Investigators seek help solving 46-year-old murder mystery
More than 46 years after a young couple was found tied up, tortured and killed in the woods in Orange County, investigators say they have a person of interest and are closer than ever to solving what was once dubbed the "Valentine's Day killings."Posted — Updated
The deaths of Jesse McBane, 19, and his girlfriend of three years, Patricia Mann, 20, made national headlines after their fully clothed bodies were found tied up, strangled and covered with leaves in the forest, off a one-track dirt road, on Feb. 25, 1971.
Investigators say they believe someone abducted the young couple. They were last seen leaving a Valentine’s dance at Watts Hospital in Durham, where Mann was a student, on the night of Feb. 12, 1971. The couple left the party at about 11:30 p.m. and headed to a secluded lover’s lane area near Medford Road, according to investigators.
“They were probably approached by someone who made them get out of the car,” said Orange County sheriff’s investigator Dawn Hunter.
Hunter and fellow investigator Tim Horne say they believe the killer forced McBane and Mann into the trunk of his vehicle and drove down a dark dirt road. Then, Horne says, the sadistic strangling started.
“Evidence from the autopsy and at the scene tended to indicate that they were strangled over a period of time,” Horne said. “It wasn’t one continuous pulling tight of a rope around their neck to strangle them to death. It appeared to be a situation where the rope was tightened, then they let it go, let them regain their breath, regain consciousness, possibly, and then they were strangled again.”
McBane and Mann were missing for nearly two weeks before a land surveyor found their bodies tied to the base of a tree.
Autopsy reports show each had tight, knotted ropes around their neck and wrists. Another rope was used to tie their bodies together. They also had puncture wounds to the chest, which likely happened after they died, the medical examiner said.
While the couple’s injuries were similar, the medical examiner found that Mann suffered another injury – a half-inch tear in her liver, which he speculated could have been caused by a fist blow to the stomach prior to her death.
Investigator: 'The suspect knew this area'
After the couple's death, rumors swirled that the killer was a prestigious man in the community, possibly a doctor at Watts Hospital, where Mann was a nursing student.
"We have looked into it," Hunter said, declining to elaborate.
The Orange County Sheriff's Office says it has a person of interest in the case but has declined to release any details about the person's identity. To this day, no one has been arrested, but investigators say they believe the killer is still alive. They also think the man was very familiar with the wooded area where the couple was found.
"The suspect knew this area, knew this location. It's our opinion (that) this wasn't the first time he came down here," Horne said. "He felt comfortable torturing and murdering these two young people, and he felt comfortable enough that no one was going to come and that no one could hear them cry, scream, plead, what have you."
Multiple agencies worked the case in 1971, including the Orange County Sheriff's Office, the Durham Police Department and the State Bureau of Investigation. Police also enlisted the help of a famous criminal psychologist, who profiled the killer and said the person was likely a man who was out "to cleanse the world."
Despite the intense initial investigation, the case has gone cold and been reopened numerous times during the past 42 years with no resolution. The case's current investigators, Horne and Hunter, say they believe the agencies did not share information with each other like they should have and that that played a big role in the murders not being solved sooner.
Horne and Hunter are now turning to the media to help reignite interest in the case. They are also using new advances in technology to analyze the old evidence.
Cousin: 'That has always haunted me'
Family members say they were led to believe that the murders were "an unsolvable case," according to Carolyn Spivey, Mann's first cousin and best friend.
Looking back, Spivey says, she noticed something was wrong with Mann shortly before her death but didn't have an opportunity to ask her about it.
"I knew something was bothering her, and I wanted to talk to her about it, but before I ever got the chance to, it was too late," Spivey said. "I've often wondered, and it's always bothered me. Was there somebody bothering her?"
Investigators say they got a break in the case in 1995 when someone called the victims' family and confessed to killing the young couple, who were planning to wed. The call was traced to what was known then as Lohmann's Plaza on Hillandale Road, less than a mile from where the couple was abducted. The phone call was the first substantial lead authorities had received in years.
"We've always wanted this case to be solved, and it's been a very frustrating experience," Spivey said. "If there is someone that knows something, it would be wonderful to know that."
Marty McBane, who was 16 when his brother was murdered, says he has heard numerous rumors over the years and just wants closure.
"I think about it all the time, what happened to them. It was awful," McBane said.
Spivey says she, too, thinks about what happened to her cousin.
"Your mind races and your imagination goes, 'Is it someone you know personally?'" she said. "The detective at that time said (that) the medical community could solve this if they would come forward. That has always haunted me."
Copyright 2022 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.