Cold Case: Another year, another body found near Darden farm

Published 5:30 pm Monday, December 26, 2022

Editor’s noteA new state law requires Virginia State Police to maintain a publicly accessible online database of unsolved homicides, unidentified bodies and missing-person cases. Three of the database’s 60 cases are from Isle of Wight County. This is the fourth in a multi-part series.

It must have felt like deja vu.

Fourteen months earlier, on the morning of Wednesday, June 5, 1991, Dee Dee Darden’s late husband, Tommy, had come speeding back home from the couple’s wheat field on Bowling Green Road, shouting, “Get in the truck! … You gotta see it!” — and had shown her the burned and mutilated body of Thomas Daryle Williams lying face down at the end of a dirt path.

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Dee Dee was again in her home the afternoon of Aug. 19, 1992 — another Wednesday — when two people came running up to her door, stuttering and stammering about having found another body.

According to Aug. 26, 1992, reporting by the Smithfield Times, the two passers-by had discovered the body of 27-year-old Desmond Anthony Fergus of Norfolk in a ditch along Carroll Bridge Road, about a quarter of a mile south of Bowling Green Road, where Williams’ body had been found.

Fergus’ murder remains unsolved and is the most recent of three decades-old Isle of Wight County crimes listed in an online Virginia State Police database of cold cases that made its debut in June.

According to the c old case database, Fergus’ body appeared by its state of decomposition to have been partially submerged for at least two days in the water-filled ditch. Three bullets were recovered from Fergus’ body, and an autopsy concluded they were the cause of Fergus’ death.

It was “an unusually wet August,” Dee Dee recalled in a recent interview at her longtime business, Darden’s Country Store.

According to the Times’ 1992 story, heavy rainfall had hit the county for the past two weeks, flooding Carroll Bridge Road. Fergus’ body hadn’t been visible from the road, but according to Dee Dee, the two passers-by caught a glimpse of a gold chain Fergus had been wearing, glistening in the sun, and decided to look closer.

“They were scared to death,” Dee Dee recalled.

After finding Williams’ body in 1991, Tommy Darden had called his neighbor, State Trooper Elwin Kessler, to investigate. This time, however, the Dardens called then-Sheriff Charlie Phelps.

Phelps had stated in the 1992 story that he believed Fergus to have been killed somewhere other than where his body was found.

Who was Desmond Anthony Fergus?

According to reporting by the Times and The Daily Press at the time, Isle of Wight investigators were able to identify Fergus by tracing a beeper found on the body to a Virginia Beach company with records showing it belonged to Fergus. Someone working at the company, who is unnamed in the Daily Press story, had known Fergus and told officers where he lived.

The small radio receiver, also known as a pager, became popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a precursor to cellphones. The device would beep or vibrate to let a user know someone was trying to contact them by phone.

According to the Daily Press, Fergus’ family had reported him missing to Norfolk police the day prior to his body being found. Phelps told reporters at the time that police were able to confirm the murder victim’s identity by comparing the body’s fingerprints with those in Fergus’ criminal file. Fergus had been arrested on several misdemeanor charges, including brandishing a firearm, Phelps had said.

According to Fergus’ death certificate, which the Times was able to obtain from, Fergus was born on March 15, 1965, to Cleve Lewis and Janet Fergus in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a Caribbean island nation. He was a U.S. citizen, never married, and was working as an auto mechanic at the time of his death.

Janet was living in Virginia Beach at the time of her son’s death, according to the Daily Press story, but the Times was unable to locate contact info for either parent.

A dumping ground for drug-related crimes?

Though Williams and Fergus were both Black, both had criminal records, and were discovered dead within less than a mile of each other over a 14-month period, Phelps had attributed the similarities to coincidence when speaking to the Times for the Aug. 26, 1992, story — stating he believed killers from other jurisdictions were dumping their victims in Isle of Wight, counting on its rural character to delay the finding of any bodies and possibly erase any clues left behind.

The two murders are listed separately in the State Police cold case database.

“It was just weird that within a year’s time there were two bodies here,” Dee Dee said.

In both cases, it took state medical examiners well over a month to determine a cause of death.

Dr. B.F. Jamison, who’d served as the medical examiner in the Williams case, had listed “craniocerebral trauma” from being “beaten” as Williams’ cause of death, suggesting the burning and mutilation may have occurred after Williams was already dead.

The state had denied the Times’ October Freedom of Information Act request for Williams’ certificate, though under state law death certificates become public record after 25 years, nor was it listed on as Fergus’ had been. The Times was able to obtain the document in December by going through the Virginia Department of Health process for purchasing extra certified copies of death certificates.

Jamison had signed Williams’ certificate on July 26, 1991, nearly two months after the Dardens discovered Williams’ body on June 5 of that year. Fergus’ certificate, which is signed by Dr. Stephen S. Marsh, is dated Dec. 21, 1992 — four months after Fergus’ body was found. Fergus’ certificate lists “multiple gunshot wounds” from a handgun as the cause of death.

Jamison, a longtime Smithfield doctor who still lives in town, told the Times in a phone interview this week that he remembered driving out to the Darden farm to see Williams’ body. Jamison noted he’d “seen a lot worse” in his decades as the state’s medical examiner for Isle of Wight County crime scenes.

The Times was unable to locate current contact information for Marsh.

Dee Dee Darden never heard from police any theories as to who could have killed Fergus, or why, but she’s always assumed over the decades that it was drug-related based on the beeper Fergus was found wearing.

According to reporting by The Washington Post, pagers had become a staple of the drug trade by the late 1980s, with dealers sometimes dialing 911 to alert their beeper-wearing couriers that police were closing in.

Phelps could vaguely remember only one of the two homicides near the Darden store when speaking to the Times last month, but reiterated his earlier theory that one or both may have been killed elsewhere.

“It almost sounds like they were disposed of out there,” Phelps said.