"He was killed by some people who went down there not to kill him but to harass him," Pickler said. "It went bad on them."
Just like the tales of treasure, reports of the horrors of homicide have mushroomed and continue to circulate, that the hermit was dragged around on the beach in a sleeping bag tied to the rear bumper of a car, and that his lifeless, muddied and bloodied body was maliciously tossed onto a heap of garbage. Pickler believes those accounts are not particularly accurate, and that the true story was phoned in to him from a pay phone.
"They went inside the bunker, according to the witness who saw it from the marsh. They brought him out of the bunker in his sleeping bag cover, one on the feet and one on the head."
Their intention, it is presumed, was to take him down to the water and throw him in, and they were well on their way to the water's edge when the hermit somehow squirmed free of the bag and fell to the ground.
"He started crawling toward the water to seek safety. This was in June so he would have been able to do that, and he got away from them. He stayed in the water a few minutes, according to the witness."
When it seemed the coast was clear he came out of the water and started back toward the bunker. His three assailants had ducked down in the marsh grass and, in the limited moonlight-coupled with his now-limited vision-they had seemingly vanished. He had reached his own doorstep when they abruptly reappeared.
"Then all of a sudden they jumped up right at the bunker and they grabbed him and they started throwing him back and forth between the three of them, just bully-bully-bully," Pickler said. "And all of a sudden he went limp."
He'd hollered several times for the men to leave him alone, and when the scene went quiet the witness said he saw the men gather around their victim and lean over him. Reportedly one of them said, "Oh shit."
They picked him up, one guy holding his feet and another holding his hands, and they carried him back inside the bunker, put the sheet of plywood back across the front of the door, and took off for parts unknown in a two-tone pick-up truck.
There is no dispute that the man had a heart attack and, after all, he was 79 years old. "So at a minimum that would be manslaughter because they caused his death," Pickler said.
When the anonymous witness dropped a few coins into a public phone and started talking to Pickler, caller ID reflected a call from "Pay Phone Carolina Beach."
"I said, 'Hold on one second'," and Pickler was reaching around for his tape recorder. "He said, 'Whoa. If you're going to get a tape recorder, forget it. I'm not going to be recorded. Sit down and talk to me now'."
The man was clamming when he heard the truck, and ducked into the shadows and the marsh grass. "He was in a dark spot but he did watch the whole thing from start to finish. He described them getting out of the vehicle, who was sitting where, and the color of the vehicle."
Pickler asked some of the tough questions-how could he tell one shirt was red? How could he see the color of the truck in the moonlight?-and the caller had ready answers.
"He said, 'When the interior door opened, the light shined right down the side and it was two colors.' I won't tell you what they were. He described the features right down the line."
Now would he pretty please tell this same story to a court of law?
"He said, 'There's no way I'm coming forward.' I said, 'You really need to.' I said, 'I can get you protection.' He said, 'I don't believe that. You might get me protection until they're tried.' He said, 'I wouldn't even do it if you promised to relocate me somewhere else'."
The problem then and now, and possibly permanently, is that while a handful of people know exactly who the culprits are, they continue to be prominent Wilmington citizens.
"I think I know who did this," Pickler said, "and they're not the type of people who are going to roll over real easy and confess."
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