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Rape - Robberies
Number of victims: 9 +
Date of murders: 1970 - 1971
Date of birth: 1931
Victims profile: 2 men and 7 women ages 17 to 60
Method of murder:
Location: Georgia/South Carolina/North Carolina, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison in Georgia and South
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
KentState 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
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
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
There are some, many perhaps, in
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
SumterCounty. 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
ManchesterStateForest, 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
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
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
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
DriveJunior 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
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
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
WillowDriveElementary 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
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
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
ManchesterStateForest 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
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
There was at least one person who was willing to
dispute that assertion. In fact, she's been disputing it for more than
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
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 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
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
-- 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
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
facing charges in nine separate murders, murders that had stretched from
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
But by April 1971, four months after Peg Cuttino's
killing, the authorities in
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
They got their chance in April when Sheriff J.B.
"Red" Carter from
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
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
"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
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
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
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
Georgia, when he was being
held down there."
All the same, it was good enough for the authorities
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
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
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
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,
where he worked, they tried to prove that Pierce could not possibly have
Sumter on the day that Peg Cuttino
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
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.
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.
If authorities in
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
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
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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
Third Circuit Judge Dan F. Laney told the grand jurors in his charge to
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
"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."
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.