LUMBERTON — Robeson County’s longest pending murder case came to a close this week— 19 years after the victim, a 24-year-old student at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, was killed.
Dane Locklear Jr., 45, pleaded guilty Tuesday to second-degree murder in the death of Cynthia Wheeler, of Plymouth, who was a reported missing on June 23, 1997. Wheeler’s body was found in woods off of N.C. 710 about five months after she disappeared.
Locklear was sentenced to a minimum of 26 years, 10 months in prison and a maximum of 32 years and 10 months in prison, to be completed after a life-sentence he is currently serving for killing Frances Persad in Red Springs in February 2000.
Locklear confessed to State Bureau of Investigation agents in 2000 that he had killed Wheeler as well as Persad, and a videotape of that confession was shown during the 2005 trial in which he was sentenced for Persad’s murder.
But the Wheeler case never made it to its own trial. Locklear appealed his conviction, was ordered by the state to receive a new sentence, rejected a 2010 plea deal and switched lawyers several times.
Locklear was initially charged with Wheeler’s murder in 1998, but the charge was dropped after a key witness — “the only person who tied him to it” — recanted his statement, said District Attorney Johnson Britt. Locklear was in the Robeson County jail in November 2000 awaiting trial for Persad’s death when he asked to meet with a detective to discuss a murder.
It was then that Locklear confessed to both killings. Locklear told the jury in 2005 that Wheeler, after going to his home to buy marijuana, agreed to have sex with him, but threatened to accuse him of rape when she found out he did not have a condom. He then beat her and choked her before driving her body to where hunters found it months later.
Persad’s vehicle had also been burned and left on the side of the road, Britt said.
“He described what happened to Cynthia Wheeler, what he did with her body,” Britt said. “That scene and the Frances Persad crime scene, where he burned her car, was almost the exact same location … It was a matter of a few hundred yards. His family lived very close to that location.”
When Locklear was tried in 2005 for Persad’s death, Britt motioned to join the Persad case, the Wheeler case and a third case in which Locklear had attempted to kidnap another woman because of the similarities between them. That motion was denied, and the case with the strongest evidence behind it moved forward.
So Britt presented evidence from both murders during the 2005 trial to highlight a pattern of behavior.
“The two murders were enough for the jury to say he was engaged in a pattern of conduct,” Britt said. ” … That’s what got him the death penalty.”
Locklear went to prison on June 13, 2005, and his conviction was appealed.
“Once he was sentenced to death, the other cases kind of sat because we were waiting on what would happen with the appeal,” Britt said.
In 2009, the state Supreme Court vacated Locklear’s death sentence and ordered he be sentenced again, saying jurors had not been properly instructed at the 2005 trial when they chose to give him the death penalty.
A year later, Locklear appeared ready to make a deal: If he pleaded guilty to Wheeler’s death, he would accept a sentence of life in prison, which he could serve at the same time as his sentence for Persad’s death. Britt thought Locklear’s lawyers had persuaded him to take the plea. Instead, Locklear told the judge he was unsatisfied with his representation and tried to leave the courtroom.
Britt withdrew the plea deal and — as the case stalled — decided not to pursue the death penalty in Locklear’s re-sentencing. It wasn’t until 2012 that Locklear was finally re-sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing Persad.
The Wheeler case was revived in 2014 when Locklear’s lawyers filed a motion asking Robeson County Superior Court Judge Frank Floyd not to allow the confession Locklear gave in 2000 to be used in court during a trial for Wheeler’s murder. They cited corruption at the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office as the reason for throwing out the confession.
Floyd denied that motion in June, delivering his decision to Locklear in July. Shortly afterward, Britt received a call from Locklear’s lawyers, saying Locklear “was ready to get the Cynthia Wheeler matter over and behind him and he wanted to resolve the case.”
“Since 2012 we have been trying to get the Cynthia Wheeler case to court to get it tried or get it resolved,” Britt said Wednesday, “and yesterday we finally got it resolved.”
Sarah Willets can be reached at 910-816-1974 or on Twitter @Sarah_Willets.