Police put focus on suspected serial killer in 2000 disappearance
By Brian Freskos
Published: Thursday, August 16, 2012 at 11:14 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 16, 2012 at 11:14 a.m.
When Lee Odham joined the police department in 1999, he was assigned to Wilmington’s south side, where pockets of the city hummed with the rhythm of drugs and prostitution.
The police department divides the city into districts so officers learn their designated neighborhoods. As a cop working the beat, Odham came to know the faces of his area quite well. One of them was a woman with dirty blonde hair named Virginia Beach. She hung out near Fourth and Wright streets, a fixture on the corner who often lent information to police.
“We spent years trying to clean up that area,” Odham recalled recently. “It was a perfect spot for people to roll through, pick people up and conduct their business.”
Odham has not seen Beach since she went missing in 2000. But the knowledge that Odham gleaned as a rookie officer has helped link her to a suspected serial killer. Now a homicide detective, Odham is leading the investigation into her disappearance, hoping clues will emerge that reveal her whereabouts.
Detectives have been poring over the files of five women, including Beach, suspected of dying at the hands of John Boyer. A former long-distance truck driver, he is infamous among authorities as a short-tempered convict who allegedly preyed on prostitutes around the Southeast. Investigators are now trying to connect the dots in a murder spree that spanned at least three states.
Boyer is imprisoned for killing a woman in Wilmington in 2003 and charged with similar slayings in South Carolina and Tennessee. More recently, he became a suspect in the investigation into Beach’s whereabouts. She was 37 years old when she disappeared from Wilmington in 2000.
Investigators hope news about the women will generate fresh leads. But the disclosure that detectives have added Beach to the roster of Boyer’s suspected victims opens a new chapter in the case of an accused serial killer who authorities say murdered without remorse.
The police department has sent Beach’s DNA to the University of North Texas, where scientists are expected to compare the samples with unidentified bodies found around the country. It is unclear when the results will be returned.
That many of these women were known to law enforcement helped Wilmington detectives pinpoint similarities between cases, establishing what they believe to be Boyer’s modus operandi. Most of the victims worked as prostitutes, for example. Their bodies were dumped in areas frequented by truckers. And they all were petite women, especially compared to Boyer’s thick, 290-pound frame.
Boyer is currently confined at Central Prison in Raleigh for killing Scarlett Wood in early 2003. The 31-year-old prostitute was last seen at the Travelodge on Market Street in Wilmington. Boyer told investigators he pushed Wood and her head hit some furniture in the motel room. Unable to revive her, he dumped her body in an overgrown area behind a house in the 1600 block of North Kerr Avenue. Her body was found more than three months later, but her remains were not positively identified until 2006.
A forensic anthropologist at the University of North Carolina Wilmington found evidence that Wood suffered broken ribs, facial fractures and stab wounds in the pelvic area, disputing Boyer’s claim that he shoved Wood into furniture. A judge sentenced Boyer to 12 years.
But investigators believe Wood was not Boyer’s first victim, nor his last.
Other possible victims
Michelle Haggadone went missing from Bolivia in 2000. In August of that year, a motorist who walked into the woods at an Interstate 20 rest area in Darlington County, S.C., happened upon the 34-year-old’s body. An autopsy determined she had been strangled with some sort of wire object and laid in the woods three weeks before she was found.
It was not until late 2011, when investigators paid a visit to Boyer and, they say, coaxed a confession out of him that the 55-year-old with a long gray beard was given another murder charge.
Some time after Haggadone died, detectives suspect Boyer chose another victim, 26-year-old Rose Marie Mallette, whose body was found in 2002 wrapped in a blanket by railroad tracks behind the MCO Transport trucking company in New Hanover County. Boyer used to work there, said Detective Ken Murphy, who is leading the investigation for the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office.
While Boyer has not been charged in Mallette’s case, detectives have focused on him as the prime suspect. When authorities arrested Boyer for Wood’s murder, he told a detective that he knew Mallette.
“Do I think we’re on the right track with Rose Marie Mallette’s murder? Yeah, I do,” Murphy told the StarNews in 2009. “It’s just, we’ve got to get there.”
Authorities also connected Boyer to the 2005 slaying of Jennifer Smith in Hickman County, Tenn. A detective with the sheriff’s office there told The Associated Press that Boyer picked up the 25-year-old prostitute and drove her to an abandoned parking lot off I-40. There, the two argued over money, allegedly leading Boyer to strangle her with the seat belt, push her body out of the cab and drive off.
After finishing his prison sentence in North Carolina, Boyer is expected to go on trial for the murders in Tennessee and South Carolina.
Linking the victims
The cases are eerily similar. The victims were missing for some time before their bodies were found. And in some instances, the remains went unidentified for years. Haggadone, who vanished in 2000, was a Jane Doe until a DNA sample confirmed her identity in 2011.
While Boyer sits in prison, Odham continues to investigate hoping to eventually bring charges against the culprit and closure to Beach’s family. He has met with Boyer before and, like counterparts who have also questioned the convicted killer, was taken aback by his resentment toward women.
“He referred to them as whores and bitches,” Odham recalled.
Odham asks that anyone with information about Beach call him at 910-343-3686.