Episode 62: Two Cold Cases from Western North Carolina

Today we’re taking a look at two cases involving murdered young women that took place in the month of June. One occurred in 1009, the other in 1970. Both feature places I have a personal connection with as a resident of North Carolina. First, I’d like to talk about Amber Lundgren. I vividly remember her case because I was a junior in college at the University of North Carolina at Asheville at the time, and I often spent time in the downtown area where she was last seen. Her case made me a lot more mindful of walking to my car alone in the early morning hours, because that was something I had done before without much thought. Chalk it up to being a naïve 21-year-old. Amber was a 20-year-old young woman who was originally from Florida, but moved to the Asheville area with her mother when she was in her teens. In news reports, her mother said she was creative, artistic, and loved changing up her looks. She worked as an assistant manager at the retail store Pier 1 Imports. She’d begun experimenting with different hair colors, tattoos, and piercing. When her mother expressed concerned that people might judge her daughter for her appearance, Amber replied that if someone judged her for her looks, that was probably someone she wouldn’t want to be around anyway.

New Beginnings

During the summer of 1997, she was still working at Pier 1 and considering taking photography or art classes at UNC Asheville in the future. She was getting ready to move into a new apartment with a close friend.

According to an article that ran in the alternative weekly, Mountain Xpress, Amber was a sprightly young woman who one friend described as a “female Puck,” the fairy from Shakespeare’s play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” She believed in fairies. She found treasure in the smallest things, like trinkets, letters, cards, clothing, and stickers. Amber wrote poetry. She drove a 1968 blue Mustang with matching hubcaps. She was friendly and outgoing to everyone, no matter who they were. She loved hanging out downtown, and had been at the popular bar Be Here Now listening to the band Gran Torino the night before she was murdered.

On the night of June 6, 1997, Amber got dressed up and headed out for a night of dancing at a nightclub called Bar Code, which was then located along Lexington Avenue. It was Disco Night at Bar Code, and the group carefully coordinated their outfits and looks in the hopes of winning. Amber had recently bought a set of sponge curlers, and one of her friends teased her about her “ruffle butt hair,” because the back of Amber’s head looked like the ruffles on the vintage style of a little girl’s ruffled underpants.

At the time, Bar Code was considered to be the nicest bar in town. There were numerous bouncers employed there to help out anyone who felt they were getting unwanted attention. Amber planned to be the group’s designated driver, a role she often took on. If they were separated, they would meet back at Amber’s apartment, which was on Linden Avenue, not far from Merrimon Avenue.

But at some point during the night, the group got separated, and remember, this was a time when it was rare to find someone with a cell phone. Amber asked the bartender at Bar Code if he’d seen her friends, and he hadn’t. An eyewitness claimed to have seen her walking alone on Lexington Avenue, turning left into Walnut Street. She may have been heading to the club Gatsby’s, where the brother of one of her friends worked as a bartender. No one reported hearing any screams or calls of distress. Amber’s friends and family said she was very safety conscious and wouldn’t have gotten into a car with someone she didn’t know. Amber’s friends stuck to their original plan and went by her apartment around 4:30 or 5 a.m. but the place was dark, and no one appeared to be there. But they still weren’t concerned at that point.

It wasn’t until the next morning that Amber’s friend Nadia realized something was wrong. She and Amber had been planning to meet up to sell some of their belongings at a garage sale in preparation for their upcoming move into an apartment together. Amber didn’t show up for the meeting, which was unlike her. Nadia quickly got on the phone. She called Pier 1 to see if Amber had been called into work. She hadn’t. She called their friends, and Amber’s boyfriend, as well as Amber’s uncle (her mother was at work at the time). When no leads turned up, Nadia called to report her friend missing. When Amber’s mom Debi Lundgren returned home from her shift working at the pharmacy at Mission Hospital later that evening, her brother urged her to call Nadia.

While Nadia was at the police station reporting her friend missing, police knew an identified body had been found earlier that day. They showed Nadia a few Polaroids of tattoos that were instantly familiar. It took her a few minutes to process they had come from a Jane Doe. A Jane Doe who was really Amber Lundgren.

A man walking his dog early that morning had come across a bloody pile of clothes. Nearby was the deceased body of a young woman in a ditch that ran alongside Azalea Avenue in Asheville, near the Buncombe County Recreation Park in East Asheville.

An autopsy showed defensive wounds on Amber’s hands and fingers that suggested she might have tried to defend herself. She died from a single stab wound to the neck that penetrated the main artery supplying blood to her head, according to a report cited in the November 12, 1997 issue of The Asheville Citizen-Times.

Leads at First

Within the first month, police released a composite sketch of a suspect reported to have been on Azalea Road in the hours before Amber’s body was discovered, along with a vehicle he may have been driving. The suspect was described as a white male between the ages of 20 and 45, with a stocky build, medium height, dark reddish brown hair and a beard. He may have been driving an older model dark blue work truck.

After Amber’s death, Amber’s friends and family felt there was a misconception that she was a party girl who was murdered while leaving a nightclub. They believed that was a mischaracterization, and that the club didn’t have anything to do with her death. Amber did love to dance and hang out with her friends, but she wasn’t into drinking and doing drugs. They felt Bar Code was also unfairly blamed. It closed down not long after her murder.

The June 27, 2002 issue of The Asheville Citizen Times stated police had taken blood and hair samples from a 32-year-old Arden man, along with a search of his truck. He was considered a suspect in Amber’s murder, but was not named at the time because he had not been charged with a crime. I wasn’t able to find any other information on this particular suspect and assume he was eventually cleared.

I did notice some comments left on the online Mountain Xpress article about Amber’s case. There were a few true crime sleuths discussing various details, and then there was this intriguing comment by a man named Scott Crossman.

It said, verbatim, “Not related the man who did it had moved here from Florida in 1989. I could answer some basic questions to what has gone on in this since the one who did it is now dead from suicide in the early 2000s.”

Commenters asked him if he really knew who murdered Amber and there has never been a response.  

Anyone with information on Amber Lundgren’s case is asked to call the Asheville Police Department at 828-252-1110 or contact Det. Kevin Taylor directly at 828-259-5945 or [email protected].

Nancy Morgan

The next case I want to talk about is frustrating because a journalist spent more than 20 years investigating it, and even heard a confession from someone already incarcerated, but it remains officially unsolved. It’s also another example of a female victim who was shamed for her lifestyle choices and behavior, when in reality, they should have had nothing to do with the reporting and investigation into her abduction and murder.

This murder took place in Madison County, North Carolina, about 20 minutes outside of Asheville. It’s nestled in the mountains on the banks of the French Broad river, and I actually lived there with my family in the mid-1990s for a brief time. I hear it has now become a mecca for artists and creatives, much like Asheville, Weaverville, and Black Mountain. People also like to visit the natural hot springs located there.  It’s a beautiful area, but very rural, and a lot of its residents have lived there for decades. In 1970, when a 24-year-old woman named Nancy Morgan arrived there, she would definitely been considered an outsider.

Serving Her Country

Nancy had grown up a military brat, living overseas in Germany with her family and other Air Force bases in the United States. Her father, Colonel Earl Morgan, worked in international law for the U.S. Air Force in Europe and at the time of her death, was working in Baton Rouge, Louisiana as head of the law library at Louisiana State University. Nancy first attended college at Radford College in Virginia, eventually graduating from Southern Illinois University with a degree in social work. She was interested in social justice issues, considered herself a liberal, and admired leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and his work with civil rights. She decided she wanted to attend nursing school. But first, she wanted to take a bit of a break. A gap year, as it is called these days after a student graduates. She joined a government-sponsored program called VISTA, or Volunteers in Service to America, which was part of the Johnson administration’s anti-poverty programs that included Job Corps and Head Start. Nancy signed up for a one-year commitment. She first trained for 10 days in Atlanta before moving to Madison County in September of 1969 to live in a centuries-old log cabin with another female roommate and member of VISTA.

Nancy focused on community relations with youth as part of her work with VISTA, taking groups of teenagers swimming in nearby Mars Hill and educating them on health and nutrition. She also helped set up a clothing thrift store in the town and worked on charitable fundraisers. She was part of a small group of VISTA volunteers that had settled into the area, and they weren’t always looked upon favorably by local residents. While Nancy made plenty of friends with local business owners and other residents, there was talk around town about the VISTA group being do-gooders who looked down upon the people they were helping. It was the typical “us versus them” attitude. Nancy tried not to let this bother her and focused on her friendships, connections, and service work. She had been accepted into nursing school in New York State and was a few months away from completing her assignment in the Shelton Laurel area of Madison County when she went missing in in early June 1970.

Nancy had spent the weekend visiting with the owners of the general store in town, making dinner for a local resident and her children who was getting ready to join her husband, who was in the military in Charleston, South Carolina, and having dinner that Sunday night with another VISTA volunteer. In true crime writer Mark Pinsky’s book “Met Her on the Mountain,” he used the pseudonym Ed Walker for this volunteer, so I’ll use that throughout this episode. We’ll get more into the details of that later. On Sunday, June 14, 1970, Nancy drove her government-issued vehicle, a 1965 Plymouth Belvedere with the words “Government Service Administration-Interagency Motor Pool” stenciled on the door to the property her friend Ed was staying at during his time with VISTA. They walked around the property, checked out the garden area, had dinner, watched a movie with a few local teens that dropped by the house, and around 2:30 or 3 a.m. in the morning, she headed home. By this point, Nancy was living alone because her roommate had decided to leave the program.

A Shocking Discovery

On Monday, June 15, a man named Richard Haimes, who was in charge of the Madison County VISTAs, became worried when he couldn’t reach Nancy. He needed to get her two new tires for her Plymouth. He had seen Nancy the previous week and couldn’t understand where she was. He contacted the sheriff’s department with his concerns. By Tuesday, Nancy’s friends in the community began searching for her and her vehicle. They were concerned she might have had an accident on one of the curvy mountain roads. That night, Nancy missed an important meeting she was supposed to attend for a fundraiser they had planned, and that was out of character for her. By Wednesday morning, the VISTA supervisor for North Carolina was called at his home in Atlanta, and he wondered aloud if Nancy had left early for a vacation she had planned to West Virginia and parked at the airport. He flew to Asheville later that afternoon, making sure to search the airport parking lot for the Plymouth. It wasn’t there.

That morning, a local man named Jimmy Lewis was driving on an errand to recycle a load of empty soda bottles from his family’s store. He was headed to nearby Hot Springs, and on the way, he needed to stop and take a restroom break. Thinking he would be undisturbed on one of the old logging roads, he pulled his vehicle over. Then, he spotted a grey car on what was once a wagon trail, parked under a grove of trees. Curious, he walked up to the car, and was shocked to find what looked like the deceased body of a young woman in the backseat of the car. He drove to Sheriff Roy Roberts’ home two miles away, but the sheriff wasn’t home. Jimmy Lewis told the sheriff’s brother what he had seen, and they tracked down Roy Roberts in court in nearby Marshall. The wooded area where the car had been found was located on land that had recently been sold to the U.S. Forest Service. It was part of the Pisgah National Forest and included a section of the Appalachian Trail.

What he found in the car was appalling. Nancy was on her knees in the backseat of the car. Her head was covered with a pair of ripped maroon shorts. Her She had been hog-tied with a multi-strand blue and olive nylon cord that likely strangled her if she had moved or tried to free herself. A pile of her clothes was on the floorboard nearby. Her handbag was in the car with her identification. The car’s windows were closed but the doors had not been locked.

From the beginning, the crime scene and initial investigation were not coordinated effectively. As a member of VISTA, Nancy was considered a federal employee. She was found in an area that belonged to the U.S. Forest Service. This could have been a case for the F.B.I. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, also known as the SBI, were called in. Although both agencies initially assisted the local law enforcement, the case went cold pretty quickly, and it reverted back to the local authorities. They did interview Ed Walker, since he appeared to have been the one who saw her last, but he was cleared at the time.

What Did She Expect, Coming Here?

Rumors quickly began spreading in the community, judging Nancy for her liberal views and what some considered “loose ways.” Nancy had been known to drink, read suggestive literature, and had accidentally dated a local man she didn’t know was married. In college, she had gotten pregnant and had an abortion, a fact she brought up with some of the local teen girls when discussing birth control with them. For a woman in the early 1970s, many would have simply considered her a liberal-minded woman. But in the small, sheltered community of Shelton Laurel, it must have meant she was wild and probably brought on her sexual assault and death. The local newspapers at the time even quoted people saying such things, which would not fly by today’s journalistic standards.

The autopsy estimated Nancy Morgan had been deceased two days before she was found, and that her last meal had contained carrots. Ed Walker told authorities they hadn’t had any carrots in their meal on Sunday evening. There was also evidence of sexual assault, and evidence samples of semen were collected.

A Journalist Takes Note

Journalist Mark Pinsky had first taken note of the murder while reading it about it from the campus newspaper office at Duke University, and even after moving to Florida and working for a variety of newspapers there, he kept track of the case. His book discusses the storied history of Western North Carolina, along with a political dynasty very reminiscent of the South Carolina Murdaugh family of present day. A man named E.Y. Ponder, who served as the Madison County Sheriff off and on for many years and his brother Zeno, controlled the Democratic Party and were possibly involved in election tampering, withholding jobs from their enemies while giving them to people who followed their orders, installing residents they wanted on boards, and other corruption you’ll likely find in a small town. Along the way, Mark Pinsky interviewed Nancy’s friends and family, other VISTA volunteers and local law enforcement while traveling back and forth from Florida to North Carolina.

He was surprised to find out a suspect in Nancy’s murder had been arrested in 1984. Based information gathered from an informant of EY Ponder’s, Ed Walker’s former neighbor testified he had seen Nancy at Ed’s house involved in a sexual orgy and hog-tied the way she was found at the time of her death. Remember, Ed Walker was the former VISTA volunteer who had been with Nancy before she went missing. This informant, a man named Johnny Waldroup who was facing other criminal charges at the time, said Ed Walker had punched him in the face when he happened upon the scene and ordered Johnny to help move Nancy’s body.

A Suspect Arrested

Based solely on this information, 37-year-old Ed Walker was indicted for the murder, arrested at his home in Florida, and brought back to North Carolina. The trial caused a strain on his marriage, his finances, and his home life. He was basically penniless when the trial began, but he was able to retain a gruff but effective attorney, Joe Huff. He hammered away at Johnny Waldroup on the witness stand, poking holes in his story and pointing out that he only confessed to his so-called knowledge of the crime after placing a long jail sentence for breaking into a church near his home. Community members who had been friendly with Ed during his service in Shelton Laurel also vouched for him for the defense. On June 28, 1985, Ed Walker was acquitted of the crime. Madison County Sheriff E.Y. Ponder steadfastly maintained his belief that Ed was responsible for Nancy’s murder.

A Jailhouse Confession

Interestingly enough, there was another man in jail with both Johnny Waldroup and Ed Walker after Walker’s arrest. His name was Richard Johnson, and his dad had been the police chief of Hot Springs when Nancy was murdered. Richard Johnson and a group of his friends were actually in court the day her body was discovered, because they’d had a run in at a local movie theatre where other VISTA volunteers had been working. This group of guys were rough, didn’t hold down jobs, drank, and generally caused as much trouble as they wanted because Richard wouldn’t ever be punished because of who his dad was.They did not appreciate VISTA’s presence in the community, and picked a fight with few of the volunteers. Richard Johnson was in jail when Ed Walker was arrested because he had poisoned his young daughter with insecticide during a custody dispute with his ex-wife. The little girl later died, and Richard Johnson was convicted and sent to prison.

When author Mark Pinsky began hearing rumors that a group of local young men had admitted to abducting Nancy Morgan, he decided to pay Richard Johnson a visit in a jail. In fact, he paid multiple visits, along with Ed Walker. Richard claimed he knew a group of young men (not him) had abducted her as she left Ed Walker’s house, kept her at a nearby barn, sexually assaulted her, and then tied her up, where she accidentally choked herself. Over time, he more freely admitted he had been involved in the abduction and rape, but said he didn’t know how she had died. He named the other men. He said at one point he had brought her a cup of soup or stew from a local diner as a meal. The carrots found in her stomach contents could have come from that stew. Richard said she pleaded with her captors and offered them money in exchange for her release.  He even said that while she had been held captive, E.Y. Ponder contacted them and said if they knew anything about the young woman’s whereabouts, they needed to return her because it involved a federal employee. Of course, E.Y. Ponder denied ever doing this. When Mark Pinsky tracked down some of the others accused of participating in the crime, they denied involvement, although community members in Madison County were not surprised when they heard of what Richard Johnson was saying.

I also feel it important to mention that Richard Johnson confessed to raping other local women when their husbands were away, and a woman and her sister who were visiting the area. The local women were too afraid to testify against him and in the other case, Richard’s connections to local law enforcement got the charges dropped. In fact, he had tried to poison his son before his daughter, and might have gotten away with the murder if savvy hospital staff hadn’t alerted the authorities.

When Mark Pinsky tried to go to law enforcement over what Richard Johnson had told him, he was met with skepticism. Richard Johnson was a hardened criminal with a history of lying, and they were all still convinced Ed Walker was guilty of the crime. There was even still DNA evidence on file with the North Carolina State Medical Examiner’s Office but they refused to test it against Richard Johnson.

In the book, “Met Her on the Mountain,” Mark Pinsky shares his theory of how Nancy actually died. He believes Richard Johnson’s story that the group of young men abducted her in the early morning hours as she left Ed Walker’s house, took her to an old farm, took terms assaulting her before hogtying her with the nylon cord at the farm or in her car, not intending to kill her. Once she was dead, they left her in the abandoned car on the logging road.

The author also shared this conclusion:

Whichever account of the killing is accurate, I believe a force larger than a single man, or even five men, must share the blame. Nancy Morgan’s murder took place in a political culture of Madison County in which people in authority turned blind eyes to action of young men like Richard Johnsons, who repeatedly got away with similar rapes, as well as theft, arson, assault, and other crimes. And yet it must be said that such crimes take place every day in America, north and south, rural, urban, and suburban. Political corruption can contaminate justice anywhere. Madison County is no more insular and violence-prone than lots of other places.

He also wrote:

While I uncovered no grand conspiracy aimed at terrorizing VISTA workers because they might threaten the economic order of Madison County, Sheriff E.Y. Ponder’s style of law enforcement, based on his network of informers, allowed men like Johnny Waldroup and Richard Johnson to intimidate and terrorize their neighbors with impunity. What made Nancy’s murder different from opportunistic rapes and murders elsewhere was a so-called legal establishment that protected such men, a corrupt system that let Nancy’s killers go unpunished.

This case is absolutely frustrating. I greatly admire Mark Pinsky for the years of research and legwork he put into the investigation, along with writing the book. Part of me feels like because Nancy’s family was so traumatized by her death and lack of help they received from law enforcement, on federal, state and local levels, that they eventually quit asking for updates. Because Nancy was considered an outsider, local law enforcement may have considered her case to be of lesser importance. I’m not saying this is right, but I can see that attitude prevailing. It’s incredibly sad.

Show Resources:

Amber Lundgren


June 10, 1997


Murder leads being followed

June 15, 1997


Lundgren’s loved ones struggle to cope

July 10, 1997


More clues are sought on Lundgren

October 16, 1997


Details surface in murder case

November 12, 1997


Slain Lundgren apparently fought attacker

May 10, 1998


A mourning mother wants others to know Amber’s story

June 27, 2002


Suspect surfaces in Lundgren slaying case

Mountain Xpress

Nancy Morgan

June 18, 1970


VISTA Worker girl apparently strangled

June 28, 1970


‘No future’ in death speculation

June 21, 1970


Slain girl called ‘another kind of soldier’

July 29, 1970


VISTA Workers Told to Leave

October 17, 2021



March 11, 2009


Nancy Morgan murder remains unsolved

March 4, 2014


From a convicted murderer, a confession https://www.starnewsonline.com/story/entertainment/books/2014/03/09/review-writer-pursues-40-year-quest

Met Her on the Mountain by Mark Pinsky