CONCORD, N.C. — The North Carolina Parole Commission denied parole for a man convicted in 1979 of killing a 19-year-old Cabarrus County teen.
Last month, Channel 9 spoke with Sonja Barbee, who couldn’t help but smile while she studied an old black-and-white photo from 1976 of her older sister Phoebe Barbee.
“Phoebe was the homecoming queen and she was so happy, so excited,” Barbee explained. “Then the next year, she got to crown me.”
They are happy memories that Barbee said she’s grateful to have, because more than 40 years later, she returned to Central Cabarrus High School to reflect on her memories without her sister. It’s a reality that’s never gotten any easier for Sonja Barbee or her sister’s high school boyfriend, Randy Thomas.
“(Phoebe) was my future, my life. She was everything to me,” Thomas told Channel 9.
On Sept. 11, 1978, 19-year-old Phoebe Barbee finished up her shift at Wendy’s on Albemarle Road in Charlotte. She left the restaurant around 4 p.m. and began her drive home to Midland, but she never got there.
“Mama saw her car on the side of the road and knew something was wrong,” Sonja Barbee recalled.
Phoebe Barbee’s car was on the side of N.C. Highway 24/27 in Cabarrus County, but Phoebe Barbee was gone. Detectives would learn that a man driving a pickup truck flagged her down, convinced her something was wrong with her car and offered to give her a ride home. Witnesses saw Phoebe Barbee speak with the man and eventually get out of her car and into his truck. They watched as the pair drove away.
Phoebe Barbee had no idea she was the fourth woman who fell victim to the same ruse that day.
“He had bent his license plate down where it couldn’t be readable, premeditated type stuff,” Thomas explained. “He also rigged the door where you couldn’t roll the window down or get out from the inside.”
Sonja Barbee said she can’t imagine the terror that her sister felt.
“Being only four or five miles away from our house, and she knew immediately when he turned off (Highway) 24/27 that he wasn’t taking her home. She knew immediately,” Sonja Barbee said.
After hours of frantic searching, the Barbee family got the call. Squirrel hunters had stumbled upon her body on farmland off Miami Church Road near Concord in Cabarrus County. She’d been raped and beaten to death. Within 48 hours, police arrested 21-year-old Roger Warren Clark and charged him with murder and kidnapping.
“There was no reason, no need, no rationale,” Sonja Barbee said. “She was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. You just want to ask him, why? Why?”
“The first reaction is thank God we got him,” Thomas explained. “My immediate, split-second reaction after that was, I want justice now. I never wanted him to walk out of a prison cell again.”
During the 10-day trial in 1979, a jury found Clark guilty of Phoebe Barbee’s murder. A judge gave him three life sentences that were condensed into two. The jury didn’t know that then, before the Fair Sentencing Act, life only meant 20 years until Clark was eligible for parole.
Roxann Vaneekhoven is the District Attorney in Cabarrus County and said legally, prosecutors weren’t allowed to tell jurors that “life” didn’t literally mean imprisonment for life.
“I believe if you were to pull those jurors after the fact, and tell them he would come up for parole, they would have given him the death penalty,” Vaneekhoven said.
She didn’t try the case back in 1979, but is still familiar with its details and has been by the Barbee family’s side through every parole hearing since 1999. She said the emotional toll they take as a family is undeniable.
“It was astounding to me to see the retraumatization and revictimization of this family having to go through this process,” Vaneekhoven explained. “In all of my years in this work, I can see their faces describing and begging the parole commission not to let this offender out, and it’s not right.”
So in 2007, she set out to change the law for the Barbees and families like them. Vaneekhoven drafted new legislation to move parole hearings for convicted killers with life sentences from every year to every three years.
“I remember the first year we didn’t have to go before the parole commission, talking to the Barbee family and them having this huge sigh of relief, thinking, ‘We have two years before we have to go through this heart-wrenching process all over again,’” Vaneekhoven said. “That was satisfaction.”
Clark was up for another parole hearing On March 12. Instead of being there in person, the family pleaded their case on a conference call. Vaneekhoven said Clark had the best chance yet at seeing freedom, due to a custody promotion and because of COVID-19. In addition, the Barbees couldn’t be there in person to fight it.
“This will be the first time there will be a parole hearing when he’s in minimum security, and it is very concerning,” Vaneekhoven said.
Family members learned on March 31 that Clark was denied parole.
The Department of Public Safety said Clark received a custody promotion in 2020, which moved from medium to minimum security, which can be a big step in the parole process. DPS said it made the decision after looking at several factors, such as programs he completed, earned time and good behavior. But Channel 9 found that Clark has had 11 infractions in prison, the latest in 2019 that was listed as a sexual act.
“These are things that if you are being monitored you would never think would be occurring, so when he’s out, if he gets out, what’s to say he won’t continue to be a danger to our community? Do not let him back out. They gave him life, and life should mean life,” Vaneekhoven said.
Sonja Barbee and Thomas said the family will fight until their last breath to keep Clark in prison, even if it is from afar. They said they’ll fight to keep Phoebe Barbee’s memory alive, more than anything.
“She was an incredible human being, tiny in size but big in spirit. And if you met her, that stamp is still on your heart,” Sonja Barbee said. “It doesn’t go away. Even though it was better than 40 years ago, her life mattered. She mattered. Her world that was destroyed mattered.”
“She did things way beyond the call of duty,” Thomas said. “She was an amazing person, and that’s what I want people to know about her. She was amazing and unique. She was a rare, rare individual.”
Cox Media Group