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Originally published Friday, January 11, 2013 at 10:47 AM

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Trial nears in 2003 case that terrified NC town

Bobby Fisher knew something was wrong.

Associated Press

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SHELBY, N.C. —

Bobby Fisher knew something was wrong.

It was late summer of 2003, and police in this North Carolina town had just found the body of his 85-year-old aunt in her bed. They said Lottie Ledford died of natural causes, but Fisher suspected something more sinister.

The funeral director told Fisher about bruises on the woman's face. There were other troubling details: Ledford's front door was left open, which was out of character for a security-minded woman with two guns. The phone line was cut.

Fisher and his wife pressed police to dig deeper, but authorities insisted there was no foul play. It wasn't until the bodies of two more elderly women were found in their homes over the next three months - under conditions eerily similar to those of Ledford's death - that Shelby police realized they might have a serial killer on the loose.

Nearly a decade later, Ledford's death remains unsolved, as does that of a second woman, 87-year-old Lillian Mullinax, found several months after Ledford's. It is only now that a suspect in the third case, involving the death of 79-year-old Margaret Tessneer, is going on trial.

Jury selection in the rape and murder trial of Donald Borders, 53, of Cherryville, is scheduled to begin Monday.

The coming trial has reopened old wounds for survivors of all three women and other residents of this tightknit city of 20,000 about 50 miles west of Charlotte. And it has raised questions about whether any of the cases will ever truly be resolved.

"I can't tell you how frustrating this has been," said Bobby Fisher's widow, Barbara Ann Fisher. Her husband died in 2005. "It killed my husband. All he wanted was answers. He wanted justice for Aunt Lottie and the other victims. I'm not sure we'll ever get that."

Shelby Police Chief Jeff Ledford, no relation to Lottie Ledford, said police were looking for evidence that would link Borders with the deaths of the two other women, but it's not clear they have found any.

Fisher has no doubt: She believes Borders killed all three women. "In my heart I know he did it," she said.

Meanwhile, Borders proclaims his innocence in Tessneer's death.

"He told me he didn't do it," his uncle Taft Borders told The Associated Press. "I believe him."

Borders' attorney, David Teddy, did not return telephone calls requesting comment.

Court records show Donald Borders has been arrested more than a dozen times, accused of robbery, breaking and entering and other charges.

But Taft Borders said his nephew was a "good person."

"He was hard-working. He dreamed about being a writer. But after he graduated high school, he went to work," he said.

Borders toiled in textile mills, got married and had two children. By 2003, he was homeless and living on the streets of Shelby. He was interviewed by police in 2004 about Tessneer's death because they thought he might have seen something, his uncle said. He was arrested five years later, in December 2009, based on DNA evidence.

"He says he's keeping faith in God and hopes to get a fair trial," Taft Borders said.

Regardless of the trial's outcome, the deaths of the three women in rapid succession more than nine years ago have forever changed the town of Shelby, a community of longtime residents that once thrived with textile mills before much of the local production began moving overseas two decades ago.

It began on Aug. 23, 2003, when Lottie Ledford's niece, Becky Fisher, went to her home for a visit and found the front door unlocked. Inside she found the body.

"I had known Aunt Lottie for 40 years," Barbara Ann Fisher told the AP. "Her door was always locked. She'd open the blinds to look to see who was at her door before she let somebody in. Aunt Lottie just didn't open that door to anybody."

Police said it appeared Ledford died of natural causes. But Bobby Fisher began to think otherwise after the funeral director urged him to look at the body. Fisher immediately noticed the bruises on her face.

"It looked as if someone had taken two fingers and pinched her nose and held her across her mouth," Barbara Ann Fisher said.

A medical examiner ruled Ledford died of a heart attack but noted the bruises.

Bobby Fisher didn't accept that - especially after he discovered that a phone line had been cut - but he couldn't convince authorities.

"Aunt Lottie was like a mother to him," Barbara Ann Fisher said. "She helped raise him. He was so upset because police weren't listening to him."

The family decided to place an ad in a local newspaper. It gave their phone number, asking: "Lost a loved one recently in the Shelby area under suspicious conditions?" They received calls but mostly from people who had missing relatives.

Then the following month, Tessneer's body was discovered by family members who had dropped by one morning to check on her. This time police treated the house like a crime scene.

A medical examiner ruled her death as "undetermined" but noted that she had bruises and was raped.

Fisher knew the Tessneers. So when he heard about her death, he talked to her family. What he heard was disturbing - and familiar.

When he came home, he sat down and shook his head. "He told me, `Barbara Ann, it's the same thing.'"

And then in November, the decomposed body of 87-year-old Lillian Mullinax was found by a neighbor checking on her whereabouts after newspapers began piling up on her porch. The cause of death was undetermined.

Telephone messages left for Tessneer's daughter Libby and her husband, Tommy, who found her body, were not returned. A family member said they didn't want to talk about the case. Mullinax's family lives outside of Shelby and could not be reached for comment.

Word of the deaths and the similarities between them began to spread in the town: The three women all lived alone. Their homes were within two miles. They were all found in their beds with their phone lines disabled and doors unlocked.

"Everyone was afraid, I'll tell you that," said Betty Marlowe, 74.

"You don't think something like that would happen here," Marlowe said. "But it did. We were on edge for a long time. No one knew if it would happen again. It just stayed on your mind for a long time."

Barbara Ann Fisher said she thinks daily about Ledford and her husband, who fought so hard to bring the case to the public's attention.

"This has been a nightmare for us - and all the families," she said. "It still hurts. But I doubt we'll ever really know what really happened."

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