“The Sweetest Little Person…and a Time Bomb.”
By Robert A. Waters
On June 10, 1992, ninety-year-old Mary Haddon perished when
a young teen bludgeoned her to death. Her quiet neighborhood on Chapel Hill
Road in Durham, North Carolina was stunned by her murder. Well-known in town, she
had friends in high places. With little money, Mary had talked tight-fisted
bankers into financing her first home during the Depression. She paid it off
quickly. She married, had a son and lived in Maine for a few years. After her
husband died young, the South Carolina native relocated to Durham.
The Raleigh News and Observer reported that Mary “read
poetry to relax and played a ferocious game of bridge.” Over the years, she
worked hard and prospered. A philanthropist, Mary donated to (and founded)
several local charities. She was so frugal that she drove a 22-year-old
Oldsmobile Cutlass, its blue paint having faded over time. The car, reported
the newspaper, was “an important weapon against isolation in her old age.” Barely
five-feet tall, she kept herself trim and fit.
On the other hand, Gregory Devon Gibson’s grandmother
once said he was “the sweetest little person…and a timebomb.” Even at the age
of thirteen, she could see he was dangerous. While he impressed teachers with a
high IQ and good study habits, Gibson had an inner compulsion to impress. An
inveterate thief, he stole from friends, relatives, and strangers to support
his habit of expensive clothes and high-end shoes. He talked
tough, like a wannabe gangster, and, even in his pre-teen years, stole cars to take his companions on
wild rides. Even though he compiled an impressive rap sheet, a criminal justice
system that was soft on juveniles insured he would face few serious
On the night Gibson broke into Mary’s home, he intended to
steal her car keys. But when the homeowner awoke and confronted him, Gibson used
a hammer and garden mallet to beat her to death. Investigators found Mary’s
frail body crushed and battered beyond recognition. Her mutilated face,
splintered vertebrae, and shattered ribs stunned even the most hardened
detective. After the murder, Gibson spent all night joyriding with his
friends. They told police he showed no remorse for his crime.
Lawmen who arrested Gibson were surprised by the fact that he could
not be tried as an adult. The News and Observer reported that “because
Gibson was under 14, prosecutors had to try the case in juvenile court, and
Gibson could only be detained until his eighteenth birthday. The case sparked
outrage and legislators later lowered the age for adult prosecution to 13 for
serious crimes such as rape or murder.”
Mary Haddon, who’d contributed much to her community, had been
killed for the slimmest of reasons and her murderer would face no justice at
Fast-forward to August 25, 1998. Gibson had served less than
five years at C. A. Dillon Training School and been released. During the two years
he was out, he’d racked up arrests for larceny, assault, domestic violence, and
bank robbery. Because of a lenient juvenile justice system and judges who did
not see his “dangerousness,” he was still on the streets.
Sylvester Thompson, Jr. worked
as a clerk at the BP convenience store on Chapel Hill Boulevard. He seemed
lonely, with few friends. On that humid summer night, Thompson stood mopping
the floor when, shortly before 11 p.m., Gibson walked in. Waving a gun, he forced Thompson to walk behind the counter. When the robber demanded money, Thompson pulled
out the cash register tray and placed it on the counter. Gibson scooped the cash
from the drawer. Then, without warning, he raised his pistol and fired twice, striking
Thompson in the face.
A customer found the clerk face-down on the floor. After
viewing footage from the surveillance tape, Detective T. D. Mikels said, “The
clerk offered no resistance. This was just a very cold-blooded act. That’s the
only way I know to put it.”
The business owner, Woody Dunbar, informed reporters that he
was distraught at the murder. “I don’t need to hire people” he said, “and then
not see them the next day because they got killed working for me.” He stated
that Thompson was an excellent employee who worked the night shift seven days a
week. Dunbar told reporters that several packs of cigarettes and the bloody store telephone lay beside Thompson. “I have a feeling he tried to call somebody because
the phone was down there,” Dunbar said.
Since he had no car, Thompson hired a cab every day to
transport him to and from work. He usually arrived an hour early to chat with
co-workers on the afternoon shift.
Unlike Mary Haddon, a lonely man died a lonely death and was
Gregory Devon Gibson was not forgotten. Four days after
Thompson’s murder, cops arrested Gibson in a seedy motel. Many in Durham, outraged
by this second murder, demanded justice. Letters to the editors of local papers
cried out for the death penalty. “Released at 18 with no supervision,” editors
of the News and Observer huffed, “he committed more than 20 crimes in
the next two years.”
Gibson should have been in jail when he was set free to murder
Thompson. The Durham Herald-Sun wrote that “Gregory Gibson should still
have been serving time on an assault-on-a-female charge when the slaying
occurred, jail officials said, but due to a paperwork error, he was [released
and was not] returned to the jail to finish serving the five-month sentence.”
Now 20, the Durham terror sat brooding in the county jail. For weeks, North Carolina newspapers followed the workings of the legislature
as they passed a new law aimed at keeping juvenile rapists and murderers locked
up until they turned twenty-one.
Then, on November 13, 1998, two-and-a-half months after his
final arrest, Gibson supplied reporters a shocking finale. Viewing his future in
a hardcore prison, with absolutely no chance of freedom ever again, Gibson twisted a
sheet into a rope and hung himself. He died before guards found him.
In the 25 years since Gibson’s crime spree, there have been
other notable crimes in Durham, including that of rogue prosecutor Mike Nifong,
who attempted to imprison 3 innocent lacrosse players to life in prison for a
fake rape. For a while, Nifong and accuser Crystal Mangum were household names not only in Durham, but nationwide.
Gibson’s crimes have largely been forgotten. Time moves on, of
course, but no governing body has developed an effective system to deal with
juvenile crime. They probably never will.