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Being a migrant worker in eastern North Carolina has always been a dangerous job, but in Wilson and Johnston counties in the 1970s and ’80s, it sometimes meant murder.
Bones discovered in 1974, hidden beneath straw in a barn near Lucama, belong to an unknown man who died of a shotgun blast to the back. Someone stabbed another man so furiously that when a farmhand discovered his skeleton at a labor camp near Johnston County’s McGee’s Crossroads community in 1992, the ribs and vertebra bore cuts a quarter-inch deep, according to archived autopsy reports.
Of the eight unidentified bodies discovered in Johnston County from 1978 to 1994, five are directly related to migrant farms. The other three cases involve pedestrians believed to be migrant workers struck and killed by vehicles.
Similar circumstances occurred in neighboring counties during the same timeframe: In Wilson County, authorities recovered bones found in a barn, and in another case an unidentified migrant worker died in a car wreck. In Nash County, two bodies were found on migrant farms. And in Sampson County, a man and a woman were found dead near migrant farms.
With the exception of one other case, these are the only unidentified body cases in North Carolina with information linking the decedent to migrant work, confining the cases to Wilson and surrounding counties from the 1970s to early 1990s, according to an extensive review of autopsies, death certificates, missing person databases and other sources.
As far back as 1972, articles in the Times detail physically exhaustive work, a deplorable work environment and abuse and neglect of migrant workers by farm owners and overseers. After a migrant worker was worked to death in 1980, federal authorities arrested three crew chiefs in Nash County. The trio were convicted of conspiracy, kidnapping and slavery.
The indictment states the farmers continued to push the worker to harvest sweet potatoes and cucumbers even after he began spitting up blood. In other cases, the farmers forced workers to continue laboring in the field at gunpoint, according to the Times articles.
Crew leaders used alcohol to control workers, buying it by the case and selling it by the bottle, even by the drink, according to a 1977 New York Times article that lays out how migrant workers in Johnston County labored under slave-like conditions.
One crew leader always kept a gun nearby and boasted of killing a man with it. Another crew leader owned a machine gun and fired rounds above workers’ heads as an intimidation tactic, according to court documents.
Improvements in forensic science have made identifying bodies much easier, said Capt. Jeff Caldwell of the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office.
Born in 1974, Caldwell grew up in Johnston County. He said he’s seen fewer migrant workers in the area as the years went by, but he thinks the reason there are fewer unidentified bodies is because of scientific advances in DNA and other methods of identification.
“The science is better,” Caldwell said. “Law enforcement capabilities like we have today just didn’t exist back then. A case file from back then looks nothing like a file today.”
Caldwell said he doesn’t believe the victims being migrant workers affected the effort detectives put into the cases.
“A decedent is a decedent,” Caldwell said. “We treat them all the same.”
Caldwell said he remembers one of the original detectives on one of the cases reviewed at the Times’ request.
“He was a good investigator,” Caldwell said. “I’m sure he did everything possible.”
The Wilson Times sent information about eight unidentified bodies to Caldwell. He found three case files.
As for the bones found near Lucama in 1974, the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have any case files from that year, said Wanda Samuel, the sheriff’s chief of staff.
Even as advanced as forensic science is today, investigators have to have something to go on, Caldwell said.
In one of the oldest unsolved homicide cases in the state, police in 1972 found missing 33-year-old Bonnie Neighbors bound and shot in a migrant worker barracks near Benson. Authorities in April of this year charged Larry Joe Scott, now 65, with murder. Living homeless in Florida, Scott frequented labor camps near Neighbors’ home in the early 1970s. DNA connected him to the crime, according to statements from Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle.
“In the Neighbors case, we had a fresh body,” Caldwell said. “Almost all these other cases are skeletons.”
Other technological advances, especially cellphones and the internet, help identify decedents before they become unidentified body cases, said Nash County Sheriff Keith Stone.
“Facebook and other social media helps families keep in touch and know where someone is,” Stone said. “In the old days, someone would leave their country to come to work here, and their family wouldn’t know where they were.”
In the 1970s, migrant workers had fewer protections, said Justin Flores, vice president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, headquartered in the Dudley community near Goldsboro.
“It’s a time in history when minorities weren’t treated fairly,” Flores said. “The tobacco harvest was at the peak of summer. We are talking no proper medical care. If a worker sat down under a tree and died of heat exhaustion, no one cared.”
The situation changed for the better with the improved guest worker program, Flores said.
The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 allows foreign workers to temporarily reside and work in the U.S. The new guidelines meant farmers fell under the scrutiny of the U.S. Labor Department.
“It got better,” Flores said. “We now have some actual infrastructure to enforcement agencies and labor organizations. Society seems to care a little more.”
With the guest worker program, farmers are getting people with experience and an agricultural background, Flores said.
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System maintains a database with details of more than 12,000 unidentified bodies, including 118 from North Carolina.
The following cases are related to migrant workers or farms. According to the database:
• On Feb. 6, 1974, in Wilson County, authorities found the body of a young man in a barn.
• On April 20, 1978, in Sampson County, authorities found the remains of a young woman at migrant camp.
• On Aug. 15, 1978, in Nash County, authorities found the body of a young man in a pond on a farm.
• On Nov. 21, 1978, in Johnston County, a hunter found the body of a older man at the edge of a soybean field.
• On Nov. 18, 1979, in Sampson County, a hunter found the scattered remains of an older man near a bean field.
• On Dec. 25, 1982, in Nash County, a hunter discovered the body of an older woman at migrant camp.
• On July 26, 1984, in Johnston County, an older man reported to be a migrant worker was struck by two vehicles on N.C. 242.
• On Aug. 31, 1985, in Wilson County, an older migrant worker died as a passenger in a fatal wreck on I-95.
• On Jan. 10, 1986, in Johnston County, authorities recovered the body of a older man in an old migrant camp.
• On Nov. 26, 1988, in Johnston County, hunters found the body of an older man along a road leading to a migrant camp.
• On June 20, 1989, in Johnston County, authorities located the body of an older man along a swampy creek bank near a migrant camp.
• On Oct. 2, 1989, in Johnston County, a young man reported to be a migrant worker stepped onto Rural Route 1008 and a passing vehicle struck him.
• On Dec. 30, 1992, in Johnston County, authorities discovered the skeletal remains of an older man in the woods behind a labor camp.
• On Sept. 18, 1994, in Johnston County, a young man reported to be a migrant worker walked into heavy traffic on I-95.
Anyone with information about any of these cases is asked to call the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation at 800-334-3000 or call local authorities.