GUILFORD COUNTY, N.C. (WGHP) — In 2021, the population of Oak Ridge, North Carolina, was 7,595.
It was significantly less on March 23, 1983, when two people were brutally stabbed to death within minutes and miles of each other, leaving many of the town’s residents dumbfounded.
Today, 40 years later, their murders are still unsolved.
Howard Ledbetter opened the Ledbetter Store on Highway 150 near the Oak Ridge/Summerfield line shortly after he got out of the Army. His wife, Ollie, whom he called Molly, also worked there.
“When I got big enough to realize that some people get robbed, we talked to her about it,” said their daughter, Faye Mitchell, who was born shortly before the store opened. “She said, ‘Well, I’d give them what they want and write a check for the balance if they’ll just leave me alone.’”
Whoever entered the store that day didn’t give 66-year-old Ollie the chance.
“Daddy would get up in the mornings and go to the store,” Mitchell said. “Then she would cook breakfast and eat, and after she ate and did up her dishes she would go to the store and daddy would come to the house and eat.”
After his breakfast at the family home, Howard walked back to the neighboring store around 8:30 in the morning and encountered a customer outside.
“He met daddy out at the driveway and said, ‘Ledbetter, what’re you doing oversleeping this morning?’ [Howard] said, ‘I didn’t. Molly’s in the store,’” Mitchell said.
When the customer told Howard the door to the store was locked, the men entered together.
“They found her, and daddy called me and told me that the store had been robbed, and I said, ‘Well how’s momma?’ and he said, ‘Well, Molly’s not good. They hurt her bad. She’s dead,’” Faye said. “I started screaming and threw the phone at the wall and started running down the road.”
A few miles down the road, 63-year-old Archie Kellam had reported to work at Jack’s Gas Mart in Oak Ridge.
“He had retired from some company in Greensboro and just picked up this part-time job,” said Jay Eaton, a current lieutenant with the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office special operations division.
About 15 minutes after Ollie’s body was found, a customer found that Kellam had met the same fate.
“I was a detective sergeant when this happened,” said retired Guilford County Sheriff’s Office Major Tom Sheppard, who initially was dispatched to the Ledbetter store. “About maybe 3 miles from [the store], before I got [there], they called me on the radio and said there’s been another homicide at Jack’s Gas Mart in Oak Ridge. I said, ‘I can’t believe that.’”
Both victims had been stabbed several times and money had been taken from the stores.
“[Kellam] was attacked in the bathroom and stabbed numerous times, and there was blood all over the bathroom, all over the walls,” Sheppard said. “I’d never been involved in a double homicide like this, and it was obvious from the beginning that the same person did both cases.”
In the Ledbetter case, the robber-turned-murderer got away with about $35.
“How anybody could do that and kill somebody for $35 dollars,” Mitchell said, adding that her mother had more money in her pocket than what was taken. “It’s just amazing to me that people care no more about other people than that.”
At Jack’s Gas Mart, the murderer took some cash and, when they couldn’t operate the cash register, took it as well.
“Everyone described both victims as non-confrontational. They were elderly so you wouldn’t think they would pose a physical threat to anybody who came in,” Eaton said. “If you came in and bought something, and you were short with the money, [Kellam] would pitch in his own personal money to make up the difference.”
After the murders
It didn’t take long for news of the murders to spread throughout the rural county. It took even less time for the Ledbetters to learn that Ollie wasn’t the only victim.
“When we found out who it was, it just tore us all to pieces because we knew Archie,” Mitchell said.
In the days and weeks after the murders, little changed. Mitchell continued to live across the street from the store, and her father immediately went back to work.
“The people who drove by and waved that I didn’t recognize, I would always get an eerie feeling,” Mitchell said. “Did they do it? I was afraid to go outside at night, afraid to go out in the daytime.”
“They were setting up roadblocks out in the area of Oak Ridge and Summerfield, just to gather any information that they could,” Eaton said.
Investigators logged more than a thousand interviews in the case, Eaton said. According to Sheppard, those conversations and leads resulted in them homing in on three main suspects.
“We just kept on saying, ‘This is the unluckiest case that we’ve ever seen,’” Sheppard said.
Detectives were able to find a fingerprint on a credit card imprinter. They tried connecting that print to a man who ended up moving to Greenville.
“He intervened in a domestic dispute between some guy beating up his girlfriend in the parking lot of an apartment complex. The guy pulled out a gun and shot and killed him,” Sheppard said.
Another potential lead stayed local.
“We had a guy that we thought maybe knew something about it and he died in a fire in Oak Ridge,” Sheppard said. “He got out of the house and ran back in to try to save his marijuana and died in the fire.”
A third suspect had shifted to Charlotte.
“Charlotte put in a light rail system down there a few years ago, and they were testing the system and they ran over him and killed him,” Sheppard said.
More than a decade after the murders, in 1995, detectives finally got another clue.
“That cash register had been there since ’83,” Sheppard said.
The cash register that had been taken from Jack’s Gas Mart was found in a dried creek bed on a farm in Stokesdale, near the Rockingham County line.
“It was still in fairly good shape. It had been pried open but all the checks and everything were still in there,” Sheppard added. “We thought maybe we’d hit the motherload because DNA was just coming into existence then.”
The investigators sent the register to the FBI for analysis. Luck, however, evaded them once more. There were no fingerprints or DNA to be found.
“It’s been a hard luck case,” Sheppard reiterated.
Howard Ledbetter died in 1995. Sheppard retired from the sheriff’s office in 2013 but stayed on part-time to work on older cases.
“I think about it all the time,” he said, about the Oak Ridge case.
“I would just give my heart and soul if somebody would just speak up,” Mitchell said. “Somewhere, in all those papers that they say they have at the sheriff’s department, surely, they can find something that they haven’t looked at. I would just like to know; how would they feel if it was their parent? Wouldn’t they want to know who did it?”
“This is considered a cold case,” Eaton said.
Theories as to why the robber turned to murder remain, despite time continuing to tick away.
“Perhaps the person was impaired on drugs or alcohol, or maybe this was new to them and they got nervous and decided they didn’t want any witnesses to their crime,” Eaton said.
“The only reason we could ever think of was she knew who it was,” Sheppard said.
It’s a notion Mitchell admits she didn’t agree with at first.
“They said it was somebody local. I couldn’t believe that. I just couldn’t believe that it was somebody that they knew,” she said, of her initial thoughts, before learning her mother had defense wounds. “The more I thought about it, with her showing some action, I thought, ‘I’m afraid she did know them, and they killed her so she couldn’t identify them.’”
The sheriff’s office admits advances in technology could offer new leads, assuming there’s enough evidence to provide.
“There’s been a lot of advancements in technology over the last 40 years, primarily talking about DNA,” Eaton said. “We’ve been looking at the evidence that we have in this case; Is it still viable? Is there a new test that we can do with it?”
The problem is, Sheppard doesn’t think those advancements will help.
“If we had anything that had any DNA on it, yeah,” he said. “As far as I know, we don’t.”
Everyone involved is now left hoping someone will come forward.
“Hopefully you airing this story is going to regenerate, is going to jog some peoples’ memories and minds and their conscience,” Eaton said.
“It’s hard on them too, I’d suspect,” Sheppard said, if the suspect happens to be alive 40 years later. “Unless they’re just a coldhearted sociopath.”
“I know the people may be dead,” Mitchell said. “So what if they are? Surely, they didn’t just go to their grave and never mention that.”
The Oak Ridge Community raised $12,000 dollars for a reward leading to an arrest, but the money was withdrawn and returned to the donors two years after the murders.