Author wraps up 40-year murder investigation
Sometimes a journalist just can’t let it go. An unfinished story can linger in the back of the mind nagging to be told.
Nancy Morgan’s unfinished story and unsolved murder in western North Carolina has haunted author and investigative journalist Mark Pinsky for more than 40 years. He recently released the results of his long-time investigation into her murder in his new book, “Meet Her on the Mountain.”
Throughout his college years at Duke and Columbia universities and 40-year newspaper career, he made connections with people who would eventually help him piece together the events that led to Morgan’s death in 1970. He vividly remembers sitting in the college newspaper office at Duke when he read the news coverage of Morgan being found naked, hogtied and strangled in the backseat of her car in Madison County in 1970.
“Her picture looked like half the women I knew,” he said. “I felt a kinship to her personally and politically.”
Pinsky was becoming a journalist and was involved in causes for social, economic and racial justice. Morgan was a VISTA worker — people sent to rural areas with the mission of creating and expanding programs to bring people out of poverty.
Pinsky could relate to the difficulties of being an outsider in southern Appalachian because he himself was born in Miami, Florida and grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey. He clipped the story out of the newspaper and placed it into a folder labeled “Nancy Morgan.”
He added pieces to the file over the next several years. In 1976 he and his wife made a visit to Madison County to visit his friend Elmer Hall. They discussed the Morgan case as well as the Ponder brothers, who had a long-time political hold in Madison.
“I quizzed him about the Ponder Brothers and the case because I wanted to write a book about it. He said he’d kept his ears open,” Pinsky said. “I went on to do other things but the case was always in my mind.”
He did his fair share of writing about murders in the 70s, including Ted Bundy and Jeff McDonnell before landing the crime beat at the Los Angeles Times in the mid 80s. Though he grew weary of writing about horrific murders, Nancy Morgan’s case was still heavy on his mind.
Pinsky knew he had to get back closer to North Carolina. In 1994 he was hired at the Orlando Sentinel and began visiting Morgan County twice a year to pursue the investigation. He found the people in Madison County to be skeptical of his intentions.
“Many people said let the dead lie and that I was only making trouble for them,” Pinsky recalled. “I really learned how painful that was for them. I was a Jew from the Jersey burbs — I was their worst nightmare, but I think they realized I’m not that kind of person or that kind of journalist.”
He ended up writing several stories about the county — its people and places.
“Madison people began to see I didn’t see them as caricatures,” Pinsky said.
People would speak to him about the murder, but he had to learn how to filter out truth from fable. He also ran into the problem of finding people who had first-hand knowledge of the case.
“It became a race to get to people while they’re still alive and had memory of the event,” he said.
There were ups and downs during his research. He packed away his file a time or two, but ultimately he kept coming back to the story.
“I knew it was a great tale. There’s so many elements — a rich atmosphere of the southern mountains — I just didn’t know if could execute it as a writer,” he said. But then he thought, “Whether I solved it 100 percent shouldn’t be a factor in whether I write the book.”
Pinsky said two-thirds of the book has nothing to do with the case. He considers the book part rural noir and part memoir — Morgan’s and his own.
He is satisfied with the book serving as a reputable piece as well as a reflection in the Appalachian Mountains.
“It raises the larger issue of people who have come from the outside for more than 200 years to help the people there… How do you bring change while respecting the culture and faith of the people you want to help?”
Some of Morgan’s surviving family members agree with Pinsky’s conclusion while some law enforcement officers disagree. Make your own call after reading “Met Her on the Mountain,” available at Blue Ridge Books and Amazon.com.
Mark Pinsky will be reading from and signing copies of his book, "Met Her on the Mountain," at 6 p.m. Oct. 15 at Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville.
1940 — E.Y. and Zeno Ponder enter Madsion County politics and assemble a far-reaching political machine over the next 30 years.
1969 — Nancy Morgan moves to Madison County to begin service as a VISTA worker.
June 15, 1970 — Morgan leaves Ed Walker’s house. He is last person to report seeing her alive.
June 17, 1970 — Morgan’s body is found in Tanyard Gap.
November 1970 — E.Y. Ponder is elected as Madison County sheriff on a promise to solve Morgan’s murder.
March 22, 1971 — The N.C. State Bureau of Investigation closes Morgan’s case.
1984 — A key witness changes his story, implicating Ed Walker as the prime suspect in the murder.
April 27, 1984 — The district attorney reopens Morgan’s case.
Aug. 20, 1984 — Walker is indicted for the rape and murder of Morgan.
Fall 1985 — Walker is tried and acquitted.
May 1988 — Prison inmate Richard Johnson, a Madison County local, confesses to the murder.