Tunnel Vision: A True Story of Multiple Murder and Justice in Chaos at America's Biggest Marine Base

Tunnel Vision: A True Story of Multiple Murder and Justice in Chaos at America's Biggest Marine Base

by N. P. Simpson
Tunnel Vision: A True Story of Multiple Murder and Justice in Chaos at America's Biggest Marine Base

Tunnel Vision: A True Story of Multiple Murder and Justice in Chaos at America's Biggest Marine Base

by N. P. Simpson

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“Vivid prose plunges the reader into the politically fraught, self-contained world of a military base” and a chilling true case of triple murder (Linda Landrigan, editor of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine).
Carlton “Butch” Smith was a troubled teenager who’d been kicked out of school for aggressive behavior. His parents lived at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, in Jacksonville, North Carolina, and when Butch was home with them, his life was fairly normal. But that all changed on August, 24, 1981, when Butch’s sister, aunt, and cousin were found slain in his parents’ house. It was a horrifying crime that shook the Marine base community, not to mention the Smith family—especially when Butch was named the prime suspect.
In Tunnel Vision, reporter and true crime author N. P. Simpson delves into this young man’s harrowing past. She also provides a detailed chronicle of the grisly murders and the complex case that followed—a case of conflicting confessions, a mysterious second suspect who was never found, and difficult questions of jurisdiction between military, state, and federal courts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781635761085
Publisher: Diversion Books
Publication date: 07/31/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 286
File size: 5 MB

Read an Excerpt


Ontario, Oregon


The Oregon border town of Ontario seems an improbable setting for a cluster of military recruiting offices. Its residents number fewer than 10,000. That's not likely to change much. There's no industry and little else to entice job seekers from elsewhere.

Even the area's climate is more detriment than lure. Stovehouse summers and deep-freeze winters are typical of eastern Oregon's Columbia Plateau. The brittle beauty of its high desert is untempered by the Pacific winds that gentle the state's coastal weather.

Most nineteenth-century homesteaders pressed on toward the lushly forested western part of the state. Latter-day tourists are likely to do the same. But visitors from surrounding smaller towns bring more bustle and business to Ontario than its own population would indicate. And the lack of a state sales tax in Oregon lures many shoppers from nearby Idaho.

Staff Sgt. Kevin McMorris* liked Ontario just fine. He was convinced his job as a recruiter for the Oregon Army National Guard was a plum worth preserving. And Ontario's unsparing climate didn't faze the native Northwesterner.

He, like all National Guard recruiters, was part of the Active Guard Reserve. AGR members serve full-time. Unlike recruiters from other branches of the military, National Guard recruiters are not subject to the routine three-year rotations that shift most soldiers and sailors from one duty station to another. McMorris had been a recruiter for two years.

On March 15, 1986, a young man McMorris later recalled as slender and clean-cut came into the recruiting office. He was accompanied by his mother, a petite, friendly woman with a ready smile.

After some general discussion of the National Guard, the young man, who identified himself as Butch Smith, age 20, said he wished to join as soon as possible. The woman, Betty Francis, dominated the conversation, McMorris recalled. The quiet youth appeared nervous.

"He really didn't want to look at me," McMorris recalled. But McMorris did not think the young man's nervousness was particularly unusual. Nor was it unusual for a parent to assume the upper hand during discussions with a recruiter.

"The hardest part of being a recruiter is living down the reputation of promising anything just to get a recruit. Parents want to be sure their son isn't railroaded," McMorris explained.

Smith began to fill out application papers while his mother looked on. McMorris noticed that Smith appeared to have difficulty with one of the questions and turned to his mother for advice. McMorris asked what the problem was.

Smith said one of the questions asked if the applicant had ever been in a mental institution.

"I have been," he told McMorris.

The woman quickly admonished her son, "Why did you tell him that? You shouldn't have."

Her response alerted McMorris. He reminded her that the questions must be answered honestly. He added that a person was not necessarily disqualified from service because he had been in a mental institution. Perhaps there were extenuating circumstances. It was necessary to know why the person was in the institution.

The youth told McMorris it was because of the death of his sister.

His mother explained that her son had been in an institution for evaluation because his sister had been murdered at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina five years earlier. She said her son, who had been in the house at the time, had taken the death very hard and had been hospitalized for observation.

McMorris nodded sympathetically. That was a prime example of the kind of extenuating circumstances he had referred to, he said. "Chances are, a person needs counseling if they go through something like that," he told the woman.

However, McMorris gently persisted, it would be necessary for him to get a copy of Smith's treatment record from the hospital.

His mother shook her head. That would be impossible, she said, because the murder had not been solved. Camp Lejeune would not release the records.

McMorris assured her if proper procedures were followed, the Marine base would release pertinent records to a recruiter.

The woman hesitated a moment before responding. "Well, it goes a little bit further than that," she said. "He's a suspect."

"A suspect?"

"Yes. He hasn't been charged. The reason he's a suspect is because he was in the house."

"That's the only reason?"


McMorris did not ask for details of the unusual revelations. He did tell the woman that it would be nonetheless necessary that he see Smith's medical evaluation.

Betty Francis offered to call the Naval Investigative Service at Camp Lejeune from McMorris' office. NIS (now NCIS) is the civil service organization responsible for criminal investigations on Navy and Marine Corps bases. She telephoned Camp Lejeune, spoke briefly to an NIS agent then passed the telephone to McMorris. The agent to whom McMorris spoke explained the procedures the recruiter must follow to get Smith's records.

Their conversation took an ominous turn when the agent told the recruiter that once McMorris reviewed the young man's records, he probably would not wish to enlist Smith.

After the phone call, McMorris told Betty Francis that her son's enlistment was "on ice" until he could go over the medical report. Mother and son then left the recruiter's office.

Within the hour, an NIS agent called McMorris and told him they had been looking for Smith for some time. They wanted more information in order to continue the investigation. The agent told the recruiter that plans already were under way for NIS agents to visit Oregon in order to interview McMorris and Smith.

During the following weeks, while McMorris awaited the medical report, Butch Smith telephoned several times to track the progress of his enlistment effort. In late April, Smith stopped by McMorris' office. He seemed more at ease than when he had been with his mother, McMorris recalled.

The recruiter and the sandy-haired young man discussed several things. Smith expressed great interest in military matters. Curious, McMorris brought up the subject of Smith's being a suspect in the death of his sister.

Smith told McMorris that he and a friend had been fishing the day of the murder and had returned home at about 1:00 a.m. He said that he and his friend had gone to sleep in the same room and awakened between 6:00 and 7:00 the next morning.

"Then the nightmare started."

He heard a muffled scream, he continued, and went to load his shotgun. He woke two other boys. "Come with me," he told them. "We got real problems."

Smith said the three boys discovered three murder victims, including Smith's sister, his cousin and another person. One of the boys ran out of the house screaming because the third victim was his mother, Smith said. Smith said he had gone to a neighbor's house to call the police.

Why did police suspect him? McMorris asked.

"Because it was my fishing knife that was used to kill them." He said he had left the knife in the garage after returning from fishing.

It also was because a psychiatrist had asked him to speculate, "If you were going to kill someone, how would you do it?"

Smith said he told the doctor, "I would sneak up behind them and hold my hand in front of their face, and stab them in the side of the throat putting the blade into their voice box, then bring the knife over to the center of the throat and pull down hard towards the center of the ribs."

What he had described, Smith said, was the manner in which the victims actually were slain. His father had told him that was how they were killed, he said.

Was he having problems with his sister? McMorris asked.

No. He had loved her very much. If he found out who had killed her, he added, he would kill that person.

As the recruiter had listened to Smith's account of these grisly events, the psychiatric report he was awaiting took on greater significance.

"Running through my mind was that he was a very disturbed little boy. And he needed some help," McMorris later recalled.

What McMorris did not know was that he was one of many who had either already described Smith as disturbed or would do so in years to come.

And Smith's account of the night his sister died was only one of many he had already told — and would tell in years to come.

And none of Smith's accounts, including a confession, would agree with the testimony of others or explain evidence found at the scene.


Camp Lejeune

Monday, August 24, 1981

A feverish affliction of heat and humidity settles on coastal North Carolina during August.

Families of Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune eagerly wait for their names to reach the top of the base housing list. In base quarters, they may enjoy the comfort of air conditioning without the burden of attendant electric bills.

It is not true that service members get "free" housing. A quarters allowance included in their paychecks while they live off-base is deducted when the military family moves into base housing. But, especially for enlisted families, base housing is often roomier and more attractive than the trailer parks and apartment complexes available off-base for the same price. And base housing residents are not billed separately for utilities and maintenance.

Watkins Village is a 250-unit housing area reserved for the families of married corporals, sergeants and staff sergeants. Two-story duplexes with adjoining garages are grouped along streets and circular courts named for states.

Playgrounds and tennis courts are part of the layout, which backs up to a wooded area.

In some respects, Watkins is actually several small neighborhoods bumping up against each other.

"In some areas, everybody's nosy and everybody knows each other. In other areas, every kid looks alike," one resident explained.

On one side of Watkins Village are the base stables, where Shetland ponies plod around a ring carrying delighted toddlers. More affluent equestrians may board their own horses and take lessons on either English or western saddles.

On the other side of Watkins Village is Berkley Manor, an area of single-family ranch houses reserved for senior enlisted Marines, including gunnery sergeants, master sergeants and sergeants major. The shared entrance to the two NCO housing areas intersects with the more heavily traveled Stone Street. A convenience store on the corner is a popular stop for residents in need of a can of baby formula or a pack of cigarettes. Youngsters passing to and from the base schools on Stone Street stop at the store to buy jawbreakers and ice cream sandwiches.

The day begins early at a Marine base. At 7:00 a.m., August 24, 1981, the Stone Street store was already open. A young Marine on his way to work honked his car horn and startled the sleepy female clerk sweeping up a broken bottle in the parking lot.

Inside, a woman Marine in utilities bought a Navy Times and a box of powdered-sugar doughnuts. She and a freckle-faced lance corporal commented on the quirks of the weather and the new company commander.

A construction worker, part of the crew building the new naval hospital, bought a vacuum-sealed package of beef jerky.

Several rainstorms during the past week had tempered the heat to the mid-80s. Sunday's cloudiness, predicted to continue through the beginning of the week, also had honed some of the edge off August's typically brutal heat.

Nearby, in the duplex at 1080A Kentucky Court 12-year-old Tommy Sager was just waking up. Although he'd stayed up past midnight, he was nudged from sleep by a pressing need to use the bathroom.

The boy was in the top of bunk beds he shared with his 15-year-old cousin, Butch Smith. Butch was still asleep, his fists tucked under his chin. Because of his deep-set eyes and merging eyebrows, Butch looked as if he were scowling even when he was asleep.

Tommy, his stepmother and five brothers and sisters had been staying at Camp Lejeune with the Smith family since early August. Tommy's stepmother, Sharon, and Butch's mother, Betty, were sisters.

Tommy's father, a sergeant in the Army, was en route to a new duty station in Alaska. When he had found them a place to live, he was to send for his family.

Saturday, the cousins and aunts had returned from a trip to New York, where they had stayed with Sharon's and Betty's parents — Butch's grandparents.

Tommy untangled the sheet and let his legs flop over the side of the bed. He had slept soundly. He had not been disturbed by the noise of the television downstairs or the other siblings and cousins still up when he went to bed.

Deaf in one ear, Tommy heard very little if he slept on his good ear. Anyway, the central air conditioning tended to drown out sounds from downstairs and the other rooms upstairs when the door was closed.

As he was about to swing down to the floor, Tommy remembered the toy pellet gun and bag of green, pea-sized ammunition he had stashed under his pillow the night before. His mother had bought Tommy, his two brothers, Chris and Tyler, and his cousin Butch pellet guns during a Sunday shopping trip. The boys had spent much of the evening before gleefully shooting at a variety of targets, including each other.

The need to get to the bathroom became secondary.

Tommy patted the bedclothes in search of his pellet gun. When he could not find it, he hopped down from the top bunk and gingerly slipped his hand under Butch's pillow. The older boy mumbled but did not stir during his cousin's fruitless hunt.

Tommy glanced at the jeans and shirt Butch had stripped off and dropped on the floor before going to bed. He spotted one of the toy guns on a chair. But it was not his.

The boy then went out the open door and into the adjacent bedroom where his brother, Chris, 13, was sleeping.

The room was really his cousin Connie's room. Connie was Butch's sister. But Connie and Butch's other sister, Lorrie, and Tommy's stepsister, Debbie, had decided to spend the night in the family's red station wagon. The vehicle was parked outside the duplex front door, directly beneath the window of the room where Chris was asleep.

Tommy still couldn't find his gun so he crossed the hall to Lorrie's room. The door was partly open when he pushed on it. He got no further than the threshold before he was overwhelmed by a rush of horror.

Tommy's stepbrother Tyler lay on a blood-soaked bed, his shirt awash in dark red. Blood from his ear trailed into a pool that haloed his neck and head.

For a moment, Tommy was immobilized, trying to sort out whether he was truly seeing what he thought he was seeing. Then he jerked around and raced back across the hall to the room where Butch was still asleep.

"Tyler's dead! Tyler's dead! In Lorrie's room!" Tommy shouted as he shook his cousin.

"Leave me alone, will ya?" Butch growled.

"There's blood all over!" Tommy sobbed, desperately trying to pull the older boy out of bed.

"Ah, it's probably just some trick Tyler and Chris are pulling," Butch said as he got up. The boys had pulled pranks on each other before. But the urgency and alarm in Tommy's voice spurred Butch to hurry into the room across the hall.

Tyler was facing the wall with his arms flung back above his head. Butch touched Tyler's shoulder.

"Tyler," he said. "Tyler."

Tyler's head suddenly lolled backward and Butch glimpsed the glistening, gaping wound angled deeply into the left side of his cousin's throat.

Butch later would tell investigators that he grasped Tyler's upturned wrist, seeking a pulse. Butch's mother was a nurse. She had drilled her children on first-aid procedures since they were small.

Butch fled the room with Tommy close behind. He returned to his own room and pulled on his pants.

Tommy alerted Chris, who was now also aware that Tyler probably was dead. They were uncertain what to do. Investigators later would ask Butch why neither he nor his cousins yelled for help. It was only one of many unanswerable questions the day would present.

The three boys went downstairs, turned right and ran down the hall toward the playroom at the rear of the duplex. They knew that Sharon Sager, Butch's aunt as well as Chris and Tommy's stepmother, had spent the night on a couch in the playroom. Butch's mother, Elizabeth Smith, called Betty, had not been home the night before. His Aunt Sharon had been the only adult in the house.

The playroom couch was clearly visible from the hallway. There was no door between the playroom and the hall. Only a serving counter separated the kitchen from the playroom. The drapes over the playroom window and the patio door were closed. Except for faint spill-over illumination from the stove light and break-through glimmers of morning sunshine, the playroom was dark.

Across the room from where Sharon Sager lay motionless, four couch cushions had been arranged on the floor to serve as a makeshift bed. Three small boys, Scotty and Skippy Sager and a neighbor child, Bobby Davis*, were curled up on the cushions, scarcely visible in the gloom. They were less than 10 feet from the couch where Skippy and Scotty's mother lay.

Butch flipped the light switch and then recoiled toward the doorway where Chris and Tommy stood close together.

Sharon Sager would not be able to advise them about Tyler. She, too, lay in blood-soaked disarray. Her face, except for the wide-open hazel eyes, was a smear of red. The front of her nylon nightgown was the same garish red as Tyler's shirt. Deep wounds had partially severed her head from her body.


Excerpted from "Tunnel Vision"
by .
Copyright © 1993 N.P. Simpson.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Family Tree,
1. Ontario, Oregon 1986,
2. Camp Lejeune Monday, August 24, 1981,
3. Springville, N.Y.,
4. The Investigation,
5. Initial Statements,
6. Knives and Accusations,
7. Interrogation,
8. Funeral,
9. Errors,
10. Eyewitness,
11. Second Suspect,
12. Second Go-Round,
13. Doubts and Psychiatrists,
14. More Suspects,
15. Lab Results,
16. Case Reopened,
17. May 30, 1986,
18. Polygraph,
19. Renewed Interrogation,
20. Confession,
21. Legal Battle Begins,
22. Federal Prosecution,
23. State of N.C. vs. Butch Smith,
24. The Supreme Court of North Carolina,
25. Aftermath,
26. Epilogue,
Afterword: A Son's Decades-Long Search for Answers,
About the Author,
Connect with Diversion Books,

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