Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Eyewitness to Murder

Today, Tuesday, April 13, 2010, is the 35th anniversary of a killing spree in Wheaton, Maryland. My girlfriend and I were on our way home from Young Frankenstein when we drove right through the middle of it.

Michael Edward Pearch shot seven people, all African-American, killing two and wounding the rest. There were indications, police said, that the shooting were racially motivated. All the victims were black and the gunman was white. He passed up at least one car with whites, said police, as he walked down a highway looking for another target.

There were at least two such cars. One of them was mine.

Here’s the story.

Pearch, an unemployed carpenter living with his mother in Silver Spring, Maryland, left home about 7:30p on Sunday, April 13, 1975, and drove to the nearby Wheaton Plaza shopping mall. He was wearing his Army fatigues, a knapsack with 250 rounds of ammunition, and a machete strapped to his chest. He carried a .45 caliber automatic pistol.

He walked to the traffic light at the entrance ot the mall, where he shot and killed John L. Sligh, 43, of Rockville, Maryland, and wounded his wife, Laureen D. Sligh, 40, in both legs. He walked to the next car and fired at Dr. Ralph C. Gomes, also of Rockville, but missed. Gomes swerved, crashing his car into another. He suffered minor injuries.

The panic started at once. “Some witnesses ducked for cover. Others just stood there and watched in disbelieving shock,” said police captain Miles Daniels. One particularly brave man (I don’t know his name) called the police and began following the gunman.

We were on our way home from the movies. It was a warm spring evening. The car windows were open. As I neared the intersection of Georgia Avenue and University Boulevard (a major intersection), I heard what I thought at first were gunshots.

But gunshots on a lazy Sunday evening on a busy suburban street? Surely, I must be imagining things. Then I saw the man who had followed the gunman. He was ducking behind cars. Well, if there wasn’t any gunfire, then surely the man was just playing some sort of game.

The light turned green. I pulled forward. As I reached the intersection, I saw two men in the left turn lane on the other side of the street. One man was standing. He was white. One man was face down. He was black. In his right hand, he was carrying a brown paper bag.

If there wasn’t any gunfire, and the man ducking behind cars was playing some sort of game, then I figured I was looking at some drunks, with one of them (clutching his booze in a brown paper bag) passed out in the street.

As I drove through the intersection, I passed within five feet of Michael Edward Pearch, the shooter, and his most recent victim, Harold S. Navy, Jr., 17 years old and a freshman at the University of Maryland. Navy was working as a busboy at the Anchor Inn, right on the corner of Georgia and University. He had been sent across the street to a supermarket to buy a jar of applesauce, the contents of that brown paper bag. He was wounded in the abdomen, but survived.

There was a police station about a mile north of the intersection, right on our way home, so I pulled in. “There’s a drunk passed out in the left turn lane at Georgia and University,” I told the officer at the desk.

“Wait here,” the officer said.

Moments later three plainclothes officers came out of the back room. “Are those the eyewitnesses to the murders?” one of the officers asked.

It was not until that moment that I had any idea what I had seen.

We spent the rest of the evening in a room with an increasing number of witnesses. It wasn't until afterward that I learned the rest of the story.

Walking up Georgia Avenue, the gunman shot and killed Connie L. Stanley, 42, of Washington, DC, and then shot and wounded Rosalyn Stanley, 26, of Annapolis, who was in the next car.

Two policemen spotted the shooting and ordered Pearch to halt. He turned, looked at the officers, then walked to the next car with African-Americans and fired again, wounding Bryant Lamont Williams, 20, of Rockville. The two officers opened fire with a shotgun and a pistol, and killed Pearch.

“He was smiling. I thought he had been shooting blanks,” said William Painter, one of the 40-50 witnesses.

* * *

Some of my interest in cognitive biases and perceptual distortions stems from this incident. Eyewitness testimony, experts know, is not particularly reliable, especially from people not trained in the art. I was within five feet of the murderer, but couldn’t have picked him out of a lineup on a bet. I had no idea what was going on. I am still ashamed.

Selective perception underlies a lot of cognitive biases. We adjust and filter the world around us according to our sense of what the world should be, and therefore miss a lot about what the world really is.

I’ve been trying to get the details of this story for a long time, but even in a Google world, it’s hard to find. Perhaps it’s the small number of victims, but this particular incident doesn’t show up on any list of racial violence I can find. There’s a United Press article that appeared in various papers, ranging from the Fort Scott (Kansas) Tribune to the St. Petersburg (Florida) Evening Independent.

Michael Edward Pearch is mentioned as a potential suspect in the Wheaton abduction of the Lyon sisters, but there’s no evidence other than his killing spree to link him to the murders, and the Lyons were white. He’s also mentioned on at least one white supremicist site, where he’s a hero.

On the anniversary of this terrible event, I remember the victims, and remember also the lessons of my own failure to perceive what was going on all around me.

30 comments:

  1. That's pretty fucked up,as it takes a lot of emotional scars to build up a level of hatred that intolerable as to kill innocent bystanders.Though at the same time,all crimes involving violence are crimes of hate.

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  2. I cannot believe I never heard this story through the family until you told it to me during my visit. I'm thankful and grateful to have someone like who in my close family who I truly feel that I have a "more than family" connection with.

    You're inspiring to me and I appreciate you for who you are and what you do.

    -VP

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  3. Thanks, Van. The daughter of one of the victims contacted me through this piece as well.

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  4. I find it horrifying and sad that this murderer -- a pathetic loser with a gun -- is a "hero" to other people. I guess they're even more sad and pathetic than he was if they're looking up to him.

    --Gayle

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  5. I'll ask your forgiveness in advance, but at least that's one racist who isn't regaling his Aryan Brothers with stories of shooting n****rs. I'm glad the cops blew him away, just like I'm glad some prision inmate crushed the skull of Jeffrey Dahmer. Sad you had to witness such a horrendous act.

    I'm a pretty liberal guy, but I believe in the death penalty when it comes to incidents like this, and this crime happened well before the notion of "hate crime" existed in our legal lexicon. I can't justify my approval of police serving as judge and executioner; in this instance, it was clearly the right thing to do, but in many cases, I find suspicious the official details of police shooting to death an unarmed man whose cell phone they mistook as a gun: the reports always seem contrived to hide the darker truth. By the same token, I can't help wishing some well-meaning officer in LA in the 1980s had done the same to Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker. That dirtbag was getting his ass beaten handily by citizens who had identified him thanks to APB-style photos the "LA Times" ran on its front page when the cops rolled up and rescued him from the mob. Richard now lives in relative luxury (luxury being "lucky to be living at all") behind bars, where he has lived in protective custody since he murdered upward of 20 innocent men, women, and children. In that time, he has grown fat and gray, and has gotten married. If ever a man deserved death by lethal injection -- I'd prefer a more primitive punishment -- it is Richard Ramirez.

    There's a reason mass and serial murders are epidemic in this country: we coddle the perpetrators. In my opinion, they should be held accountable to a different set of rules -- one in which we treat the criminals as domestic terrorists and seek their expedient execution. By housing these losers at the cost of taxpayers, we punish the victims of their crimes a second time.

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  6. Robin - While my girlfriend and I were the first witnesses to arrive at the police station, we were not by any means the last, and we were joined by friends and relatives of some of the victims who had also been present at the killing. When we heard after several hours of waiting that the gunman had been killed by police, we all saw it as very good news.

    I've only been able to find out a little bit about the killer, but what I have learned suggests that he was a timebomb waiting to go off, and the only question was which particular lunacy was going to define his victims — in this case, racial hatred.

    As in the case of the Giffords killings, where the hate-filled Arizona rhetoric (State Motto: Too small to be a country, too large for an insane asylum) served as a magnet for a lunatic, the hate fringe has to bear some of the guilt along with the actual trigger-puller.

    I'd also add to the list of culpable parties the military. The killer had evidently been involved in covert military operations, and had been cut loose with nothing much in the way of treatment or support even though he clearly had serious problems. They let a danger to the community (and to himself) run loose because it was no longer their problem.

    Neither of these, of course, excuse the killer, nor make me shed any tears over his death. I'm only sorry that he didn't live to stand trial — this awful incident has dropped off the radar because there was no follow-on publicity. He deserved what he got. But he wasn't alone.

    I'm reluctant to embrace vindictiveness as a standard for criminal justice, not because some criminals don't deserve it, but because *we* don't. Why should the worst elements in society get to define the level of allowable savagery?

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  8. I came upon this "person's" name while searching for information on the Lyon sisters. What an awful surprise to learn that he is indeed guilty, if not of harming the Lyon girls, of falling victim to his own lack of self control.

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  9. Tattletale - Yes, I also found him mentioned in connection with the Lyon sisters. There's no actual evidence I'm aware of that connects him to that crime; he's on the list of "people of interest" because (a) the same shopping center is involved and (b) he committed another horrible crime.

    For readers not familiar with the Lyon sisters, Wikipedia summarizes the case here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyon_sisters. As you'll see, Pearch is not mentioned in it.

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  10. I'd just like to add a correction, if I may? I remember Harold Navy Jr, being shot in the upper leg and it affected his basketball playing as he had a long recouperation. I remember him returning to High School basketball after the shooting, so I don't think he was yet a freshman in college.

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  11. I'm sorry that I just now saw this comment. The information I have on Harold Navy is just from the rather sketchy news coverage on the shooting; I'm glad to get the correction. Do you know Navy? I've met one person connected with the incident so far, the daughter of John and Laureen Sligh. I'd like to write a much more detailed and comprehensive piece on this shooting, which seems to have been largely lost to history. If you do know Navy, and he's amenable to being contacted, I'd very much appreciate the opportunity to get to know him. Many thanks.

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    1. I grew up around the block from the Navy family and counted him as a friend in our teenage years, he was an extraordinary basketball player and one of the nicest guys you could know, I visited him after his coming home to his parents house on Pendleton Dr. in Wheaton from the hospital stay, From what I remember, he was shot in the abdomen,I believe it ended a promising basketball sponsorship and or career,I believe he began taking dentistry in higher learning institutions,I wish I knew how he is after all these years.

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    2. Ken - I'd like to get some more information, if you're so inclined. Please let me know how I might reach you; you can contact me at dobsonmichael@gmail.com.

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    3. Hi Mr. Dobson - I just saw this article of yours but I knew the Navy family especially their youngest son Michael who was my age and good friend growing up. I remember Harold certainly. I was only 5 at the time of the incident but yes he was in high school and lost a lot of weight afterwards. It greatly affected his basketball career. Harold later joined the army or Navy (sorry cannot remember) but became a giant of a man. Seriously the mans arms were bigger than my head. He married a lovely girl named Carmen and they had a son named Sean. I don't know what his history is beyond this but I can say he was a sterling gentleman of a man. Very smart and I always looked up to him (who didn't he was literally 6 foot 5! :)

      The Navy's are a good family and got past this. It was a tragedy that it happened but as testimony to Harold's strength and character it certainly didn't stop him from being successful, basketball or not.

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    4. Remo,

      I'd love to discuss this further. I can be reached at michael@dobsonbooks.com.

      Thanks.

      - Michael

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  12. Thank you for posting this Michael. I was in early elementary school at the time of this horrific crime. My family was in the Wheaton Pharmacy (now long gone, but it was in the shopping center with Planters Peanuts,etc.on Georgia Ave.). My memories are vague, but I do remember hearing the gun fire, hiding in the small bathroom with the wife of the owner, my mother and my brother while my father and the pharmacist grabbed heavy objects, ducked behind the counter and waited (seems silly in hindsight, but it was all they could do). I had supressed my memories until the sniper shootings several years ago. I was surprised that this crime never re surfaced in the media. We also found out after the attacks that as a "white" family, we most likely were safe, but there was no way to know that at the time. Again, thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thank you very much for writing. The number of people who remember the incident is distressingly small. I do understand suppressing the memories; my son was in elementary school during the sniper shootings and doesn't remember much about it. Granted, we tried to keep most of the news away from him, but the teachers were forming a human wall each day so the kids could board buses home. I suspect that if the shooter had survived to stand trial, the incident would be better remembered today, but it's still surprising that it has been so forgotten, especially in light of yesterday's Sikh Temple shootings in Wisconsin, fairly close to where I once lived. I do still plan to write about this in more detail someday. If you wouldn't mind being interviewed, would you send your contact info privately to michael@dobsonsolutions.com? Many thanks.

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  13. Michael,

    My connection to this event is before the fact. I had met Mike Pearch a couple of years before the shooting and spent a lot of time with him camping over three days. With only one exception, our paths did not cross again for about two years, until I happened to randomly wind up doing yard work at his mother's house about 24 hours before the shooting began.

    Mike recognized me and came out of the house to talk. The conversation lasted about fifteen or twenty minutes and mostly covered the past two years. I know that there was much more behind his actions, but I have always been haunted by the question of whether something about that conversation may have been the final trigger for him to snap. I strongly suspect that the whole time he was speaking with me that he already had at least some idea about what he was going to do and perhaps he had already planned every detail.

    Not that I think it would have made much of a difference but I was never interviewed by the police. I don't think they ever knew much of anything about me or that I had just spoken to Mike. I was only fifteen at the time and could not figure out what to do with what I knew. My parents were even afraid to talk to me about it beyond being the ones to inform me about the shooting.

    This whole episode is to me like a manilla file folder that has no place in the file cabinet. I try to put it somewhere; maybe in the wrong drawer, maybe in the trash, maybe I try to bury it under other things but sooner or later it keeps reappearing on top of the file cabinet. I suspect you and others, connected to this event, feel the same way. And always the question; "Is there anything I could have done?"

    Obviously, there is not a thing I can do to change the past but if there is any way that sharing what I know can bring some relief to someone else affected by this tragedy then perhaps I could finally put this in the file cabinet under; "something good finally came out of that part of my life."

    I have sent my contact info to you via email and look forward to hearing from you.

    Mark

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  14. I have read quite a bit about this incident and believe that Pearch's actions on that day are as unexplainable today as they were in 1975.

    Pearch was a very intelligent person. He was a graduate of Suitland High School. He had enlisted in the Army and was involved in counterintelligence work while stationed in Germany.

    He was a History buff and enjoyed participation in Revolutionary War re-enactments (remember that the Bicentennial was just starting in 1975). He was an avid gun collector and did a lot of historical research on firearms. He was also a very talented artist and he had attended College.

    Pearch was a troubled individual, to be sure. He had recently lost his German girlfriend in a fatal car accident and was depressed about it.

    His own father had separated from his mother and had moved away and out of their lives. Pearch became the man of the family at a very young age. He had (in 1974 or 75) recently conducted a search for his father and located him in the Pittsburg area and reunited with him.

    Although his mother lived in Kensington, near Wheaton Plaza, Michael Pearch had been living in Friendsville, MD about three or four hours away in the far western part of the state. He was living on a farm owned by an old man that he knew. He was living the life of a hermit in some ways, being all alone on that farm, but he was known to visit bars and other places of business in the town.

    Pearch was visiting his mother the weekend of the killing spree.

    You might logically think that Pearch was a racist or "full of hate" based on his actions that April day, but police could not find anyone who knew him that could back those conclusions up. In fact, most said that he was a pretty normal guy and that he did NOT make any anti-black or racial hatred statements. They were shocked when they heard of what he had done and had no explanation for it.

    As has been mentioned, Michael Pearch was shot dead in the street by a Montgomery County Policeman armed with a shotgun. An autopsy revealed that Pearch had a blood clot on his brain, but the doctors could not say conclusively that it caused him to kill.



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    1. Many thanks for your comment. I'd like to talk with you further about this; please let me know the best way to reach you.

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  15. Very interesting to hear perspectives from people who were there or who knew Pearch. I work in the movie industry and I've done extensive research for a screenplay that focuses on the life changing events that occurred on April 13th 1975. My father was the police officer who shot and killed Pearch and I feel it's very important to tell his story and the story of the innocents involved. I hope to see the film in production in the next couple years. Will keep you posted. Thanks for the posting!

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    1. Fascinating. I'd love to learn more about this. What would be a good way to contact you?

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    2. Would love to chat. Email would be a good start :) Is there an address I can shoot an email to?

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    3. I'm michael@dobsonbooks.com. Look forward to hearing from you.

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  16. Although I grew up in the Wheaton area, I've never heard of these murders until now. Maybe this was overshadoowed by coverage of the Lyon sisters, or maybe parents in the area thought it would be too much of a shock for us kids to hear about; our innocense was truly shattered when Sheila and Kate disappeared. Regardless, it's so sad to learn of yet one more reason for my black classmates and their parents to have been scared to go about their daily lives, knowing that idiots like this existed. I hope all of his victims' family members have found some peace by now and that they realize most people are not racist.

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  17. Yes, it's surprising and sad that this case is largely forgotten except by those of us who were in some way touched by it, however indirectly.

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  18. I just discovered your blog post tonight. My ex-wife and I just missed being shot by the gunman. You will find my account on my blog ==> http://hbcu-levers.blogspot.com/2014/01/memories-repressed-and-obsessed.html ... Thanks for your obsession with this incident. The victims deserved to be remembered by someone.

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    1. Hi, I moved my note to my personal blog because some of readers of my HBCU blog found it confusing. You will now find the note here ==> http://neoskeptics.blogspot.com/2014/01/memories-of-racist-serial-killer.html#more

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  19. In light of the recent shooting in Columbia Mall (near where I live now) I thought of the Wheaton shooting and found your blog.
    I too witnessed part of it as I was the manager on duty at Wheaton Pharmacy that night and saw the final shooting by the gunman and his being shot by the police. I had only been out of the Army a few months at the time and recognized the sound of gumfire when he shot the Anchor Inn busboy. I sw people fleeing and I saw the guy following him up to the Chicken Place in the next block then turn around and head south and turn in front of my store and walk over to the last victims car and open fire.
    I thought about how much coverage on the news we have today vs. back then.
    [In a similar way me and my buddies were headed to DC to buy beer for our weekly poker game in 1968 the day MLK was killed. It was 7 at night and we had heard nothing on the car radio as we approached the DC line at Blair Road/Shepard Park only to be greeted by the National Guard and told to turn around that "they were burning down the city". Today, good or bad, we would see it on the news for hours and hours with reports vying to make news.
    Charlie Kibbey

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