Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Eyewitness to Murder, Part 4

On April 13, 1975, an unemployed Silver Spring carpenter named Michael Edward Pearch dressed in his Army fatigues, strapped a machete to his chest, shrugged on a knapsack with 250 rounds of ammunition, and loaded his .45 automatic pistol. He drove to the nearby Wheaton Plaza shopping mall and began killing. Within the next half hour, he shot seven people, all African-American. Two of them died. I don’t want to mention Pearch’s name without also listing his victims, so here they are.

  • John L. Sligh, 43, of Rockville, Maryland: died.
  • Laureen D. Sligh, 40, his wife: wounded.
  • Dr. Ralph C. Gomes, also of Rockville: minor injuries when his car crashed.
  • Harold S. Navy, Jr., 17: wounded.
  • Connie L. Stanley, 42, of Washington, DC: killed.
  • Rosalyn Stanley, 26, of Annapolis, Maryland: wounded.
  • Bryant Lamont Williams, 20, of Rockville: wounded.
Pearch died at the hands of the police: “suicide by cop.”

Two years ago, I told that story on my blog, and last month I summarized some of my encounters with others touched by the same experience. In October of this year, I heard from Mark Felsher, who had known the killer, Michael Edward Pearch. He wrote:
Mark Felsher
“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 manila 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 began corresponding with Mark, and on October 21 of this year met him in person. Mark’s a few years younger than I. (He was fifteen at the time of the incident, and I was 22.) He’s a home improvement contractor by trade, with a background in leading youth camps. Highly religious, he’s involved with his church and family. He’s been married for 29 years and has four children with ages ranging from 20 to 23. He currently lives in North Carolina.

Mark had a job to do in the DC suburbs, so we agreed to get together on the Sunday after his work was finished. I drove to Greenbelt, where we met at Generous Joe’s Deli — Mark had gone to school with the owner. Over fried shrimp baskets, we talked about our lives and about our involvement with the Wheaton murders.

Mark — like Pearch — grew up in Greenbelt, Maryland, a planned suburban community located in Prince Georges County, which borders the District of Columbia. Like the two other “green” towns built by the United States Resettlement Administration in the 1930s, the town was designed as a self-sufficient cooperative community, surrounded by (as the name implies) a belt of forest. Eleanor Roosevelt was actively involved in the layout of the town, and appeared at its official inauguration. Greenbelt’s downtown is a lovely (if a bit run-down) example of Art Deco architecture. At the time of its founding, it was officially a segregated community (a proposed annex that would welcome black residents was scuttled in the face of local opposition), and even by the 1970s, black residents in Greenbelt were highly unusual.

The Mysterious Camper

For Mark Felsher, the undeveloped “green belt” that surrounded the town was a boy’s paradise. Along with his boyhood friend, Mike King, he explored the woods on an almost daily basis, building secret forts and camping out. Although they were only a short distance from the townhouse row where they both lived, it was easy to believe that all the civilization around them had disappeared. Both were members of the local Boy Scout troop; both loved camping and the outdoors. He was thirteen at the time.

It was on one of their hiking trips, not too far off one of the winding paths through the forest, that Mike King suddenly stopped and told Mark that someone was nearby. Mark looked around, but saw no one, until Mike King pointed to a small patch of trees where an older man, perhaps in his early twenties, nearly camouflaged in the dense underbrush, stood watching them.

The boys introduced themselves, and the man told them his name was Mike Phipps. (It would be some years before Mark learned his real name.) "Phipps" was also camping in the woods, but on more of a semi-permanent basis. He had built a semi-log cabin, with three straight sides and an angled top, which served as a base over which he’d stretched a tent. The whole camp was artfully concealed in the woods, effectively invisible to any casual observer.

Mike Phipps was friendly, if a bit guarded, and the two boys decided to set up their own camp near him. For three days they lived near each other in the woods. Their conversation was limited. Mike had been a member of the same Boy Scout troop some years previously, and as a lifelong resident of Greenbelt, they knew various other people in common. He had been in the Army, he told them. The conversation didn’t go into a lot of depth.

After a couple of days, Mike took Mark aside and pointed out that he was camping out for solitude, and politely suggested that the boys might want to find a different location.

About six months later, Mark saw Mike Phipps again. He was walking briskly along the trail beside a thin and winding creek, not too far from the old campsite. He was clearly in a hurry. He waved at Mark when he saw him, but didn’t slow down. Where he had come from and where he was going were both a mystery.

Two more years would pass before the third and final encounter.

More to come...


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