Local News

DNA collection fails, but podcast pursues clues in Orange County cold case

Posted June 14, 2018 9:28 a.m. EDT
Updated June 14, 2018 6:46 p.m. EDT

— A new technology was still not enough to close an Orange County murder case, disappointing detectives and leading them to worry that justice may never be served.

In February 1971, Jesse McBane, 19, and his girlfriend, Patricia Mann, 20, were found dead, tied to a tree, in the woods near the Durham-Orange County line. The deaths made national headlines, and investigators say the murders were vicious.

Someone abducted the young couple, forced them into the trunk of a vehicle, then strangled them over a period of time.

“It wasn’t one continuous pulling tight of a rope around their neck to strangle them to death," said Maj. Tim Horne of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. "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.”

Horne, who has been working the case for seven of its 47 years, was encouraged by the opportunity to use an M-VAC System, one of about 100 in the world, to search the rope that tied the couple for tiny DNA samples that could lead to a killer.

Unfortunately, the M-VAC was unable to gather enough DNA to match it with an individual.

"We were able to glean some information, but there wasn’t enough genetic material for them to make a comparison," Horne said.

Horne had to deliver the disappointing news Thursday to the victims' families.

"It’s just another hurdle. It’s not going to stop us," he said. "We’re going to continue to pursue it. Unfortunately we now have to take a break for the testing aspect and let the technology advance a little more."

Time is of the essence, Horne said, because the suspect is already over 80 years old.

"There’s a race between us trying to solve the case and bring someone to justice. And if it ends up being this particular suspect, I don’t know how many more years he has left," he said.

Investigator joins novelist for podcast, looking for help from the public

Horne, who is about to retire from the Orange County Sheriff's Office, is joining forces with crime novelist and investigative journalist Eryk Pruitt on a podcast to share the story of McBane, Mann and their unsolved murder.

"We were never able to get all of the information out to the public that may jar someone’s memory. So by doing the podcast our hopes are certainly that we get more information back from potential witnesses," Horne said.

Pruitt called the case "fascinating" and "very addictive," and said he hopes the podcast can answer some open questions and quash rumors about the murders.

"We can give like a definitive, substantive account of not only these murders, but the 47-year investigation and into the lives of the people who were developed as suspects," he said.

Among those interviewed for the podcast: the prime suspect.

"It was chilling," Pruitt said. "I’ve never been in the room with somebody like that. Time will tell guilt, innocence, etc. but this was a cold person."

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.

The Orange County Sheriff's Office has never released information about the suspect other than to say the person 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.

Anyone with information about the murders of McBane and Mann should call the Orange County Sheriff's Office at 919-644-3050.