A 25-year-old man has been arrested in connection to the quadruple murder of two elderly couples who were shot dead in rural North Carolina in targeted, possibly “gang-related” killings, authorities say.
Matthew Simms, who has been in police custody since September and is facing charges in another “gang-related” murder, was charged Thursday in the deaths of Janice Harris, 72, James Harris, 88, James Whitley, 76, and Peggy Jo Whitley, 67, Sheriff Wes Tripp said in a press release.
The two couples were killed August 20 at the Harris’ home in Halifax County, North Carolina, near enfield, Tripp said. Earlier this month, Tripp announced that the killings were possibly “gang-related,” while offering a reward of $51,000 for information leading to an arrest or arrests, WITN-TV reports.
Simms was charged with murder in another case in 2015 and had been out on bail before his September arrest.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. The Couples Were Playing Cards at the Harris’ Home When They Were Shot Dead Through a Glass Door
A family member found the bodies of James and Janice Harris and James and Peggy Jo Whitley at the Harris’ home on Fishing Creek Road in the Glenview community of Halifax County, near Enfield, in August, the Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald reports. Police believe they were killed on either August 20 or 21.
The couples, who were longtime friends, were shot dead through a glass door while they were playing a game of cards, WITN-TV reports. Police said at the time that robbery appeared to be the motive for the shootings.
Sheriff Wes Tripp announced on October 9 that investigators “have reason to believe these cases are gang-related and the residence was specifically targeted.”
It is not clear how police identified Matthew Simms as a suspect in the killings. Tripp previously said forensic evidence was recovered at the scene, but did not provide further details.
“We continue to work diligently on this case,” Tripp told the Roanoke Rapids Spin on Thursday when asked for further details about the killings after Simms’ arrest.
According to her obituary, Janice Harris was born in Florida and worked for 38 years for Central Builders Incorporated. James Harris, a Colorado native, was a gunsmith, a pilot and a mason, according to his obituary. The couple was survived by their son and three daughters, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Peggy Jo and James Whitley were both North Carolina natives, according to their obituary. James, a North Carolina State graduate, was the owner and operator of Javalu Farms. Peggy Jo Mitchells Cosmetology School and was the owner of The Golden Comb (The Best Little Hair House in Wilson) and worked at Ross McDaniels Salon before retiring, according to her obituary. They had been married since 1991 and were survived by their son, daughter and two grandchildren.
2. James Harris Ran a Gunsmithing Business Out of His Home & the ATF Has Been Assisting in the Investigation
James Harris ran a licensed gunsmithing business out of his home, WNCN-TV reports.
An ATF database showed that J and J Gunsmithing was a federally licensed firearm business as of July 2017, according to the news station.
The sheriff’s office have not said if anything, including guns, were stolen from the Harris’ home, but the police have said that the home was targeted. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been assisting in the investigation.
Neighbors were shocked when they learned about the killings, and even more surprised when the sheriff connected the homicides to gangs.
“Whoever broke into the house caught them all by surprise because James and his wife always had a gun on their hip,” a family friend told WTVD-TV in early October.
Coy Herbert, a neighbor, told the news station it is “hard to fathom” what happened. “It’s been kind of different. I mean, it’s not something that happens normally around here. We’re out in the middle of nowhere.”
Herbert added, “As neighbors we just try and keep in touch and check in on one another,” Herbert said. “The closest neighbors are well down the road, but we try and stay in contact with one another and make sure people are OK. It is unsettling, but like I said, life has kind of gone on and we’re really upset,” he added. “We knew those people very well. But we can’t live in fear.”
3. Simms Was Found Hidden in a Suitcase When He Was Arrested in 2015 in the Other Murder Case
Simms was one of several suspects arrested in the June 22, 2015, killing of 20-year-old Enfield resident Jarshamel Jaleek Cambridge. Sheriff Wes Tripp said at the time that the shooting was gang-related, but “there’s no evidence that the victim had gang ties,” the Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald reported.
He was arrested in November 2015 at an apartment in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, according to The Daily Herald. Police found him hidden in a zipped-up suitcase, the newspaper reported.
Several others – Kenneth Wescott, Jequan Deont’e Kimble, Taphil Jerome Yancey, William Yancey, Jamonte Rozelle Green, Tanika Lashae Arrington, Tony Russell Hill Jr., Daquon Maurice Marrow and Dexter Devon Taylor Jr. – were also arrested in connection to that shooting, police said.
According to the Roanoke Rapids Spin, Cambridge was caught in a gang war between two groups, one from Enfield and the other from Rocky Mount. “The sheriff’s office has no reason to believe the victim was the intended target of the gang-style shooting, but rather a victim of circumstance,” Tripp said in a statement to the news site in 2015. He did not get into details of the gang war, but said Cambridge was killed during a shootout.
“I’ll stick with what I’ve said that he was a victim of circumstance. Our thoughts and prayers go to all involved, especially to Jarshamel Cambridge’s family,” he told RR Spin. “Gang members have no concern for the welfare and safety of the public, nor do they bother to check who is with a rival gang when they begin shooting as is evident with the death of Jarshamel Cambridge.”
4. He Was Arrested in September After Missing a June Court Hearing & Has a Criminal Record Dating Back to 2008
Police announced in early September that Matthew Simms, a Hollister native, was wanted after missing a court appearance. It is not clear if he was suspected of being involved in the quadruple murder at the time. His mugshot was posted to a local police Facebook page asking for information about his whereabouts.
On September 8, Sheriff Wes Tripp announced on Facebook that Simms had been arrested. Details of his arrest were not released and the post did not make any mention of the four killings.
“Matthew Simms was wanted for failing to appear in Halifax County Superior Court on 6/12/17 for the charge of murder, victim, Jarhamel J. Cambridge, Enfield, NC, offense date, 6/22/15,” Tripp wrote on Facebook. “Also for felony probation violation issued 5/22/17, on the original charge of possession of a firearm by convicted felon.”
It is not clear how much bail Simms posted to get out of jail after his 2015 arrest in the Cambridge murder case. He and the other co-defendants were initially held without bail in that case, but he was eventually released after his initial court appearances, WTVD-TV reports.
Simms has a criminal record dating back to 2008, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.
He was arrested multiple times in 2008 on charges of misdemeanor and felony breaking and entering. In 2009, he was sentenced to probation and a suspended jail sentence in those cases. He has had his probation revoked in those cases multiple times and has served a total of 3 years and 3 months in prison.
His most recent conviction was in July 2016, when he was convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon and sentenced to probation.
5. Simms Is Being Held Without Bail & Will Appear in Court Friday
Simms, who was charged with four counts of first-degree murder, is being held without bail and is scheduled to appear in court for the first time on Friday, October 27. It is not known if he has hired an attorney.
Sheriff Wes Tripp said the case is still under investigation. It is not clear if any other arrests are expected. Tripp said the sheriff’s office was assisted by federal authorities, including the ATF and FBI, along with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and the Enfield Police Department.
Anyone with information on the homicides should call the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office at 252-583-8201, Crime Stoppers 252-583-4444 or SBI 919-779-8188. Information can be provided anonymously, authorities said. It is not clear if the $51,000 reward being offered for an arrest or arrests has been collected.