Features
Cold case
Trucker's death at the height of a strike leaves widow still searching for answers 25 years later

By Terry Scruton
staff writer

 

When George Capps left his home on a late January evening in 1983, he told his wife, Esmond, not to worry. He told her that he’d be fine. When she heard a knock at the door at 1:30 a.m. the next morning, Esmond was relieved, because she knew George had made it home safely.

But it wasn’t George at the door.

Esmond was right to be worried. George, a 34-year-old truck driver from Selma, NC, was heading out into the middle of a storm that night. But it wasn’t the usual storm that often comes in late winter.

This was a storm that had been brewing in the trucking industry for some time, and had finally reached blizzard strength in January of 1983, when the now-defunct Independent Truckers Association called for a strike to protest an increase in fuel taxes and highway user taxes that was making its way through Congress.

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said OOIDA wasn’t involved in the strike, and was instead working to resolve the problem through legal and legislative means.

Spencer said the strike was “the last hurrah for the ITA.” And it unfortunately left a black eye on the trucking industry.

Before the strike was over, truckers would be wounded, rigs set on fire, and one driver, George Capps, shot to death as he rolled his truck down highway 701 near Newton Grove, NC.

 

Cold night

Even now, 25 years later, his widow, Esmond, remembers that night and the day leading up to it all too well. She had stayed home from work that day because she was sick, and George took care of her.

That afternoon, she saw a report on the news about the strike, and was worried about George going to work that night. A news report said a truck driver in a nearby town had been shot at, and Esmond pleaded with George not to go, telling him she was scared for his safety.

Esmond remembers George telling her that he didn’t believe the man was shot at just because he was a truck driver. He thought it was probably just “some crackpot taking advantage of a bad situation.” He assured her that if things were that bad, he wouldn’t be riding alone. The company would send someone along with him.

When the knock on the door came later that night, Esmond was relieved at first, believing George had come home. Even when she opened the door to find a highway patrolman standing there instead of her husband, she still didn’t fear the worst.

It wasn’t until she got to the hospital that the truth of what had happened to George began to sink in.

“I can remember begging them to tell me that he was alive, but they wouldn’t,” she said. “And I was just like somebody having a chill, shaking and my teeth chattering. But when I got to the hospital, they told me he had been killed.”

 

Family man

By all accounts, George, who got his start driving a truck while in the military in Vietnam, was a family man. Esmond said she couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to hurt him.

“He was a good husband, a good provider, a good father,” she said “He was just a good family man, good-hearted, would do anything he could to help anybody.”

Investigators at the time believed George’s death was tied to the truckers’ strike, even though George himself was not involved in it in any way.

It wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine that any violence on the highway at that time was connected to the strike. A Time Magazine report from that February said that during the strike more than 1,000 incidents of violence were reported, including other trucks and drivers hit by gunfire.

More than 50 people were injured during the protest. Many were truck drivers. Others were unlucky passers-by who just happened to get caught in the crossfire.

George Capps was the only fatality. Esmond said she has no idea to this day who would have wanted to kill her husband, or even if it was connected to the strike.

“All I know is, if it was a truck driver, he’s not the kind of man my husband was,” she said. “Because my husband was a family man and would do anything if he could help anybody. I’ve never felt like it was any other truck driver. I’ve always felt like it was somebody in the area, or somebody in the area knew something about it. I don’t have any proof. I don’t have any leads.”

 

Case reopened

Those leads may yet be on their way. The Newton Grove Police Department decided to reopen the case in 2007.

Sgt. Tracy Brogden, the officer in charge of the investigation, said he was a sophomore in high school when George Capps was killed.

Brogden grew up just 20 miles from Newton Grove, and he remembers the case being big news at the time it happened. When he joined the Newton Grove police force, he decided he wanted to take a crack at bringing the killer to justice.

There have been precious few leads in the case over the years, and those that have turned up have become dead ends. Brogden said he doesn’t necessarily believe the shooting was related to the strike, but he shares Esmond’s belief that someone in the area knows something about the case.

Both Brogden and Esmond are hopeful that the recent attention the case has drawn in the media will bring someone forward with some information. The reward for that information, incidentally, is now up to $60,000.

Esmond said she’s just grateful someone has taken an interest in the case again. And even if George’s killer is never found, Esmond says she believes that person will have to answer to someone, sooner or later.

“I believe in God; I believe in heaven and hell,” she said. “And the only peace I can get is that I feel like they may get by with it in this life, but they’ll have to give an account to God one day.”

Most importantly, Esmond said she hopes George’s killer will be brought to justice so that no one else will have to go through what she and her family have been through.

Esmond, who remarried in 2001, has gotten through her tough times with the support of her family – both at home and at church. She said one of the things that hurts the most is that George never got to see his own family grow up.

“He had a son that was 12 years old that needed his father,” she said. “He has children. My husband never got to see his son grow up. He didn’t get to see his stepson grow up. He didn’t get to know his grandchildren, and they will never know him. And I know how he would have loved them. And that’s hurtful, too. I don’t know how people do things like this and are able to live with themselves. I really don’t.”

Anyone who has any information on the shooting of George Capps can call the Newton Grove Police Department at (910) 594-0829. LL

terry_scruton@landlinemag.com