Base case evidence ignored?
Federal investigators axed suspect sketch
April 27, 2008 - 12:40AM

Federal investigators say they know who killed three family members aboard Camp Lejeune but a series of technicalities prevented them from ever prosecuting their suspect.

Members of the media who covered the killings - including one who later wrote a book about it - indicate those same investigators turned a blind eye to evidence that pointed elsewhere.

And nearly 30 years later, no has been charged in the violent deaths that shattered the customary quiet of Watkins Village.

Sharon Sager and her five children - including Tyler Dash, her son from a previous marriage - were staying in base housing with her sister's family while Sager's husband was in Alaska and her sister's husband was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, according to statements from base officials at the time.

On a hot Sunday night in 1981, as Sager's sister was working an all-night shift at a nursing home, four pre-teen cousins decided to camp outside in a family car. When they entered the home the following morning, they found three of their family members dead.

The body of Tyler Dash, 13, was found alone in an upstairs bedroom of the Kentucky Court home in Watkins Village on board Camp Lejeune. His throat had been slit and he bled to death during the night, court records state.

Connie Smith, 12, was discovered dead in the living room. Her throat was cut and she had a cut from below her left breast to her pelvis, according to news reports at the time.

Sager, 34, was found dead with her throat slit in the family room where three of her younger children were still sleeping, according to court records.

There were no signs of a struggle, no signs of sexual abuse and no signs of forced entry into the house, a base spokesman said at the time.

Cliff Hill, a retired Marine who covered the story as it unfolded for both The (Wilmington) Star News and The Daily News, said he believes military investigators made a major mistake by not releasing a composite sketch of a suspect they were looking for in the days immediately following the slayings.

"Spokesmen for the Naval Investigative Service said they have a composite sketch of a person whom they want to question," Hill wrote in The Star News in 1981. "As of noon Saturday, NIS reiterated emphatically through (base spokesman Maj. Jim) Swartzenberg that the composite sketch has not and would not be released to the media."

However, local TV news stations ran a sketch they claimed was of the suspect. The sketch was of a white man in his 20s with bushy hair and a beard, according to news reports at the time.

Scott Flanders, a reporter for The Charlotte Observer at the time, wrote that he was detained at the main gate of the base because, "I looked like the suspect." Flanders was white, with bushy hair and a beard. He was escorted while on base to prevent any further problems, he said.

Originally, authorities had around half a dozen suspects, but all of their alibis checked out, according to a Star News report.

The investigation quickly focused on 15-year-old Carlton "Butch" Smith, who was still asleep upstairs in the Watkins Village home when his younger siblings and cousins found his aunt, sister and cousin dead at 7:30 a.m. on August 24, 1981.

But with no physical evidence the case just as quickly dissolved, according to court records.

Investigators found no blood on his body or on his clothes. No blood was found in the shower or in the room where he slept when the killings occurred, according to "Tunnel Vision," a 1993 book about the case written by Nancy Simpson, a former city editor at The Daily News.

Simpson also points out in her book that fingerprints, a boot print, a bloody palm print, a drop of blood and a beard hair found at the scene were never linked to Smith or anyone else in the house.

"(Smith) was immediately a suspect in the case. However, federal authorities evidently concluded that they did not have sufficient evidence to proceed, and by 1983 they had lost track of (him) altogether," court records state.

In 1986, Smith tried to join the Oregon National Guard. He was turned down because of psychiatric reports in his medical records from Camp Lejeune. His mother contacted the base and asked for the triple-homicide case to be closed so her son could "get on with his life," according to court documents.

Agents with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service made contact with Smith and conducted several interviews. On June 30, 1986, he made "incriminating statements concerning the murders and was arrested," court records state.

Onslow County Superior Court Judge Charles Henry represented Smith in the 1980s as a court-appointed defense attorney. Henry told The Daily News last week that the case revolved around a jurisdictional issue that needed to be resolved before Smith's guilt or innocence could even be determined.

In July 1986, the federal government charged Smith with three counts of murder. That same month, the government filed to transfer his case to district court so Smith could be tried as an adult, according to court documents.

That decision was reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1987 because at the time of the crimes, no provisions existed to allow such a transfer of jurisdiction even though the laws were later amended.

What followed was a series of rulings and reversals as the government tried every way possible way to try Smith. Finally, after several unsuccessful attempts by the federal government to initiate proceedings against him, an Onslow County grand jury indicted Smith on three counts of murder in December 1988.

In State v. Smith, the N.C. Supreme Court found that the Onslow County Superior Court did not have the jurisdiction to try Smith. In the 14-page decision the state's high court ruled that the state could not try him as an adult for crimes he allegedly committed as a juvenile on federal territory.

The state sought a reversal by the U.S. Supreme Court, but the nation's highest court declined to hear the case, effectively ending the five-year courtroom battle.

On March 15, 1991, Smith was released from the Onslow County Jail after five years of pre-trail confinement at several facilities. The first thing he did was order a pizza with everything, according to a Daily News report at the time.

Smith moved to upstate New York with his family. Attempts by The Daily News to reach him last week were unsuccessful.

Paul Ciccarelli, special agent in charge of NCIS field offices in North and South Carolina, told The Daily News via e-mail that he spoke to agents with knowledge of the case. He said the case was closed as resolved with no prosecution due to federal laws at the time that did not allow for federal prosecution of juveniles as adults.

"The bottom line, we know who killed the three victims, we just cannot prosecute," Ciccarelli said.

Simpson, Hill and several others who were involved in the case believe Smith is completely innocent. Federal investigators say he is a killer, but they just couldn't prosecute him.

"If the base shared information with the media better like the civilian authorities, they might catch more criminals," Hill said Thursday, referring to the composite sketch federal investigators would not release at the time of the killings.

Contact crime reporter Lindell Kay at or 910-554-8534. Read Lindell's blog at

Next time:

The Daily News looks at the case of female skeletal remains Jacksonville police recovered from a wooded area on U.S. 17 in December 1995. Anyone with information about the case is asked to call The Daily News at 910-219-8462.

Editor's note:

This is the fourth in a continuing series looking at unsolved homicides in Onslow County.