WEST JEFFERSON — April Billings doesn’t remember much about her mom; she was killed when Billings was 6 years old.
“Just what my grandmother told me,” she said.
She does, however, have some memories of the December day in 1984 when they found Sherry Hart’s body at the bottom of a 1,200-foot cliff on the Ashe-Wilkes county line near a spot on the Blue Ridge Parkway called “Jumpinoff Rock.”
“It was on TV,” Billing said. “My grandparents pulled me away from the television when they started talking about it.”
As horrible as that experience was for a child, it pales when compared to what Billings has been through since.
The man that authorities charged with killing her mother — Richard Lynn Bare — walked out of the Wilkes County Jail, never to be heard from again. It was a maddening turn of events that has led to uncertainty and a 30-plus year wait for justice that may never come.
“I think about it all the time,” she said. “I think he’s still alive.”
A small manila folder with newspaper clippings about the case contains only basic information, and the official file in the Wilkes County Courthouse is relatively sparse.
Tom Horner, the district attorney for Alleghany, Ashe, Wilkes and Yadkin counties, won’t answer questions about the case. He did, however, obtain in 2002 a court order to fingerprint a Caldwell County man he believed to be Bare.
Wanted lists compiled by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and the FBI aren’t much help, either. A spokeswoman for the FBI field office in Charlotte doesn’t have much to say, other than the case is active and still open.
Still, when pieced together from various sources, there’s enough information to make the case one of the strangest in recent memory. Reports have surfaced that Bare has returned to the area in disguise to attend relatives’ funerals.
“Bare has green eyes and reportedly dresses as a female,” reads a description circulated by the State Bureau of Investigation on a most wanted list. “He may have colored his dark brown hair red or blond. He may possibly have a tattoo of a panther on his right forearm.”
The story started the evening of Jan. 15, 1984, when Billings’ mother, Sherry Hart, met up with Bare and Jeffrey Scott Burgess in the parking lot of a grocery store in West Jefferson.
Hart was 24 at the time, and had just moved back to her parents’ home with her daughter after she had gotten divorced. She agreed to go cruising around the area in Bare’s white Ford Mustang.
According to an application for a search warrant, Hart had rebuffed a sexual advance made by Bare and that angered him. He struck her on the head with a pistol and had Burgess drive them to a spot on N.C. 16 near a bar about a quarter-mile from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Bare got out of the car with Hart, who was bleeding profusely, and told Burgess to drive down the road. Investigators wrote that Bare dragged her toward a cliff at the edge of N.C. 16 and pushed her off. Burgess returned a few minutes later, and the two men drove away. Burgess told investigators that Bare threatened to kill him and his family if he ever told police what had happened.
When Hart didn’t return home, her parents filed a missing persons report. Her father found her car in West Jefferson a few days later. Her body was found Dec. 10, 1984, at the base of a steep cliff not far from Jumpinoff Rock. The state medical examiner identified her a week later using old X-rays. She was laid to rest not long after in a family cemetery on a small hill with a peaceful view of the surrounding mountains.
Into thin air
Police got a break shortly after the governor’s office announced in March 1985 that it would pay a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. A tip led them to Bare and Burgess.
They questioned Burgess on March 29, and he told them what happened that night. Using information that Burgess gave them, police found Hart’s checkbook and other personal items on the Blue Ridge Parkway about a mile from where Hart’s body was found.
Both men were arrested April 1. Burgess was taken to the Ashe County Jail, and Bare to the Wilkes County Jail.
Neither man would ever stand trial. Bare escaped July 17 when a jailer — the only one on duty at the time — left a cellblock door unlocked. Capt. Joe Owings of the Wilkes County Sheriff’s Office said that Bare simply walked out, hid in the kitchen and left the jail through the front door.
The jailer was fired two days later. Bare, meanwhile, vanished.
Burgess, who was to testify against Bare, was never tried for his role in Hart’s killing. He did serve a four-year sentence for violating probation on a breaking-and-entering conviction. He was in and out of jail for years on a series of drug-related offenses. He died in 2012.
Bare, in the meantime, was just a rumor. Sightings and tips were reported from time to time, but they eventually stopped coming.
Memories faded and other business took precedent. Key players grew older, retired and died. Bare was 20 when he escaped; he would be 50 today. The SBI produced and circulated a photo of what Bare might look like now.
In December 1994, nine years after Bare walked out of the Wilkes County Jail, prosecutors signaled in a court document that they had in essence given up when they asked for the murder charge to be dismissed with leave. They reserved the right to recharge Bare if he were ever located, an outcome that looked less and less likely.
“The defendant failed to appear for a criminal proceeding at which his attendance was required and the prosecutor believes the defendant cannot be readily found,” the motion read.
There was a slight ray of hope in June 2002 when Horner, the district attorney, prepared a nontestimonial identification order. In it, he asked a judge to order a Caldwell County man named Richard Presnell to provide fingerprints to be compared to those of Bare.
“There are grounds to believe that an offense has been committed, to suspect that you committed it, and to believe that this order will be of material aid in confirming or negating the suspicion as stated in the attached application and affidavit,” Horner wrote.
“Should Richard Presnell be determined to in fact be Richard Lynn Bare upon examination of the fingerprints of the two individuals, then based on the statement of Jeffrey Scott Burgess, in addition to other evidence developed during the course of the investigation, there are reasonable grounds to suspect that Richard Presnell committed said murder.”
It’s not clear why Horner suspected that Richard Bare and Richard Presnell were one and the same. An affidavit that would have spelled out the reasons isn’t in the court file, and Horner did not return phone calls or respond to a note left at his Wilkes County office.
Nevertheless, Judge Michael Helm of Wilkes Superior Court signed the order as requested.
But Presnell was never charged. Efforts to locate him through old phone numbers and his last known address were not successful.
‘I’ll always wonder’
That fact that prosecutors had identified a suspect and went so far as to order him fingerprinted came as news to April Billings.
No one from Horner’s office or the Wilkes County sheriff’s office contacted her or her relatives to share the news that they might have a break.
“Nobody talked to me,” she said. “My grandmother — she passed away in 2011 — used to call the sheriff’s office all the time and they’d just tell her they were very serious about trying to catch him.”
Billings is 37, married and raising three kids. She stays busy with her own life, but she still wonders how a man charged with throwing her mom off a lonely, windswept cliff more than 30 years ago could just walk out of jail and disappear.
Clearly, a man wanted for murder that claimed a monthly income of $500 to $600 on an affidavit requesting a court-appointed lawyer would had to have had help avoiding detection.
Billings said she is frustrated that she hasn’t been given answers and that information from official sources has been nearly nonexistent. “They did tell me once years ago they thought he was dead,” she said. “I think he’s still alive.”
Bare’s sister, Linda Copus of West Jefferson, said she doesn’t know what happened to her brother and denied that she or anyone in her family helped him evade capture.
“That’s crazy. … I don’t know how that could have happened,” she said. “None of us ever done anything for him.”
If someone from the family had, Copus said, the FBI or someone from local law enforcement would have found out. She said she feels for Billings but quickly added that police “never did prove that he did it.”
“It was so long ago,” she said. “Sure it bothers me. … He was my brother.”
Still, the rumors that Bare has been in the area persist.
A man claiming to be a private investigator contacted Billings in 2012 after Bare’s father died, she said, and offered to attend the funeral to see whether Bare showed up. She ignored it and thought the whole thing was a scam because the caller “asked for a bunch of money to do it.”
Billings hasn’t been to the spot where her mother was killed in a long time.
“I don’t get over that way much,” she said.
But she does try to visit her mom’s grave around her birthday and on Mother’s Day.
“Other than my husband and my kids, my family’s all gone,” she said. “I don’t have anyone I can depend on. When I do stuff with kids, sometimes I think, ‘I wish I could have done that with my mom.’ ”
Billings said she hasn’t given up hope that she’ll get answers. But it is fading with each passing year.
“I do think about it a lot,” Billings said. “I always think and wonder if he might have walked in somewhere I was and been standing nearby and I just never knew it.
“I don’t believe he’s dead, not like the other one (Burgess). … It’ll always be with me.”
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