in 1972 when he and two others gunned down Turner’s brother execution-style in a Charleston liquor store. Ever since, she has made it her mission to see that he remains behind bars for his crimes.
They are both senior citizens at this point, but Turner is not about to let her guard down. She saw her nemesis freed by the state parole board back in 1988, and Mack lasted 20 years on the outside before his actions sent him back to prison four years ago. Turner worries that if she doesn’t attend every hearing and look the parole board members in the eye, they’ll set Mack free again.
“It’s about justice,” the 80-year-old mother of five said. “If you murder someone, you shouldn’t get out of prison. There shouldn’t be parole for people like that.”
Turner has made the long and familiar ride to Columbia at least a dozen times over the years to protest Mack’s various requests for parole. She did so again Wednesday, accompanied for the first time by Charleston County’s chief prosecutor.
Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she felt compelled to go after hearing about Turner’s story and how long the woman and her family have fought the system to keep the 66-year-old Mack locked up for killing Joseph A. Moluf Jr. 40 years ago.
Wilson said it was a sobering journey in which she met several others who lost family members at a time when state law allowed a murderer serving life to apply for parole after just 10 years in prison. Though the law has since been changed, these families must still make regular pilgrimages to the parole board or risk seeing their loved ones’ killers go free, she said.
“I realized I was 4 years old when this happened to them and they are still going through this,” Wilson said of the Turner family. “It was very moving and it was something that was good for me to see. It’s great that we have come so far, but this was a reminder of what people still go through.”
Moluf, known as “Josie,” was a gregarious man with a passion for boating, fishing and friends. He seemed to know everybody. He also had good business sense and found ways to expand the family’s liquor store operation after his dad died unexpectedly of a heart attack.
Moluf was 38 years old when three men targeted his President Street liquor store on the morning of Dec. 8, 1972, looking to rob him of $16,000 that an employee had just brought back from the bank to cash checks for customers.
A gunman, later identified as Mack, forced Moluf and a friend into a storage room and forced them to lie facedown on the floor. Moluf did nothing to resist, but the gunman shot him in the back of the head anyway, according to trial testimony.
Mack, then 23, went to trial the following year and a jury convicted him of murder and robbery. In sentencing him to life imprisonment plus 20 years, the judge told Mack he would never see the light of day again.
“The judge should never have said that,” Turner said. “He should have known better.”
Ten years later, Turner and her family learned Mack was up for parole. And so began their regular journeys to Columbia to try to uphold the sentence that had been imposed.
They also made separate trips to oppose parole for one of Mack’s co-defendants, James Alston, who won parole in 1983. Alston returned to prison six years later after a drug conviction. He has since died.
Each time Turner made the 234-mile round trip to the capital, she felt her stomach constrict and anxiety grip her body. She felt physically ill, as if the raw, jangled pain of her brother’s murder was rushing back at her. But she never thought about turning back. “I didn’t give that a thought at all,” she said. “I just have to do it.”
Mack applied for release six times before the state parole board approved his request in 1988, igniting a storm of criticism and calls for parole reform.
Turner could do little as Mack walked around a free man and appeared before the state Legislature as an example of a reformed prisoner. Lawmakers at the time were considering a bill to limit criminals’ voting rights, and he was touted as a reason to vote down the legislation. Charleston legislators were livid.
State officials occasionally called Turner to tell her about Mack violating the terms of his release. But the incidents never seemed serious enough for the state to send him back to prison, even after he was caught with a concealed weapon of some kind in 1992, Turner said.
Finally, in 2007, Mack went off the grid for a spell, disappearing and failing to report to his parole officer for a period of months. Authorities nabbed him in Summerville in January 2008, and he was ordered to return to prison in May of that year to serve out his original sentence, said Pete O’Boyle, spokesman for the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.
Turner traveled to Columbia four times for hearings before that decision was reached. On one visit, she found herself standing across a hallway from the strapping man who had killed her baby brother.
“I got so weak I thought I would fall down,” she said. “I was scared to death by the sight of him.”
The state has ratcheted up its parole requirements since the 1970s and, in 1996, ended parole eligibility for criminals sentenced to life imprisonment, O’Boyle said. Because Mack was sentenced before that date, he can still apply for parole. The one solace for Turner is that his hearings now only come up every two years, instead of annually.
Lowcountry families now have the option of going to a videoconferencing site in North Charleston to voice their opposition to parole requests. But Turner will have none of that. She thinks it’s essential to be there in front of the board, to look them in the eye and tell her brother’s story.
So she made the trip again Wednesday with her 25-year-old grandson, named “Josie” after her brother. Also on board was Laurel Fox, a family friend who knows all too well how the parole system works. Fox also travels to Columbia regularly to oppose parole for the man who fatally shot her father, Stanley Kohn, and a female friend in Columbia 26 years ago.
“I know what it feels like and I wanted to be there for her,” Fox said. “It’s awful. And as soon as it’s over, you begin dreading the next time.”
Wilson, the solicitor, was moved by the display and the commitment on the part of the families who still come, year after year. She was also touched by how anxious and shaken Turner got as the hearing approached, despite the passage of years.
At 80, Turner remains spry and sharp, able to reel off dusty details and dates with ease. But she knows she can’t do this forever, and she’s hoping family and friends will take up the cause when she’s gone, as they do now in helping her collect signatures on petitions to oppose Mack’s release.
For now, she has every intention of making Mack’s next hearing and the one after that, for just as long as she is able.
“Josie was a good guy and everybody loved him,” she said. “You don’t kill someone in cold blood like that and get to go free. If the situation were reversed, Josie would do the same for me. I know he would.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.