- Associated Press - Monday, October 12, 2015

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) - The detective laid five pictures on the interrogation room table in front of Larry Darby Jr. and placed a hand on his shoulder.

“And then he said, ‘Why did you kill those girls?’?” Darby recalled.

More than two decades later, Darby still gets teary-eyed and angry remembering what happened that day.

The pictures were of five women, mostly in their early 20s, believed to be victims of a serial killer who worked the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive area, which at the time was an open-air market for drugs and prostitution.

Darby, then a Pentecostal preacher at a storefront church, said when police showed up at his apartment, they never said why he was being taken downtown.

He knew he owed overdue court fines, but that’s not why he was in the back of a police cruiser.

It wasn’t until the moment he looked at the photos that he put it together.

Police had just discovered the body of a woman he had been seen with earlier in the day.

“I did not do this,” Darby said.

It would take six months for DNA testing, still in its infancy, to help free Darby.

While another man, Robert Sylvester Alston, eventually pleaded guilty to four of the murders, no one has ever been convicted in the case of Bernice Robinson, the woman Darby spent time with earlier that September day in 1992. Her throat was slashed to her spine.

Darby, now 61 and on disability for medical conditions, has come back home after moving to Boston shortly after the charges were dropped.

He still talks of an apology he thinks he’s owed.

“Bernice did not deserve that,” Darby said. “I still say, ‘I did not do it.’?”

Police had traced the string of killings back to April 1991. Despite posting a $21,000 reward, distributing posters and even erecting billboards, investigators were no closer to making an arrest when they found Robinson’s body within hours of her death.

All the women had ties to prostitution or drugs and frequented the Martin Luther King Drive area.

JoAnne Robinson, 23, died in April 1991. Her naked body was found a few blocks from Alston’s home on Martin Street, according to News & Record reports. She was strangled.

Sharon Martin, 26, had been missing for weeks when a utility crew found her severed head and arm in a wooded area on Ontario Street near Jackson Middle School in November 1991.

Shameca Warren was 19. Police found her naked and decapitated body in a vacant lot beside Alston’s home in July 1992. She had been missing for two months. Her death was an indication that a serial killer might be at work.

Cheryl Lynn Mason, 35, was found dead behind an I-85 truck stop.

Later, there was Lois Williams, 41, who died in December 1993. Police found her strangled body in Piedmont Memorial Cemetery on McConnell Road.

Anonymous telephone calls led officials to the bodies of Warren and Williams. Detectives told the News & Record at the time they thought Alston placed those calls.

It was a tense time for the city. Residents on and near Martin Luther King Drive were suspicious of anybody they didn’t know who they saw driving down their streets.

Earl Jones then represented the district on the Greensboro City Council, and he remembers the tension.

Police asked the FBI for help.

“There really was a great deal of suspicion and fear and pressure on the police department to do something,” Jones said.

Before police apprehended Alston, their attention was focused on Darby.

Darby, 38 and an employee at a downtown catering business, told police during his interrogation that he had known Robinson.

He also mentioned he ran into her that day.

He says he was seated at a downtown bar waiting for his girlfriend’s shift to end at a nearby business when he noticed a woman walking back and forth past the entrance.

It was Robinson. She said she was waiting for her boyfriend, who worked with Darby.

Darby said he stopped in a couple of downtown stores and ran into Robinson again.

They began walking together toward Martin Luther King Drive. He said when Robinson stopped at a house to buy cocaine, he turned around and went back downtown.

That was about 2 p.m.

He went back to the bar, and had just missed his girlfriend, according to someone behind the counter. He took the bus to McConnell Road, where they lived in a rooming house.

It was about 8 p.m. when police showed up at his door.

He said no one told him why he was being taken into custody.

He remained calm, he said, because he thought it was about the court fines.

Then the detective placed the five pictures in front of him. Investigators told him witnesses said they saw Darby and Robinson go into some woods off Martin Luther King Drive - and Darby come out alone.

“They told me if I didn’t confess, they would give me the death penalty,” Darby said. “I said, ‘I ain’t gonna confess to something I didn’t do.’”

Darby had a criminal record and led a complicated life tempered with contradiction.

This included a stint in reformatory school when he was 11. During a teacher work day at J.C. Price, the black school in Warnersville, he had gone into Wiley Elementary and taken a sip from a water fountain. A white man caught him in the building and called police.

It was while in reform school, Darby said, that he learned how to defend himself.

“I broke a lot of jaws and ribs,” Darby said of his young adult years.

He had jail terms for robberies in his 20s.

Two times he escaped from local prison camps.

When he wasn’t being a criminal, he was serving the church as an associate pastor in Greensboro and Thomasville.

Behind bars and charged with murder, Darby looked to God to grant his freedom.

“I knew God was going to bring the truth into the open, but when I got down on my knees to pray, I would ask, ‘When Lord, when?’ “

By then, police had submitted his DNA for testing.

Some of the people Darby had grown up with questioned his involvement.

Darby said that at the old downtown jail, inmates could scoop water out of the toilet and talk to the women housed underneath them. A woman he talked to through the piping, who was also put in jail around that time, told Darby she recalled seeing him and Robinson that day.

“She said, ‘I remember she (Robinson) went her way, and you went your way,’ ” Darby recalled.

Darby says police never talked to people who could have established his alibi. Instead, police put pressure on his friends and family.

“I knew in my heart my brother did not do that,” said Lessley McNeil, Darby’s younger brother, who just had graduated from Grimsley High School at the time. “Going through it was stressful for my parents, but we knew he didn’t do it.”

During Darby’s court appearance following his arrest, Robinson’s mother called him a murderer.

Darby’s mother stood up to defend her son.

“She said, ‘Your honor, my son ain’t no murderer,’ ” said Crayland McNeil, another of Darby’s brothers. “A mother, better than anyone else, knows their child. And she knew. She knew.”

Darby recalls Robinson’s foreshadowing of her own death.

Darby said she told him, as they walked to Martin Luther King Drive that day, about stealing the wallet of a man who picked her up and took her to a nearby lake to have sex.

Robinson said there was $150 inside of it.

“She said, ‘If he catches me, he’s going to kill me,’” Darby recalled.

Darby spent much of the six months in jail preaching and holding Bible study in his block.

“I said, ‘Lord, they don’t want to hear me. They’ve accused me of being a murderer,’ ” Darby said.

One evening when he was preaching, a guard came to ask him his clothing size. He was about to be released.

The test results had come back. No traces of his DNA were found on Robinson’s body.

That left a case with no physical evidence, one based solely on the eyewitness accounts of three people.

The case against Darby was dismissed.

It was a decision with which police at the time publicly disagreed.

“Without a doubt, we have the man,” Lt. Jim Hightower of the criminal investigation division told the News & Record in March 1993. “The DA’s the one who elected not to prosecute.

“It’ll probably never be solved.”

Alston, a 29-year-old dishwasher, admitted killing four women - but not Robinson.

In 1994, a woman who was raped and left for dead picked Alston out of a police lineup. He confessed to that rape and later to killing one of the women. He ultimately confessed to three others.

Earlier this week, Darby picked up the keys to his apartment in Greensboro.

He said he thought it was time to come back home. He also wants to be here for his mother, who just had a stroke.

Darby had left Greensboro for Boston just weeks after his release and had worked in the catering business.

Now back home, there are people who still point when he passes by.

“You get the scarlet letter on your forehead when that happens, even if you are innocent,” said Jones, the former councilman.

Darby said he remains angry that the police haven’t apologized. He said he internalized the stress of what took place two decades ago, and he attributes some of his medical issues to that. He has heart issues, cirrhosis of the liver and is blind in one eye.

“My life has been so hard since then,” Darby said. “They ain’t never apologized. Never said nothing.”

Recently, he was at the house of a friend when a relative of Robinson’s dropped by. The man recognized Darby. Darby recognized the moment.

“I will probably always,” Darby said, “have to be aware of the people around me.”

___

Information from: News & Record, https://www.news-record.com


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