Rural Justice

Small towns have long memories. In the early morning hours of October 5, 1996 Jonesville Police Sgt. Gregory Martin pulled over a red pickup on Interstate 77 just south of highway 67. Moments later he radioed that he needed assistance. Minutes later a North Carolina highway patrolman arrived at the scene and found Martin dead of gunshot wounds to his head.

Jonesville isn’t the most picturesque American small towns. Like many it sprung up in the late 1800s as textile mills grew around the area. It was a gritty, working town dependent on the mills that never developed any of the charm the way the neighboring town Elkin across the Yadkin river did. So when the mills closed they left a void that Jonesville, like so many economically depressed rural small towns in America, has struggled to fill. Still it survives, and at times manages even to thrive. It’s location on I-77 has contributed to the development of hotels and restaurants, and it benefits from the growing tourist trade at the nearby vineyards in Yadkin, Wilkes and Surry counties. It has a long way to go before it becomes a tourist trap, but the locals are optimistic for the future.

Since his death newly printed wanted posters hang in establishments around the area, and the memory of that event 16 years ago is passed to newcomers like me who share in the town’s grief and determination to see justice done. But 16 years is a very long time when most murder cases are solved within the first two days, so I didn’t think the news crew from Winston-Salem 40 miles away standing outside police headquarters had anything to do with Sgt. Martin’s death when I drove by.

My mind was occupied by another local tragedy, the deaths of two children from carbon monoxide poisoning in Elkin. The mother had just rented a small A-frame across the street from the middle school, and the power had not been turned on yet. Evidently she fired up a gasoline generator in the kitchen to run the refrigerator on the first night of their stay in the house. Six hours later the children were found dead in their beds, their mother collapsed in a hallway. She was taken to the local hospital and then flown to Duke where she is likely to survive. I’m not sure I would want to if I was her, though. People in the town of 3,000 new her and the children, and people talked as they are prone to do. The woman’s lapse in judgement wasn’t her first, but it was by far her worst, and her children paid the price. When I passed by the home the next morning candles burned at a make-shift memorial on a porch littered with flowers and stuffed animals.

Three years living here has changed me in many ways, and one way has been my appreciation for Life. Granted I have always “felt” things more than is healthy; I believe my struggle with alcoholism was partly an attempt to medicate my oversensitivity to outside events for example. But when you live with a few thousand people, you find that when things happen it impacts you personally. If you don’t know the victims directly, you know someone who does. Gossip remains the CNN or FoxNews of rural life, providing details that you will never hear in a newscast or read in a newspaper. I came here in a self-imposed exile to escape some of the pain of the world, but have found it impossible; it hurts even more when you’ve driven by the house countless times where children have died and thought it always looked sad and ramshackle before this event. Now I just want to see it disappear.

So when the news arrives that the authorities may have caught Sgt. Martin’s killer, it brings relief and a little something else. Call it faith in the justice system or karma, whatever, but the fact that the Arm of the Law is long enough to reach across 16 years and nab a killer of a small town cop makes me smile. There is yet another unsolved murder that haunts the area, and the possible capture of Sgt. Martin’s killer gives me hope it too will someday be solved and the killers brought to justice.

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