The Southern music mecca of Chapel Hill, N.C., was rocked in 1991 when an enigmatic but soft-spoken communist bookstore owner and beloved member of the community, Bob Sheldon, was murdered while closing up shop for the night. The police have always maintained the killing was the result of a “botched robbery,” but many suspect it was a political assassination. The murder sent shock waves through the liberal activist and art/music scenes in Chapel Hill, and the ensuing investigation (or lack thereof) created more questions than answers. To this day, Bob Sheldon’s murder remains unsolved. North Carolina native Emil Amos reopens the bizarre case for CREEM and explains how it later ended up being referenced in a Sonic Youth song.
Chapel Hill, N.C., was an embarrassment of cultural riches in the 1980s and ’90s. The music subculture was essentially one big family where everyone knew each other, fed off each other’s energy, and watched closely to see where the movement would lead. One of the greatest college radio stations in the country, WXYC, acted as the lightning rod for the town’s music scene, and the profusion of local bands boasted their own autonomous language that created a curiosity around the country as hardcore college radio listeners struggled to grasp how groups as diverse as Polvo, Superchunk, Flat Duo Jets, Archers of Loaf, Special Agents of Her Majesty’s Secret Cervix, and the Squirrel Nut Zippers could all be from the same tiny town. Music and art thrived in Chapel Hill to such an extent that the media began proclaiming that it was “the next Seattle.” It was an open and vibrant community.
But amid the rich cultural charm of the Triangle—the area comprising Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and Durham—lay a darker element.
Bill Mooney, then a young designer from Raleigh (and now a longtime member of Sonic Youth’s circle), explains: “There were still Klan marches in downtown Raleigh in the early 1980s. There was the Greensboro massacre in 1979 where members of the Ku Klux Klan shot and killed five participants in an anti-Klan march organized by the Communist Workers’ Party. The first civil rights lunch-counter sit-in was in Greensboro. So most of the good stuff was in reaction to, or just existing alongside, the really terrible stuff. Like Austin, Texas, or Athens, Georgia, the liberal and truly fun Triangle music scene was a free zone in the middle of a very Southern, very conservative state.”
In the center of this racial and political unrest stood tall the rather diminutive Bob Sheldon, owner of the nonprofit collective and “communist” bookstore Internationalist Books. Sheldon was a true believer who backed up his leftist ideals with a tireless dedication to anyone in need of help. In a town brimming with barstool idealogues, Sheldon knew his stuff and would sit for hours on end with anyone to discuss, say, the subtle aspects of feminism’s future. But then he would actually go work in abortion clinics and involve himself in the street-level version of his deeply held beliefs.
Even before opening Internationalist Books, Sheldon was already a visible character around town: a lone Maoist wearing a red beret, manning a table next to the student union on campus, where he could be seen in intense debates and sometimes end up as an easy target for frat boys passing by. Sheldon’s goal was never just to start a conversation; rather, he sought to facilitate intellectual growth and incite change.
History professor Alvis Dunn was a bartender in those days and a friend of Sheldon’s. He describes Sheldon’s temperament and politics: “Bob was so incredibly well-read and incredibly Socratic in his conversations with even the most mildly interested person. So many discussions went down on the front porch of what people quite lovingly and simply called ‘the communist bookstore’ that he changed minds and, in the end, lives. From undergraduates who had wandered off the safe confines of campus into the decidedly darker and more precariously working-class part of town, to graduate students and young-Turk professors, anyone who came into contact with Bob came away with both new ways of seeing and a reading list. No matter your cause—from peace in Central America, to university divestment in South Africa, to the downtown homeless shelter—Bob stood with you. He did not, however, step in and take control of anything. That was a beautiful thing about him: He had your back, but he never jumped in front. He would certainly help you brainstorm, but he knew that the power of change was in collective action, not some sort of personality cult.”
Sheldon’s leftist views were so far left that they sometimes caused friction among his less progressive friends, as well as enraged local far-right agitators and Klan members. For all the work Sheldon did to bring people into a healthier society, he created as many hardcore enemies as he gained loyal friends. And it was his relationship with one particular friend, Eddie Hatcher, that might have motivated his enemies to resort to violence.
From the backwoods of Robeson County, about two hours south of the Triangle, lived an unusual character named Eddie Hatcher, one of the few people who could match Sheldon’s passion for political activism. Hatcher was a native of the Lumbee tribe, and his hardcore, lift-up-the-people political activism vaulted him into the public eye as a kind of American folk hero, genuinely willing to sacrifice himself in the pursuit of social change.
Anyone visiting Robeson County in the ’80s would have understood why David Lynch set Blue Velvet there: The area was mired in an unprecedented drug epidemic, rampant police violence, and a staggering number of unsolved murders every year. Interstate 95 runs through its center and functioned as the pipeline for moving drugs from Miami to New York. The general population was so impoverished that drug trafficking would have been a life raft for many desperate and hungry citizens. Maurice Geiger, from the Center for Rural Justice, recalls: “One of our contacts, who was reasonably high up in the DEA, said, ‘It is a county so treacherous that we will not put one of our agents in there.' It became absolutely clear to me that the sheriffs department was corrupt, that they were involved in drug trafficking, and that they were probably involved directly or indirectly in some homicides.”
In 1988, a friend of Eddie Hatcher’s in the criminal underworld robbed a local safe stuffed with cocaine and cash. Also included in the stash were three maps that detailed vital drug-trafficking routes, drop spots, and a list of 35 dealers composing the grand hierarchy of the region’s organized drug trade. When Eddie Hatcher became the sole beneficiary of these maps, this made the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office very nervous, as this information could potentially expose that they were allowing drugs to pass through the county for a price. Hatcher immediately became public enemy No. 1 because, unlike other poverty-stricken citizens who could be easily controlled or coerced, his greatest desire was to destroy and expose the people who were decimating his community.
Hatcher soon learned he was being hunted by the sheriffs central henchman, Deputy Kevin Stone. Trapped and paranoid, Hatcher shuttered himself in his apartment and kept the curtains drawn for days, meditating on the quickest, most visible way he could expose the sheriff’s corruption. He was advised by a sympathetic attorney not to go to the federal government, as it was possible that a collective effort to get rid of him could be underway as a means of keeping things quiet. Instead, Hatcher made the desperate decision to storm the Robesonian newspaper offices armed with two shotguns, a .38 pistol, and a trusted accomplice named Timothy Jacobs.
They rushed into The Robesonian’s offices at 9 a.m., chained the doors, and took the entire staff hostage with the sole mission of getting the governor on the phone with four demands. First was an investigation into a ring of unsolved murders in the county and the judicial dealings surrounding them. They also asked that the sheriff’s office be scrutinized over its relationship to drug trafficking. Thirdly, they requested that the death of a young Black man, Billy McKellar, who suffered a fatal asthma attack while in the county jail, be looked into. Their final demand was a sensible one, if not quite as altruistic: that Hatcher not be turned over to the local authorities in the interest of his safety.
Amid the rich cultural charm of the triangle lay a darker element
As the day evolved into a full standoff with armed police, Hatcher spent his time on the phone with media from all over the world trying to explain his bizarre predicament. Unaccustomed to such an extreme situation, the cops didn’t dare breach the entrance of the office building, which was fortunate as Hatcher had decided to only use deadly force if they managed to get in. When Hatcher got word that the governor would meet his demands, he was apprehended peacefully and became the first person ever to be charged under then president Ronald Reagan’s 1984 Anti-Terrorist Act.
In a shocking turn of events, Hatcher and Jacobs were both released after five months due to a technicality concerning not having been given a bond detention hearing before being jailed. But then, upon Hatcher's release, the court of appeals flipped its judgment in a fit of frustration and ordered him back to jail with no hearing. This is the moment when Hatcher went on the lam and rushed to Internationalist Books for Bob Sheldon’s help.
EDDIE HATCHER MEETS BOB SHELDON
“I’m pretty sure it was soon after I met Eddie that I told him he ought to stop by Internationalist Books—but it’s also likely that a dozen other people gave him the same suggestion,” says Dunn. “Eddie was pretty intense in an almost manic sort of way, while Bob was also intense, but in a soothing, determined manner.”
Hatcher, now on the run, entered the bookstore in complete silence, wrote on a piece of paper that he needed to get to the Onondaga Reservation in New York, and handed the note to Sheldon. Sheldon told him to walk across the street to Tijuana Fats (where Dunn was tending bar), order a beer, and take a table in the back. Soon thereafter, two young girls arrived, put Hatcher in the trunk of their car, and shuttled him up to Washington, D.C., where he took a train to New York wearing a Who Framed Roger Rabbit T-shirt.
Hatcher ended up representing himself in his eventual trial and brought the entire court to tears with a closing argument centered on the 40,000 abandoned Native Americans in Robeson County struggling with extreme poverty and fighting for their lives.
“The Lumbee tribe is a Native American community whose homeland was the Green Swamp area of southeastern North Carolina,” Dunn says. “The Lumbee were, and still are, the nation’s largest not-fully-recognized-by-thefederal-government tribe. Theirs is a long story of struggle over land, equal rights, and racial discrimination.”
In a shocking turn of events, the jury proclaimed Eddie Hatcher completely innocent of all charges—an extremely rare instance in which the little man was rescued from the federal court system by his fellow citizens.
“Eddie represented himself so eloquently in court, while also pushing every limit in his statements and cross-examination, that he was able to project himself as a true warrior for justice,” recalls Dunn. “He was a smart guy. He had some college education, though he never graduated. He was an information sponge. He read voraciously. I think that he and Bob probably found a kind of kindred-spirit connection over books. It is pretty clear that both of them believed that if people only knew things—truthful things— about the world and history and labor, that they’d see and take action against injustice.”
But Hatcher’s victory was brief. After initially being acquitted, a Robeson County grand jury, in a show of omnipotence, indicted him again, but this time on state kidnapping charges. So, once more, Eddie jumped bail. After getting caught, he was thrown back in jail for five years, but was released early due to health issues related to HIV, which he contracted while in prison. In 1999, after returning to the streets of Robeson, Hatcher was charged with the first-degree murder of a 19-year-old who he alleged had broken into his home. During this final stint in prison, he was stabbed four times with an ice pick while guards were mysteriously absent. He miraculously survived the attack and wiled away his final years in Central Prison in Raleigh studying law and fighting for his fellow prisoners’ rights, eventually dying from HIV behind bars in 2009 at the age of 51.
BOB SHELDON’S MURDER
While Eddie courted danger at every turn, Bob never associated with violence or seemed destined to experience it. Then came the night of Feb. 21, 1991. While closing the bookstore, Sheldon was shot in the head with a smallcaliber weapon. He was later found by a friend, lying on the floor in a pool of blood, and died less than 24 hours later at UNC hospital. In the ensuing days, a state of shock paralyzed the community as no tangible evidence came forth from the police. Before long, a web of conspiracy theories surrounding the investigation hung over Chapel Hill, each of them holding a measure of validity.
Four days after the murder, Sheldon’s friend Greg Gangi was interviewed in The Daily Tar Heel and said, “We’re convinced it’s a political murder, a hate crime. The more I've gone over the evidence, the more I’m convinced it was planned out. If you could point to one individual who was the most important person on the alternative political scene in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area, it was Bob Sheldon. If someone wanted to strike a blow against the peace movement in this state, he would be the person one would choose to go after.”
Even Sheldon’s father felt his son’s death was the result of a hate crime—and there was plenty of hatred of Bob Sheldon to go around. The fact that corrupt officers in the Robeson Sheriff's Department very likely found out it was Sheldon who shuttled Hatcher out of state in 1988 was reason enough to have suspicions that a rogue officer may have taken revenge against Sheldon for his role. “I think there were people who thought that law enforcement just didn’t try hard enough to find Bob’s killer,” says Dunn.
It wasn’t just the police who were under the microscope of conspiracy-minded citizens. Back in 1987, the Ku Klux Klan announced their intention to march on Franklin Street, which runs through the center of downtown Chapel Hill. Although residents were mystified that this would be allowed to occur, local authorities granted the KKK a parade permit with the controversial understanding that it would be a nonviolent march under the banner of “freedom of speech.” Many local liberal groups came to the decision that the best approach was to not show up, which would simply drum up more attention for the Klan.
Sheldon, however, did not agree, and attended the parade to denounce the hate group on his own, placing him squarely within the Klan’s sights. The fact that Bob was a constant disseminator of information that opposed their cause, and that he was so easy to track down in his store, only contributed to the feeling that the Klan would potentially seek to silence him.
The evidence from the investigation also lends itself to paranoia. Bob was killed with one bullet to the temple in a fashion that resembled a planned hit and not a robbery of a store one might assume held very little in its cash box. Indeed, the police’s first pass through the store found that a visible cash box hadn’t been taken, so the initial facts pointed to the senseless murder of a nonviolent man. A lot of local chatter had surrounded a television interview Bob had done in which he proclaimed that the Gulf War was morally wrong and reprehensible. This appearance and the timing of his murder led many to feel a lone extremist had been spurred by political rage as blowback from that interview.
The investigation, however, took a turn for the worse after police spoke to a former employee of the bookstore and discovered that, in fact, a second cash box was missing. From this point on the police never wavered from some version of a “botched robbery” theory. Internationalist Books also happened to be on the border of one of Chapel Hill’s predominantly Black communities, which may have tainted the direction in which the police looked for their “robbery suspect.” But two women actually reported seeing two white men talking to Bob on the porch of the shop just moments before he was murdered. Although they were provided with detailed descriptions, the police were unable to find and interview the two suspects, leaving the case mired in confusion and stranding Bob’s friends with the inability to achieve closure.
Almost nine months after Sheldon’s death, the newspapers were still digging for information, and Jane Cousins, the Chapel Hill Police Department’s spokesperson, glumly reported, “Things are the same. We have no new leads.” The cash box was never located, no pistol was ever found, no signs of a struggle occurred in the store, and just one bullet casing lay near his body.
“That someone would have killed Bob in the store over money was a pretty ridiculous assertion to anyone who knew Bob,” says Dunn. “He wouldn’t have, for a second, hesitated to hand over all the money that he had to anyone in trouble or desperate. Hell, he probably would’ve volunteered to go to the bank and get all the money that he had while also offering medical care in the meantime.”
To this day, the murder remains unsolved.
In 1992, 10 years after they played to a half-empty room at the region’s legendary Cat’s Cradle, Sonic Youth recorded a song called “Chapel Hill” on their second major-label record, Dirty, that would break them to their widest audience yet. The track was a love letter to a place that embodied the best of what a small college town had to offer, but also wrestled with the conflicting feelings of trying to reconcile the beauty of the South with its ugly history. By this time founding members Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon were looking to get out of New York City and into a smaller college town to improve their quality of life. The impulse to move provided the overall background of Moore’s lyrics, as he pores over the pros and cons of relocating to a state where left and center politics were mired in perpetual struggles with racist right-wing agitators.
In between lines that give props to Cat’s Cradle and vintage Southern food joints are barbs directed at Jesse Helms and the KKK—and a subtle, almost hidden reference to the notorious murder of a beloved local activist and radical bookstore owner:
Back in the days when the battles raged And we thought it was nothing Bookstore man meets the CIA And we know....
Looking away it’s another day And of course we love you Radical man meets the CIA And we say no....
Hair in the hole in my head Too bad the scene is dead
“Losing Bob was a severe blow to Chapel Hill,” Dunn says mournfully. “Lots of people worked very hard to keep Internationalist Books open, and did so for a number of years. It was certainly a lot more difficult to make things happen with him gone. I can’t tell you how many times, in the face of local or international events, I’ve thought to myself, ‘What would Bob have done?’ He was a fulcrum around which diverse causes could gather and rally. Bob was a force for good.”