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A moment in Durham: ‘I highly doubt these cases are ever going to be solved’

At seven o’clock on a Saturday night, a man lies on the stairs outside the Durham County Detention Facility, frantically grasping at the air and struggling to stand. Around him, a crowd of 20 people stands motionless in a curious circle. Passerbys gaze inquisitively, perhaps wondering, could this be an escaped prisoner? A peculiar manifestation of the bystander effect?

As it happens, no. The individual on the ground is a local historian vividly reenacting a renowned Durham murder as part of his weekly “Durham True Crime Tour.”

Andrew Nason, known to his tour group as Andy, is an impassioned history buff. A former guide at the City of Raleigh Museum and at Raleigh’s Pope House Museum, Nason now leads Durham history tours on Saturdays, with a general history tour at 2 p.m., an African American history tour at 4 p.m., and the True Crime tour at 6 p.m.

In early 2023, when Nason conceived the idea of the true crime tour, he enthusiastically promoted it on local events calendars, but the first three weeks passed without attendees. It wasn’t until the fourth week that he secured a single sign-up and conducted the tour for his lone participant.

Now, less than a year later, nearly 20 people huddle up on a windy, 38-degree night, bundled in coats, gloves, and hats, but eager to delve into the darker side of Durham’s history. Attendees include university students who “looked up things to do in Durham on a Saturday night,” neighbors who gifted the tour to one another for Christmas, and older couples clutching each other’s arms for warmth. 

Nason tends to crack jokes and seek out elevated surfaces. “Now I’m tall!” he exclaims, peering down from atop a staircase. “Hello, short people! How’s the weather down there?”

In preparation for tonight’s tour, Nason has sifted through old newspaper clippings, police reports, and stenographer transcripts. He even reached out on Reddit to a Durham murderer’s ex-cellmate to ensure his story was ironclad. 

The tour kicks off with a warning: “If you are somebody who is bothered by depictions of, or descriptions, vivid descriptions, of crime, murder, assault…,” he pauses. “Uh, why did you sign up?”

Nason makes four different stops on the tour, all within a 10-minute walk from one another: the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) parking lot, the Durham County Detention Facility, the Durham County Courthouse, and the Durham Bottling Company. Unbeknownst to most, this lively area was the site of some of Durham’s most infamous crimes. 

The first stop, DPAC, also happens to be the former location of Romeo’s Nightclub, a site of brutal violence and certainly “not a place where you go out for a weekend with the girlies.” Here, in 1992, a renowned drug dealer allegedly murdered a competitor. Nason details a 2-hour car chase in which the dealer destroyed not one, but three utility poles before making his escape. 

“You think one electric pole would be enough to end the chase, but apparently it wasn’t,” Nason ponders.

The dealer was eventually arrested, but was released from prison in 2023, Nason says. At that, the crowd falls silent. 

 The next stop is a jail where a polygamous cult leader slept after murdering one of his wives and his 4-year-old stepson in 2010, Nason says. This gruesome tale is not for the faint of heart — one disturbed-looking couple makes a sneaky exit from the tour after the story concludes.

As the group saunters from location to location, a sliver moon illuminates the eerie, dark night. Nason proceeds to recount the story of Michael Peterson, pointing to the buildings where he was held in jail and where his trial occurred in 2003. In this infamous case, the subject of the HBO mini-series “The Staircase,” Peterson was accused of murdering his wife Kathleen by pushing her down the stairs. 

Peterson took the Alford plea in 2017, in which he maintained his innocence while acknowledging prosecutors possessed enough evidence to convict him. He was released from the Nash Correctional Institution after having served eight years and dwells in the Triangle area to this day.

Nason explains the “owl theory,” posited by Durham lawyer Larry Pollard. Pollard has devoted nearly 20 years to promoting his theory, claiming that it wasn’t a person who killed Kathleen Peterson, but rather, an owl, as evidenced by a few tiny feather fragments found in her hair.

“Did it, like, fly in, kill Kathleen, and then, like, make a break for it?” Nason laughs. “Wouldn’t it have left behind a little bit more than a microscopic feather? I mean, let’s give Kathleen some credit. You’d think she would’ve at least…pulled out some feathers, maybe tried to swat at it or something.”

Nason leads a group vote. “Who thinks Michael Peterson did it?” Most hands shoot up. 

“Who thinks the owl did it?” A single hand is raised. 

Nason also aims to connect the crime stories to local cultural and political affairs. 

For instance, the final tour stop, the Durham Bottling Company, is a performance and events venue replete with bright lights, high-energy music, and what Nason calls the “gentrification sign,” a neon sign that reads “EAT!” On this lively Saturday night, songs echo down the streets as locals prepare for a night on the town. 

The spot was not always a vibrant hub, though, Nason says. Instead, it was once a drug rehabilitation clinic where multiple homeless women working in prostitution were murdered in February of 1994. “It is a sad truth that oftentimes murders of Durham’s, and really any city’s, homeless populations are easy to overlook,” Nason says. “I highly doubt these cases are ever going to be solved.”

And with that, the tour comes to a close. “I love ending on a bummer,” he jokes. “I hope that you all feel sufficiently empty and sad inside.” The crowd chuckles.

Not everyone feels empty and sad, though.

“This tour is awesome,” one man remarks to his girlfriend. “Great use of $10!”

Pictured above: Andrew Nason leads the “Durham True Crime Tour” through downtown Durham on a recent Saturday evening. Photo by Abigail Bromberger — The 9th Street Journal