A true-crime podcast about a decades old Orange County murder mystery has led to new information that could help detectives solve the case.
The Long Dance Podcast, released on June 30, is an eight-part series dedicated to the Feb. 12, 1971, murders of Patricia Mann and Jesse McBane, college students and high school sweethearts. Written and narrated by investigative journalist Drew Adamek and crime fiction author Eryk Pruitt, who lives in Durham, the podcast untangles a labyrinth of leads and myths surrounding the case.
Mann and McBane were kidnapped after leaving a Valentine’s Party at Watts Hospital in Durham, where Mann was a student, and driving to a secluded “lover’s lane” in Durham County. Their abductor forced the pair into his car and drove them to a location in Orange County, where he tortured and choked them to death before leaving their bodies tied to a tree and covered in leaves.
Because it took almost two weeks to find the bodies, the case generated intense scrutiny. Panicked citizens feared a killer was on the loose and would strike again. Friends organized search parties, scouring the back roads of Durham and Orange counties for any sign of the couple. Reporters dubbed the case the Valentine’s Day murders and pestered tight-lipped police for information.
A half dozen jurisdictions would investigate the case, including the Durham Police, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the State Bureau of Investigation. The initial inquiry identified numerous suspects, but a lack of cooperation amongst the various agencies kept investigators from putting together a comprehensive look at all the evidence. Missing pieces and massive egos stalled the case, and a few years later, active investigations had ground to a halt.
Enter Orange County Major Tim Horne. In 2010, former Orange County Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass asked Horne to take measurements in a room at the old jail for a potential renovation project. Dozens of cardboard boxes, stacked in rows three and four feet high and covered in dust, filled the musty room. Sitting on the floor by itself was one such box with its lid off.
When Horne moved to replace the lid, the gruesome crime scene photographs of the Mann-McBane case stared back at him. Intrigued, Horne took the box to his office and began to sift through the information. It didn’t take long for the story to jump off the withered pages and into Horne’s psyche.
“It had so many twists and turns that it was easy to get caught up in it,” he said. “Everyone who has had the opportunity to read the case file or be part of the investigation has felt the same way. You couldn’t put it down. It was like a book, or a Hollywood screenplay.”
He shared his find with fellow Orange County detective Dawn Hunter, who had recently joined the force after several years with the Chapel Hill Police Department. After reading a few pages, Hunter was likewise hooked. For about six months, the duo worked in their free time and while off duty to piece the case file together.
“Rubber bands had broken, paper clips had fallen off, pages were out of order,” Horne said. “The file was a mess. It was just all thrown into a box. Once we got this back together, we each made a copy and we would compare notes.”
“We would go home every night and call one another and tell each other what we had found,” Hunter said. “It was really interesting.”
Horne asked Sheriff Pendergrass, who was a police officer in Chapel Hill at the time of the murders, if he could reopen the case. After the Sheriff granted permission, Horne reached out to other agencies involved in the initial investigation and requested their case files. Soon, he had detective’s notes from the SBI and the Durham Police.
After almost forty years, Horne and Hunter became the first investigators to see almost all of the evidence generated by the various agencies (some evidence, including the clothes worn by the victims, were destroyed or lost). The more that Hunter and Horne studied the reports, putting them together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, a clear picture began to form around three suspects identified shortly after the murders. Two of the suspects had since died, but one was still living in Orange County.
In 2016, Adamek and Pruitt began to research the case. Their efforts led them to Horne, who had been the subject of a few stories by local media outlets after he reopened the case in 2011. Adamek and Pruitt asked to see the case files, which Horne refused out of respect to the families of the victims.
“They approached the family first,” Horne said. “The family turned them down. They came to us, and we turned them down.”
Undaunted, Adamek and Pruitt continued their research, interviewing witnesses and suspects and developing new information. They reached out to Horne three months later to share what they had found and ask again to see the file.
“We met a second time, and from that second meeting, I could tell these guys knew what they were doing,” said Horne. “They are good researchers. They had a lot of information that no one else had come up with. I called the family and talked to them, and we decided to do this.
“There are citizens who would rather deal with law enforcement, and there are others who would rather deal with reporters. So we had the best of both worlds. Not only did we cooperate and give them information, they gave us a lot of information. Through all this stuff going on, we have gotten new leads.”
After 46 years, an investigation that had been mothballed and then resurrected by sheer happenstance roared to life.
Horne said he worked with Adamek and Pruitt for almost 20 months on the podcast, recording hours of interviews. The writers distilled the information into eight episodes, each about one hour long. The episodes were released on their website (www.thelongdancepodcast.com) June 30. By the end of its first month, the podcast had reached almost 100,000 downloads and been accessed around the United States and the world.
Law enforcement agencies like the Texas Rangers and the Office of Homeland Security and experts from The Netherlands and Australia have contacted Horne and offered assistance. Most importantly, people who lived in the area at the time called to share information they thought would be useful.
“We have gotten many, many calls,” said Horne. “Some of those items of information have been important. They may not have seen the crime itself, but they saw some of the players and how they acted.”
Incredibly, the podcast has resurrected a 1972 case that bears striking similarities to the Mann-McBane murders. A young couple parked in a secluded area in the Duke Forest, not far from where Mann and McBane had been parked, reported that a lone gunman attempted to kidnap them and force them into the trunk of his car. The male resisted, and eventually the couple escaped, although not before the male victim was brutally pistol whipped by their attacker, suffering permanent nerve damage.
Adamek, Pruitt and Horne searched for information about this incident, but found nothing. No police reports. No media reports. No longtime residents who could lead them to the purported victims. Nothing more than whispered rumors – until the podcast debuted.
"We had heard an urban legend of a second attempt in the early 1970s, but there was no record of it,” Horne said. “Through all this media, I was contacted by a retired SBI agent. It was his case in Durham. He gave me the file number. That case is very similar and very, very close geographically. They were abducted at gunpoint by a single suspect, which is what we believe happened in the Mann-McBane case. He tried to get them in the trunk, which is what we believe occurred in the Mann-McBane case. They were fortunate in that they fought back.”
This may be the break that Hunter and Horne have spent hours and hours searching for. Both victims are alive and cooperating with the investigation. The case file, emblazoned with the word CONFIDENTIAL across the cover, sits on Horne’s desk and includes a police sketch of the suspect made in 1972. “We have two living victims that were able to get away, and we have a sketch,” said Horne. “And the sketch does favor one of our suspects.”
Horne credits former Sheriff Pendergrass with allowing him to re-open the investigation and Sheriff Charles Blackwood and Chief Deputy Jamie Sykes for supporting his and Hunter’s efforts, including the decision to share information with Adamek and Pruitt.
“The cooperation of the podcast and thinking outside the box, that was Sheriff Blackwood,” Horne said. “He has been very supportive of us and this project and getting the word out in the pursuit of justice. This would not have happened without the support of Sheriff Blackwood and Chief Sykes. They went out on a limb to do the right thing. We have a shot to solve this case based on the information we have learned and the new case from 1972.”
Horne was scheduled to retire July 1, but he has delayed that until Dec. 31, in part due to the developments in the cold case. He is now hopeful the 1972 case could lead to a resolution of the Mann-McBane murders because he thinks the same perpetrator committed both crimes.
“I believe they are absolutely related,” he said. “They are too similar. How many times does lightning strike that close?”
If charges have not been brought by the end of the year, Horne says he will continue working the case in retirement. Eight years of sweat and tears, including a couple of spine-tingling moments when he thought his life might be in jeopardy, cannot be shunted aside so easily.
“I feel a self-imposed urgency because I am running out of time,” he said. “Too much has been stirred up now. Former nurses, relatives, people in all lines of work all over the world have shared information with us. I will continue to evaluate that because the victims deserve justice, and the families deserve closure. That’s what Dawn and I have tried to do.”