25 years of reporting in ENC: My most impactful story

Published: Feb. 24, 2022 at 7:06 PM EST
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GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) -There have been many stories over the years at WITN that have left an impression on me and others, and as I continue my year-long look at my 25 years of reporting and anchoring at the station, I want to share what has been the most impactful for me. It’s a story that helped a family get justice for a loved one who had been murdered, a case that had lingered in the courts for nearly two decades.

It was late June of 1997. Cindy Wheeler of Plymouth was in college at UNC Pembroke studying criminal justice with plans to go to law school.

Her sister Missy Dixon says, “She just wanted to do something where she could help other people.”

I had been on the job at WITN for three months at that time when Cindy was reported missing. I interviewed her dad Frank at the time. The hope was someone might recognize Cindy’s picture and know where she was. But days turned into weeks, and then months. Cindy’s body was eventually found in a field in November of that year.

Justice for Cindy Wheeler
Justice for Cindy Wheeler(WITN)

Missy says, “I had never ever before seen my father cry and that was the first time I had ever seen that. So it was very hard on him. It took a toll on my parents, all of us, but especially our parents, which I can’t imagine losing a child.

The pain of losing a child was only magnified when their mom Jennette was diagnosed with cancer shortly after. She passed away the following year.

For the rest of Cindy’s family, the long agonizing battle for justice was just beginning.

Dane Locklear was charged with her murder in 1998, but those charges were dropped when a key witness disappeared. They were filed again in 2000. That same year Locklear was convicted of murdering another woman and given the death penalty. That sentence was later overturned to life in prison. But Cindy’s case would never go to trial.

Missy says, “I remember my dad telling me one day, honestly, that he felt like he would never live to see justice served, that he would die before he ever saw it and that I needed to continue to try to fight.”

But her dad kept up the fight and in May of 2016, he called me to get the case back in the news. At the time he said, “I tell you I have been thoroughly disgusted with the justice system.”

As part of that story, I headed to Raleigh where I interviewed Locklear in Central Prison and asked him if he killed Cindy. Locklear told me, “I did confess to her murder.”

Dane Locklear convicted of murder in Cindy Wheeler's death in 2016
Dane Locklear convicted of murder in Cindy Wheeler's death in 2016(WITN)

It wasn’t long after that report that prosecutors hauled Locklear to court in Robeson County. I was there, along with Frank and Missy, for the day they had been waiting 19 years for as Locklear plead guilty to second-degree murder.

On that day in August of 2016, Frank told me, “It feels good. It feels good and it took a long time coming. It should have been done a long time ago.”

Missy said, “My dad had told me right before he had called you, I’m gonna call Dave because he came when Cindy came up missing initially, he did the news story to get her pictures out and he said I’m going call him because I feel like if anybody will help, he can help get this back in the news. And of course, that’s when you responded and we appreciate it. My dad was very grateful for that.

Frank passed away two years after that verdict but he died with the peace of knowing that the person who killed Cindy all those years ago was finally held accountable.

Missy said, “I don’t believe we’d have ever got anywhere had you not gone to Lumberton and to Raleigh Central Prison.”

It’s a story that has had a profound impact on me and is a testament to what journalism can do. But most importantly, it’s justice for a family and Cindy, a sister Missy remembers as tender-hearted, loving, and caring.

She says, “She saw just the good in everybody and she never saw any bad in anybody and that was just her personality.

March is my actual anniversary and we’ll hear from some former co-workers then and take a look at how WITN and what we do, has changed over the years.

Click here to watch January’s report as I revisit the first story I did back in 1997.

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