Unfinished stories

I sold my first freelance pieces almost two decades go, true crime features for the old detective magazines. Mercifully, the editors didn’t demand writing as lurid as the artwork.

They were all published pseudonymously, so don’t bother trying to find them.

I wrote and sold dozens of pieces over a 2- to 3-year period, and have forgotten most of the stories, the names of most of the victims, and the names of most of their killers, too. Flicking through an archival copy of one of those magazines a while back, I was startled to realize I was skimming a piece that I had written but could remember nothing about. I finally stopped doing true crime pieces when, sitting in the breakfast nook with the newspaper one bright spring morning, I realized I was disappointed that it had been a few days since any Tarheels had exercised their extraordinary talent for garish murder (meaning, no projects in the pipeline).

A couple of stories have stuck in my head, though, because they were ones for which I opened files but could never complete. The worst of those, by a lot, is the murder of Shelby Rigsbee by Broadus Crabtree.

Rigsbee was a 31-year-old drug addict and prostitute, and her body was found in woods near some railroad tracks in nearby Durham. She had been beaten so badly that she was unrecognizable. A preliminary identification was made relying upon clothing and street notice that she was missing; the conclusive identification was made using fingerprints.

Almost immediately, suspicion fell upon a former Durham police officer named Broadus Crabtree. Crabtree had resigned the force because of ongoing medical problems in consequence of Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. According to a news report of the time, Durham police were looking into Crabtree for other unsolved murders, too.

Three months later, a grand jury returned a sealed indictment and Crabtree was arrested; he entered a not guilty plea and bail was set at $100,000.

Two years later, Crabtree was in court to revise his plea to guilty; he was sentenced to probation. While Shelby Rigbee’s uncomprehending mother sat shocked, Crabtree walked out the front door of the courthouse and held an impromptu news conference during which he once again denied killing Rigsbee. He had changed his plea to guilty, he said, just to get the unpleasantness over with and to move on with his life.

Like … WTF??

And that was the end of the story — with far more questions left unanswered than resolved.

  • What drew the police’s attention to Crabtree? Was he known to hang-out with hookers and to be prone to violence?

  • Assuming he’s guilty, why did Crabtree kill Rigsbee? I have never been able to get a copy of the autopsy report out of the Medical Examiner, though it is supposed to be a public record; I have got a copy of the toxicology report, and Rigsbee had cocaine and alcohol in her at the time of her death.

    There was popular speculation at the time, at least around the courthouse, that Crabtree provided Rigsbee with drugs in exchange for sex.

    So … partying gone bad? That’s not unheard of.

  • But why, then, a sealed indictment? Durham County’s D.A. would not use that device again until the infamous Duke LaCrosse case. Why did this case, altogether humdrum on its face, warrant that secrecy?

  • What about the report that Durham police were looking at Crabtree for other unsolved murders? Yes? No? Uninformed chatter that should never have made it into the newspaper in the first place?

  • And why the light sentence?

Crabtree died in 2001, and is buried in a family plot near the coast. Rigsbee is buried in a shadowed corner of a small, hard-to-find church cemetery in Durham; the cemetery is maintained, but there is no evidence that anybody ever visits Rigsbee’s grave (the cup with a few buds is an ad hoc decoration by my wife, Dawn). The grave is marked with a small PVC cross and a metal tag.

And … that’s that. Nobody would talk then, the paperwork was shrouded, the lawyers orchestrated a hasty denouement, and the primary actors are all dead. Life goes on.

There are stories just like this on the seamy underside of every small town and city in America; they can’t all be chronicled, and most don’t deserve to be. But, seriously, even a hooker deserves better than Shelby Rigsbee got.

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