Cigarette, gun denial push '88 murder case higher
Twenty years after Roger Lee Shifflett was found gunned down on floor of his Southwind Gas and Grocery, a judge found probable cause to certify the case of the man who married Shifflett's widow to the grand jury for first-degree murder, citing evidence that includes inconsistencies in the statements Alvin Lee "Butch" Morris made to police.
Among the statements made in the September 18 hearing in Albemarle General District Court: Morris initially denied that he owned a .22-caliber handgun–- a small caliber weapon was used to kill Shifflett–- and he implicated another man in the slaying to police.
"That's very significant in terms of Mr. Morris' guilty conscience," said Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lunsford, "trying to deflect attention from himself."
Key evidence in the hearing was a cigarette butt found outside the murder scene that matched Morris' DNA.
Long considered one of Albemarle's coldest cases, the mystery has vexed law enforcement since the morning of June 20, 1988, the day that 38-year-old Roger Shifflett, a father of five, was found dead from five gunshot wounds shortly before 6am at the store he and his wife owned.
Shifflett usually opened up the now-demolished Southwind Gas and Grocery, located on Route 20 south near Avon Street Extended, before heading to his job with Norfolk Southern Railroad. Initially, police considered robbery the motive because $135 was missing from the cash register.
That theory changed, and some relatives feared– after they learned that the security camera had been turned off– that there might be more to the story. They suspected Morris was having an affair with Shifflett's wife, whom he married after the killing.
His first wife, Diane Houchens, was among the five witnesses the prosecution called at the preliminary hearing. In 1988, she and Morris were living about a mile south of the Southwind on Route 20. The morning of the killing, she was awakened by Morris climbing back into bed between 6 and 6:30am, and he claimed he'd simply gone to the bathroom, she testified. Houchens also said that Morris kept a .22-caliber pistol in a drawer in their bedroom, and that he smoked Salem Lights, the type of cigarette found bearing Morris' DNA.
Detective Phil Giles with the Albemarle police was assigned to the case earlier this year. On February 14, he took a search warrant to get a swab of Morris' DNA, and asked him about alleged inconsistencies in his 1988 statements to investigators.
"Originally, he told investigators he didn't own a .22," said Giles. "Then he told us he had a .22 and had given it to his father and had no way of knowing where it was."
Morris also told police in '88 that he'd been home with his wife that morning. "Detective [Courtney] Craft asked him if he'd gone to the bathroom," said Giles. "He said no."
Morris told police that the employee who found the body, Steve Stover, admitted guilt, and Morris claimed Stover had said he'd shot Shifflett, said Giles. In follow-up questioning in October 1988, Morris told police he didn't remember making those statements. "He wrongfully accused this man," testified Giles.
In 1988, Morris was also allegedly inconsistent about his connection to the woman then known as Barbara Haney Shifflett, the mother of three of Roger Shifflett's five children. Morris said they'd "struck up a friendship" prior to the murder, Giles testified. "Later, he said there was no relationship."
Around a dozen of the victim's friends and family burst into applause when Albemarle General District Court Judge William Barkley announced he found probable cause to send the case to the grand jury October 6.
"Thank God, thank God, thank God," said Dorothy Alford, aunt of Shifflett's two older children from his first marriage, on her way out of the courtroom. "It's been a long time coming," said her son, Tracy Alford.
On the other side of the courtroom, most of the dozen or so Morris supporters, including wife Barbara, his mother, Margaret Morris, who used her house to secure his $50,000 bond, and two of the three sons Roger Shifflett had with Barbara, who were raised by Morris, sat quietly until a sheriff's deputy ushered them out.
–-last updated at 1:49pm September 23, 2008