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Murder suspect fights extradition

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SMITHFIELD —The Florida man charged in the 1972 murder of Benson resident Bonnie Neighbors is fighting extradition to North Carolina.

Larry Joe Scott, 65, formerly of Benson, was arrested April 29 and charged with first-degree murder and kidnapping in Johnston County’s oldest cold case.

“My office is working on getting a governor’s warrant for his return to North Carolina since he is fighting extradition,” said Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle. “That could take anywhere from 30-90 days.”

Sheriff Steve Bizzell called the DNA match that led to Scott’s arrest “divine intervention.” Scott was arrested in Bradenton, Florida, in December on an unrelated charge. That put his DNA on the national registry and made it available to the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab, which was seeking a match for samples taken from the scene of Neighbors’ killing.

“It was a matter of teamwork,” said Bizzell. “I’m thankful I had the vision to reopen the case.”

Bizzell formed a cold case squad in 2007 and relaunched the investigation. While the probe didn’t immediately produce a suspect, it did clear a lifelong Benson resident long suspected to have been involved.

When Bizzell began investigating in 2007, he met the late Ken Neighbors, Bonnie Neighbors’ husband.

“Ken said, ‘Steve, I think that with you reopening the case that I can see light at the end of the tunnel,’” Bizzell recalled. “He said, ‘If we’re patient, I believe we’ll see an arrest this time.’ He had faith and so did I.”

Ken Neighbors died on July 25, 2016 at the age of 83.

“The successful outcome is a credit to retired Capt. Buck Pipkin and Johnston County Sheriff’s Lt. Ryan Benson,” said Bizzell. “Also, Amanda Overman, forensic scientist at the state crime lab, also played a key role .”

Bizzell said his office has been flooded with calls from the media and others since the April 30 press conference announcing Scott’s arrest.

“I had one phone call from a gentleman who said he had to tell his father when he heard the news,” said Bizzell. “When I asked how old his dad was, he said his father was deceased but always said he hoped to see the day when Bonnie Neighbors’ killer was arrested. So, I had to visit the cemetery and tell him.”

In the early days of the Neighbors case, the investigation took some interesting turns. At one point, Benson police searched for five “hippie-like” individuals who had lived in the area and disappeared about the same time Neighbors went missing.

Bizzell said when he learned of Scott’s arrest on April 29, he and Chief Deputy Bengie Gaddis visited son Glenn Neighbors, who was a 3-month old infant at the time of Neighbors’ murder, found huddled beside his mother’s body on a cot in a migrant housing building.

“I was able to look Glenn in the eye and say, ‘We’ve arrested your mother’s murderer,’” said Bizzell. “Then Glenn called his older brother Ken, who lives in California, and shared the news.”

The next day, April 30, Bizzell said he and Gaddis went to see Rachel Wheeler, Bonnie Neighbors’ sister, to give her the news.

“She invited us in and we had a good visit,” said Bizzell.

The family has declined interview requests.

Neighbors disappeared on Dec. 14, 1972, after leaving her home on N.C. 50 to pick up her second-grader, Ken, from school. When Neighbors didn’t show up, school officials called to report her and her 3-month-old son, Glenn, missing.

The search for Neighbors and her baby son was larger than any seen previously in the area. Searchers came from all over the state. Some rode horseback while aircraft including helicopters searched the skies.

The search ended when Neighbors’ body and her son were discovered in a migrant housing building off what is now Holly Grove Church Road.

The arrest was announced in the Johnston County commissioners’ boardroom at the Johnston County Courthouse. Bizzell was accompanied by Doyle, State Attorney General Josh Stein, SBI Director Bob Schurmeier and State Crime Lab Director John Byrd.

In the audience was retired investigator Roger Allen, the SBI agent who was originally assigned the case and has pursued it for nearly half a century. Before the press conference, Allen was heard telling a colleague, “I never thought I’d live to see this day.”

Bizzell said when he called Allen to inform him of the arrest on April 29, Allen cried.

“It’s an amazing development, a day we never thought would come and a great day for the families,” said Allen. “Johnston County owes a real debt to Sheriff Bizzell and retired Capt. Buck Pipkin for reopening it. I’ve tried hard to tell them how much I appreciate their efforts. It’s wonderful.”

Allen said he couldn’t discuss specifics of the case because he anticipates being a witness at Scott’s trial.

Bizzell said he was grateful for Florida, North Carolina and Johnston County law enforcement officers who worked together to solve this case.

Bizzell also thanked Doyle for the district attorney’s office’s support. Doyle said the arrest marked a great day for Johnston County.

"We are here due to the determination and perseverance of Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell, the tenacious work of his investigators, retired Capt. Buck Pipkin and Lt Ryan Benson, and finally, the incredible work of the North Carolina state crime lab,” said Doyle. “In recent years with the help of increased legislative funding, the North Carolina state crime lab has developed and implemented cutting-edge technology in the pursuit of justice in both new and old cases.”

Doyle said Bizzell will notify the news media when Scott is being returned to North Carolina.