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An Undying Mystery: Part 4

New details emerge about an alternate suspect in Alcolu girls' murders

  • 11 min to read
New details emerge about an alternate suspect in Alcolu girls' murders

Attorney Matt Burgess clutched the judge’s order in his hand, a phone pressed to his ear, as he waited for Amie Ruffner to pick up the call some 600 miles away.

Nearly a year had passed since a team of lawyers had waged a long-shot court battle to overturn the conviction that sent Amie’s 14-year-old brother to his death seven decades earlier. Now, Burgess read Judge Carmen Mullen’s decision aloud:

“From time to time, we are called to look back to examine our still-recent history and correct injustice where possible.”

She had thrown out George Stinney Jr.’s murder conviction for fundamental violations of due process in his 1944 prosecution.

“I can think of no greater injustice,” Mullen added.

Listening on the phone, Amie was in tears. She began to holler, "They cleared George's name. They cleared his name!"

However, while the judge had vacated George’s conviction, she'd also left open the much thornier question of his guilt or innocence. The mystery of just who killed Mary Emma Thames and Betty June Binnicker spilled out anew into modern-day South Carolina.

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Terri Evans of Manning holds a photograph taken around 1943 that shows members of her family, including murder victim Mary Emma Thames (far left). File/REUTERS/

***

Sixty miles up the road from Alcolu, that question consumed a white West Columbia woman with a potent blend of personal guilt and moral outrage.

Sonya Eaddy-Williamson was related to the wealthy families that had controlled Alcolu in 1944, and her mother had gone to school with young Betty June. Many times, when they had driven by the Clarendon County Courthouse in Manning, the older woman recalled her murdered classmate and the horror of the two little girls’ deaths.

As Sonya prodded, her mother added to the story.

Sonya’s grandfather had been at the courthouse the day of George Stinney’s trial — and he’d seen the boy that morning. He'd watched as George arrived in what he could best describe as “a cage.” Police escorted the child inside wearing chains so heavy he could barely walk, and an angry crowd had spit on him as he passed.

Yet, time and again, Sonya’s grandfather had said: I know that colored boy didn’t do it.

Those words had haunted Sonya over the years. The notion of such an injustice against a child, and the fact that her grandfather had never spoken out about it, tapped incessantly on the shoulder of her conscience. “Why didn’t he do something?” she asked. “Why didn’t he say something?”

“It was different then,” her mother replied.

She urged Sonya to let it go. It was the past. The people involved were their family and friends. Why dig into their sins?

***

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Sonya at Stinney memorial dedication (copy)

Lonnie Randolph Jr. poses with Sonya Eaddy-Williamson at the dedication of George Stinney Jr.'s memorial in Alcolu. Provided

Sonya couldn’t let it go. She had children of her own, and little grandchildren, and the notion that George Stinney was railroaded burned incessantly at her heart. She began visiting her older relatives to see what they remembered about George and the Alcolu of 1944.

From them, Sonya learned what she didn’t want to know.

Her own ancestors had been active in the KKK, including her grandfather who’d been at the courthouse that day. So were some of the authorities in Clarendon County who had doled out racist vigilante justice on the side. Sonya imagined what George might have endured, alone in their custody.

She had grown up away from Alcolu, so she wasn’t familiar with exactly what had happened when the girls vanished. To find out, she drove there.

It felt like stepping back in time as Sonya slipped along the railroad tracks where only the saw mill’s ghost remained, then traversed the street where Betty June and Mary Emma had walked that day on their search for maypops. She paused in the woods behind Greenhill Missionary Baptist Church, a spring breeze stirring the tall trees that guarded the spot where the girls’ bodies were found.

Standing there, she didn’t only feel sorrow for the lives lost. She also felt confused. The old version of George’s crime simply didn’t make sense.

How had no one in this small, segregated town noticed a young black boy bludgeon to death two white girls in broad daylight? How had nobody heard screams? And how did their bodies get several hundred yards away from where George had spoken to them, way off the road, with almost no blood or drag marks around them?

Sonya was not a shy person, and now a fierce determination propelled her forward. She strode back toward the streets around the old mill and began to knock on people’s doors, focusing on homes where older black residents lived. Had a white person ever asked them what they knew?

At first, the neighbors were suspicious, others fearful. Some simply declined to pick at the scabs of history. Finally, one household welcomed her.

“Come in, it’s hot,” a woman said.

An elderly gentleman, who’d been around eight or nine years old when the girls vanished, seemed talkative. Sonya asked him bluntly: Who really killed the girls?

“Everyone, both white and colored, knew who done it,” he said.

And it wasn’t George Stinney. The real killer, he said, was a powerful white man in town.

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A memorial to George Stinney Jr. sits alongside the busy Sumter Highway in Alcolu. Michael Pronzato/ Staff

***

Long before Sonya began her hunt, journalists, academics, lawyers and armchair detectives from across the country had descended on Alcolu in a Quixotic quest to uncover what exactly occurred on March 24, 1944. With few surviving witnesses to interview and no physical evidence to examine, most came up empty-handed.

Yet, an alternate version of who killed the girls still haunted the case. That version said the culprit was a well-to-do white man whose father had steered blame onto George and away from his son.

This idea slipped into public view through the backdoor of fiction in 1988 when former New York Times journalist David Stout published “Carolina Skeletons,” a novel based loosely on George’s case. It later was adapted into a made-for-TV movie starring Louis Gossett Jr. as a Vietnam veteran returning to his hometown to find proof that his late brother — executed decades earlier for the rape and murder of two white girls — was innocent all along.

The novel helped popularize the theory that an influential white man was behind the murders, but it didn’t create the idea. Rumors about the supposed real culprit had long traveled through Alcolu’s tight-knit black communities and down the hallways of the big houses in which African Americans had cooked, cleaned, and raised white children.

The grandson of a former slave, Delbert Singleton grew up in Alcolu at a time when the schools were segregated and the Ku Klux Klan terrified his neighborhood. Now pastor of Greenhill Missionary Baptist Church, where George and his family once worshiped, he’d long heard the haunting story passed down from generation to generation.

“There were two things that were always talked about in the African American community when I was coming up. One was that Strom Thurmond had a black daughter, which turned out to be true and was denied vehemently for years by any number of different people. And the second thing was that George Stinney did not kill those two little girls.”

As Sonya spoke with black residents, she too heard this version, including when she met Alcolu native George Frierson. He was a Clarendon School District 3 board member and self-taught historian who already had spent a decade researching the case in his own quest to clear George’s name. He claimed that a prominent white man had confessed on his deathbed to killing the girls.

“It was always whispered who did it,” Frierson said, but he refused to name the man.

Not that he needed to. The name was on the lips of people all over town.

“They say some white man had killed him,” said 85-year-old Romeo McFadden, a black retired mill worker. “They say it was a Burke. I didn't know the name.”

“George Burke,” said Richard McBride, another black mill retiree. “They want to say he did it. But we don't know exactly.”

***

Sonya set out to unearth every shred of archival evidence she could find related to George’s conviction. Maybe if she could prove he didn't kill the girls, she also could prove who did. However, Sonya had spent 25 years working in sales at a phone company — and had no idea how to dig up historical records.

First, she called the local sheriff’s office and asked for old evidence in the case, but a man there told her they had none to share. Then she called the state prison system, but their records had been sent to the South Carolina state archives in Columbia.

Finally, Sonya drove there and discovered a treasure chest of history. Death records. Pictures of George. His execution witness list. Coroner’s inquest jury papers. Grand jury records.

Yet, a new horror replaced her thrill at finding them. The names she saw rang familiar. One of her family members had served on the coroner’s inquest jury. So had George Burke Sr., who’d been the jury’s foreman. In fact, he’d served in several roles leading to George Stinney’s conviction.

Sonya became convinced of a cover up — and that her family had played an active part.

With the dusty documents in hand, she set out to track down George’s elderly sisters. Fearing a lynch mob, they had fled north in 1944 and never returned to Alcolu. Amie Ruffner, who was 8 years old back then, was willing to help, as was her sister.

Amie recalled that her father had worked at the mill, and at one point, her mother had done domestic work for a prominent white family in town. Their name: Burke. One night, her mother had come home telling their father that a man named George Burke Sr. had made a pass at her.

“Don’t go back there,” her father had cautioned.

Had that rejection angered the white men? Over the years, Amie had heard that the Burke boys framed George “because my mother didn't want to give it up.”

Sonya wasn’t surprised. She knew well the Jim Crow caste system when it came to the power of white men and the oppression of black women, and she recognized George Burke’s name from her research.

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Binnicker-Coroner's inquest jury.jpg (copy)

George Burke Sr. led a search party that found the girls’ bodies on property that he owned. Four days later, he served as foreman of the coroner’s inquest jury, which found Betty June "came to her death at the hands of George Stinney Jr. and we recommend that he be held for murder." Burke then served on the grand jury as well. South Carolina Department of Archives & History/Provided

In fact, back in 1944, there were two George Burkes in Alcolu: One was George Burke Sr., the lumber company boss who had served on George Stinney’s coroner’s inquest and grand jury. The girls’ bodies were found on his property.

The other George Burke was his eldest son, who’d died at the young age of 29 after languishing in the hospital battling uremia, a complication of chronic kidney disease. George Burke Jr.’s death three years after the murders proved the untimely end to a restless life.

Even some white folks in town described the Burkes as womanizers. Jessie McCabe, a 96-year-old white woman in Alcolu, said she was scared to death of them and wouldn’t let them near her. Jennie Weeks, granddaughter of the pastor of Alcolu’s white church in 1944, grew up hearing her father describe George Burke Jr. as a rascal, a young man prone to stealing things — and getting away with it.

Sonya wondered: Would his father have helped him cover up a murder, too?

Amie recalled another detail as well. After the two white girls had stopped to ask about maypops that day, they had walked on. Then a lumber truck had driven down the road.

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Worshippers listen to a speaker at Greenhill Missionary Baptist in Alcolu in February. George Stinney Jr. and his family attended the church before his arrest and execution in 1944. Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

***

Sonya confronted what she’d always known, deep down. Answers to the mystery of who killed Betty June and Mary Emma were sequestered deep within the white community of Alcolu where her own family roots stretched. She gathered her resolve and called the closest person to the truth she could think of: George Burke Jr.’s living son.

When Wayne Burke answered, she told him that that they were related, although technically they were not. She wanted to get him comfortable. They reminisced about Alcolu and its history, including that of the two murdered girls.

Wayne, who still lived near the old mill, explained that he was just a young child in 1944. His grandparents had raised him, and he barely remembered his father, who had passed away when he was a boy. Some folks had told him that his dad, who drove a truck and butchered hogs, died after a year-long hospital stay because a black woman put a curse on him — for driving a bunch of people to watch George Stinney’s execution.

Sonya sensed he might talk. “Tell me the truth of what happened,” she implored.

Wayne explained that he only knew what his grandmother had told him. On the day the girls went missing, they had stopped by his grandparents’ home, across from Betty June’s house and a few doors down from Mary Emma, to invite her on their maypop expedition. Wayne was napping at the time, though, and she couldn’t leave him untended.

Just then, his father had driven up in a logging truck. George Burke Jr. was on his way to the mill’s log pond, which sat across the street from Greenhill Baptist Church, to unload some lumber.

He offered the girls a ride. They threw their bike in back and hopped in.

Neither girl was seen alive again.

“Did he drop them off to pick flowers?” Sonya asked.

“That’s how I’ve been led to believe.”

Sonya was stunned. If a grown white man with a truck had murdered the girls, then pieces of the puzzle fit in a way they simply didn’t with a small black boy on foot.

But what could she do with this information? Sonya would later detail the story in an affidavit. Yet, it wasn't enough to take a dead man to court, not 70 years later. Besides, some people in Alcolu didn't believe it anyway.

***

In late 2017, a Post and Courier reporter drove down the dirt road to Wayne Burke’s home, a squat, single-story house in the woods of Alcolu. Now nearing 80 years old, Wayne said he recalled talking with Sonya, but he denied that his father had given the girls a ride.

“No, he didn’t take the girls out,” Wayne said flatly. He called rumors about his father’s alleged involvement “just talk.”

“It’s been so long ago, and anything we might say is just hearsay,” Wayne’s wife added.

Besides, if anyone else noticed the girls riding with George Burke Jr. before their deaths, nobody ever came forward to say so. And Wayne remained firmly convinced of George Stinney’s guilt — as did loved ones of the two slain girls. 

Frankie Bailey Dyches, Betty June's niece, holds firm to the belief that the movement to clear George was all about money. Terri Evans, a cousin of Mary Emma's, said nothing can change history, yet the new attention brands her family as racists all the same. They wish people would just move on.

Robert Lewis Alderman, the 80-year-old great-grandson of Alcolu’s founding father, is married to George Burke Jr.’s sister. He was only 6 when the girls were killed, but he still recognized the profound effect the episode had on the community.

Alderman has heard talk that someone else killed the two girls, but he bristles at the notion of a trial by rumor with no evidence to conclusively prove the point either way. He considers the deaths of all three children a tragedy for everyone in Alcolu, but one that is better left in the past.

“We faced a crisis and overcame the negative results of it by continuing as a community that got along real well and lived our lives and grew together by it,” he said. “There was not a racial war that took place.”

***

As Sonya faced backlash, even from her own family members who insisted she leave the case alone, she became closer to George’s two sisters. She admired their wisdom and appreciated that they would comfort her, although she felt it should be the other way around. 

Amie urged her not to be angry at her grandfather anymore for not defending George. “What you don’t understand is that during that time, if your grandfather had spoken up, it would have been his neck and his family,” she said.

That’s just how things were.

On the 70th anniversary of George's death, his sister Katherine Robinson finally returned to South Carolina — and, for the first time since 1944, to Alcolu. Amie declined to join them; their brother, Charles, was in ailing health.

So, Sonya drove Katherine along Alcolu’s streets as the older woman quietly watched the landscape pass — the spot where their small house no longer stood, where the Company Store with its 200-seat auditorium sat shuttered, where the giant mill that once fueled every aspect of Alcolu had vanished into history.

“This doesn’t look anything like it did,” Katherine finally said.

So much had changed. 

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A school bus drives by the old Company Store in Alcolu, which sits shuttered and falling into disrepair. Janice Richburg, president of the Alcolu Preservation Society, is raising money to buy the old store, once a central hub of town where residents could buy groceries, see a doctor or watch a performance in the 200-seat auditorium. Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

Reach Deanna Pan at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan. 

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 843-937-5563. Follow her on Twitter @jenberryhawes.

Deanna Pan is an enterprise reporter for The Post and Courier, where she writes about education and other issues. She grew up in the suburbs of Cincinnati and graduated with a degree in English from Ohio State University in 2012.

Jennifer Berry Hawes is a member of the Watchdog and Public Service team who worked on the newspaper's Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation, "Till Death Do Us Part."