In 2001, Brad Willis, a South Carolina TV news reporter, reported a story he believed was righteous because it kept a convicted killer in jail. Later, he learned he had told only the easy half of that story — and had perhaps kept an innocent man in prison. Thus began an 18-year obsession now playing out in “Murder, etc.,” an ongoing true-crime podcast that won’t have an ending until the real killer is found.
Story by Brad Willis
I waited under a stone picnic pavilion shaded by a line of mature hardwoods. A couple of softball fields hid me from the main road. Two teenagers sat in front of a fireplace built into one of the walls. They didn’t have a fire burning. They had a Bluetooth speaker between them, and the girl was singing.
They were my only company while I waited to discover if I’d finally made a mistake stupid enough to get me killed.
I sat at a picnic table with my notebook and phone in front of me. Two hours earlier, a man I didn’t know had called and said he had something I needed to hear. He refused to tell me his story unless we were alone and face-to-face.
I tried to fool myself into believing I had a choice about whether I would risk meeting another Deep South Deep Throat. I pretended I was weighing the likelihood the mystery man was maybe a crank or a lonely old fool in search of someone who would listen. I pretended I had not been warned that someday, because of the story I was pursuing, someone would try to lure me into a trap. Only a handful of people knew what I’d gotten myself into, and I could get in touch with only one of them. I sent a text to a guy named Andy and told him what I was about to do, where I was, and how long I would be there.
I’d been waiting for 10 minutes when a large man pulled up in a small car, got out, and walked toward me. I stood up and sketched him in my mind. Maybe late 60s. Just short of 6 feet tall. Maybe 275 pounds.
He walked with a pronounced limp, but with purpose. It was the last thing I noted before he was three feet in front of my face. I sat back down at the table and asked if he’d like to sit. Instead, he stood straight and stared at me.
The teenage boy and his singing girlfriend had wandered off into the trees. I was alone with a man I didn’t know, perversely enjoying the five anxious seconds of having no idea what the hell was about to happen.
“Turn off your phone,” the man said.
He watched me press the button and waited for the face of my iPhone to go dark. When he felt satisfied there was nobody else listening under the pavilion, he spoke again.
“You have to stop doing what you’re doing,” he said.
His voice hitched, his face contorted as if his stomach was cramping, and he began to cry.
“You have to stop before somebody gets hurt.”
I could blame a lot of people for the dangerous decisions I’ve made over the past four years. I could explain my carelessness with a long list of reasonable arguments that might even convince people who don’t know me well. But the truth was it didn’t matter who told me to stop.
I wasn’t going to.
Lt. Frank Looper’s service weapon where police found it — unfired — on the floor of the garage where he was killed.
That old man wasn’t the first stranger I’d met under that pavilion. Nevertheless, meeting the crying man could have been my last bad decision. I still don’t know if what he told me over our 90-minute conversation was true, but his tears and his warnings were real.
I’d heard such words countless times since February, when I launched a podcast, “Murder, etc.,” a deep dive into the untold stories of Greenville, South Carolina’s criminal underworld.
For almost 20 years, I’d been digging into the story of a 1975 double murder and had repeatedly been warned to “watch my back” and to “let this story go.” In the few weeks before that meeting under the pavilion, I had watched two other grown men break down in tears, seemingly terrified or otherwise overwhelmed by questions about the past. On another occasion, after two hours of conversation and bad coffee, another man — one I knew had killed in the past — stopped in mid-sentence, leveled his eyes at me, and demanded I pull my phone out of my pocket so he could see if I was recording him.
None of this — or any of the other gut-wrenching moments I’ve experienced over the last four years — would have happened if I hadn’t written a story for The Bitter Southerner.
In 2015, Charles Wakefield Jr. answered a phone call from a man he’d been thinking about for 14 years.
“Mr. Wakefield, my name is Brad Willis,” I said. “I don’t know if you know who I am, but . . .”
Wakefield cut me off.
“Oh, I know everything about you,” he said.
Wakefield spent his first 21 years living in Greenville. He spent the next two years on South Carolina’s death row, and the next 33 in some of the state’s worst prison cells. Since 2001, I’d considered myself at least partly responsible for the last decade Wakefield spent in a cage before finally getting out of prison in 2010.
I held my phone in my hand and supported myself on my desk with both elbows. With my head hung over my laptop, I tried to muster the courage to ask Wakefield the question I’d planned.
I’d just finished a 10,000-word, multipart feature for The Bitter Southerner. The story, “Bust,” was the result of an investigation I’d conducted into Greenville’s underground gambling community. It centered on a gunfight between deputies and a man I’d known for five years. I’d worked as an investigative journalist and cop-beat reporter before changing careers in 2005 to work in the online poker business. “Bust” allowed me to work at the intersection of my two careers, and it gave me the confidence I might be able to write the story I’d left unfinished in 2001.
Charles Wakefield Jr. now lives in North Carolina and paints.
As a young journalist, I’d discovered that a man convicted of killing two people in Greenville in 1975 had made parole. Some cursory digging revealed that one of the two victims was the top drug cop for Greenville County, Lt. Frank Looper.
I was a young reporter, and I couldn’t recall a cop killer ever making parole. So, before my evening deadline, I’d made enough phone calls to kick a hole in a 25-year-old hornet’s nest. The ensuing swarm of outrage from police and newspaper editorial writers resulted in an all-too-familiar sting for Wakefield. Within weeks after my story aired on WYFF-TV on November 8, 2001, the South Carolina parole board rescinded its parole decision and told Wakefield his life sentence remained in effect.
At age 27, I felt as though I’d done the community a service, that I had kept a killer behind bars. In fact, after I got off work that night, I wrote a short essay that included this line: “If I wasn’t doing my job today, there’s a chance (Wakefield) could’ve been out and gone before anybody knew.”
Today, I’m ashamed of those words, because, in the years since then, I discovered I had not done my job that day.
I’d done half of the job. The easy half.
Charles Wakefield’s mug shot from 1975.
The hard half — the half required to tell the whole story — was impossible to research and tell before a 5 p.m. deadline, but I knew then, as I know now, that a deadline was no excuse.
I’ve spent the past 18 years working to tell the story the right way.
Nevertheless, in 2015, when I called Charles Wakefield, I had no idea what his life or my life would become four years later. On that day, I conjured up enough courage to ask him if he would let me write a feature about him for The Bitter Southerner. He wasn’t interested.
“I’m actually thinking of writing a book,” he said. “But I need a writer.”
That was how I ended up across a table full of barbecue from a man who spent two years on South Carolina’s Death Row, and it’s how I ended up spending the next four years talking with killers and thieves who ran with one of the most notorious gangs in Southern history.
Some people who love me would argue it took me too long to consider whether I should meet a man with a murder conviction, particularly one who had a good reason to hold a grudge against me. In my defense, I wasn’t halfway down the road to meet him before I gave the question some serious thought.
But I kept driving, and when I pulled up to his sister’s house, I saw Wakefield in person for the first time. He was leading a little girl on a springtime walk down the street. He looked like a giant next to the little girl’s tiny frame.
When he finished his walk, we discussed writing his memoir, a retrospective look at a man convicted of a double murder and the life he led afterward. We parted on friendly terms. I bought some homemade soap from his sister and told Wakefield I’d be in touch to set up an interview.
Weeks later, however, Wakefield said he wanted the book to take a different direction.
He said, “I’m thinking I’d like you to do some investigating.”
That was not part of the plan.
Apart from my one-time return to investigative journalism for the “Bust” piece, I’d not conducted a serious journalistic investigation since 2004. Moreover, Wakefield was asking me to re-investigate a case the cops cleared and courts adjudicated nearly 40 years earlier.
While I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to tell Wakefield’s story, I didn’t think it was possible to break new ground on such an old case. I don’t even recall exactly how I left that conversation, but I know every sensible part of me was screaming, “There is no way in hell you are going to do that.”
But I don’t listen to my sensible parts often enough. Those people who love me would suggest that’s part of my problem. The bigger problem: how incredibly wrong I was to assume that I’d find little unreported information about Greenville in 1975.
Before I could even begin to listen to my sensible parts, I’d found dozens of new leads across Greenville County, the state of South Carolina, and the whole damned southern United States.
Even worse? Way too many of those leads bled together into a story no one had ever told. And those leads eventually led, in one way or another, to the front steps of 1190 Pendleton Street in Greenville.
That’s where somebody shot Lt. Frank Looper and his father Rufus on the afternoon of January 31, 1975.
Police crime scene photos from the home and garage where Frank and Rufus Looper were murdered.
Lt. Frank Looper was a Navy veteran, a graduate of Furman University, and in 1975, the leader of a small narcotics unit for the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office. In the weeks prior to his murder, he told a few confidantes he was about to break a major case. He gave them no other details, and he withheld what he knew for good reason.
Looper had been looking for the men who shot up two of his family’s homes. His family believed he considered the shootings a warning to back off his investigation.
On the day of the murders, Looper had just gotten out of bed in a room he kept at his parents’ house. He was on the phone with his fiancée when his mother, Vera, asked him to go check on his father in their detached garage. Vera had seen a black man go into the garage. She said she was worried for her husband, Rufus.
Frank Looper got off the phone, went to his room for his .357 revolver, and walked out to the garage. Vera watched as the black man — who had since stepped out of the garage into her driveway — doubled back inside.
Vera said some time passed before she heard two shots and saw the man run away. She ran outside and found her husband and son on the floor of the garage. Each had a .32 caliber bullet wound just behind his left ear. Vera Looper said goodbye to her husband that day. She lost her son the next morning.
Vera Looper looking out her kitchen window as she did on the day of the murders. Police asked her to recreate the moment when reviewing the scene with her months later.
Looper’s boss, Sheriff Cash Williams, told reporters he believed Frank Looper’s murder was a contract hit ordered by someone in the narcotics underworld. Greenville Police detectives contradicted Williams and began telling reporters the Looper murders were no more than a botched midday robbery.
It took two detectives 10 months to arrest Charles Wakefield Jr. in the Looper murder case. Wakefield insisted he was innocent and offered a detailed and lengthy alibi, but neither was enough to convince the police, prosecutors, or the jury. Four months after his indictment, a judge sent Wakefield to death row. Had it not been for a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1978 that declared South Carolina’s death-penalty law unconstitutional, Wakefield would be dead today.
Instead, Wakefield — who was finally paroled in 2010 — is alive and determined to clear his name.
“I’ve got to do whatever it is I’ve got to do,” he said. “I’ll stop pursuing it when God tells me to stop.”
Wakefield on the phone attempting to find people in Greenville who might be able to help in the investigation.
Before I got in touch with Wakefield, I had no intention of resuming my life as an investigative journalist. I’d developed a terrific new career, I had an active social life, and I was still working to fulfill my lifelong dream of publishing a novel. I had nearly convinced myself that working on a lost-cause investigation would be nothing more than a practice in self-sabotage.
But within a few nights of Wakefield’s request to look into his case, I had the 750-page police file open on my lap again. Wakefield’s one-time attorney Eric Gottlieb had given me a hard copy of the file when I was still a reporter, and I’d read it cover to cover more times than I could remember. I carried it for more than 15 years before getting it digitized. Maybe part of me always knew — no matter how many times I insisted I was finished thinking about the case — I would need the file someday.
Gottlieb knew the file as well or better than I did. He worked on the case for a decade and achieved his ultimate goal of securing parole for Wakefield. But Gottlieb said it was a hollow victory, because he believed he never found out what really happened to Frank and Rufus Looper. He felt a compulsion to keep working, but that compulsion made him worry he was hurting himself in the process.
“This was truly an obsession for me,” Gottlieb said. “Even if I didn’t work on it every day, I thought about it every day.”
I understood Gottlieb’s affliction. Mine worsened when I learned several members of the Loopers’ surviving family believed Charles Wakefield was innocent and actively lobbied for his release. Looper’s former partner and friend had also encouraged the parole board to let Wakefield go. The most important trial witness against Wakefield had recanted his testimony in front of a judge.
But none of that mattered to the state of South Carolina, its judges, or its police.
Lt. Frank Looper of the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office.
After a couple of weeks with the weight of the police file on my lap, I felt a ticking in the back of my head, the kind that doesn’t go away until I solve a puzzle or fix something I know can be fixed. I tried to ignore that ticking for a couple of months, but I knew what was going to happen. I wasn’t going to stop until I told the story all the way to the end.
Turning a memoir into an investigative work required a new set of parameters. Initially, I’d envisioned working alongside Wakefield the way a biographer might. However, if I was going to investigate the case against him, he couldn’t be a partner. While I’d come to believe the case against Wakefield was flawed in many ways, I couldn’t ignore an obvious question: What if I discovered Wakefield was actually guilty?
For me to take on the story in an ethical way, Wakefield could have no editorial control. I told him if I discovered he was guilty in any way, I would report it. I told him I expected him to be honest with me, answer my questions when I asked, and let me do my work. He agreed.
I went to work. I read nearly every newspaper story about crimes that took place between in Greenville 1970 and 1978. I studied the city’s history. I read books. I created databases of names, places, and dates. I started calling old sources. I developed new sources. I exchanged letters with prisoners serving life. I met with men I considered so dangerous that I wrote notes to my family just in case I didn’t come home.
I still write those notes from time to time, because no matter how many years have gone by and how many new things I’ve learned, there are two things that haven’t changed.
I can’t hear the smart people who tell me to watch my back and to let go of a story.
And there are still too many people who would rather bury their town’s dark secrets under piles of glossy magazine articles about how Greenville has become the best small city in America.
Knox White is the longest-serving mayor in his city’s history. The people of Greenville also consider him to be one of the most important architects in the city’s emergence as a crown jewel of the New South — a town that now proudly sports the hashtag #yeahTHATgreenville. Magazines and newspapers from all over the world celebrate White’s downtown redevelopment as one of the biggest success stories in city planning.
Mayor White didn’t exactly understand why I was contacting him about a crime story that happened in his city while he was away at college, but he knew me from my days as a TV reporter and agreed to meet with me anyway.
I explained the situation. I was about to take the city he’d turned into a piece of art and cover it in its own filthy history. I thought he deserved an opportunity to defend his city against its own past.
White smiled and insisted on pulling out a book someone had recently given him.
The 1976 Book of Lists named Greenville as one of the worst midsized cities in America. Today, it doesn’t matter which publication you read: Greenville is one of the best.
White marveled over the 1976 book and admitted he wasn’t entirely aware of just how bad the 1970s had been. Today, each time he and his fellow city leaders find something to improve about their community, they learn something new about its past. What they learn is not always comfortable.
“I still have to pinch myself that we’re on all these great lists. Thankfully, we're on the right kind of list now,” White said.
While that might be the case in 2019, in 1975, Greenville County was a Southern scourge. It was South Carolina’s murder capital. It was part of a major heroin pipeline to New York. What’s more, police reported that tens of thousands of stolen guns used in New York crimes came from Greenville. The CBS program “60 Minutes” traveled south to produce a segment titled “The Carolina Connection,” that highlighted the city as the source of the stolen gun supply. One newspaper declared in a banner headline that Greenville was “GUN CITY USA.”
Those news outlets addressed the issues that mattered to people living outside the South, but they did nothing to reveal what was really happening in and to Greenville.
Knox White is the longest-serving mayor in Greenville’s history, and is an architect of the turnaround that has put his city on magazine best-city lists.
During the first six years of the 1970s, Greenville County was under siege. The marriage of law-enforcement corruption and organized crime combined to nearly paralyze the biggest county in Upstate South Carolina. A respected sheriff’s lieutenant ran his corrupt operation from the Sheriff’s Office dispatch room. An infamous bank-robbery gang used Greenville County as a home base and hideout. Drug thieves stole millions of dollars’ worth of prescription drugs from pharmacies and manufacturing companies and then resold the drugs all over the Southeast. Contract murder was both a constant threat and an occasional reality. In one case, the hitman’s prior job was working as a Greenville County deputy.
The more I worked, the more I came to realize those stories didn’t exist in a vacuum. In many cases, they were connected by a man or many men. While the newspapers of the day didn’t connect the dots in 1975, the lines between those men were too big to ignore in 2019.
In addition to the danger posed by still-living underworld figures of the 1970s, I became very conscious of the fact that the investigation would challenge the stories of three of Greenville’s most well known, successful, and powerful men.
One of the lead detectives in the Looper murders case, Mike Bridges, went on to be the Greenville Police Chief. The other, Jim Christopher, became one of the top agents in South Carolina’s State Law Enforcement Division. The lead prosecutor in the case, Billy Wilkins, was President Ronald Reagan’s first appointee to the federal courts and went on to be the chief judge of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
No matter how hard you look, you’re going to have a mighty hard time finding anyone who has met those three men in battle and come out without a scar.
Nevertheless, the more research I did, the more I discovered how the police built their investigation against Wakefield, constructed a circumstantial case out of questionable evidence, and ignored verifiable, eyewitness accounts that contradicted the case the prosecutor presented to jurors.
I immersed myself in the mess, drawing the lines between the dots and finding too many that ended up at Frank Looper’s door. Each time I learned something publicly revealed on my “Murder, etc.” podcast, I got more anonymous emails and private Facebook messages from people telling me I was digging too much. They told me I was in danger. They told me to stop. If those messages were threats, I couldn’t interpret them that way.
I managed to ignore a threat the people who loved me had already recognized: This investigation might just consume my life and make me completely miserable, and if it did, I still wouldn’t be able to stop working on it.
As it turns out, that wasn’t just a threat.
In the four years of work leading to the debut of “Murder, etc.,” I now have some advice for young, well-meaning writers: Do not try to write a book that doesn’t have an ending.
Between 2015 and 2018, I labored through a daily compulsion to find the truth in the Looper murders. I was at times exhilarated and at others absolutely miserable. In addition to everything I discovered about 1975 Greenville, I discovered something that compounded the misery: No matter how much I wrote about the Looper murders, I couldn’t write the ending of the book, because I didn’t know it yet.
While many sources were talking to me, some important people still wouldn’t. Furthermore, many people knew a lot more about the case than I did, but I didn’t even know those people existed.
Two journalists I respect addressed my affliction and gently suggested the story was better suited to become a podcast. I wasn’t as kind in my refusal to consider their suggestions.
I was a podcast power-listener with a deep respect for shows like “Serial” and “In the Dark.” However, despite having a background in broadcast news, I didn’t see myself as a podcaster. I saw myself as a writer. Those friends were trying to create Podcaster Brad when I was, as far as I knew, Writer Brad.
Either way, I didn’t have the knowledge, equipment, staff, or time to produce a podcast. I didn’t have the money to license music. I didn’t have the confidence that my incompetence wouldn’t ruin an amazing and important story.
My friends then addressed Writer Brad in a different way: If I started telling the story in podcast form, people would be more willing to come forward and tell me what they know.
All I can say to those friends is: “You were right.”
Of all the things I’ve learned about myself in the 20 years of reporting this story, this is the most important: My affliction isn’t an obsession with finding the truth. My affliction isn’t an incompetence that prevents me from telling the truth.
My affliction is the terror that I might never have the courage to tell the truth I know.
In July of 2018 — 17 years after the first time I reported on the story — I accepted that the only way I could fail in telling the story of the Looper murders was to never tell it at all.
So, last autumn, I taught myself to be a podcaster. I bought the expensive equipment, produced the music myself, and started telling the story as I knew it.
Click on the photo of writer Brad Willis to watch a video trailer for “Murder, etc.”
Since “Murder, etc.” debuted in February of this year, I’ve run out of hard-drive space, notepads, and pens. Over the course of the first 15 episodes, the story has taken two or three new turns, and a community of listeners has gathered to aid in the investigation. Sources inside and outside the law enforcement world have started to call. The story I’d planned to finish by August 2019 will now last most of this year, if not longer.
And here’s the funny part: I still don’t know how or when it’s going to end.
The page from the Greenville County criminal index from which Willis drew his podcast’s title.
“Murder, etc.” found its name at the Greenville County Courthouse while I was wrestling with a giant book known as the criminal index. It lists every criminal arrest and charge for the years before the court’s information could be stored in a computer database.
I was running down my list of criminals and underworld figures so I could pull their indictments from the 1970s. While I was there, I looked up Charles Wakefield’s arrest for the Looper killings. Next to his name, a clerk had typed the words “Murder, etc.” to indicate the crime of note, as well as, presumably, the armed robbery police said led to the murders.
The notes on the ledger were no more than a court clerk’s shorthand, but the “etc.” fascinated me, because while it referred to the charges against Wakefield, it suddenly represented everything else I had learned about the organized crime, law-enforcement corruption, drug thefts, guns, and Greenville County’s twisted system of justice in the 1970s.
I wondered what would happen if, instead of “etc.,” someone started to list all of the other crimes and criminals of 1975 alongside the Wakefield murder conviction.
I believed that if people knew the whole story — the murder and the etc. — they could better understand what really happened in 1975.
I wondered if they would make the connections I’d made and worried greatly about how to finally tell Greenville’s dark’s truths.
And all of that made me think of Andy, the guy I texted when I was going to meet the mystery man in the stone pavilion.
There is something inherently lonely about this kind of investigative journalism. I don’t sit in a newsroom surrounded by like-minded people who are just as hell-bent on finding the answers. When I finally crack something I’ve been trying to break open for months, the celebration often happens at 3 a.m. in a dark office with no one to tell. My friends and family have exhibited the kind of patience usually reserved for favorite sons and old dogs. Still, more often than not, I feel like I’m trying to explain a major plot twist in the best TV show I’ve ever seen, but I’m talking to people who don’t own a television.
Andy Ethridge was the first person I found who had seen the same TV show in his own mind.
Ethridge is a burly, 38-year-old guy with an auburn-colored beard. He wears a baseball cap more often than not, and he can parallel park his red pickup in a space that doesn’t look big enough for a Prius. His accent drips with a South Carolina drawl. If I told you that — prior to selling software for a living — he was a railroad conductor, you’d say, “Well, that makes sense.”
Ethridge first heard about the Looper murders in 1998, from a neighbor, but it wasn’t until he started his freshman year at Lander University that he started researching the case. At the time, he struggled to explain why he was spending all of his time buried in old newspapers in library periodical rooms.
Ethridge kept a notebook of his findings and began compiling what he knew. When his friends asked what he possibly hoped to do with all of his research, he joked that he was an “amateur historian,” because that was the only answer he had.
Ethridge continued to research through his first career as a medical-software salesman, the four years he spent as a Papa John’s delivery man, and the three years he worked as a railroad conductor. In that last job, he quickly learned what a furlough is.
“Basically, they tell you that you have no job next week, but you haven't lost your job. So, you end up with these weeks at a time where you have not lost your job, but there's nothing for you to do,” Ethridge said.
Ethridge spent that time digging as deeply as he ever had into the case. He found me online and asked me to fill him in on what I knew, but I blew him off. I’d become fiercely protective of my own research and increasingly paranoid about the Greenville community discovering what I was doing before I was ready to launch the podcast.
Andy Ethridge, who shared the same passion for finding the truth about what really happened to the Loopers. He is a frequent character in the podcast.
So, I had no way of knowing Ethridge’s true intentions, just as I had no way of knowing that, in 2011, we both suffered one of the worst days of our lives.
Ethridge’s dad died in August of that year of a sudden heart attack. My dad died in November, also of a heart attack, the kind doctors call a widow-maker.
As an investigative journalist, I spend the majority of my time trying to get people to tell me the stories they are ready to tell. By the time I reached adulthood, I felt I had a pretty good grasp on my family’s history. I felt certain knew its narrative and could retell its stories with the same confidence I’d report a news story.
Only after my grandparents and father died did I become aware that some of the stories I’d heard my entire life were, at best, apocryphal and, at worst, lies. The funerals had barely ended before I began to develop an entirely new understanding of where I came from and who I came from.
Since I launched “Murder, etc.” on February 26, 2019, the podcast is having the same kind of effect on some people who grew up in Greenville County.
As word of “Murder, etc.” began to spread and I told more of the “etc.” stories, the first sense of pushback I felt was from Greenville citizens who believed I was creating a new narrative for the city’s past problems. One woman wrote in a Facebook comment, “Pretty sensational to say the least. First I’ve heard of Greenville, South Carolina, being described like that.”
It reminded me of the first time I heard family stories that contradicted things I’d been told my whole life. I struggled to accept what I was hearing. It was easier to remember my family with the stories I’d heard when they were alive than it was reconsidering my family’s legacy differently after people started to die.
I spent a lot of time thinking about whether I could ever really know myself if I only accepted the sanitized edit of my family’s history.
I felt the same way as a citizen of Greenville. Though I wasn’t born here, it’s been my home for two decades. I’ve chosen to live in Greenville because I love it and its people. That compels me to understand my community’s past better than the narrative the Chamber of Commerce might produce.
If anything galvanized those feelings, it was when I finally met Andy Ethridge.
“This is a small community, and if two people are digging into something and fascinated by a story, you’re bound to cross paths,” Ethridge said.
In 2017, we stumbled across each other again in an online newspaper database. I still worried he was trying to scoop me on the story I considered mine or, worse, was working to find out how much I knew.
It still took me another two years of chatting with him via email before I trusted him enough to meet.
We met at a sports bar. We’d both brought bags full of our research. I ordered a beer. He had an iced tea. We sat across the table from each other, each of us staring at the only other person on earth who had spent the past 20 years working to find the truth about the Looper murders. It wasn’t even surprising that we both liked the same bands, the same sports, and that we’d suffered the same tragedy at almost exactly the same time. It wasn’t unlike the experience of finding a twin from whom you’ve been separated at birth. Though we looked nothing alike, we spoke the same language; we were both fluent in the Looper murders dialect.
Later, I learned Ethridge was farther along than I was in reconciling with his own changing family narrative.
Ethridge is a native South Carolinian with a rich family history. His great-great-grandfather was killed in the 1898 Phoenix election riot. It happened in Greenwood County when Bose Ethridge tried to stop black people from submitting affidavits documenting their denial of an opportunity to vote. Bose Ethridge died in the riots, and a mob of his supporters subsequently went on a vigilante rampage, killing at least a dozen black people.
“When I’m a little kid, you’re like, man, that is fascinating,” Ethridge said. “But to me, the fascinating part is how the story is told and how it softens a little bit with each generation.”
For decades, Ethridge’s family told the story as a conflict between the races, but by the time it got to him as a child in the 1980s, his family presented it as a simple political conflict, like Republicans vs. Democrats.
Though neither Ethridge nor I realized it for more than a decade, we were working on parallel investigations about the Looper murders. While I labored over the police file, he was laboring in the library. We’d both been afflicted in the same way.
Though I’d initially only considered him as a potential research partner, I started to hear Ethridge’s voice and story as a kind of Greek chorus with a Southern accent, one that unexpectedly flowed with the narrative of a murder case that happened more than five years before he was born.
He told me his family’s story — not as his family told him, but as he’d researched it and found the truth within it. He, too, saw a parallel with the tale he would eventually help me tell in “Murder, etc.”
As Ethridge saw the Looper murders story, Greenville had dealt Charles Wakefield a harsh injustice — and had never found real justice for the Looper family.
“To make light of the politics of the day and the Blue Lives Matter vs. Black Lives Matter, here’s an instance in 1975 where neither one of them mattered,” he said. “And that’s the tragedy in it. It doesn’t matter who you voted for.”
Ethridge came to terms with his own family history, and in doing so felt compelled to understand his own community just as deeply. As he studied 1975 and compared it to the 2019 Greenville narrative, he found a disconnect that made him uncomfortable, especially when every Greenville injustice of the past is met with a chorus of, “But look how far we’ve come!”
“But we don’t talk about that nasty little episode back then,” Ethridge said.
In the five months since “Murder, etc.” debuted, we’ve noticed an encouraging phenomenon. We’ve met more people intent on telling the parts of our community’s history that have been sanitized or forgotten. We have befriended people of all ages who share a common passion for digging where they aren’t supposed to dig.
One of those new friends called me not too long after I’d released the tenth episode. I’d been working 90 to 100 hours a week, and I was showing signs of fatigue. The money was running out. He had genuine concern in his voice.
“Man, I’m worried about you,” he said. “How long can you keep doing this?”
I was ragged and fragile that night, unsure exactly how much energy I would need to make it to the end. My heart answered for me.
“I’m going to keep doing it until it’s finished,” I said.
He said, “I was hoping you’d say that because there are a lot more stories to tell.”
I knew what he meant, because every time I break open a new part of the Looper murders story, three or four other untold stories scurry out and beg to be told.
The affliction Ethridge and I share is contagious, and no matter how tired, scared, or in debt I get, I know I won’t stop. Neither will the other folks who have taken on the mission of finding the truth.
Though neither of us ever said it aloud, Ethridge and I both knew we had a choice. We could spend the rest of our lives just as our fellow Greenville County citizens had, and we could talk about how the 1970s were a different time and how happy we are that things have improved so much.
Or we could — if only for ourselves, the Looper and Wakefield families, and everyone else affected by the dark parts of the 1970s — finally reckon with our community’s uncomfortable past. We could help the community recognize that what its people consider the past continues to torture folks who live in present-day Greenville.
We could say: No, this is who we are.
Though it didn’t start out this way, the “Murder, etc.” podcast is both an investigation into a murder and an answer to the city’s #yeahTHATgreenville campaign. That answer is a question: What about #thatOTHERgreenville?
Andy put it best: “You are the stories that make you up. It’s a town. It’s a whole bunch of different tales. Some are cool and some are rosy. And some are ugly. Someone has to tell it the right way. This is an attempt to tell it the right way.”
To catch up on “Murder, etc.,” visit its website, where you’ll find rich timelines of the crime and photographs of the podcast’s dozens of characters, living and dead. Or you can subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or any other place where you listen to podcasts.