NEWGRACENEWS.COM Flower part three - the killer


By:  Shawn Erickson


Unlike Alfonse Swanson, no one ever thought Derrick Lane was destined to become someone special.  In fact, from a very early age, it was clear that he would never amount to anything good.  Although raised in a stable middle class home, he had a penchant for getting into trouble, and he dropped out of high school with a juvenile record few mothers would be proud of.


After losing his younger sister Henrietta to a suspected drunk driver, Derrick’s plunge into the criminal underworld started in earnest.  Those who didn’t know him tried to attribute his subsequent felonious endeavors to the emotional turmoil he suffered as a result of his sister’s death.  But the truth was he had been a bad kid for a long time, and her death merely shone a spotlight on that fact.  He spent the next forty years of his life in a constant skirmish with the law.  Even when having a regular job, he never managed to stay completely clean, but he also never got caught doing something so severe that the local magistrate was not willing to give him one last chance.


That is, until the State Police, assisted by officers of the New Grace Police Department, came crashing into a derelict cottage out in the middle of the woods, which housed enough stills and mash to keep New Grace intoxicated through Independence Day.  Moonshiners have been a fact of life in the Carolinas since long before the prohibition, and law enforcement seldom expend resources on finding them, unless required for public safety reasons.  In the case of the distillery operated by Derrick, he had a habit of spiking his products with various substances, and a large batch shipped to Lexington had made dozens of people seriously ill.


As the State troopers handcuffed him and put him in the back of the cruiser, Derrick must have realized his days of skirting the law were over.  Not so much because of the moonshine operation or even the accidental poisoning of the Lexingtonians; no, the real trouble came from what the state troopers found growing in a field behind the derelict shed … about an acre of pretty, light purple flowers, carefully planted in neat rows.  Poppy flowers, the first casual inspection suggested.  Opium poppy flowers, they turned out to be upon closer analysis.


Alfonse Swanson was a murder investigator, and was not involved with the moonshine case.  But his natural curiosity sometimes compelled him to read interesting case files or memoranda prepared by his fellow detectives.  As he was browsing through the file on the moonshine case, he noticed something that looked very familiar to him.  It took him a moment to make the connection, because it was a detail he had not paid much attention to during the past forty years.  In pertinent part, the report stated:


In conjunction with the distillation operation, the suspects appear to have been cultivating and growing poppy plants of the Papaver somniferum species, and conducting at least a limited opium extraction and heroin production process…


“It was the moment when everything came together” Alfonse recalls.  “Of course I had to go back and check the case files to make absolutely sure; it was one of those details I had never bothered to memorize, but it just jumped right into my head as soon as I read those two words.”


Alfonse went back to Elaine’s case file, and dug out the report from the initial examination of the crime scene.  Among the exhibits was a list of the flowers found next to her body at the bottom of the quarry.  He had read it a hundred times for no reason other than thinking it may provide some insight into the perpetrator’s mind.  But right there, in black and white, next to the wingstems, ozarks and foxgloves, were the poppy flowers.


But there was more, and Alfonse next opened his copy of the case file from Conway, of the girl found dead in the mine shaft.  The Conway medical examiner was an amateur botanist, and he had also made a list of the flowers found next to the dead girl’s body.  But the list was in Latin, and not until that moment had it held any significance to Alfonse.  But it ended up breaking open the case for him, because the very first species listed was Papaver somniferum.


Alfonse took a deep breath and sat down at his desk.  He remained seated there through the night going through all the variables of the case, building a timeline, consolidating information and making a list of the open ends that had to be tied together.  When dawn came, it seemed he had not moved an inch.


Detective Spaulding of the New Grace Police Department recalls:  “I was the first detective in the office that morning, and I thought he must have had a stroke or something.  He was sitting in exactly the same position as when I left the night before.  I went over and touched his shoulder, and he just looked up at me with this look of wonder on his face.  ‘You know, Winston’ he said to me.  ‘I think I finally solved this old case.’  And to no one’s surprise, he had.”


Alfonse started to map out the life of Derrick Lane, paying special attention to his whereabouts during the summer of 1972, when the girl in Conway was killed.  Derrick had been a juvenile at the time, but although the criminal records of a juvenile are not admissible as evidence in criminal trials, investigators can use them at their discretion to find other evidence of criminal activity.  As it turns out, during the summer of 1972 Derrick Lane has been working at a resort in Myrtle Beach, just a short drive from Conway.  He had been arrested twice; once for underage drinking and providing alcohol to a minor, and once for indecent exposure to a minor.  The latter incident took place less than a week before the Conway girl’s disappearance.


By now, Alfonse was very sure what had happened to Elaine, and to a lesser degree what had happened to the Conway girl.  But he needed confirmation of one final detail, and he knew who would have that information.  After a quick computer search he had an address, and the day after he was on a plane to Bellingham, WA, to meet with Elizabeth Johnson, who once attended New Grace High under the name Bettie Holcomb.


“I distinctly recall Bettie’s nervousness when I interviewed her in front of her parents.”  Alfonse recalls.  “At the time, I thought she was intimidated by me, but I finally realized that she had important information relating to Elaine’s death that she didn’t want to share.”


This time would be different, though. Bettie was married with three children, working as a nurse at the navy base hospital in Bellingham.  Her husband was a Navy reserve officer, but more importantly a police officer.  Alfonse decided to approach them together, and plead for cooperation.  He knocked on their door on a Friday evening, after they had both come home from work.  The husband opened the door, and Alfonse showed him his badge.  He was led into the kitchen, and when confronted with the wrinkled yet familiar face from her past, Bettie dropped the dinner plates she was holding on to.  But upon learning of Derrick’s arrest she knew what she had to do, and after the children had been excused, she told Alfonse her story.


On that fateful Sunday, the three girls had departed for Willow Pond, not to swim, but rather to meet with three young men they had been hanging out with on and off during the summer:  Dale Jackson, Bobby LeFleur and Derrick Lane.  Dale and Bobby were seeing Henrietta and Bettie, respectively, while Derrick had been cultivating Elaine’s affections with only limited success.  The girls were bringing their swimwear, while the boys brought cigarettes and booze.


The liquor was flowing, and both Bettie and Henriette were soon drunk and making out with their respective boyfriends.  Shortly thereafter, Henriette and Dale disappeared into the forest for some greater privacy, and Bettie passed out from the moonshine.  She told Alfonse that Derrick had spiked it with some plant that he brought with him.  She recalled the drink made her terribly sleepy and unable to stay conscious.


She was woken up by Henriette.  They were alone at the lake, and Henriette told her that Dale and Bobby had gone looking for Derrick and Elaine.  The boys returned shortly thereafter, but had not found either Derrick or Elaine. They departed, and soon after the girls followed.  On the way back, they made up the story about going for a swim, and Elaine leaving the pond before them.  As they reached the convenience store Henriette told Bettie she needed to buy some stuff.  She told Betty to go straight home and stick to the story they made up.  Bettie rode home and went straight to her room, afraid that her parents would notice her intoxication.


After Alfonse’s interview with Bettie, she had called Henriette and told her that the police knew she had lied on the night Elaine died.  A few days later Henriette was killed by the drunk driver, and at the funeral Bettie was approached by Derrick who in no certain terms told her to keep quiet, or she would be next.  Throughout the story Bettie’s husband was sitting by her side holding her hand, and Alfonse assumed he was already familiar with the story.


Alfonse returned to New Grace, and spent another night at his desk.  The story was not yet complete, and even though it seemed compelling, there were a few missing details that only one person could fill in.  But that person needed an incentive to talk, and Alfonse knew just the kind of pressure to bring.


According to Alfonse: “I didn’t have enough evidence to charge Derrick with Elaine’s murder based on Bettie’s testimony alone, and I needed him to tell me what happened that afternoon.  I figured the only way for him to tell me was if I offered to cut a deal:  his confession to Elaine’s murder, in exchange for not bringing capital murder charges for the multiple homicides involving Henriette and the Conway girl.  Of course I had no evidence whatsoever that he committed either of those crimes, but evidence can be made up when you interrogate a suspect.”


Alfonse confronted Derrick, who acted with great deal of arrogance until he realized that Alfonse was a homicide investigator and not at all interested in moonshine or opium.  Alfonse offered him the quid pro quo – tell me what happened to Elaine, and the DA will not charge the death penalty when we prosecute you for the killing of Henriette and the Conway girl.  Alfonse told Derrick that his DNA had been matched to a rape kit collected from the dead girl, and from hair found in the car that killed Henriette.  DNA evidence was not invented in the early 1970s, but once it became available Alfonse rapidly became a believer in its power, both real and fictional.


“And so Derrick told me what happened, and I got it all on tape, including his confession to killing the two other girls.  The poor guy didn’t know what he was doing, trying so hard to prove to me his innocence in Elaine’s killing, that he implicated himself in the two killings where we had no evidence whatsoever.”


Based on the taped confessions, Derrick Lane was convicted of killing the thirteen year old Conway girl and his sister Henriette, and is now serving two consecutive life sentences at the Lieber Correctional Institution outside Ridgeville.  The Conway girl he had raped when under the influence of opium-spiked booze, and then killed after realizing what he had done.  Henriette’s death he claimed was an accident.  He was concerned that she would falsely implicate him in Eileen’s killing, and so he wanted to scare her into silence.  Unfortunately, his driving in the unfamiliar stolen car lacked precision, and so her silence became permanent.


That also meant that Elaine’s killer was beyond punishment.  Derrick told Alfonse that he took Elaine for a romantic walk around the lake, trying his hardest to get her to drink the opium-spiked moonshine, and to let him feel her up, both of which she refused.  His booze-induced belligerence led to a physical altercation, and in the resulting fight he hit her over the head with the bottle.


Derrick returned to New Grace and went to the convenience store for bandage and medical supplies.  He then caught Henriette’s attention as she was coming back with Bettie, and told her what had happened.  They returned together to the scene of the fight, only to find Elaine gone.  A short time later they found her bike at the side of the road, and Elaine not far from it, next to the quarry, disoriented, incoherent and clearly suffering from a severe concussion.  Derrick panicked, as he knew he was going to prison this time, given his prior record of petty crimes and misdemeanors.


Henriette looked at the poppy flowers sticking out of his pocket, and told him to go pick some more flowers, just like he did in Conway two years ago.  In a state of extreme distress, he had told her of the rape and killing, confessing his crimes and seeking absolution from his closest friend and sibling.  What he found instead was a teenage girl strangely turned on by the fact that he had killed another human being, and increasingly obsessed with the idea of one day doing it herself.  He left Henriette and Elaine, knowing that day had finally come.  When he returned, Elaine was at the bottom of the quarry, and Henriette nowhere to be found.  He threw the flowers over the ledge and left.


Alfonse closes his eyes and shakes his head as he tells the final, gruesome details of the crime, and its aftermath more than forty years later.  He personally informed Elaine’s parents of what happened to their daughter, and with time he believes they will reach some degree of closure.  It will be far more difficult for Henriette’s and Derrick’s parents to process the information; although they always knew their son’s life would not end well, they always thought fondly of their daughter.


But Alfonse feels there is a silver lining.  “At the end, justice was done for the two innocent victims here, and that’s all that matters.  I know family members of murder victims often feel the redemption and retribution is not complete unless we also get to burn the killer at the stake.  I understand that.  But in this case we learned the truth, even though it took more than forty years.  And the guilty parties are either dead or put away for life.  That’s a pretty good outcome for such a tragic case.”


Alfonse Swanson has since retired from the New Grace Police Department.  He is currently writing his memoirs.