HIGH POINT — This is the story John Railey always wanted to tell.
Having spent much of his life on the Outer Banks, the 60-year-old High Point journalist and author had heard for decades about the 1967 unsolved murder of Brenda Joyce Holland, a 19-year-old makeup artist for “The Lost Colony” theater production. Now though, Railey’s the one telling the tragic tale, and he tells it as it’s never been told before.
Railey wrote for the Winston-Salem Journal for 21 years, where he was a reporter and then the Opinion page editor.
Railey’s new book, “The Lost Colony Murder on the Outer Banks” ($21.99, The History Press), is the first nonfiction book written about Holland’s baffling disappearance and murder. With the clarity of the investigative journalist that he is, Railey cuts through the mystery of the young woman’s homicide, the mistakes of the lawmen assigned to investigate the slaying, and the myths linked to the case to reach the verdict the authorities never pinned down.
“I was only 6 years old when Brenda was murdered, but I grew up hearing the story,” Railey says. “My Uncle Billy (Billy Tarkington, a close family friend who owned a motel in the Outer Banks town of Kill Devil Hills) talked about it all the time. I always knew somewhere deep down that I wanted to write about this case.”
Holland, a Campbell College student involved in Campbell’s drama program, was spending the summer of ‘67 in Manteo, on Roanoke Island, as the makeup supervisor for “The Lost Colony.” By all accounts, she was having the time of her life, reveling in her role with the popular outdoor drama and soaking in the warmth of sunny beaches, new friendships and teenage independence.
Holland disappeared in the wee-morning hours of July 1 after a date with one of her fellow “colonists,” a young chorus singer in the production. A massive search ensued, the possibility of foul play seeming more and more likely the longer the search continued. Five days later — on the morning of July 6 — Holland’s body was found floating in the Albemarle Sound. She had been strangled and possibly raped.
“It was the biggest story in North Carolina at the time,” Railey says. “It took all the headlines, and reporters from all over descended on the island.”
The story continued making headlines throughout the summer as investigators with the Dare County Sheriff’s Department and the State Bureau of Investigation collaborated on the case, focusing on one suspect after another. According to Railey’s book, the prime suspects included:
Danny Barber, the singer who had a date with Holland the night she disappeared. He was the last person known to have seen her alive. Investigators speculated he might’ve killed her because she refused to have sex with him.
Dr. Linus Edwards, a local dentist with a drinking problem and a volatile temper. Witnesses said he left his house in a drunken rage that night around the time Holland was believed to have been killed.
Rodney Brett, one of Danny Barber’s housemates. Because Brett was gay, investigators thought he might’ve been jealous of the young woman dating Barber.
David Edward Whaley, whom one witness pointed an accusing finger at in a dubious “confession.”
John Langston Daniels and John Davis Scarborough, two Black men who were investigated because of allegations made by one’s alcoholic white lover.
“Hysteria took over,” Railey says. “Neighbors snitched on neighbors. Lovers snitched on lovers. Employers snitched on employees. The case had all these wild twists and turns, but ultimately it just fizzled out after that summer, and no one was ever charged.”
Railey, a veteran journalist who wrote for The High Point Enterprise from 1986 to 1997, decided to write about Holland’s murder in 2018. Initially, he wrote a series of columns about the case for The Coastland Times newspaper in Dare County, and they became the basis for the book.
The columns also prompted the SBI to reopen the case, but as the cold-case investigator began digging into it, he discovered all of the physical evidence had disappeared. Again, no one would be charged with Holland’s murder.
Meanwhile, as Railey’s columns were being published, he got lucky when an anonymous source gave him access to the sealed SBI case file, about 400 pages of documents detailing investigative leads, potential suspects, juicy interviews with key witnesses, little-known details — A seance? A shallow grave? — and even the tips that led to dead ends.
“That SBI file was the Holy Grail for me,” Railey says. “I knew a lot about the case, but I never knew the whole inside story.”
In writing the book, Railey drew heavily from the case file, as well as extensive interviews with Holland’s three surviving siblings and others who had inside knowledge about the case and/or the people involved. In the final chapter, he pieces it all together and lays out the chronology of what he strongly believes happened to Holland — and who committed the crime — though we won’t spoil it for you here.
“I read that file several times, and I talked to multiple witnesses from that time, and it’s very clear to me who did it,” Railey says. “I just decided if it can’t be solved in the criminal justice system, I can put it down in a book who killed her. I hope it’ll give some measure of closure to Brenda’s family, and I hope it also honors Brenda. I wanted to keep her legacy alive.”