By Mike Hixenbaugh
Published Aug. 24, 2010
Three decades later, he is at the center of an investigation into perhaps the most heinous crime in Rocky Mount history.
Pittman is either a suspect or person of interest in six out of nine cases in which the decomposing bodies of Rocky Mount women have been found naked and scattered in fields across three counties over seven years.
The grisly crimes have shined a national spotlight on Rocky Mount and have raised questions about how issues of class, race and gender shade the way missing person reports are treated by police and in the media.
Despite the attention, little is known about the 31-year-old man who investigators say might be a serial killer.
Criminal records – including charges of attempted rape, soliciting a prostitute and assault – spell out part of Pittman’s story. Few in the community have been willing to come forward, either to reporters or to investigators, to fill in the rest.
Pittman grew up in Rocky Mount with his mother, Gloria Pittman. She was 18 when she gave birth to her son at the former Edgecombe General Hospital in Tarboro. She relied on family members to help raise the child.
Asked to speak in more detail last week about her son’s upbringing, Gloria Pittman stood in silence for several seconds while clinging to the door outside her South Rocky Mount home.
“I don’t really have much to say about it,” she eventually said. “I will say, I don’t believe he did it. I don’t care what evidence they have, I can’t believe my son could do that.”
Gloria Pittman said her son wouldn’t hurt anybody. Criminal records tell a different story.
Pittman was 16 when police charged him in July 1994 with the attempted rape of a 2-year-old. As part of a plea deal in that case, he was convicted of a lesser charge, taking indecent liberties with a child, and sentenced to spend time in the state’s IMPACT Probation Program, a 90-day, military-style boot camp for young offenders.
Pittman was kicked out of the boot camp after a month for reportedly trying to start fights. He was placed under house arrest with his mother, according to court records, where he was to serve out his probation.
Court records show Pittman violated that probation in January 1996 and was ordered to serve one year and three months at the Western Youth Institute in Morganton.
Pittman racked up more than 10 infractions during his year at the facility. He was punished with multiple stints in solitary confinement, according to records. Pittman was released from the facility in 1997.
His criminal record shows a string of arrests and convictions that year for underage possession of alcohol, assault, resisting an officer and larceny. He served 45 days in jail in 2003 for failing to register as a sex offender. In 2004, he was convicted of driving while impaired.
Three years later, Rocky Mount police arrested Pittman for soliciting a prostitute in the very neighborhood where many of the slain women – all with histories of prostitution – once worked.
As the string of murders gained traction in the media last summer, records indicate Pittman failed to appear in court on an April drunk driving charge. Pittman reportedly avoided authorities for several weeks before Nash County deputies arrested him in August and charged him with failing to register his address as a sex offender.
He was in jail on that charge a month later when authorities in Edgecombe County charged him with first-degree murder in Taraha Nicholson’s death. Authorities had found Pittman’s DNA on her body, investigators said.
For months after the murder charge was filed, authorities were reluctant to speak publicly about their case against Pittman. But a search warrant filed in Halifax County last month indicated investigators are considering him in at least five of the murders.
Investigators said last week Pittman also is a person of interest in Roberta Williams’ death. Williams had been missing since 2008. Her skeleton was found off Seven Bridges Road and identified last week.
Two other Rocky Mount women with similar backgrounds remain missing.
As a teenager, Pittman lived for a few years with his grandparents in Whitakers, a few miles from a rural stretch of Seven Bridges Road where the remains of Nicholson, Williams, Jackie Thorpe, Ernestine Battle and Jarniece Hargrove have been found since 2007.
He also worked on farmland in the area where the bodies were found, investigators said.
Between 2003 and last year, Pittman lived at several Rocky Mount homes, including a one-story brick house on Daniels Avenue in the Battleboro community. The house is about two miles from Seven Bridges Road.
“I never even knew his name,” Carl Mitchell, one of Pittman’s former Daniels Avenue neighbors, said last week of the murder suspect. “He never bothered me any.”
Pittman also lived in 2005 at a house on Columbia Avenue, about a block from a field where authorities found the remains of Elizabeth Smallwood.
The Columbia Avenue residence also is about a mile away from a thicket where in 2006 a fisherman and his son found the body of 24-year-old Travis Harrison, a male crossdresser whose background was similar to the other nine victims.
Marcus Coleman sat sipping iced tea last week on a porch across the street from the house on Columbia Avenue. Coleman said it was hard to believe Pittman might be a serial killer.
“I remember seeing him around, but he never seemed violent to me,” Coleman said. “I didn’t really know him, though.”
In 2006, Pittman briefly lived at a mobile home in Scotland Neck, where last month a Halifax County deputy found the remains of Christine Boone in a wooded area nearby.
Boone had been among the missing Rocky Mount women authorities believe might be tied to the case.Her body was found 45 miles away from any of the other victims, but a few hundred feet from Pittman’s former trailer.
The evidence linking Pittman to the string of murders goes beyond proximity to his past residences.
According to the search warrant, a trooper with the N.C. Highway Patrol found Pittman on April 25 passed out in his car in a ditch off Seven Bridges Road. His boots were muddy, and his pants were unzipped, the trooper said.
Two months later, Hargrove’s body was found in a field about 200 yards from the site.
After Pittman’s initial arrest, family members of the victims at first seemed skeptical that authorities had caught a serial killer. But as more details of the federal, state and local investigation into the murders have surfaced, the doubt has faded.
Jackie Wiggins, Thorpe’s mother, said she is beginning to get used to the idea that Pittman might have killed her daughter.
“I got a red flag that’s really waving toward me now, and there is not even a breeze in the air,” Wiggins said after Boone’s body was identified. “I had my doubts about Pittman all along, but not so much now.”