Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

May 29, 2011

‘Age of innocence’ lost

SAMANTHA PERRY
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

GILES, Va. — It was a hot and muggy Sunday night on May 28, 1978, when Jeff Scott picked up his girlfriend, Karen Noble, at her home in Bluefield around 8:45 p.m. The couple, who had been dating exclusively for four years, didn't disclose plans of their outing to friends or family. But, ultimately, they ended up on the other side of East River Mountain on a sandy beach flanking the cool waters of Wolf Creek near the border of Bland and Giles counties, Va.

Karen, 20, had just returned home from a nine-day trip to Kansas where she visited her sister. Jeff, 21, of Bramwell, had spent the afternoon playing basketball with friends. The couple, described by friends as nice, happy, community-minded and Christian, never returned home from their pre-Memorial Day date.

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Timmy Vaughn, 20, was driving his girlfriend home when he spotted a fire along Route 61 in Giles County, less than a mile from the Bland County line. Initially, he thought a trash bin had been set ablaze. Drawing closer, he made a horrific discovery.

“As I got up there I saw it was a truck,” Vaughn said last week, recalling the events from 33 years ago. “I stopped and got out and walked down to the truck. I saw a person in the back. I felt (for) the pulse … It was obvious they were deceased.”

Vaughn had found Scott's body about 11:50 p.m.  Vaughn said he experienced a “very, very weird sensation” that caused him to look to the right toward Wolf Creek.

“I turned and looked in that direction and cold chills came over me,” he said. In his line of sight, obscured by darkness and brush, was the place where Karen Noble would soon be found shot and drowned. Vaughn didn't venture there, but instead went and called for help.

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The deaths of Jeff Scott and Karen Noble, known as the Wolf Creek Murders, went unsolved. They marked a turning point in southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia. For some, like Eric Nolley, it was a time when the “age of innocence” was lost.

Now a resident of Spartanburg, S.C., Nolley was 13 and living in Princeton when the murders occurred. He and his sister, Michele, who was eight at the time, have established a website devoted to renewing attention to the case, www.wolfcreekmurders.com.

“They just seemed like they were very well loved and active in the community,”Nolley said, of the victims. “They just seemed like genuine, wonderful people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the crime was horrible. The person (who committed it) obviously had no respect for life. We live in a world now where this is more and more common, but at that time you could pick up a hitchhiker, you didn't lock your doors — it was a different environment.”

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After discovering the body of Jeff Scott, Timmy Vaughn drove to the closest house and called authorities. “I knew the woman who lived there,” he said. “It was my buddy's grandmother — he was there. I called the police from there.”

According to police reports, Vaughn and another man pulled Scott from the bed of the burning pick-up truck. When authorities arrived on the scene and began extinguishing the blaze, they discovered Scott's 1977 blue Datsun pick-up truck had been deliberately set on fire, according to Daily Telegraph reports of the incident. Firemen who went to get water from Wolf Creek, about 30 yards away, discovered the body of Karen Noble face down near the river bank.  

Autopsy reports show Scott died of a gunshot to the head, and suffered third- and fourth-degree burns to his head. Noble had two superficial gunshot wounds to her head, but died of drowning.

The report states Scott's watch stopped at 11:02 p.m. and Noble's at 11:25 p.m.

Investigators found six shots were fired at the scene, according to their reports. Three shots were fired at the victims, and three bullets were fired at the gas tank of the truck but did not penetrate.

Laboratory analysis showed three blood types present at the scene: AB positive, which was Scott's blood type; A positive, Noble's blood type; and type O blood recovered from the bumper of the vehicle.

Two cigarette butts, an empty pint of vodka, an empty Camel cigarette pack, 11 assorted cigarette butts and an empty pill container were also at the scene.

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Reports show police from across the two Virginias investigated countless tips on the crime.

One early lead, documented on a June 1978 report, contained the statement of Robert Lowder, of Bluefield, who owned a cabin on Route 61 in Bland County.

Lowder told investigators a man approached his cabin between 7 and 7:30 p.m. on the evening of the murders. He described the man as in his mid-30s, about 5' 7” and 150 pounds, with light brown or dirty blond hair. He said the man was physically disabled and had a pint of whiskey in his back pocket.

“Mr. Lowder was very apprehensive of his visitor and, although he was ready to cut his conversation short, felt that if he angered the subject, reprisals might be taken,” the report states.

Lowder also mentioned the man smoked, and police found several Camel cigarette butts on his property.

After the man left, around 9 p.m., Lowder saw a blue Datsun with West Virginia tags stop at a picnic table beside his property. A young couple matching Scott and Noble's description got out of the truck and went into the woods toward the creek.

Lowder “went about his business,” according to the report, but came back out to his land around 10 to 10:15 p.m. He saw three people come out of the woods and get into the truck. He could not identify the individuals due to the darkness.

Lowder told police the truck pulled onto Route 61 and headed east “at a leisurely pace.”

Investigators obtained a composite sketch of the man during their interview with Lowder, and distributed it to local newspapers with the man's description. The publication resulted in numerous leads, but all were eliminated.

Police actively investigated the case but no suspect was named until a year later.

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On March 31, 1979, a boy and girl on a date were abducted at gunpoint from the parking lot of John's Restaurant in Tazewell County.

Bill Osborne, county sheriff at the time, said the young man was forced to drive his vehicle out Route 61, while the girl was made to undress and get in the back seat.

Osborne recalled, “He (the abductor) said he was going to rape her and kill them both and leave them down where he left the other two.”

Osborne said the young man driving the car later told him if “he was going to go down, he was going to go down fighting.” He swerved the car into a gas station.

The young couple escaped. The abductor ran and left his gun at the scene.

Osborne and police reports indicate the young woman identified her abductor as George Voster Bird, of Bland County.

Bird was an escapee from Giles County, where he had been charged with a December 1976 rape. He also had two previous rape convictions. Bird had escaped from jail in February 1977 after removing a window bar with a saw, according to media reports from the time.

Osborne said the sheriff's department used bloodhounds and tracked Bird to Bland County, where the trail was lost. Bird remained on the lam until August 1979, five months after the young couple's abduction, when authorities found him hiding in his mother's home along Route 61 in Bland County.

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State police reports on the Scott-Noble murders pointed to Bird as a possible suspect in that case in May 1979, before his capture.

The suspect in both crimes, according to police reports, “used a .22 caliber short revolver loaded with .22 caliber long-rifle cartridges that had been shortened to fit the gun.”

A report also noted, “Prior to this arrest, he resided with his mother and step-father on Route 61 about one mile west of the scene of these murders.”

Investigators questioned Bird at the Giles County Jail on Aug. 21, 1979, and he “adamantly denied involvement in this crime …,” according to reports. He provided police with an alibi in Ohio, which authorities reported did not check out.

An October 1979, police report notes Lowder, “was shown a picture of the suspect (Bird) in a picture lineup … Mr. Lowder identified the suspect as the man he talked with at his cabin on Wolf Creek just prior to the victims' appearance in the area.”

Bird was held at the Tazewell County Jail. Osborne said the prisoner spoke of specific details of the Scott-Noble murders, but “never actually confessed.”

“All that time that we had him in jail down there, he could be very pleasant to talk to, but he could also go plumb bananas on you,” Osborne said.

The October 1979 police report also states that “Mr. H.N. Osborne (Giles County Commonwealth attorney) has stated he is unwilling at this time to present the case to the grand jury.”

“It is requested that this case be placed on an inactive status until such time as further leads are developed,” the report states.

Police did not say why the prosecutor was reluctant to move forward.

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Bird's first trial was on the December 1976 rape case. A jury convicted him of rape, malicious wounding, commission of a burglary while armed and using a firearm during the commission of rape, according to Daily Telegraph reports. He was sentenced to life plus 120 years.

Bird was found dead at 9 p.m. on the evening of his sentencing, “dangling from the bars of his cell with a piece of sheet around his neck,” according to news reports.

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Giles County Sheriff Morgan Milirons said Friday he is willing “to look back into” the Wolf Creek Murders, noting technology may shed new light on the crime.

Milirons was cautious about naming Bird as a suspect. “Some people in law enforcement will say, 'Yes, George Bird did it.' Others will say it's not his type of crime,” Milirons said.

Bird took the blame for many crimes committed in the Wolf Creek area of Bland and Giles counties during the 1970s, Milirons said. “If gas was stolen, it was George Bird … Everything that happened, it was George Bird.”

Several hundred pages of reports showed police followed numerous leads at the time, but never zeroed in on another suspect.

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Timmy Vaughn, now an officer with the Pearisburg Police Department, hopes a new investigation will close the case. Vaughn has become the unofficial expert on the murder through the years, collecting all the information there is to be had about what happened on the banks of Wolf Creek. “I always felt a connection because I was there that night,” he said.

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Sheriff Milirons asked anyone with information on the case to contact the Giles County Sheriff's Department at 540-921-3842 or the county tip line at 540-599-7867.

 — Contact Samantha Perry at sperry@bdtonline.com