Victims receive differing time in spotlight

Joyce Durham.jpg

Joyce Renee Durham, left, and Maria Lauterbach


Staff Writer

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Let’s talk about two women: Joyce Renee Durham and Maria Lauterbach. Both women went missing in North Carolina a decade ago.

Joyce, 46, was last seen on Harper Street in Rocky Mount at 2:30 p.m. June 17, 2007. Maria, 20, was last seen in Jacksonville on Dec. 14 of the same year. Joyce wasn’t mentioned in news reports until July 2009. Maria became the focus of a national media circus within a few weeks of her disappearance.

Joyce’s case was drawn into an investigation of several missing and murdered women. Only then did the public learn of the circumstances of her disappearance. Local, state and national media outlets pounced on Maria’s case, which was a perfect storm of headlines and sound bites.

Maria was a Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune. She was pregnant. And she had accused a superior of rape. Then she vanished. Her family was outspoken about it all. There’s no denying the newsworthiness of her story.

But Joyce was just as important to her family. They described her as a fun person with a great sense of humor. Joyce’s stepfather Winston Kemp said he thinks about her nearly every day. He said he dreams about her only to wake up and realize she’s not there.

Both women had problems. Joyce, a local native, struggled with drugs. Maria, from Ohio, was a compulsive liar who often got in over her head.

I covered crime for a daily newspaper in Jacksonville in 2007. I was first to report on Maria’s disappearance and witnessed the satellite trucks roll in and camp out in front of the sheriff’s office. For weeks, Maria’s case dominated the nightly news. I provided on-air updates to Shepard Smith on Fox News and argued with Nancy Grace on CNN when she said it took authorities too long to look for Maria. I appeared on television so much back then that I turned down Geraldo Rivera to take my wife grocery shopping.

At the same time in Rocky Mount, Joyce and several other women were missing or their bodies had been found dumped in rural areas. Outside of the victims’ families and a handful of detectives, no one had ever even heard of Joyce or the others. A few years later, the cases were all over local newspapers and television news casts, but had barely scratched the national coverage. Nancy Grace's producers planned a show in 2009, but were called away to another story.

If you haven't figured it out yet, it’s time for some uncomfortable truths. Joyce was black; Maria was white.

It feels like finding Joyce wasn’t a top priority for anyone when she disappeared. It’s an unfortunately all-too-common phenomenon known as “missing white woman syndrome.”

When it comes to race and the missing, white women dominate news coverage, according to research by Zach Sommers, a sociologist at Northwestern University in Illinois. He found that white women make up about a third of the national population, but half of the news articles about missing people.

Maria — young, pretty, blonde — her disappearance became instant sustained national news. One white woman vanishing easily spun more headlines and breaking news television alerts than a dozen missing black women.

On the surface, it would be easy to suspect systematic racism in Joyce’s case. But almost every top law enforcement official in charge of the investigation into her disappearance was black. The city police chief was black, the sheriff was black and the district attorney was black. Chief John Manley and Sheriff James Knight have since retired. D.A. Robert Evans is running for re-election. He deserves credit for bringing a successful prosecution against the serial killer believed to have murdered Joyce and the other women. That conviction was for just one of the women. Since then Evans has shown no interest in pressing charges in the other cases. In a rare interview a couple of years ago, Evans told me the killer was behind bars for life and that was the end of it.

The families of the victims don’t see it that way. They’ve expressed concerns that their daughters haven’t received justice. Why haven’t prosecutors brought cases against the killer, a man already found guilty of strangling one of the women? Is it to avoid the embarrassing truth that the cases weren’t well handled? I don’t mean the investigation. I’ve spoken with many of the detectives involved. I believe they did their jobs well. The problem is in the optics of the situation.

Women went missing from the same area and bodies piled up in the same area for years before a serious investigation got underway. In fact, love him or hate him, everyone must recognize that until Rocky Mount Councilman Andre Knight, an often polarizing figure in our community, got involved, the cases weren’t even publicly connected and federal investigators weren’t involved. Why?

I believe victimology played a major roll. Another missing drug user here. Another dead prostitute there. All black women. A city that forgets its murder victims is a city lost. I read that last year in a Michael Connelly novel. It stuck with me because as high as Rocky Mount soars, as robust as its economy grows, its citizens and leaders must realize the mistakes made in Joyce’s case. They must rise to the challenge to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Every victim matters.

However, city leaders who sought to wipe their hands clean aren’t the only ones complicit in the matter. The so-called missing white woman syndrome thrives when the news media turns its back on minority missing and dead. Nancy Grace producers ditched the dozen missing and murdered women of color in Rocky Mount for the disappearance of one white woman in Georgia.

After an arrest was made in the Rocky Mount cases, the decomposed bodies of victims were still being discovered along Seven Bridges Road. Joyce’s body has never been found. The National Guard searched for her in 2010. That was the last time, which I’m aware, a search has been conducted.

While the local press covered the investigation and the killer’s subsequent trial ran on the front page for a week; nothing appeared in print for five years after that. Women who are brutally raped and murdered in our community deserve better, no matter what color they happen to be.