THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Saturday, June 17, 1995 TAG: 9506170345 SECTION: FRONT PAGE: A1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY WARREN FISKE, STAFF WRITER DATELINE: BRISTOL, VA. LENGTH: Long : 234 lines
The 15-month streak of no murders in Washington County came to an abrupt end in the morning darkness of Jan 23.
A frenzied newspaper carrier called police from a local convenience store. There was a body in the middle of a residential road just off Exit 10 of Interstate 81, she said. Maybe it was a mannequin, the carrier added, but she wasn't about to stick around and find out.
Roused from his sleep, Detective Kenneth L. Wilson sped to the scene and was instantly struck by the brashness of the crime. The victim, a partially clad, middle-aged woman, had been strangled and dumped for all the world to see. Her right leg had been run over, and from the bloodstained tread marks that led back to the interstate, it was obvious an 18-wheeler had been nearby.
Wilson's partner, Detective Ross Sheets, glanced at the corpse and thought of TV. He recalled watching an ``Unsolved Mysteries'' show about an unknown truck driver suspected of strangling prostitutes in the Midwest and tossing their bodies on the road. The telltale clues seemed to match the very scene Sheets was witness ing: The woman's shoes were missing; so were her panties.
Across the Midwest, the killer was known to drive a black Peterbilt truck and occasionally go by the CB handle ``Stargazer.'' For the next three months, Wilson and Sheets would devote their lives to a search for the trucker. As they hunted, two more bodies were found on roadsides in Tennessee and North Carolina.
At first glance, the two barrel-chested detectives seemed overmatched. Serial killings are hardly a specialty in Washington County, a scenic rural setting some 150 miles southwest of Roanoke that averages one murder a year. Wilson and Sheets once tracked down a serial rapist in the mid-1980s. But most of their work involved investigating local crimes.
The two detectives would prevail, however, through a combination of old-fashioned gumshoe work and a bit of high-tech assistance from the FBI and the state Crime Laboratory in Roanoke. On April 13, they arrested Sean Patrick Goble, a 6-foot-3, 310-pound trucker from Asheboro, N.C. After a few minutes of questioning, police said, Goble, 28, calmly began confessing.
Public defenders have since cut off interrogations. Wilson and Sheets say police from at least nine other states want to question Goble about roadside slayings.
Wilson and Sheets - two soft-spoken guys born in Washington County and police partners for 11 years - are uncomfortable being characterized as heroes. Luck had a lot to do with the biggest arrest in their careers, they say.
``The probability of ever locating him was one chance in a million,'' said Wilson, 46, a tense man with closely cropped black hair and blunt opinions about crime.
Sheets, 43, an easy-going antiques collector with a bushy beard and a knack for sizing up others, agreed. ``It was like winning the lottery.''
At first, there seemed to be few solid clues at the crime scene that icy morning in January. The identity of the victim was as much a mystery as that of her assailant. Dressed in light clothing, the woman did not appear to be local.
Next to the victim was a rumpled pair of white pants. And wedged between the slacks and the victim's face was a plastic Winn-Dixie grocery bag. Both items would prove essential in cracking the case.
In the pants, the detectives found a piece of paper with a phone number - to a cab stand in Gainesville, Fla. That would help police identify the woman a day later as Brenda Kay Hagy, 45. She was a drifter from Bloomington, Ind., with a few arrests for trespassing at truck stops.
The plastic bag turned out to be the key in finding Goble. The detectives sent it to a state crime laboratory in Roanoke for analysis but their expectations weren't high. Because the bag had been crumpled, Wilson and Sheets had little hope that a complete fingerprint could be lifted. And even if one could, they knew the odds were that it would belong to the victim or a grocery clerk.
After leaving the crime site that morning, Wilson and Sheets told local reporters they suspected the homicide was the work of a serial killer. ``If you're going to catch a serial killer, you've got to get the word out,'' Sheets said.
The sensational story was spread around the country. By week's end, the detectives had received 104 calls from other police departments investigating highway killings.
A promising break came Jan. 30. The state crime laboratory had lifted a clean thumb print - probably a man's - from the bag.
But the excitement waned during the next few weeks as the laboratory vainly sought to identify the print. Technicians scoured a computer program - known as the Automated Fingerprint Identification System - containing the prints of all people who have been arrested in 30 states. No match came up.
The bag was sent to Washington, where the FBI began the laborious task of searching for a match in its massive fingerprint files of people who had served in the military or faced federal charges or were arrested in states that don't participate in the AFIS program. The work would be done by hand and computer. The FBI said the hunt could take months and wasn't making any promises.
In the meantime, two more shoeless bodies turned up on roadsides.
On Feb. 19, the body of Sherry Masur, 34, was found near Interstate 40 in Guilford County, N.C. A native of Clearwater, Fla., she was wrapped in a blanket, had heavy traces of cocaine in her blood and had been smothered. Police said she had a history of prostitution arrests.
On March 19, the smothered, partially clad and battered body of Rebecca Alice Hanes was found under an overpass off I-81 in Kingsport, Tenn., just 20 miles from Washington County. She, too, had an arrest record for trespassing at truckstops. She, too, had been run over by a tractor-trailer after her corpse had been dumped.
``We felt he was trying to challenge us,'' Sheets recalled. ``It was like he was passing through our area and saying, `You haven't found me yet.' ''
The two detectives spoke to dozens of truck drivers, interviewed the families of the victims and spent countless hours on the phone with police from other states. Nothing turned up.
Friday, April 7, started out as a particularly bleak day for the detectives. An FBI agent called Sheets that morning to say no match had been found for the thumbprint and that it might take a year for the bureau to complete its search.
Forty-five minutes later, the agent called back.
``We've got a match,'' he said.
The agent said the prints belonged to a Sean Patrick Goble, who had been arrested in West Memphis, Ark., the previous September for reckless driving, resisting arrest and creating a public disturbance with a prostitute. A quick call to the West Memphis police identified Goble as a long-distance hauler who worked for Rocky Road Express near Winston-Salem, N.C.
The West Memphis police offered another juicy tidbit: Goble drove a black Peterbilt.
Five days would pass before the detectives made their move, however. They were concerned that if they contacted the trucking company, someone might tip Goble. There were elaborate details to be worked out with the FBI and police from Tennessee and North Carolina. When it was time to swoop in, everything had to be perfect.
On April 12, the detectives, joined by federal agents and law enforcement officers from Tennessee and North Carolina, descended on the trucking company. The posse chatted it up with the owners for a few minutes to see if they'd cooperate. Then, the officers sprung the news about Goble. Company officials were told they could let the police immediately search their files or be served with a warrant. They chose the former.
``This thing caught us completely by shock; you could have knocked me over with a feather,'' recalled Kurt Stonestreet, Goble's dispatcher. He described Goble as a bright, conscientious and friendly employee who had been at the company for three years. ``He was a take-charge kind of guy,'' Stonestreet said. ``He was the kind of driver you'd like 10 of.''
A search of travel logs placed Goble in the vicinity of each killing. Stonestreet offered another piece of news: Goble was expected to return from a long haul around midnight.
At 9 p.m., Goble called the dispatcher from South Boston, Va., to say he might be delayed a few days. He had been offered an opportunity to make a delivery of pine bark mulch. Stonestreet told him to forget the load and come back.
Midnight passed and Goble hadn't returned. For the next eight hours, the detectives staked out the trucking yard and watched with dismay as one semi after another rolled in with no sign of Goble. At one point, their hearts leaped when a black Peterbilt pulled in. But they quickly realized the license plates didn't match.
``We didn't think he was going to show up,'' Wilson recalled.
``We were worried that he had been tipped off or that he may have committed another murder,'' Sheets added.
Finally, at 8 a.m., Goble pulled in. He would later explain that he had stopped to sleep. The massive driver left the rig and walked into the office. He was met by police and arrested. Goble did not resist. Wilson has one indelible memory of the scene - the trucker's wrists were too big to handcuff.
``They were the size of my legs,'' Wilson recalled. Police had to link several pairs of handcuffs together.
Wilson accompanied Goble to the police station in Winston-Salem. At first, the trucker denied any knowledge about the slaying of Brenda Hagy in Washington County. Wilson was impatient. Why then, he demanded, was Goble's fingerprint on the bag by Hagy's body? The trucker, Wilson said, began to confess.
According to police statements, Goble said he was trying to help Hagy by giving her a ride. He said he stopped to sleep at a truck stop in Greene County, Tenn., and awoke to find Hagy on top of him, insisting on having sex.
``I tried to get her off me,'' Goble said in his statement. ``I grabbed for her neck. . . . Shortly after that, her hands dropped to her side. I knew something was wrong.''
Police say Hagy had sex shortly before her death. They are awaiting results of a DNA test on Goble.
Goble said that Hagy was bleeding profusely from the nose, Wilson recalled, and that he didn't want to soil the sleeping compartment of his truck. So he put the incriminating Winn-Dixie bag over her head.
Sheets stayed at the trucking company to search Goble's rig. He found the pocketbook of Rebecca Hanes, whose body had been dumped in Kingsport. Tennessee police say Goble confessed to that murder, too, saying he picked up the woman at a truck stop in Fredericksburg, Va., and killed her in Jefferson County, Tenn. Police say he also admitted to the murder of Sherry Mansur in Orange County, N.C.
A somber portrait of Goble has emerged since his arrest. Like many who run into trouble with the law, he is the product of an unhappy childhood. When he was six and living in Rockport, Ill., his father began a four-year prison sentence for raping a 10-year-old girl. His father, Kenneth Goble, reportedly made Goble wait for him in a car outside the child's house while the crime was being committed. Today, Kenneth Goble is serving an 18-year sentence in New Mexico for raping a 6-year-old girl.
Sean Goble dropped out of high school in Rockport before his senior year to join the Army. He was briefly married and has a 10-year-old son who does not know the name of his father. Goble became a professional truck driver in 1992. Friends and employers describe him as intelligent, caring and a bit egotistical. They say he was proud of his size and his abilities to eat five pizzas at a sitting and log 4,500 miles a week on his truck.
Two sisters who lived near Goble in a trailer camp in Asheboro, N.C., have rushed to his defense.
``Whenever he was off the road, he would come to my house,'' said Lisa Hill, a mother of three, in a recent interview with the Asheboro Courier-Tribune. ``Park that big truck right up front. He was gentle. He was like a big bear. If I was crying, he was right there holding me. He didn't mistreat anyone.''
Her sister, Wanda Moore, said Goble often called from the road, crying. ``Sometimes he'd say it was his grandmother that was sick. Other times he wouldn't say why he was upset. Other times he'd say something wasn't right and he just wanted to talk.''
Goble often gave the sisters clothing and jewelry. Police believe the items may have belonged to his victims.
Today, Goble is jailed in Jefferson County, Tenn., awaiting a trial later this summer in the murder of Hanes. He has yet to enter a plea and has been charged with slaying the two other women as well. Edward C. Miller, the public defender in Jefferson County, refused to comment on the case or allow Goble to be interviewed.
Police say Goble has denied being the notorious ``Stargazer'' killer who terrorized prostitutes in the Midwest. Some of those killings, he has noted, took place before he got his trucking license three years ago.
But Wilson and Sheets are not in exonerating moods. They say that many of Goble's relatives still live in Illinois and that the trucker frequently took his rig up there for visits. And a search of Goble's trailer home in North Carolina, they add, turned up a collection of women's shoes and panties.
``I think he's got a lot more to get off his chest if the public defender would just let him,'' Wilson said.
Wilson and Sheets are looking forward to testifying at Goble's trial. Meanwhile, they're also settling back into the routine of being small-town detectives.
What's new on their case file?
``We got a couple of hubcaps missing,'' Sheets said, laughing, ``and another bicycle theft.'' ILLUSTRATION: Ross Sheets
KEYWORDS: DETECTIVES INTERVIEW SERIAL KILLER SEAN GOBLE
INVESTIGATION by CNB