Friday August 30 2013
– Detective Josh Bissette doesn’t have a single photograph nor any incident report from the morning Gene Ward died.
All incident and investigation reports filed by officers with the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office from the 1970s are gone. And no one knows exactly what happened to them. There’s a single box with a few items from 1977-79 thrown in it. But it wasn’t until Louis Taylor became sheriff of Wilson County in 1979 that the record system really starts.
Still, almost 40 years later, Bissette is interviewing people who might know something about Ward’s death. Ward, 33, was found shot in the head outside of the Southern 500 truck stop near Elm City the morning of Sept. 1, 1973. He was pronounced dead at 4:25 a.m. at Wilson Medical Center.
Bissette has been working the cold case as time allows given his regular duties since the early part of 2011. Ward’s daughter, Carolynn Ward Holt of Myrtle Beach, S.C., contacted the sheriff’s office in January 2011. Bissette and Wilson County Sheriff Calvin Woodard met with Holt, her uncle, Donald Ward, her sister, Lisa, and Holt’s friend, Dave Ridgeway, during the first week of February 2011.
Holt handed over all of the information she’s compiled since she started actively questioning her father’s death in the spring of 2010. Holt also showed officers a DVD she’s put together about her father and her search for answers.
Bissette has a notebook full of information. He’s invested time verifying information Holt has gathered.
“She actually did a good job searching the archives of newspapers to find out things that were going on at the time,” Bissette said.
He got a court order to obtain any medical records for Ward from Wilson Medical Center. Bissette said there should have been something there saying he was treated. But the court order proved fruitless because hospital officials said they have no record of Ward being treated there.
“I don’t know if they purge their records after a certain amount of time or what the deal was,” Bissette said. “They called me back to let me know there was not anything up there under the name of Obbie Gene Ward.”
A Daughter’s Quest
A Daughter’s Quest chronicles Carolynn Ward Holt’s search to find answers about her father’s death. Her father — Obbie Gene Ward — died on Sept. 1, 1973 from injuries due to a single gunshot wound to the head.
Was it an unfortunate accident, suicide or perhaps murder? Either way, lives changed in the predawn hours of that late summer morning.
Do You Remember?
If you have information about the death of Gene Ward in September 1973, contact The Wilson Times at 265-7822 or the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office at 237-2118.
On Feb. 9, 2011, Bissette interviewed Ward’s widow, Lois Ward, at her home in Washington. Bissette is conducting the latest round of interviews this summer.
WANTS MORE PROGRESS
Holt said when she met with Bissette and Woodard she “pretty much threw the cards on the table and said this is what we have. Something is very wrong here.”
“My Dad didn’t kill himself,” Holt said. “This is a murder. I want something done. I want this investigated. I told them all of the stuff I knew.”
Holt was encouraged when Bissette interviewed her stepmother so soon after their meeting.
“I’m like oh wow, something is going to happen now,” Holt remembers thinking.
But Holt’s frustrated because as more time passes it’s less likely she’ll find answers.
Woodard defends Bissette and the work done thus far on the case.
“She sent me an email where she expressed some concerns where she felt like we weren’t doing enough,” Woodard said during an interview in July. “She wanted to move it from him to another detective. I explained to her, you’re upset with us and you met with the sheriff plus you’ve been receiving telephone calls back and emails back from the sheriff. You said you never met with the old sheriff, never received anything from the former sheriff. You understand what I’m saying. She had no interaction with the previous administration then she comes hard on us. And we’re not doing anything?”
THEY’RE NOT DEAD
The day Holt found her father’s death certificate in a box of family keepsakes, she decided then to contact the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office to see what information might be available.
The death certificate, which listed Ward’s cause of death as “pending,” had supplemental information attached from Dr. Robert Richards, who initially viewed Ward’s body at Wilson Medical Center. Richards wrote, “I would strongly recommend further investigation, which is probably already under way.”
It was April 26, 2010 and Holt went online searching for contact information for the sheriff’s office. Wayne Gay was sheriff at that time. Holt found information for Detective Danny Bailey and for Gay. She emailed Bailey but received no response. Holt sent Bailey her father’s death certificate and Richards’ report. Holt waited, then emailed Gay on April 30, 2010.
“I know it’s an old case, but I have a right to know what happened to my Dad,” Holt wrote in an email to Gay.
Bailey responded to her via email on May 5, 2010 indicating that he’d been going through old files but had been unable to find any information related to the case.
“The two deputies that were listed in the report are dead,” Bailey wrote. “There is no one at the sheriff’s office that was here when this case was investigated. … The sheriff that was in office at the time of this investigation is also dead.”
Holt had no reason to question Bailey’s response. She even wrote back to Bailey the same day saying, “You are having the same problem as I am. Everybody who knows anything is dead.”
Holt tells Bailey she’s thinking about contacting a television show that focuses on cold cases.
On May 19, 2010, Holt emails Bailey informing him she’d figured out another agency had investigated her father’s death and that she was trying to secure records.
During this time, Holt thought to herself that someone in Wilson had to have some answers. Holt started reading The Wilson Times. She’s made many cold telephone calls to people and spent a good deal of time tracking down friends of her father and her uncle.
She learned Robin Pridgen, whom she thought was sheriff when her father died, was still very much alive at that time.
Pridgen died in January 2012. But Pridgen wasn’t sheriff of Wilson County in 1973. Pridgen was chief deputy, a position he’d held since at least 1966. Pridgen went on to be elected sheriff in 1974 and then was re-elected in 1978.
Holt would later find out that one of the initial responding deputies — C.G. Lewis — is still alive.
Holt became angry and suspicious. Was Bailey confused? Was it an honest mistake?
“That struck a nerve with me,” Holt said. “Oh, you want to lie to somebody? But I couldn’t figure out why.”
Woodard said Bissette has been working hard on this case. Between the two of them, Holt and Bissette have found and interviewed key people.
“He found them,” Woodard said. “He didn’t find them in a graveyard either.”
– Stephanie Creech