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  • Writer's picturePark View Film

Wilmington filmmaker tells the story of a 1990 murder that some call a hate crime

It was about 1:30 a.m., on Thursday, Feb. 22, 1990, almost closing time at the Park View Grill, a bar on Carolina Beach Road.

The owner, Wanda Whitley, and her roommate, Heidi Crossley, were shooting pool in the back room. With them were Talana Quay Kreeger, a carpenter who had been doing some remodeling on the Park View, and Ronald Sheldon Thomas, a long-haul trucker who had pulled in a few hours and about 10 beers earlier.

The foursome discussed heading to a nearby Hardee's for something to eat. Kreeger, 32, hitched a ride in Thomas' tractor-trailer rig.

They never made it to Hardee's. Roughly 12 hours later, Kreeger's nude body, bloodied and bruised, was found in a brushy, wooded lot near the intersection of Carolina Beach Road and Shipyard Boulevard. Officers said she had been dragged there, a distance of more than 50 feet, while still alive. Teeth were missing from her dentures, apparently knocked loose by blows. A pathologist found part of her small intestines hanging outside her body.

Eighteen years later, that murder still haunts much of Wilmington. On Friday, a memorial service for Kreeger will be held at 7 p.m. at St. Jude's Metropolitan Community Church, 19 N. 26th St. During the event, local filmmakers plan to screen footage from a documentary being filmed about Kreeger's life and death.

"We want to put a human face on Talana Kreeger," said the Rev. Gregory McCaw, associate pastor of St. Jude's. "I think there's a large human piece left from that story."

Thomas A. "Tab" Ballis, producer/director for the planned documentary, Park View, said he'd been shocked by the Kreeger murder, which occurred about the time he moved to Wilmington.

"My original impression was, there was just a lot more to the story," said Ballis, a licensed clinical social worker with Insight Health Services.

What he found, he added, was "a conspiracy of silence."

Back to the Park View

Part of the story, Ballis said, involves the Park View itself, a Wilmington institution through much of the 1980s.

Located near the Y-shaped intersection of Front Street, Third Street and Carolina Beach Road, not far from Greenfield Lake, the bar attracted truckers like Thomas and workers from the nearby State Port. Yet it also had a reputation as a place where lesbians could meet friends and relax without being hassled. Women drove from Brunswick and Columbus counties to hang out there.

"In a way, it was ahead of its time," Ballis said. Wilmington had other gay bars, like David's or later Mickey Ratz. Most of these, however, were secluded places with alleyway entrances that were hard to find unless you knew where to look. The Park View, however, was "out there," Ballis said, right on a main thoroughfare.

Among its regulars was Kreeger, a Pender County resident who worked for Laney Builders and also took odd carpentry jobs on the side. Friends described Kreeger as an animal lover who kept goats, chickens, three dogs and five cats on her 2 1/2-acre farm outside Hampstead. Whitley told former Star-News reporter Scott Whisnant that Kreeger was too tender-hearted to kill spiders she found in the bar.

Much of Kreeger's life had been hard. Her parents, who had lived in Jacksonville, were both dead by 1990, and she seemed to have no other family. (Efforts to contact any of Kreeger's relatives have failed so far, Ballis said.) She had been sexually assaulted at least once. Nevertheless, acquaintances said Kreeger was outgoing and laid-back, often doing carpentry jobs free for friends.

Ronald Thomas' friends also described him as likeable and easygoing. One former supervisor referred to the 6-foot-3, 230-pound trucker as a "teddy bear."

Behind that image, however, lay a troubled past. Thomas' parents had split up when he was little, and his mother had left the boy with his father, an Alabama minister.

As an adult, Thomas had an alcohol problem. Between pulling into the Park View after 11 p.m. on the night of Feb. 21 and closing time, he drank 10 beers.

Thomas had also been through three divorces. In his confession, he said that Kreeger had "mouthed off" when he made sexual advances to her and that she reminded him of his ex-wife. Some accounts suggest the two argued about homosexuality.

On the morning of Feb. 22, Thomas slept awhile, made a routine delivery to Hoggard High School, then drove as far as Dunn, where he parked at the Robinhood Truck Stop, telephoned a local minister and confessed the killing. The minister contacted Harnett County sheriff's deputies.

Thomas turned in Kreeger's clothes to the lawmen from inside his truck. State Bureau of Investigation agents later found blood, hair and false teeth belonging to the victim in the truck's sleeper section. In a statement to Harnett County detectives, Thomas said Kreeger's last words to him were, "Leave me alone, let me die."

Kreeger essentially bled to death, reported state pathologist Charles L. Garrett. Thomas' assault had been so brutal that he had ripped loose her right kidney and other internal organs.

After a two-week trial early in 1991 in New Hanover County Superior Court, Thomas was sentenced to back-to-back life sentences for first-degree murder and first-degree sexual offense. He would have to serve at least 40 years to be eligible for parole.

"In a sense, justice was served," Ballis said.

'A body in a field'

Friends of the victim, however, were unsatisfied. Defense lawyers had worked hard to humanize Thomas while Kreeger was reduced, in Ballis' words, to "a body in a field."

Media accounts before and during the trial provided relatively few details about Kreeger's life. In an interview with Ballis, former Star-News executive editor Charles Anderson said that reporters worried that describing Kreeger's lifestyle would prejudice the conservative community against the victim.

Meanwhile, friends from the Park View had difficulty finding a Wilmington church that would give Kreeger a funeral because she was a lesbian, Ballis said. Her funeral was eventually held at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd with the rector, the Rev. Burton Whiteside, officiating.

Some of Kreeger's friends would later be involved in the 1992 founding of St. Jude's Metropolitan Community Church, a congregation open to gays and lesbians.

Kreeger's murder needs to be viewed in historical context, Ballis argued. The 1980s saw a number of crimes in the Wilmington area targeting gay people. A gang called the "Leland Five" went on trial in 1984, charged with luring gay men from downtown Wilmington into rural Brunswick County, where they were beaten and robbed. The 1988 murder of Randy Lee Hockabout - whose nude body was found mutilated near Greenfield Lake - was widely regarded as a hate crime.

Ballis said he hopes the Park View documentary can raise support to extend North Carolina's hate crimes law to cover attacks on gays and lesbians. Meanwhile, Thursday's service will mark the launch of a memorial fund to honor Kreeger and other victims of hate crimes. Proceeds from this fund will be used for programs and facilities at St. Jude's.

"We want to raise some awareness of hate crimes in our area," said Laura McLean, a local singer-songwriter who is an associate producer for the film and who will perform a song about Kreeger at the service. "There's a lot that's been kind of swept under the rug."

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