How The Durham Family Murders Were Finally Solved

In the early 1970s, Bryce Durham, his wife Virginia, and their son Bobby Joe moved to Boone, North Carolina, where Bryce opened a car dealership called Boone's Buick. As reported by the Winston-Salem Journal, Bryce had dreamed of opening and running his own car dealership and was proud of reaching that goal.

On the evening of Thursday, February 3, 1972, Bryce Durham was attending a Rotary Club meeting at the Appalachian Ski Mountain ski resort. Although some Green Berets — who were training in the area — had agreed to give a demonstration during the meeting, it was not well attended due to inclement weather. According to the Winston-Salem Journal, it was snowing heavily that evening, and winds reached 40 miles per hour, reducing visibility and making it difficult to travel. When Bryce left the Rotary Club meeting, a fellow member and friend followed him back to the car dealership, where Virginia was working late that evening. The friend estimates Bryce arrived at the dealership at approximately 8:30 p.m.

Authorities believe Bobby Joe, who was attending Appalachian State University, met his parents at the dealership so they could all ride home together. Bryce reportedly borrowed a four-wheel-drive vehicle from the dealership to get his family home safely in the storm. The Durham's home was at the top of a steep dead-end road, which was difficult to safely navigate in wintery weather. However, several neighbors reported seeing the vehicle Bryce was driving that evening. 

A frantic call leads to a grisly discovery

At least one neighbor confirmed it was approximately 9:00 p.m. when they saw the vehicle driving up the hill toward the Durham home, which gave authorities a reasonable timeline as to when the family arrived home. As reported by the Winston-Salem Journal, Bryce and Virginia's daughter, Ginny, and her husband, Troy, lived approximately 4 miles away from Ginny's parents. On the same evening, Troy went to Appalachian State University to study. Authorities confirmed Troy arrived at the university at approximately 5:00 p.m. and returned home at approximately 10:00 p.m.

Shortly after arriving home, the phone rang, and Troy answered a frantic call from his mother-in-law. At the time, he and his wife were listening to music, and Virginia was speaking quietly. However, Troy believes she said three men were inside the house and were attacking Bryce and Bobby Joe. The call ended abruptly, and though Ginny and Troy attempted to call back, nobody answered the phone. Troy and Ginny decided to go to her parents' home to check on their welfare. Their vehicle would not start, but their neighbor, Cecil Small, agreed to take them to the Durham's home.

Ginny waited in the car while her husband and the neighbor went to check on her family. When they entered the home, the men immediately noticed signs of a physical altercation. In addition to the house being disheveled, they noticed the telephone had been forcibly removed from the wall.

The Durham family was found dead in their bathtub

The Winston-Salem Journal reports that the two men searched throughout the house and eventually found 51-year-old Bryce Durham, 44-year-old Virginia, and 18-year-old Bobby Joe submerged in a bathtub with the water still running. All three were fully clothed, and their heads were under the water with their hands tied behind their backs. A medical examiner later determined Bryce and Bobby Joe were strangled, then drowned, while Virginia had been strangled to death before being placed in the bathtub. Authorities estimated 30 minutes passed between the phone call and the discovery of the bodies. 

In addition to the house being ransacked, law enforcement officials noticed the vehicle that Bryce drove home from the dealership was missing. It was eventually found in a ditch approximately 1 mile from the house. Detectives initially thought robbery may have been a motive, as a pillowcase containing silverware from the Durham's home was found inside the abandoned vehicle. However, the intruders seemed to overlook a bank deposit bag, which was full of cash and in what authorities believe was in plain sight.

Four men were eventually arrested in connection with the Durham family murders. However, all four were ultimately released as there was not enough evidence to secure a conviction. Authorities found several sets of fingerprints at the scene, but unfortunately, they were unable to find a match.

Authorities had a number of theories, but no suspects

Although there were few clues in the Durham family murders, authorities resubmitted the fingerprints for comparison several times over the years. Unfortunately, as reported by Watauga Democrat, no matches were ever found.

In 1974, the case caught the attention of newly appointed North Carolina Attorney General Rufus Edmisten. In a 2015 interview with Watauga Democrat, Edmisten said there were several interesting theories about who may have been involved in the Durham family murders, but there was never enough evidence to conclusively prove any of the rumors. One of the more popular theories suggested Bryce Durham had exposed a scam being run by a car dealership in Surry County. According to reports, Bryce discovered that the dealership was manipulating the speedometers on used vehicles to display fewer miles than the vehicles actually had. However, Edmisten said there was not enough evidence to prove the incident had anything to do with the murders.

Another theory involved the Green Berets, who provided the demonstration during the Rotary Club meeting. Edmisten admitted the Durham family murders appeared to have been committed with "military-style precision," and Bryce was seen talking to the Green Berets during the meeting. However, no evidence was ever found linking them to the murders. Watauga Democrat reports that other rumors suggested the Durham family murders were a professional hit. However, Watauga County Sheriff Len Hagaman said there are no indications that Bryce or anyone else in the family was involved in illegal activity.

The Durham family murders went unsolved for 50 years

In a 2015 interview with Watauga Democrat, Watauga County Sheriff Len Hagaman said the fact that all three members of the Durham family were killed at the same time suggests that more than one person was involved. It was also unusual that the killer or killers were willing to travel to the house in inclement weather to carry out the murders. Elsewhere, it was noted that the murders were quick, and the killer or killers made it out of the house before Cecil, Ginny, and Troy arrived without leaving much evidence. A motive for the murders was never established.

The Durham family murders have remained unsolved for 50 years. However, a tip received in 2019 led authorities to announce the identities of four men, who they eventually determined were responsible for the murders. In May 2019, Sheriff Hagaman said received a phone call from Georgia's White County Sheriff's Office about information that he "recognized could be very important to the Durham case." As reported by the Wilkes Journal-Patriot, a man named Shane Birt reported that his father, Billy Sunday Birt, had confessed to killing three people in North Carolina during a snowstorm. Birt had also told his son that they narrowly escaped being caught. In addition to Birt, authorities began focusing their investigation on several of his known associates, including Billy Wayne Davis, Bobby Gene Gaddis, and Charles David Reed.

Three of the killers were dead before the case was solved

Although Billy Wayne Davis was still alive and serving life in prison for an unrelated murder, Billy Sunday Birt, Bobby Gene Gaddis, and Charles David Reed had all died in prison — where they were also serving life sentences for murder. The Wilkes Journal-Patriot reports that authorities interviewed Davis on three different occasions between September 2019 and August 2021.

During the interviews, Davis admitted he went to the Durham family home with Birt, Gaddis, and Reed, who were all members of a criminal network and referred to themselves as the Dixie Mafia. Davis said he waited outside while the others entered the Durham home and killed the family. Although he did not disclose who hired them, Davis said they were paid to kill the Durhams. According to the Wilkes Journal-Patriot, the hit was arranged through Birt, who died in 2017. Therefore, authorities may never know who ordered the killings or what their motive was. There was prior speculation that the son-in-law, Troy Hall, may have been involved, but he died in December 2019.

Watauga County Sheriff Len Hagaman said the information provided by Davis was consistent with evidence collected from the crime scene, and he is confident that the case can now be closed. Authorities noted Birt, Gaddis, and Reed, were all in prison for killing R.O. Fleming — who was a retired car dealer — and his wife, Lois. Authorities noted several similarities in the cases.