The Effigies Part I

Setting: slow news day…phone rings…

Assignment Manager: “Casey…pick up. Some guy says a man in Duplin is hanging state leaders on his front lawn…”

<….Dashes to phone…>

Granted, people have hung government officials in effigy since the Civil War (and probably before that). Still, it’s rather unusual, particularly when someone goes through the trouble of (1) finding seven mannequins, (2) dressing them to their likeness and (3) constructing an enormous gallows on their front lawn to have them all swing from.

These gallows have been up since 2000 but somehow we just heard about it now. The Phipps have worked hard to promote it. They routinely give passers-by tours of the site. They’ve even made videos of it on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxHJU_LVuuc (note that the gallows in this video looks different from the one in mine…you’ll find out why in Part III).

Faison isn’t exactly around the corner from the station and there was no way to reach the Phipps’ but to just drive up there – solo.

Driving down Warren Road, I didn’t know if I’d be able to find the house since I didn’t have a house number. Turns out, I didn’t need one…you CAN’T miss it.

The gallows has are about 15 feet high. It was *freezing* the day I was there and completely silent except for the wind. Every time a gust came the mannequins blew around on the gallow and the ropes started creaking.  It was definitely creepy, especially since my nearest call for back-up was an hour and a half away.

The property has fallen into severe disrepair. There was debris everywhere. There were two separate trailers…I chose the one closest to the news van to knock on. No answer. There were power cords and wires running from the ground up into the windows and under the doors, furniture pulled apart on the stoop and machine parts all around. Knocked again – no answer.

When I knocked the third time…I kid you not…a group of roosters came from the side of the house in bird formation attack mode. You have never seen a girl run so fast off of a property in high heels as I did!

My nerves were shot. I jumped in the news van ready to fly home when a man’s face appeared in my side window…and I nearly had a heart attack. It was Reese Phipps, Lacy’s son.

I spoke with Reese for a while and he was quite friendly. At first, he did not want to do the story. He said they’d interviewed 100’s of times and they were always disappointed that no one wanted to tell “the whole story.” (note: most people do not realize its almost impossible to tell the “whole story” when you have 2 minutes to do it…such is news)

He gave me the basic gist: he and his Bowden neighbors had fought for land for decades. Reese and Lacy Phipps say that local government officials have wrongly accused them of not paying taxes on their property. It was then confiscated and sold, some of which their neighbors bought. They feel the community and government as been conspiring to run them off their land.

They say they’ve been accused of doing all sorts of evil things to the community – none of which are true (according to them). They also say that local law enforcement has done little to protect and regulate the rural community set so far away from any major area. The result of such neglect, they say, was the murder of William (Lacy’s son, Reese’s brother).

Interestingly, the murder isn’t really what catalyzed the building of the gallows. The land feud is the driving force behind them.

In their interview, it was very hard to understand what their gripe against each person was….each effigy had another 10 minute story behind it. Our legal advisor told me not to include any direct quotes about what they claim each person did…because they are just accusations at this point.

I did try to contact every person who had an effigy on the gallow. I didn’t hear back from everyone. Governor Bev Purdue’s office said that because the Phipps’ had not made any DIRECT threats…its still Freedom of Speech and there isn’t much they can do about it. District Attorney Dewey Hudson said the same.

Not everyone got back in touch with me. I had to chase Sheriff Blake Wallace for a while on the phone. He later said that he “would not dignify the Phipps with a response.”

I really wasn’t after how these official “felt” though…I was more interested in what’s been brewin’ in Bowden and how the community feels about it.

I knocked on many doors and tried to randomly approach people in grocery stores and restaurants to get some feedback. With something like a gallows, you’d think EVERYONE would have an opinion. They did…but NO ONE wanted to share on camera.

Whenever I mentioned “the Phipps” people either laughed, looked terrified OR just looked exhausted. They said they’retired of dealing with  fiasco and didn’t want the Phipps to see them making a public comment. Most people said there were afraid the Phipps would retaliate against them. I mentioned that to the Phipps, who seemed to think that was ludicrous.

So no luck…but back to the “conspiracy”….

I reminded Reese that proving a county-wide conspiracy would take a significant piece of evidence. He started to get frustrated. The he said he had all the evidence anyone needed in the backyard, specifically, inside and oddly placed sea-going container.

In front of the container’s doors he had pushed a large log, clearly to keep people out. He moved it away, broke open the doors and revealed a very old yellow car that had large bullet holes through its windshield.

That’s the car you saw at the end of tonight’s piece.

 That’s the car that William died in.

They’ve kept it hidden for the occasion that somebody wanted to investigate.  Reese said he and Lacy would tell me the story if I could come back another day…

Agreed.

I then headed to The Sampson Independent newspaper in Clinton to try to track down the original news reports on the murder of William, which was a catalyst behind the gallows creation.

Just my luck, the Independent had kept all their old articles from 1995. The name behind each report: Ruthie Pope. Ruthie becomes instrumental in Part III as the reporter who sat inside the court room…stay tuned.

Tomorrow night…you’ll see what happened when I sat inside the car that William Phipps died in…

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