The Crime Scene Investigator
Fred Pickler first met Robert Harrill just like everybody else did, through a series of spiritual pilgrimages to the hermit's bunker. "I spent a lot of time down there," he said. "It was more of a curiosity in the beginning. We couldn't understand how this 62-year-old man could move down there into the most inhumane conditions you've ever seen in your life. Mosquitoes in the summertime were just awful, and I think he suffered in the winter.
"He went into a real deep, dark mood in the wintertime, and he said he spent a lot of time reading. The problem was he had to do it in the bunker and he did it by kerosene lantern. He was sure that destroyed his eye. You can look and see that in most pictures."
Indeed, a lot of the old black-and-white photos - Pickler shot the majority of them - show a sort of Popeye effect with a perpetual squint of the left eye. At the time of those early encounters Pickler was working as a freelance photographer for various police departments and for the county coroner's office, long before he went to work as a crime scene investigator for the New Hanover County Sheriff's Department.
His visits to the hermit were more personal than professional, and at one point he camped near the bunker for a week.
"He wanted to train, to teach values to the younger people," Pickler said. "His theory was that all people were good, all people on earth. There are no bad people. There is some bad that comes out in them by demons or whatever occasionally, but for the most part he found good in everybody and he loved children.
"Robert was very interested in the human mind and what made it function."
Pickler has compiled his vintage photography spanning many years at the bunker-he has not included the crime scene shots-in a coffee-table-style hardback book, "Life & Times of the Fort Fisher Hermit."
Events Leading Up To The Incident
Pickler visited at least once a month and, during the height of the summer tourist season, more like once a week, "just to check on him, make sure everything was okay." He said it was not unusual to find groups of people gathered at the bunker, anywhere from ten to twenty at a time.
The hermit's sense of time and of the world around him seemed to Pickler uncanny, possibly wholly unnecessary, in this timeless and other-worldly sort of place.
"He looked out at the marsh and he had a stick out there. I guess there were markers and he said it's high tide and he looked at his ledger. 'Must be about seven o'clock,' and he was off by five minutes.
"At night we'd sit there and talk at the campfire and he looked up at the moon and he said, 'Well, it's about bed time. Must be ten o'clock.' I'd look at my watch and it would be within minutes."
Harrill told Pickler he came to the beach "seeking ultimate freedom" and here he was- "surrounded by this wide open space. The trees in the back protect me from the winds coming in from the west and the ocean is to my front. I have a magnificent sunrise nearly every day and the birds are always singing. It's a natural unspoiled place and I'm not answering to anyone. I don't have to worry about anything."
Well, there was one small area of concern. He told Pickler the hooligans, the alcoholics and the prostitutes occasionally gave him problems, "and he said he would talk to them and try to convince them that, number one, he didn't have any money and, number two, he didn't have any interest or whatever in what they were doing. And he wanted them to leave him alone."
The hermit also attracted dogs, and his regular human visitors routinely brought dog food. The dogs ate the shellfish he caught, and generally helped out with the catch of the day. "When he was out there fishing they'd go out there in the water and it seemed like they were herding the fish, moving things toward his nets."
With no refrigeration available, the hermit had to dispose of his catch fairly promptly. He shared freely with his guests and with all the vagrant critters that stopped by. Feral cats kept the bunker area clear of mice and rats, and dogs served as burglar alarms.
On the night in question, they no doubt did what they usually did on every other night: announce the arrival of guests and then back off. "They were shy of people," Pickler said.
Terms: Fort Fisher
Information on Fort Fisher.