Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a series of columns about this mysterious death of Lula Cree Overcash Westmoreland. Read the first part HERE.
BY SHELLIE TAYLOR
Last month, readers were introduced to the Overcash and Westmoreland families who, in 1937, were the center of a terrible scandal when Lue Cree Overcash Westmoreland’s body was discovered in a well on her father-in-law’s property.
Ruling out suicide, the only other — and some would say obvious — cause of her death was murder. The first suspect in the murder of a wife is almost always the husband. The question at hand was, where was Herman Westmoreland at the time of his wife’s death? Herman worked at Cascade Mills in Mooresville and many, if not all, of the roads he would travel were not paved at the time. During heavy rains, it was typical for Herman to stay at an uncle’s house close to the mill. That was the case in January 1937. After a heavy rain muddied roads and made travel difficult, Herman and his older brother, who also worked at the mill, were staying in Mooresville the night Lue Cree disappeared.
Robert Homer Westmoreland, the father-in-law, claimed that he and his son Clyde shared a room directly below Herman and Lue Cree, and said that he had retired to his bed around 8:45 to 9 p.m. Later, during the inquest, R.H. Westmoreland was questioned regarding one of his shovels which had a broken blade. He claimed that it broke around Christmas and he had replaced the handle. Although a shovel would make a perfect murder weapon, there is no comment in the papers or through the inquest that blood or human tissue could be seen on the blade. It is possible, however, that if it had been used as the murder weapon, the person who wielded it could have wiped it down after issuing the fatal blow. Of course, at this time there was no CSI-esque technology to test for blood stains that had been removed.
The newspapers took unusually keen and detailed note of what many might consider insignificant facts, but which add layers of mystery to the case. Early in the investigation, the youngest Westmoreland sister, Rachel, said that she went upstairs to find Lue Cree when she didn’t come down for breakfast. Lue Cree’s bed looked as if no one had slept in it, Rachel reported. She also stated that the victim’s ring and watch were on the table beside the bed. However, at the official inquest a week later, Herman Westmoreland testified that the bed covers were thrown back and her jewelry was in a box, where she usually put her ring and watch. These two statements obviously don’t add up, but does that mean anything? Possibly not. By the time Herman got to the house from Mooresville, the search for his wife was already in full swing. It’s possible that law enforcement had removed the bed covers to look for clues. Isn’t it odd that the newspaper would specifically report those discrepancies, but not that the room was searched?
The entire transcript of the inquest testimony was recorded in the Statesville Record on February 5, and the responses from R.H. Westmoreland are particularly interesting. He was asked by Solicitor Charles Coggin if he was home the day of Lue Cree’s disappearance. Westmoreland’s response was “I think so.” When asked what he did that day, his response was almost hostile:
Question: What were you doing on that day, did you have any farm work that you did Tuesday? The day before she was missed.
Answer: Yes, I know what day you are talking about. Don’t remember doing much.
Question: You were at home?
Answer: I think so.
I find it hard to believe that someone could not remember what they were doing on a day of such a traumatic event. Ask almost anyone what they were doing the morning of September 11, 2001, and you will usually get a very detailed response. Even years later, we remember what we were doing. But R.H. Westmoreland could not recall what he had been doing a week ago, or even if he had been home. When asked about his whereabouts on Monday, however, his response was much more concrete. He stated he was in town that day. His responses for the rest of the inquest are followed by more “I don’t remember,” “I don’t know,” or “I declare if I know.” He also stated that he “had never been around the girl any until Herman married her.” That seems like an odd declaration considering the couple had known each other in school and had, by testimony of the husband, been dating since graduation, more than three years before they tied the knot.
After the inquest was concluded, the official coroner’s report was released on February 2, 1937, declaring Lue Cree’s death a murder “by a person or persons unknown.” On the one hand, this must have been a relief to the Overcash family to know that the jury also found the death suspicious, but the announcement got them no closer to identifying a person whom they could hold accountable. Justice was far from being served.
At this point, I’d like to note the community’s reaction to all of this. The newspapers reported in multiple articles that community residents had many theories about what happened to the young bride, but none was ever proven. In a close-knit community such as Amity Hill, I wonder whether the Westmoreland family experienced any ostracization after the inquest announced the coroner’s decision. A girl is murdered on their property, yet no one knows who did it? With so many unanswered questions, I am curious as to how the family was treated after this.
Ray Herman Westmoreland and his brother Robert Clyde (the brother who had been home at the time of Lue Cree’s death) both served in the armed forces during World War II, and both received honorable discharges following their duties. Herman died in 2005 at the age of 90, and Robert died in 2006 at the age of 86. Neither appeared in the newspaper for any other suspicious incidents in Iredell County, although the absence of reference to Herman’s first wife in his obituary may raise an eyebrow for some. R.H. Westmoreland died in 1957 after being hospitalized for three months by a severe illness. His obituary mentioned his life-long membership at his church.
James Overcash, the victim’s father, died in January 1940. His obituary mentioned that his death occurred on the third anniversary of his daughter’s burial. In fact, an entire paragraph of his obituary is dedicated to the strange case of his daughter’s death, making it clear that the family wanted to remind readers that the case was never solved.
Unfortunately, this case never saw justice at all. To this day, it remains unsolved. During the course of writing this article, I reached out to the Iredell County Sheriff’s Office to learn more. Because it is still an open case, they did not release any information they had on it. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Sheriff Darren Campbell takes an interest in cold cases and has personally reviewed this case in the past.
The Amity Hill community never gave up hope that the murderer would be brought to justice. Throughout the rest of 1937, neighbors pleaded with authorities to take action. The county commissioners set aside $250 as a reward for the sheriff’s office to hand out to anyone who supplied information that would lead to an arrest. The Overcash family published a personal ad telling readers that they had not given up on their daughter. In December, just shy of a year after the murder, Lue Cree’s body was exhumed at the order of Sheriff John White Moore.
Most people do not want to disturb the sanctity of a burial on a hunch, so it was believed that the sheriff’s office had some solid evidence to justify bringing Lue Cree’s body out of her grave.
Investigators were thrilled to discover the presence of “earth particles” between the toes on her left foot. When she was found, Lue Cree was wearing a stocking and a tightly laced shoe on her right foot. The left foot was bare, but the stocking and shoe were found at the bottom of the well. Upon first examination, the undertaker noted bruises on the top of her left foot. Police theorized that the killer had stood on her foot during the struggle or while moving the body to the well. The Landmark reported that the discovery of the dirt between her toes fit in “with other evidence” that had not been disclosed at the time. No other reference to that evidence was ever made and there was no follow-up in the newspapers to the discoveries of the exhumation.
Although the newspapers never named a suspect, they hinted that investigators had a strong suspicion about who killed Lue Cree, but they lacked conclusive proof. Their only choice was to let a killer walk free. In 2008 Mooresville High teacher and CPCC professor Chris Stonestreet wrote an article for the Mooresville Tribune about this bizarre case. After reading the article, a Westmoreland family member sent him a copy of a poem that was found in a chest in the upstairs family attic. The author is unknown but the eerie words continue to linger over this mystery:
I wonder why no arrest was made,
was your sheriff so afraid?
Is his back bone of the hue,
applied to jealousy and cowardice too?
Oh men, hang not your heads in shame,
Rise up, make your county worth its name.
In 1953, the Statesville Record reported that Lue Cree’s mother had given up the case to the Lord. It had weighed on her for years and she had trusted law enforcement to solve her daughter’s murder, but now she was done. “I’ve shed my last tear over the matter. The Lord can take it from here.” After 86 years, it appears that this murder mystery will remain unsolved.
Shellie Taylor is the Local History Program Specialist at the Iredell County Public Library. She can be contacted at email@example.com or 704-878-3090, Ext. 8801.