OVERVIEW: Vehicle, human remains recovered from Jack’s Creek: discovery could provide answers to 41-year-old missing persons cold case

Published 2:35 pm Tuesday, February 13, 2024

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It’s been 41 years of wondering and waiting for the families of William Clifton, David McMicken and Michael Norman, of Washington. Wondering if they would come home again, wondering if they would see their loved one’s faces again or hold them in an embrace. All of that wondering and waiting with bated breath may have ended with the discovery of a submerged vehicle and human remains in Jack’s Creek in Washington. 

A corroded Chevrolet axle and human remains were recovered from Jack’s Creek on Park Drive on Friday, Feb. 9. The following day, what was left of the vehicle and more human remains were recovered. Twenty-six state and local agencies,  East Carolina Department of Anthropology, Woolard’s Automotive and B.E. Singleton & Sons assisted in the recovery effort. 

The car, mangled by years of sitting in brackish, muddy water, could be the 1975 Chevrolet Camaro owned by William Clifton. It could be the car he, David McMicken and Michael Norman were traveling in when they disappeared on Dec. 10, 1982. 

A press release written by Washington Police Chief Phil Rollinson stated that “all the vehicle parts recovered were consistent with the missing vehicle in the 1982 case, a 1975 Chevrolet Camaro.” 

Rollinson told the Daily News that the police department found a partial VIN number on the axle and hoped to find one on the transmission. 

The human remains were given to the North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for DNA testing. DNA samples from the remains will be compared with samples from known members of the missing men’s families. 

“The on-going investigation will involve the collection of DNA from the remains and testing of said DNA samples for comparison with known family members of the deceased,” Rollinson wrote in a press release.

The Daily News has requested test results from the office when they are available. There is no indication of when the results may be available. 

“At this time, the Washington Police Department are confident this vehicle and the remains recovered are those of the three Beaufort County men who have been missing since 1982: William Clifton, David McMicken and Michael Norman,” Rollinson wrote. 

What led to last weekend 

When her father, William Clifton, went missing, ReAnne Clifton Mayo was three years old. She has spent 39 years of her life, off and on, looking for her father and answers to what might have happened the night he, David McMicken and Michael Norman disappeared. 

Mayo reached out to Jason Sourada, of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina sharing with him a Daily News from 2023 about her efforts to find the three men. She hoped they could locate the Camaro with Souhrada’s sonar equipment. Eighteen months after their initial contact, Souhrada found a submerged vehicle in Jack’s Creek by attaching a sonar scan to an RC boat in mid-January. 

Souhrada shared his discovery with local law enforcement agencies and news outlets. Washington Police Department in conjunction with other local and state law enforcement agencies determined the Sidney Dive Team, of Bath, would dive on Friday, Feb. 9 at 9 a.m. at Jack’s Creek, on the Park Drive side going into the Pamlico River where sonar images showed a vehicle underwater. 

“At approximately 10:45 a.m. the remains of a vehicle were discovered in approximately 12-15 feet of water. The vehicle was in poor condition with only the drivetrain components and some frame remaining,” Chief Rollinson wrote in a press release. 

“​​During the initial search, potential human remains were discovered and brought to the surface. The remains were identified as human remains by a forensic anthropologist with the NC Office of the State Medical Examiner. Based on this confirmation, a plan was developed to attempt to recover further remains and the vehicle,” Rollinson continued. 

On Friday afternoon, officials at the site decided that given how murky the water was with mud, silt and salt, the best course of action in retrieving the car would be to drain that side of Jack’s Creek. For nearly 24 hours starting at 4:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon, crews with U.S. Forest Service and B.E. Singleton & Sons (who built a temporary dam to the Pamlico River) began pumping out Jack’s Creek. Where the car was located is a hole between 12 and 15 ft. of water. Jack’s Creek slopes upward toward the Pamlico where it is about two ft. deep. 

On Saturday, a windshield and seat were among the recovered items. 

Question on most observers’ mind throughout the weekend were – how long ago was the pump station built, and if was built after the vehicle went underwater, how was it missed during construction? Hope Woolard, City of Washington’s Public Works Director, answered both in an email to the Daily News.

“The original pumping station with two pumps was installed in 1957 with two additional pumps added in 1961.  The flood gates, railings and box culverts at Park Drive were installed in 2003-2004.   When the work in 2003-2004 was being done there were environmental restrictions on how much area could be disturbed and the construction also could not encroach on were the pumps discharge.  The car was found in the area where the pumps discharge and was identified on the plans as being a deeper section of Jack’s Creek.  Therefore this area would have been avoided during the construction in 2003-2004.”


The missing men 

Clifton, McMicken and Norman were last seen at the former VIP bar in Chocowinity the night they went missing. Clifton’s wife and Mayo’s mother, Wilda Carver, of Washington, believes Clifton and McMicken were friends, but she’s not sure how Norman fit into the group.  

In an earlier interview with the Daily News, Mayo said “the night father disappeared, he received a phone call that evening then quickly left their home on West Second Street in Washington. Carver was under the impression he went to pick up some Christmas gifts for their two daughters. He socialized with Paul Freeman that night” then later signed into the VIP bar with McMicken and Norman. The men left the bar never to be seen or heard from again. 

In the 41 years since their disappearance, rumors swirled through Washington about what could have happened. Did the men not want to be husbands and fathers anymore? Did they run away? Were they laid off from their jobs and went to the bar to commiserate with one another? 

“‘The initial thought when these three guys disappeared was that they didn’t want to be family men anymore. They weren’t even reported missing,’” said Mayo in an article published by the Daily News in 2023. ‘The men weren’t added to the National Crime Information Center’s missing persons database until April of 1983,’ she continued. When asked if a local search party formed to try to find the men, Mayo said their disappearance was ‘not brought to anyone’s attention that they were even missing.’” 

When searching for her father, Mayo learned that Clifton’s Camaro was reported stolen in New York and with information identifying Clifton. The car was found two months after the men went missing. There was an arrest made; however, there were no details about the arrest or how the car ended up in New York. 

Another surprising element of the missing men’s case is that in 2021, the widow of the late Beaufort County Sheriff Nelson Sheppard, turned in a file on the missing men to the sheriff’s office. She found it while preparing to sell her home. 

“Mayo shared that when she was 18 years old, she visited Sheriff Sheppard requesting to see her father’s file, but Sheppard told her that the office lost it and could not find it,” an earlier Daily News article shared. “‘I don’t know if he just forgot about it or what but when his widow found it, she turned it in. So at least we have this crumb,’” Mayo said in the interview. 

A report from the file stated that Clifton and Carver had a domestic dispute the night he disappeared. Carver told Mayo that that information is inaccurate. Clifton was the love of Carver’s life, Mayo said, adding that she believes her parents were “soulmates” and had a happy and loving marriage. 

Clifton, a Washington native, was a quarterback at Washington High School. After he graduated, he worked at Texas Gulf, now called Nutrien. A few weeks prior to their disappearance, he and McMicken were laid off. 

McMicken’s daughter, Kayla Melendres, of Wilmington, has been looking for McMicken. Melendres’ mother was pregnant with her when he went missing. She had not yet told McMicken about their soon-to-be daughter. Melendres never got the chance to meet her father. 

Melendres spoke to the Daily News on Saturday saying she had a feeling that the car and human remains are the ones she, Mayo and members of Michael Norman’s family are looking for. “I have a feeling. I’m hopeful we’ll have answers and that it’s most likely them that we’ve been looking for,” Melendres said.