LUMBERTON — Cynthia Wheeler never met a stranger.
With green eyes, a sincere smile and a tattoo of a heart on her shoulder, the 24-year-old from Plymouth planned to study law at Wake Forest University.
That dream — and the outgoing spirit her friends still recall — were cut short when Wheeler was killed in 1997, then a student at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
Her killer was no stranger, rather an acquaintance she had apparently gone to meet after she was last seen at a friend’s dorm late the night of June 23, 1997. Dane Locklear Jr., 45, pleaded guilty to killing Wheeler onTuesday — 19 years and some change after she disappeared.
“My question always was she was so friendly, what happened for him to do that to her?” said Angela Harris, who was working with Wheeler at the former Piggly Wiggly in Pembroke when she went missing. Harris is also related to Locklear, but said he has not been connected with the family for many years.
“She didn’t have a mean bone in her body,” Harris said.
A graduate of Plymouth High School, Wheeler attended Martin Community College before transferring to UNCP to study criminal justice. Five days after Wheeler disappeared, children riding four-wheelers found her “bullet-riddled, charred” Isuzu off of N.C. 710, near Barker Road. It would be almost five months before hunters would find her remains nearby off of Canal Road, and the Fila sneakers she had been wearing.
Harris’ husband at the time worked farmland near where Wheeler’s body was found.
“I was really surprised because I would get out and walk, I helped him on the farm … and I wonder how many times I went by and never knew,” she said.
The loss was felt at UNCP, where Wheeler’s roommates and her parents distributed fliers to aid foot and aerial searches conducted by law enforcement.
“We are all affected when any member of our campus community experiences tragedy,” UNCP’s communication director, Jodi Phelps, said Friday. “Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Cynthia as they gain closure on their loss.”
About four months after Wheeler’s body was found, Locklear was charged with her death, but the charge was dropped after a key witness recanted his statement and law enforcement lost track of him. There began a nearly two-decade wait for closure and what was, until Tuesday, Robeson County’s longest pending case in which someone had been charged with murder but not gone to trial.
Locklear in 2000 confessed to State Bureau of Investigation agents that he had killed Wheeler as well as a Red Springs woman, his girlfriend, Frances Persad. He was awaiting trial for Persad’s February 2000 death when he described killing both women in detail. He said Wheeler had agreed to have sex with him, but when she found out he did not have a condom, she threatened to accuse him of rape. He then beat and choked her before leaving her body near a canal and her car near where some of his family members lived.
A tape of the confession was shown at the 2005 trial in which Locklear was sentenced to death for killing Persad. Despite his lawyer’s arguments, jurors determined Locklear was not mentally disabled, which would have spared him from the death penalty under state law. Four years later, the state Supreme Court decided although there was no error in Locklear’s conviction, the jury had not been properly instructed when deciding to sentence him to death or life in prison. His death sentence was vacated. Locklear rejected a plea bargain in 2010, and in 2012 he was re-sentenced to life in prison for killing Persad.
When that life sentence is complete, he can begin serving the nearly 27-year minimum sentence he was handed on Tuesday after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in front of Cynthia’s father, Frank.
The Robesonian was unable to reach Frank Wheeler for this story. Cynthia’s mother, who was alive at the time of her daughter’s murder, has since died.
“Mr. Wheeler has been a very patient man, very understanding about the entire situation,” District Attorney Johnson Britt said Wednesday. “He spoke yesterday and thanked everyone for getting the case resolved.”
Britt said Locklear’s lawyers had asked that their client be able to serve both sentences at the same time, arguing he was “a changed man.” He is involved with programs at Central Prison in Raleigh, where he attends church services, and is working to be a mentor for other prisoners soon to be released. Locklear’s lawyer on Tuesday expressed remorse for his client.
“He has a look about him that only a few other people I’ve dealt with in 20 years have had,” Britt said. “He has a look in his eyes, very cold, very sinister, almost an evil look. His physical demeanor has always been someone who appeared to be very tough. Yesterday he didn’t have that look. Physically he didn’t look as imposing as he did even a month ago.”
Karen Deese, a classmate of Cynthia’s, said there was “a huge void” in class when she was killed. Cynthia was down to earth, always smiling and would have had a promising career in law enforcement, she said.
“It was and still is hard to believe someone could hurt her,” Deese said. “I pray she is at peace now.”
Sarah Willets can be reached at 910-816-1974 or on Twitter @Sarah_Willets.