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William PIERCE Jr.






A.K.A.: "Junior"
Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: Rape - Robberies
Number of victims: 9 +
Date of murders: 1970 - 1971
Date of arrest: March 8, 1971
Date of birth: 1931
Victims profile: 2 men and 7 women ages 17 to 60
Method of murder: Several
Location: Georgia/South Carolina/North Carolina, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison in Georgia and South Carolina, 1973
photo gallery

In May 1970, Pierce was paroled from the Georgia state prison at Reidsville, despite a report from staff psychiatrists contending that he "may be dangerous to himself and others." The parole board chose to ignore that report, and Pierce claimed his first victim a month later, killing at least nine persons before his arrest, on March 8, 1971. 

Three months later, he was formally charged with the August 21, 1970, slaying of Virginia Maines, a 20-year-old housewife in Gaston, North Carolina. On June 5, he was indicted for the August 10, 1970, murder of James Sires, a service station operator in Beaufort County, South Carolina.

According to authorities, the drifter's seven other victims were dispatched in separate incidents in June and December 1970, and in January 1971.

Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans


William "Junior" Pierce was convicted of raping and murdering Margaret "Peg" Cuttino, 13, the daughter of a South Carolina state senator. The crime occurred in December 1970 in Sumter County, South Carolina.

Cuttino was reported missing on December 18 and her body was found on December 30. Pierce, who had an IQ that "barely broke 70" and who was a known serial confessor, confessed to this murder apparently after being tortured by Sheriff "Red" Carter. A document supports Pierce's contention that his confession was coerced by physical abuse consisting of burns, bruises, and cuts to his "privates."

In order to convict Pierce the prosecution theorized that Cuttino was murdered on December 18, but when her body was found, the sperm evidence was not much degraded and this evidence implied that she was not killed before December 25.

Public disagreement with the verdict arose starting with an uncalled witness who allegedly saw Cuttino on the afternoon of December 19. The county coroner joined the opposition. Because of new evidence that arose following the conviction, it is highly likely that Pierce would be acquitted if he could get a retrial, but getting a retrial because of new evidence is very difficult under South Carolina law. New technology raised the possibility of DNA testing, but the authorities contend Hurricane Hugo destroyed the biological evidence in 1989.

Pierce is not a glamorous defendant, having been convicted, after confessing, to three murders in Georgia, perhaps because of techniques similar to those used by Sheriff Carter. Public opposition to the verdict seems surprising since an acquittal would do little to free Pierce, but physical evidence that Cuttino was killed much later than December 18 seems compelling and such a finding would exonerate Pierce.


Pierce Victims

Margaret "Peg" Cullino / In 1970 Pierce strangled her. Body was found in a wooded area in Sumpter, South Carolina 12 days after she went missing on December 18, 1970. She had been strangled and beaten.

Kathy Anderson / A 17-year-ols waitress from Columbia, South Carolina.

James L. Sires / A 60-year-old gas station operator in Beaufort, South Carolina.

Mrs. Lacy Thigpen / A 51 year old county store owner near Soperton, Georgia.

Joe Fletcher / A 50 year old gas station attendant from Vidalia, Georgia.

Virginia Carol Mains / A 20 year old housekeeper from Gastonia, North Carolina.

Mrs. Vivian Miles / A 60 year old country storekeeper from Baxley, Georgia.

Mrs. Hazel Wilcox / A 32 year old country store keeper from Hazelhurst, Georgia.

Ann Goodwin / An 18 year old Winthrop college student.


William "Junior" Pierce

In May of 1970 the Georgia Pardons and Parole Board released Junior Pierce from prison after he had served only seven years on a 10-20 year sentence for a variety of charges, including burglary, arson, receiving stolen property and attempted prison break.

He was released despite the report from the prison psychologist that said Pierce's "test scores reveal the possibility of sociopathic disorders. This individual may be dangerous to himself or others." 

On March 8, 1971, Pierce was arrested in Louisville, Georgia for failing to pay for some gasoline. Shortly afterward, Appling County Sheriff, J.B. Carter charged Pierce with the murder of Mrs. Vivian Miles, sixty years of age, who had been robbed and shot in her country store about eight miles south of Baxley on Jan. 26.

Eventually after being interviewed by authorities from North and South Carolina, they charged Pierce with nine murders, four in Georgia and South Carolina and one in North Carolina. Pierce was repeatedly convicted of murder and given life sentences.

One of Pierce's victims was a thirty-two year old Jeff Davis County store operator who had been abducted Jan 22, 1971. Pierce led police to the woman's skeletal remains two months later.

The woman had been tied to a tree in the woods not far from Hazelhurst and hanged with a piece of short, stout cord. The cord was so tight around the woman's neck that her neck had to be taken apart before they could remove the noose. Even in advanced decomposition of the corpse they could see that the woman was nude from the waist down.


Outrage: The Peg Cuttino story

By Seamus McGraw

A Child in the Woods

He could feel them looking at him. The chief of the State Law Enforcement Division, the local police chief, the coroner, all three of them: Their mute gaze hung on him like burrs on a horse blanket. He tried not to show it, but Sheriff Byrd Parnell could feel their eyes boring into the back of his head. He knew they were studying him. They were looking to him for some signal, some clue as to how they should react to the gruesome sight on the forest floor before them.

It wasn't that they had never seen a murder scene before. All of them were professionals, with the possible exception of the coroner, Howard J. Parnell, a nondescript and slightly funereal man, who, by accident of adoption, was also the sheriff's nephew. By virtue of fate, it seemed, he was a mortician. And by dint of politics, he was the coroner, charged with the usually mundane responsibility of attaching causes to unobserved deaths. The others, though, were all men who had spent their lives in the sometimes politically charged world of small-time South Carolina police work. They were no strangers to the bloody detritus of mayhem, though most often, that violence was committed by men with guns against men with guns and, as often as not, it was fueled by booze. But this was different.

It wasn't just that the victim was so young, though certainly she was. Just 13 at her last birthday, she had seemed to exude a kind of fawn-like innocence. It was a treasured trait in the conservative communities of rural South Carolina, particularly back then, in 1970, when Vietnam and Kent State were still a world away and before Watergate had truly destroyed the notion of innocence. She was practically wearing a uniform of innocence when they found her; the prim blue blouse, the modest white skirt, the girlish, polka-dot sash.

But it wasn't just the tragedy of betrayed innocence that made this case different. It wasn't the fact that she had been so brutally slain, or even that the modest white skirt was hiked up around her hips, and that, by all appearances, she had been raped and sodomized. Even then, and even in this close-knit corner of the South, where everyone, it seemed, had been washed in the blood of the lamb, such savagery was hardly unheard of.

What made this case different was who the victim was. Or, to put it more accurately, what she was likely to become. In life, Margaret "Peg" Cuttino had been the oldest daughter of a prominent man, a state legislator, a powerful man by the standards of the time and place who commanded respect and attention. That fact alone made her death different than any others in Sumter County, and in all likelihood, Sheriff Byrd Parnell knew it that day as he stood there in the woods staring down at the violated figure on the ground, covered, just barely, with leaves and a few sticks. That fact alone made it a case that could not be allowed to linger unsolved. That would have been so even if Sheriff Parnell was not who he was: a veteran lawman, president for a time of the National Sheriff's Association, and, by all accounts, a hard-nosed cop who had always made it a maxim to leave no crime unsolved before election time.

In time, Parnell would be able to declare the case solved. The break in the case, such as it was, would come when William "Junior" Pierce, a slow-witted convict from Georgia, a man with a long history of arrests for both petty and violent crime, would allegedly confess to the killing of Peg Cuttino, perhaps under duress, perhaps even under threat of torture.

But what Sheriff Parnell and the others who stood there could not possibly know was that the case, in some ways, would never really be resolved. Even now, more than 30 years after Peg Cuttino's murder, questions still dog the case. Three decades after the case was supposedly closed it remains as controversial and divisive as ever. After all these years, simply mentioning the names Junior Pierce or Peg Cuttino in some quarters of Sumter County still pits neighbor against neighbor.

There are some, many perhaps, in Sumter County who believe that authorities never really solved the case, and instead insist that Junior Pierce, though hardly an innocent man, could not have killed Peg Cuttino on the day and in the manner authorities have long claimed. In the three decades that have passed since Peg Cuttino's death, political careers including Sheriff Parnell's have been dashed on the rocks, all as a result of the storm of controversy generated by the case. A deep rift and a festering sense of mistrust have carved their way through the sandy soil of Sumter County. It is a measure of how deep and dark that chasm is that for time during the contentious debate over the case, the word of a blood-thirsty convict, an admitted serial killer named Pee Wee Gaskins, for a time carried as much weight with the people of Sumter as their elected sheriff and others charged with protecting the peace and safety of the community.

Even today, the case still pits what most observers call "regular folks," hard-working and religious people who deeply believe that Peg Cuttino's death was linked, however tenuously, to some deep, dark secret in the woods outside Sumter, a secret that somehow involved powerful people.

In short, more than 30 years after Peg Cuttino's body was found in a shallow, makeshift grave in the depths of Manchester State Forest, more than 25 years after her presumed killer was convicted of the crime, the case is still, in the minds of many, a mystery.

A Death in Sumter

It looked as if Christmas was going to come gently to Sumter County that year, riding in on the back of a 65-degree breeze blowing in from the coast. It was Dec. 18, 1970, a Friday, and in the small town of Sumter, an army of young students burst through schoolhouse doors for the first day of their Christmas break.

Peg Cuttino was among them. A 13-year-old girl on the verge of maturity, the 5-foot-2, 130-pound girl with shoulder-length brown hair was a daughter of the local aristocracy. Her father, James Cuttino, was then a member of the state legislature, and the family lived in a pleasant, though hardly ostentatious, house at 45 Mason Croft Drive.

In many respects, the bright and athletic eighth-grader was the picture of youthful gentility. Ever since she was a young child, she had been a regular fixture at political events in the conservative county, handing out fliers for her father's campaigns and chirping to anyone within earshot in her girlish little voice:   "Please, vote for my daddy."

As she grew older, she became more active in church groups. She sang in the youth choir at the First Presbyterian Church, studied the Bible at Sunday school and was a member of the Pioneer Youth Fellowship. She was a starter on the girl's varsity basketball team at the Alice Drive Junior High School, a few blocks from her house.

She was, it seemed, a parents' dream. At least that's how people described her, and her staunch traditionalism, it seemed, was a comfort to her staunchly traditional neighbors in Sumter. There were rumors, of course, as there always are, that perhaps Peg Cuttino was not as perfect as she might have appeared.   She is said to have displayed flashes of rebellion, and there were also stories that she might have stormed out of her parents' house on at least one occasion. But even the gossips tended to depict her behavior as typical teenage angst and nothing more, a minor flaw when they contrasted Peg Cuttino's bearing and demeanor to the wild antics and youthful rebellion that seemed to be taking hold all over the country in the winter of 1970.

Little by little, those same trends were beginning to appear in Sumter. Drugs were starting to appear. Though it would never be confirmed, and in fact would be flatly rejected by most people in a position of responsibility in the community, a legend had started to take root in Sumter, a legend about an old abandoned trailer somewhere in the woods where some of the youth of Sumter County would gather for wild, drug-fueled parties. There was even talk, idle talk it now seems,   that young people had been plied with drugs and forced to perform in grainy pornographic films which were later sold to a distributor in California. In a peculiarly Southern Gothic twist on that legend, it was even whispered over back fences and at church barbecues that the dastardly porno ring had snared some of the children of well-connected people in town.

It didn't matter that no proof of such an operation ever surfaced. All that really mattered was that the rumors resonated deeply with some of the more traditional folks in Sumter County who were threatened by young people.

Against the backdrop of such fear, the public image of Peg Cuttino, dressed for the last day of the fall semester in her modest white skirt with the polka-dot sash, seemed positively angelic.

She had gotten out of school that day at about 11:30 a.m. and chatted briefly with her mother, saying she wanted to walk the few blocks to the Willow Drive Elementary School to have lunch with her younger sister, Pamela.

Her mother thought nothing of it. Authorities would later say that the young girl walked briskly down Willow Drive and was seen as she passed the YMCA building, then under construction on a vacant lot alongside her sister's school. In what would someday become a subject of great controversy in the case, among the men working on the building was Pee Wee Gaskins. Then a small-time hood and part-time police informant, Gaskins would later go on to become one of the nation's most fearsome serial killers. Years later, Gaskins would play a crucial role in the ongoing war over the Cuttino case. But on that day, he was just another nobody on the street.

To this day, no one really knows what happened after Peg Cuttino walked past the YMCA. She never made it the scant few yards to her sister's school.

About two-and-a-half hours later, when Peg still had not returned, her mother started to fret and telephoned police. It was less a measure of her family's prominence and influence in the community than an example of simple small-town values that within minutes, local radio stations broadcast an alert for the missing girl. All the same, her family may have been a factor when, within a few hours of those first broadcasts, a massive search was launched.

There were some people who claimed to have seen her on the street in the moments leading up to her disappearance. Among them was a schoolmate. Though not a close friend of Peg's, the boy said he knew her slightly and insisted that he had caught a glimpse of her at an intersection several blocks from the school shortly before 1 p.m. and that she wasn't alone. According to published reports at the time, the boy said he had seen Peg Cuttino in the back seat of a car with two other people. "There was a man driving the car with dark-colored hair with glasses," he told authorities, according to a version of the events later recounted in print. "He was between 30 and 35 years of age." A woman, her face obscured from view, was sitting in the front seat, and Peg Cuttino, apparently alive and awake, was riding in back seat on the right hand side of the car. The young man told police that he waved to her, but that she apparently did not recognize him. He also told authorities that he thought no more of it until he heard word that the girl had vanished. Though authorities never doubted the young man's sincerity, they also failed to identify the car, and neither the mysterious driver nor his female passenger ever came forward to support the young man's claim.

By the next morning, a small army of volunteers had formed to scour the brush for Peg Cuttino. On Sunday, the third day after the disappearance, the searchers paused to pray and on Monday, more than a dozen men on horseback scoured a four-square-mile stretch of woods just outside of the town of Sumter. That evening, according to published reports, just about supper time, three local radio stations aired a brief prayer for her safe return, offered by the president of the Sumter County Minister's Association. A lot of people apparently listened. But it didn't help. For days the search for Peg Cuttino continued and each day ended in frustration and deepening fear.

Still, local law enforcement officials tried to hold out hope. In a statement widely reported in South Carolina the next day, Sumter Police Chief Leslie Griffin acknowledged that he could not rule out kidnapping and had in fact issued a nationwide alert for the girl. But he added that "we have not been able to discern any evidence which might indicate foul play."

Somewhere, perhaps, some may have entertained the secret and unspoken hope that maybe Peg Cuttino's prim demeanor had misled them. Of course it would have been a bizarre irony, but what if she had run away, or was simply hiding out somewhere as a youthful lark?

It would almost have been a relief if Peg Cuttino had simply been touched by that rebelliousness that everything about her seemed to defy.

But she wasn't.

On Dec. 30, 1970, 12 days after Peg Cuttino disappeared, two young officers from nearby Shaw Air Force Base were riding their trail bikes in Manchester State Forest when they came upon a figure lying on the ground, partially covered with sticks and leaves. At first, they thought it might have been a mannequin dumped in the woods as a trash or as a prank. But then they spotted the polka-dot sash, which had been described in detail in every news release and bulletin about the missing girl. They raced to a nearby general store and summoned police.

The police arrived quickly, and so did three pathologists from the Medical University of South Carolina at Charleston.

The pathologists concluded that Peg Cuttino had been bludgeoned to death with a blunt object, in all probability a tire iron. The young girl in the modest white skirt, they said, had also been raped. There were traces of semen -- some of it still fresh -- in her body.

The authorities also issued another conclusion that would, in time, prove to be among the most controversial. Though they conceded that they couldn't be certain beyond a shadow of a doubt given the comparatively primitive forensic tools available to them at the time, the authorities argued that in all likelihood, Peg Cuttino had been raped and murdered on Dec. 18, 1970, probably within an hour or so of her disappearance. There were some questions about that conclusion. Despite the comparatively balmy temperatures in South Carolina during late December, some of the sperm found in her body had not significantly degraded. That seemed to be an indication, according to at least one forensic scientist, that whoever had raped and murdered the girl, had done so not on Dec. 18, but later, perhaps as late Dec. 26, eight days after her disappearance.

The authorities however, paid little heed to that theory. They built their case on the premise that Peg Cuttino had been taken from the streets of Sumter and killed all on the same day.

There was at least one person who was willing to dispute that assertion. In fact, she's been disputing it for more than 30 years.

A Ghost in Flesh and Blood

It was Dec. 19, 1970, the Saturday before Christmas, and Carrie LeNoir, part-time postmistress in the little farm village of Horatio, barely had time to look up all morning as she labored behind the counter at the old general store-cum-fill-up station-cum-post office that she ran with her husband. That morning, before she sauntered into the post office from her house across the yard, a relative had called and mentioned something about Peg Cuttino and her disappearance, but the horror of the whole story hadn't really had time to hit LeNoir before she found herself in a work frenzy, slapping stamps on Christmas cards and weighing holiday packages.

It was 2:30 p.m. before she finally got a chance to catch her breath. She decided to stroll back to the house, and as she returned, she noticed a car, a "brownish-yellow car," as she would later describe it, parked outside the store. As she neared it, she noticed three young people, two boys and a girl, perhaps in their teens, step out of the store and into the car. She did not, she would later say, get a good look at the girl. Nor did she recognize the two boys, which was, in and of itself, unusual. After all, the little store and post office on the old farm-to-market road was hardly a draw for strangers. She had planned to ask her husband if he recognized the trio, but work intervened and she forgot all about the encounter until later that afternoon when the two boys returned to the store and handed her three dollars for gas. The girl was no longer with them, and, as LeNoir would later put it, "the boys seemed excited."

A short time later, the local newspaper, the Sumter Item, an afternoon paper, arrived at the store. A picture of Peg Cuttino stared out from the front page. LeNoir's husband studied it. "That girl was in the store today," he told his wife. LeNoir studied the girl in the photograph as well, comparing her in her mind to the young woman she had briefly glimpsed outside the store earlier that day. There were some differences to be sure; the girl outside wore her hair about shoulder length. The last time Carrie LeNoir could remember seeing Peg Cuttino, her hair was long.

LeNoir and her husband mulled over their options. They certainly didn't want to provide anyone with false information, and wanted even less to offer false hope. The next morning, just to be sure, she telephoned an acquaintance who also happened to be related to the Cuttinos. She asked about Peg's hair, and when the relative told her that Peg had been wearing her hair in a shoulder-length bob, Carrie LeNoir related the chance encounter at the Horatio post office the day before.

Later that day, the police came to visit LeNoir at the nearby Church of the Ascension where LeNoir, the organist, was rehearsing for the Christmas pageant that evening. It was a friendly chat, LeNoir recalled in a recent interview with Court TV's Crime Library, and when it was over, the detectives Hugh Mathis and Tommy Mims, now sheriff of Sumter County -- closed their notebooks, thanked her for her time, and moved on.

It is not clear, even today, how much stock the two detectives took in Carrie LeNoir's account of her chance encounter with a young girl who looked, in hindsight, a great deal like Peg Cuttino. To be sure, she was just one on a list of potential witnesses that swelled to include 1,465 names. The list even included Pee Wee Gaskins. He had been interviewed early on in the investigation by the same law enforcement official for whom he had been working as a police informant, sources close to the case say, and he was quickly ruled out as a suspect.

In short, Carrie LeNoir's statement was just one of many statements given in the case, and it would later be discounted, in large measure, some critics now say, because it didn't fit with investigators' conclusions about the case.

What none of them realized, however, was that in dismissing Carrie LeNoir's statement, they had taken the first steps toward mobilizing a small army of crusaders who would spent the next 30 years casting doubt, much of it legitimate, on the state's case in the matter of Peg Cuttino.

Confession is Good for the Soul

William "Junior" Pierce tossed his head back, cupped his hands over his eyes and stared off toward some imagined horizon. He let out a low, otherworldly moan and a guttural sound filled the cinder-block room. It was the kind of sound the fortune-tellers at the carnivals that used to visit Junior's small Georgia town would make just before they would claim they had a vision.

Junior loved to play this game with the cops.

Though he had an IQ that just barely broke 70, he had always believed he was smart enough to make suckers out of the cops. He seemed to think that he really could make them believe that he was crazier, or dumber than he really was.

Of course, he hadn't had much success with the gambit. The fact that he was sitting in a Georgia jailhouse, facing charges in nine separate murders, murders that had stretched from Hazelhurst, Georgia, to West Columbia, S.C., seemed proof that Pierce was not nearly as good at the game as he thought he was.

There are some, his former lawyer among them, who say that while Junior may have been violent, and may even have been a murderer, it is not likely that Junior Pierce was a serial killer in the classical sense. There is little doubt, however, that he was a serial confessor. In fact, several of the cases against Pierce would later be dropped, and in at least one of the cases, says Joe McElveen, who would represent Pierce in the Cuttino case and later went on to become mayor of Sumter, investigators discounted Pierce's confession altogether. In that case, South Carolina investigators "went down to Georgia at some point to look into a double murderthat Pierce confessed to," but after interviewing Pierce, the disgusted sheriff said that he had no faith in the confession and "didn't want to solve the crimes that way," McElveen said.

But by April 1971, four months after Peg Cuttino's killing, the authorities in Sumter County, who by then had been joined by the State Law Enforcement Division, were getting desperate to solve the case.

Though they had conducted nearly 1,500 interviews, and had tracked down scores of seemingly promising leads, several of them out of state, they had come up empty. In the minds of the people of Sumter, they were no closer to solving the case than they had been the day she disappeared. That worried them, and it deeply disturbed Sheriff Parnell and the other investigators on the case.

Hugh Munn, then a young reporter for The State, South Carolina's most prominent newspaper, and later a spokesman for SLED, says he believes that Parnell and the others working the Cuttino case were under immense pressure to close it. "I just think there was a rush to get this thing resolved quickly, which was always the way, and it still is in law enforcement," Munn said. "You wantto tell the community; 'Look, calm down, everything's under control.'"

They got their chance in April when Sheriff J.B. "Red" Carter from Baxley, Georgia, picked up the telephone and contacted SLED Chief J.P. Strom, telling him that he had a good ol' boy in his jail who had a statement to make in connection with Peg Cuttino's murder.

According to court documents and reports published later in the Sumter Item, Pierce had made one of his overly dramatic confessions, claiming he had driven to Sumter on Dec. 18, 1970, the day that Peg Cuttino disappeared, with the intent to "rob and steal."

According to his alleged statement, he stopped for a bite at a drive-through restaurant not far from the center of town, when he saw two girls and a young man embroiled in a bitter dispute. Pierce, it is alleged, told authorities that he listened to the conversation "about as long as I could take it," before he decided to intervene. He allegedly claimed that he told the boy to leave, but the boy stood up to him briefly after going to his car to fetch a chain, presumably to use as a weapon. Not to be outdone, Pierce allegedly said that he went to his old maroon Pontiac to get a gun, and when the boy saw the pistol, he and the other young woman, drove off, leaving Peg Cuttino behind.

It has long been a subject of controversy that this heated confrontation between Pierce and the boy seems to have gone completely unnoticed by anyone in the small town of Sumter. Though Pierce is said to have claimed that he saw a woman watching the events unfold from inside the restaurant, neither that woman, nor any witness has been able to corroborate Pierce's alleged statement.

That, say critics of the state's case, would stretch credulity under any circumstances, but it was particularly questionable considering that the showdown is alleged to have taken place in the middle of the day on the Friday before Christmas, at a time when the streets of Sumter were filled with excited youngsters just out of school, as well as shopkeepers and customers.

Equally questionable was Pierce's supposed claim that as soon as the confrontation ended, Peg Cuttino, the Sunday school student and choir girl, turned to the gun-wielding stranger and volunteered to go with him, saying, according to reports of court proceedings published later, "I'll ride with you."

No explanation for the girl's alleged behavior was ever offered, despite the fact that it seemed to contrast sharply with the public image of Peg Cuttino as a decent young girl, who, even she did have a rebellious streak, would hardly have been foolish enough to hop into a car with an armed stranger, especially one as odd as Junior Pierce.

In his statement, Pierce is alleged to have said he drove with the girl to a landfill at the edge of town. According to a report published in the Sumter Item in the opening days of Junior Pierce's 1973 trial for Peg Cuttino's murder, Sheriff Parnell recounted that Pierce told authorities that he had parked at the landfill and, "the little girl started crying and said she wanted to go home," and that Junior, apparently fearing that police would be looking for him after the confrontation outside the restaurant, told her, "I can't carry you home."

"That's when he struck her in the head with a bumper jack," a tire iron, the sheriff testified.

According to the statement, Pierce never explained why the girl's mood seemed to have changed so abruptly, nor does he explain why after killing her, instead of simply dumping her body in the landfill, and perhaps covering it with trash, he drove a half-mile to a wooded area and dumped her there, taking the time to cover her body, however crudely, with leaves and moss and sticks. He is also said to have claimed that moments after he finished covering Peg Cuttino's body, he spotted two people walking through the woods, a man and a boy. One of them had a rifle, presumably to hunt squirrels. Pierce allegedly claimed that he stood behind the car in an effort to block his license plate from view.

In fact, there were, according to later testimony, two people in the woods around that time, a man and his son. The boy would later testify that he was hunting squirrels when he spotted a man standing suspiciously near his car and lingering there until the boy and his father left.

To the authorities, the boy's testimony was powerful corroboration. But to critics, even today, it still raises as many questions as answers. One of those questions is the make and model of the car. Though Pierce allegedly claimed that he was driving a maroon Pontiac, the witness said the car he saw was a white Ford station wagon. What's more, the boy testified that he saw the car on Dec. 19, the day after Pierce allegedly confessed he had killed the girl.

Most troubling of all to the critics, Carrie LeNoir among them, is the fact that Junior Pierce's alleged confession was never put down on paper, and never recorded in any way.

Testifying on his own behalf, Pierce would later disavow the confession, insisting that the entire confession was cobbled together from pieces of information he had been fed by Baxley Sheriff Red Carter before officers from South Carolina arrived to interview him. According to published reports of Pierce's testimony, he claimed "that he knew details about the girl's death because Red Carter had discussed the case with him and told him that if he made a statement, he would never stand trial in South Carolina."  Later, Pierce claimed that he had been threatened with abuse bordering on torture if he didn't confess. Those allegations, largely dismissed at the time, gained greater currency among some of the people of Sumter years later when Carter was convicted in federal court for his part in a drug-trafficking scheme in Georgia.

There were also questions about some of the physical evidence in the case. Pierce's car, which he claimed he had abandoned at a service station not far from his Georgia home, was never recovered. Nor was the tire iron that authorities believed he used as the murder weapon.

Even today, Pierce's confession remains suspect in the minds of many. As McElveen put it in a recent interview with Court TV's Crime Library, "Something very fishy was going on in Baxley, Georgia, when he was being held down there."

All the same, it was good enough for the authorities in Sumter.

Trial and Error

Even among those who have spent years trying to exonerate Junior Pierce for the murder of Peg Cuttino, there are many who acknowledge that the men who pursued and prosecuted him were, by and large, honorable men.

Among them is Ken Young. Formerly an assistant county solicitor who worked closely on other cases with the late Kirk McLeod, the man who prosecuted Pierce, Young is now representing Pierce as he seeks, once again, to overturn his conviction.

"Kirk and I were very close," Young said in a recent interview. "I don't think he would ever lie and he (was) convinced thathe had the right man.

"He based that on complete and total reliance on what    Sheriff Ira Byrd Parnell told him and what (SLED Chief) Strom had told him," and they in turn had placed their faith in Pierce's alleged confession, though Young now believes that confession was tainted. "According to Junior Pierce, he was told what to say by the sheriff down in Georgia," Young said. "These fellows went down there, there was a lot of pressure to solve the case and I think that they heard this man give them enough of the answers to convince them that they had the right man. That's all they needed to hear."

The trial began on March 1, 1973, but not in Sumter County. Pierce's lawyers had successfully argued that the public furor surrounding the case was such that Pierce had no chance of getting a fair shake from a jury in Sumter and so the case was moved to Williamsburg County.

It was expected to last two days. As it turned out, that was a reasonably accurate estimate.

During about a day-and-a-half of testimony, the prosecution focused on Pierce's testimony, and according to critics, glossed over the inconsistencies and weaknesses in their case, the lack of witnesses to the crucial Dec. 18, 1970, confrontation outside the restaurant during which Pierce met Peg Cuttino. They also downplayed the absence of the murder weapon or any other physical evidence linking Pierce to the crime. Nor did they pay any particular attention to the discrepancies in the testimony of the boy who claimed to have seen a man in the woods sometime not long after Peg Cuttino had disappeared, discrepancies that included the make and the model of the car parked in the woods, and the time at which he had allegedly seen it.

The defense, in retrospect, did little to challenge those inconsistencies either. Instead, McElveen, a young lawyer fresh out of the military trying his first murder case, and his co-counsel focused on what they believed to be a critical piece of evidence. Drawing on the testimony of Junior Piece's boss at the Swainsboro, Georgia, factory where he worked, they tried to prove that Pierce could not possibly have been in Sumter on the day that Peg Cuttino disappeared.

According to McElveen, Ray Sconyers, vice president of the Handy House Corporation, testified that he personally handed Pierce his time card at about 7:05 a.m. on the morning of Dec. 18, 1970, and that he had seen Pierce about once every hour during the day, and that he had personally handed Pierce his paycheck around 4 p.m. What's more, Pierce's girlfriend, who had testified against Pierce in three separate trials, told the court that she had been with him, along with two other witnesses, all night on the evening of Dec. 18, 1970. It would have been impossible, McElveen said, for Pierce to travel the roughly 200 miles to Sumter on the day, kill Peg Cuttino and then return, all on the same day. "They pinned their case on her having been killed on the same day that she was taken andwe proved he was back inSwainsboro that night." McElveen said in a recent interview, adding that he was convinced that the testimony of Sconyers and Pierce's girlfriend would skewer the prosecution's case.

Then McElveen went after the confession. He allowed Pierce to testify that he had been forced to talk and that, even then, he had never actually admitted to killing the girl, and that authorities had twisted his words.   McElveen said he was confident that "we did a pretty good job of dissembling (sic) the confession because we were able to show that everything that wasin this remarkable, revealing confession was in a newspaper somewhere, andthat they changed it (to make it) a little bit better every time they testified," McElveen said.

In what was to have been McElveen's most audacious gambit, the lawyer employed the services of a nationally noted hypnotist named Robert Sauer. Sauer had, over the years, worked from time to time with law enforcement agencies, and had even worked with SLED briefly on the Cuttino case. He had been called into to help interview one potential suspect, who, after being hypnotized by Sauer, was dropped from the list.

Sauer, however, was not permitted to testify. Had he been, jurors would have learned that under hypnosis, Junior Pierce had denied killing Peg Cuttino or even being in Sumter County at or about the time of her disappearance. In fact, McElveen said, Pierce was not even certain where Sumter County was. In McElveen's mind, the interview under hypnosis would have been a crucial element of the case. Sauer had even gone so far as to add what he described as a built-in lie detector to the hypnosis regimen, urging Pierce's subconscious to make him raise one finger if he tried to lie. That test, McElveen said, convinced him that Pierce was telling the truth when he recanted his confession.

But the jury never heard it.

About 6 p.m. on Friday, March 2, after less than 16 hours of testimony, the jury began deliberations. About 6 hours later, they returned with a verdict.

William "Junior" Pierce was found guilty of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison, though in truth, the sentence made little difference. He was already serving life for murder in Georgia and it was unlikely that Junior Pierce would ever see the inside of a South Carolina prison.

Justice Undone

If authorities in Sumter County were hoping that the conviction of Junior Pierce would ease the public's fears, that it would bring closure to the tragedy of Peg Cuttino and restore the public's flagging faith in them, they would soon discover that they had been hopelessly wrong.

"I can understand why they wanted to do it," said Munn, now an instructor at the University of South Carolina. "I think in this particular casethey (wanted) to say, 'We believe we got the right man, we've got the evidencehe's confessedlet's get it over with."

But, by all accounts, they underestimated just how deeply the case had shaken the community. Within days of the conviction, letters to the editor started to appear in the local newspaper, letters that seemed to suggest that Junior Pierce, though hardly an innocent man in the grand scheme of things, might have been railroaded in the Cuttino case.

Of course there were some, most of them well-connected, who believed, or at least insisted publicly, that justice had been done. Chief among them was James Cuttino, the slain girl's father. Until his death several years ago, Cuttino remained firm that the right man had been convicted. But even the grieving father's insistence did little to douse the smoldering dissent in Sumter.

Hubert Osteen, president of the Item, who was an editorialist at his family-owned paper at the time, said recently that the fallout over the case drove, for the first time, a wedge between the authorities, people like Kirk McLeod, who had prosecuted the case, and Sheriff Parnell, and the community at large, and may even have touched Cuttino himself.

"Up until that time, there was no mistrust of the authorities," Osteen said. "The sheriff had been in office for 20-something years. He could do no wrong, and then this thing broke. That's when people started questioning his case".

And no one questioned the state's case more vocally or persistently than Carrie LeNoir.

As Munn put it, at precisely the moment that the authorities believed they put the case to rest, "Carrie LeNoir steps in and she throws in some pretty compelling arguments."

The way LeNoir saw it, the state's case against Pierce was flawed from the beginning. The case, as McElveen has said, was largely based on the presumption that Peg Cuttino had been killed almost immediately after her disappearance on Dec. 18, 1970, though the forensic science of the time was hardly precise enough to accurately pin down the date within a span of more than several days.

Yet Carrie LeNoir insisted that she had seen Peg Cuttino at the general store and post office on the afternoon of Dec. 19. She had told that to investigators, she said, and yet the prosecution apparently ignored her statement. In fact, McElveen and his co-counsel were never informed of LeNoir's statement and didn't learn of its existence until days after the trial.

Also overlooked was the eyewitness account of Peg Cuttino's classmate who had seen her riding in the back of a light-colored Mercury Comet with a man in sunglasses and a strange woman. The sighting, according to the student, occurred at about the same time that, if the prosecution's allegations were to be believed, Peg Cuttino was on her way to the landfill where she would be slain by Junior Pierce. Taken together with the testimony that had been included in the trial, which, according to the critics, conclusively proved that Pierce was in Georgia at the time of the killing, the new revelations fueled even greater suspicion about the validity of the state's case.

Within a month of the trial, those doubts had reached critical mass, and on April 5, McElveen and his team laid out their case for a new trial in court, arguing, among other things, that if the jury had been privy to the statements of LeNoir and the witnesses, they almost certainly would have voted to acquit.

The judge, however, saw things differently. He refused to grant a new trial.

But rather than end the controversy, that decision only fueled the suspicion. For the first time, at the lunch counters and coffee shops of Sumter, people were starting to use the word "cover-up." Rumors, ugly and unfounded though they might have been, began circulating. Once again, the notion that somewhere out in the woods, there was a trailer where well-connected youngsters were exploited by Left Coast pornographers began to circulate. Perhaps, it was whispered, Peg Cuttino had been a victim of that ring. There was, of course, never any proof of any such cabal, but the idea that such rumors could take root at all was a clear indication of just how frayed the public trust had become in the wake of Peg Cuttino's death.

Breaking Ranks

The controversy, as it would soon turn out, was not confined to whispered doubts on the streets of Sumter. Even one of the men who had worked on the case, Howard J. Parnell, coroner and nephew to the sheriff, had grave concerns about the case and in June 1973, he went public. The truth was, he had always doubted that Pierce was guilty. But as the public clamor grew, Howard Parnell joined it, claiming that he had unearthed new evidence in the case, evidence that presumably would have cleared Pierce. He demanded a meeting with Sheriff Parnell, with the chief of police and other local officials, including McLeod, the solicitor and SLED Chief Strom.

The meeting ended abruptly, to put it charitably when Coroner Parnell, a funeral director by trade, stormed out, shouting, according to published reports at the time, "I'm through! I'm through," and claiming that he had been ambushed by what he described as "a hostile group."

Howard Parnell recounted the meeting in a recent interview with Court TV's Crime Library, acknowledging that the evidence he had planned to present in large part duplicated the information that already had been made public, some it during Pierce's trial, about the suspect's movements on the days surrounding Peg Cuttino's death.

Far more damning was his allegation that the officials at the meeting in essence urged him, in his words to "just go along and forget about this and we'll promise you that your funeral home will get business."

To this day, Howard Parnell believes that he was punished for his refusal to support Pierce's conviction. He contends that he was effectively "run out of town." He bases that allegation chiefly on the fact that three banks subsequently rejected his applications for mortgages in the days following the controversial meeting.

The authorities, of course, had a far different version of the events that day.

"There were no hard feelings, I even got up and shook his hand when he came in," Sheriff Parnell told reporters after the session. According to the sheriff, the meeting ended because his nephew "had no new leads, and we reassured him if he had anything we would cooperate and help him in any way we could."

That reassurance did little to assuage Howard Parnell's anger. Soon after he quit his post as coroner and left town. And it did even less to reduce the simmering mistrust in the community.

The Grand Jury

Within a few weeks of the ill-fated meeting, perhaps in a nod to mounting public pressure, the authorities decided to put the whole matter before a grand jury. "It is high time and quite proper that you check this off the books of Sumter County," Third Circuit Judge Dan F. Laney told the grand jurors in his charge to them.

If that was the goal to put the matter to rest once and for all it failed.

When the grand jury announced its decision that "no substantive evidence had been presented which would support a finding of either incompleteness or impropriety on the part of public officials charged with the investigation of the (Cuttino) case," LeNoir, Howard Parnell, and others who had turned the case into a crusade were outraged.

"They think it's over," LeNoir said at the time. "They think they've cleared the names and reputations of all the individuals in law enforcement and all the law enforcement agencies involved."

But as far as LeNoir was concerned, it was far from over.

For the next several years, as the courts all the way to the state Supreme Court continued to reject Pierce's appeals and his bids for post conviction relief, and as a second grand jury failed to reopen the case, Carrie LeNoir waged a relentless battle that took her from the streets of Sumter to the federal Justice Department in Washington, D.C., trying to find help in her crusade.

She found none, but rather than dull her ardor, that only deepened the sense of LeNoir and others that they were fighting a battle that was as much about politics as it was about justice.

During the course of that battle, she even found herself at odds with James Cuttino, the dead girl's father. Among the documents that LeNoir had collected were autopsy photographs of Peg Cuttino, along with information regarding the discovery of intact semen in the dead girl's body, evidence, she contends, that Peg Cuttino could not possibly have been killed on Dec. 18, evidence that, she believed, undercut Junior Pierce's supposed confession and threw in doubt most of the testimony from the state's witnesses.

She was, she admits, not shy about showing that information to anyone when she thought it might advance the case she was trying to make. Cuttino, who according to those who knew him, was not only convinced of Junior Pierce's guilt, he was desperate to at last put the whole sordid matter to rest and LeNoir and others believe it was at his insistence that the courts went after her, demanding that she turn over the documents she had collected. Cuttino had argued that LeNoir was "trespassing on (Peg Cuttino's) memory." At first LeNoir refused. She was even sentenced to 90 days in jail, though the sentence was suspended pending appeal. Ultimately, she agreed to return the documents to the court, where they were placed under seal.

In 1977, the bizarre case took yet another bizarre turn when Donald Henry "Pee Wee" Gaskins, the South's worst serial killer, was at the time already convicted of one murder, indicted for many more murders, and was standing trial for the murder of another in Florence County, made the shocking announcement that he, not Junior Pierce, had abducted and killed Peg Cuttino.

Pee Wee's Playhouse

Over the years, Gaskins gave at least two accounts of the killing. In one particularly sordid version, he claimed to have been part of a murder-theft ring that he claimed was operating with the knowledge of police officials in South Carolina. The killer claimed that he had been hired by a never named law enforcement officer to "assassinate" Peg Cuttino. No evidence to support that claim was ever uncovered. In another version, later included among his vain and venal statements in the book, The Final Truth, Gaskins claimed that he had killed Peg Cuttino because during a chance encounter on the street, she had insulted him, telling her friends that he was "white trash."

For many in Sumter County, there were a great many reasons to believe Pee Wee Gaskins. He certainly had the capacity to kill. That much was not in question. He also had what McElveen would later claim was a far greater opportunity to kill Peg Cuttino. He was, after all, living in Sumter at the time of Peg Cuttino's murder, and in fact, had been working as a roofer at the YMCA building a few yards from the spot where the girl was last seen alive. What's more, there is little question that he was working as a police informant at the time, and his name was even on the list of witnesses who were questioned in the first frantic hours after Peg Cuttino's disappearance.

There are also indications that he might have had access to a car similar to the one Peg Cuttino was said to have been seen riding in on the day she died. And there were also tantalizing details that he was able to provide about the case. He noted for example, a small array of burn marks on Peg Cuttino's arm, marks that authorities had identified as cigarette burns. Gaskins claimed that they were acid burns, that he had dripped the caustic liquid liquid he would have had access to in his job on the dying girl's body.

But there were plenty of reasons to question the supposed confession as well.

Pee Wee Gaskins, a notorious liar, had some kind of book deal he was negotiating. Adding the Cuttino case to his crimes would have enhanced his position. What's more, Gaskins and Pierce had been corresponding while both were in prison. Gaskins himself, described by many who knew him as a classic manipulator and a keen student of the flaws in the judicial system, would later recant his confession. He claimed, according to court documents, that he made the stunning confession because "there was a lot of pressure put on me and I figuredsaying a lot of that would get a lot of pressure off me."

He also said he "felt that if I went into it and said I killed her and everything, that would take pressure off of Pierce. He was wanting to get from under thatI got letters from him."

Both the confession and the retraction would remain controversial. In separate letters to Pierce and LeNoir, with whom he was also corresponding, Gaskins would later insist that his retraction not his confession was made under pressure from authorities.

The entire dispute would be aired in 1983 when a court agreed to hear yet another appeal on Pierce's behalf, this one, claiming among other things that Gaskin's confession was grounds to overturn his conviction.

The appeals court, declined, and as had every other court that had heard the case, it upheld Pierce's conviction.

In essence, it seemed, the court found Gaskin's statements incredible.

It's not surprising that one of those who agrees with the court's decision, if only in that aspect of the case is Ken Young.

In the 1970s, Young was the assistant solicitor who prosecuted Gaskins in the Florencecase. During that trial, he says, he struck up a rapport with Gaskins, a rapport that lasted until Gaskins was executed years later for an unrelated homicide. Young says he was convinced that as deadly as Gaskins was, he was not Peg Cuttino's killer. "He didn't know beans about the case," Young told Crime Library in a recent interview. In fact many of Gaskins statements about the case, including the details about the burns on the girl's arm, "were in the paper," Young said. "Pee Wee Gaskins was probably one of the smartest criminals you'd ever want to meet. He was amazing. But no, I don't believe he killed Peg Cuttino. In fact, in front of his lawyers on death row, he told me, 'By the way, I never killed Peg Cuttino.'"

What is surprising is that Young, now in private practice, is one of those who firmly believe in Junior Pierce's innocence. In fact, he is currently representing Pierce and is preparing a draft of an order for post-trial relief in the case, though he didn't choose the case, it was assigned to him.   Among the issues Young plans to place before the court in the idea that critical information including details of the autopsy report were wrongly withheld from the defense.

"I don't believe they disclosed to the defense counsel all of the autopsy reportsthat the semenhad the tails," he said. "My expert, she's made the casethat there's no way that they could have been placed in the body at the time that was claimed by the state, December the 18th." Young also contends that evidence, available at the time but apparently not shared with the defense indicates that "fromthe position of the body and the fact that the sperm still had tails on them that the earliest date that she could have the time of death would be December 26."

But Young also plans to argue that Junior Pierce's first defense team failed him as well.

As Young puts it, McElveen and the others were so focused on the task of establishing that Pierce was in Georgia, not South Carolina at the time of Peg Cuttino's death, that they missed the chance to uncover some of the facts that might have led them to the pathologist's report.

"The defense put all of their eggs in one basket," Young said.   "When they went and looked at the autopsy report, they only looked at the first page. They weren't interested in looking at anything beyond that," Young said. "If they had looked at the entire document, they would have seen these (semen samples) and at least asked for a blood test or something to exclude him. You didn't have the DNA tests back then, but they had tests that could haveruled him out. At least they could have tried that."

In one final irony of the case, while the technology exists now to prove almost conclusively whether the semen recovered 30 years ago from Peg Cuttino's body matches Junior Pierce's DNA, or whether it points to another killer, the samples themselves, no longer do.

"When I first got assigned this caseI said, 'Well, we got DNA now, we'll solve this thing right quick. So I started pressing (officials at the Medical University of South Carolina where the samples were to have been stored) to give me the autopsy results. You know everything was on slides, so I thought I could find that."

But when Young finally showed up at MUSC, "they took me to a parking garage in the basement, (where there were) all these rows and rows of filesI inventoried them, I went through them one by one, figuring that maybe something was out of place. The only drawer, the only drawer in the entire group that was missing was the one containing (the samples drawn from the body of) Peg Cuttino."

To some, there could be a thousand innocent explanations for the missing files. They could have been destroyed by fire, as were other state records, they could have fallen victim to one of the many hurricanes that wreak havoc on that part of the country, they might have even have been accidentally discarded, victims of the changes that have taken place in file management over the years.

But Young says he remains suspicious.

The way he sees it, the missing files are a pretty strong indication that "somebody's trying to impede my investigation of this".

Lingering Questions

Whether the court ultimately sides with Young and Pierce is anybody's guess. For the past 30 years, every court that has examined the case has upheld Junior Pierce's conviction, and there are many who believe in his guilt.

Even Hugh Munn, who as a young reporter at The State, crafted with his partner, the late Jack Truluck, an award winning series of reports questioning the state's evidence, says he believes that, in the end, Junior Pierce was rightly accused.

"When I was at the newspaper, even after we went through all of this laborious stuff that Jack and I didI was more inclined to think that he did than he didn't. But there was this doubt. This nagging little doubt." Munn said. Later, as spokesman for SLED, "over the next few number of years, I talked to some of the players who are now no longer around, I was more inclined to believe that he did it, with maybe just a hint of a doubt, but not enoughI kind of think he did. But I think (the investigation) was just handledpoorly."

But there are others who remain even more firmly convinced that Pierce is innocent, at least of any complicity in Peg Cuttino's death. But if Junior Pierce didn't do it, and if Pee Wee Gaskins was lying when he claimed to have been the killer, then who did?

There are as many theories as there are doubters, it seems. Perhaps a drifter killed her. Perhaps the killer was among the hundreds of transient men somehow linked to the nearby Air Force base, the same Air Force base that housed the two officers who first stumbled across Peg Cuttino's body in the woods.

There are other tantalizing possibilities as well, said Young. "There was a fellow in Columbiawhocommitted two similar crimes," he said. In both cases, the bodies were dumped in shallow graves. The suspect "eventually died in California," Young said. "I think one of the best leads was him." But so far, Young said, "I can't put anything together."

Even Carrie LeNoir has theories about who might have killed Peg Cuttino. But for the time being, she says, she plans to keep them to herself. To her, the case is more than a simple whodunit. For three decades, despite setbacks and disappointments, it's been a kind of a crusade.

"Even if I knew (who) did it, I'd be foolish to say sountil we can get (Pierce) exonerated," she said. For now, she said, "I'm not interested in finding out who did it." Instead, she insists that she is interested only in reversing what she believes to have been a gross miscarriage of justice. "It's just not fair," she said. "If they did that to William J. Pierce, they could do that to any one of us."

Coerced Confession

Crime Library Executive Editor Marilyn Bardsley recently received this document dated October 2, 1971 written by Georgia State Prison's Dr. Schlinger who was asked to investigate injuries inflicted on William Pierce Jr. during his April, 1971 questioning at the Appling County, GA, jail.

This document appears to substantiate William Pierce's allegation that his confession to the Peggy Cuttino murder was coerced by physical abuse consisting of burns, bruises, and cuts to his "privates." Had this document been provided to attorneys representing Pierce before his trial, it seems unlikely that, with the other evidence exculpating Pierce that was never presented at his trial, he would not have been convicted of the murder of Peggy Cuttino.



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