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Lonnie Sawyer

On May 15, 1975, Robert Wayne Hinson, the assistant manager of Collins Department Store in Monroe, North Carolina, was abducted, with two men forcing him into their car. The men drove Hinson to Collins Department Store and ordered him to open the store safe. Hinson insisted he did not know the combination and had no means of opening the safe. The men eventually took the $35 in Hinson’s wallet and let him out of the car about a mile from his home.

Lonnie Sawyer and Sandy Sawyer, brothers from nearby Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, were pulled over because they drove the same kind of car as the kidnappers. Hinson quickly identified them as his kidnappers. The Sawyers’s lawyer, Coble Funderburk, met with them for just one hour before their trial. At the trial, Hinson’s identification of the Sawyer brothers served as the basis for the case against them. Several of Lonnie’s family members testified that he had been home with them at the time of the crime. The jury believed Hinson. On June 25, 1975, Lonnie Sawyer, age 18, and Sandy Sawyer, age 21, were convicted of kidnapping and robbery.

The Sawyer brothers came from a poor family that had eleven other children. Nonetheless, the family pulled together enough money to hire private investigator Lester Burns in an effort to prove the brothers were innocent. Burns arranged to have the brothers take PSE tests – a version of a lie detector test – and the results for both men indicated that they were not involved in kidnapping Hinson. Burns then contacted producers for an NBC investigative news show. The producers agreed that they were interested in further investigating the case.

This NBC investigation led to four men, all incarcerated at the Harnett Youth Center at the time, who reported that another prisoner – Robert Erskine Thomas – had admitted to them that he had kidnapped Hinson. Two of these prisoners were interviewed by NBC about Thomas’s confession, and another prisoner signed an affidavit about what he had heard. Thomas himself admitted to the kidnapping on videotape, though he later recanted his confession. NBC learned that just a week before the crime, Thomas had applied for a job at Collins Department Store. In addition, investigators turned up a sketch of the perpetrators that had never been made available to the defense.

Separately, Hinson reported that Burns had contacted him and posed as a State Bureau of Investigation agent. In 1976, Burns was charged with impersonating a law-enforcement officer but  the charge was dismissed after Hinson refused to testify.   With the new evidence from the NBC investigation in hand, the Sawyers filed a motion for a new trial. The motion was rejected in late October 1976 because it had not been filed within a year of the verdict, as required under North Carolina law. However, the judge opted to send the denied motion and related documentation on to North Carolina Governor Jim Holshouser. Holshouser asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into the case further. In January 1977, Governor Holshouser issued a pardon based on innocence to both Lonnie and Sandy Sawyer. Despite the pardons, Hinson continued to insist that the Sawyers were the men who had kidnapped him.

In 1997, the brothers were each awarded $14,875 in state compensation.

– Meghan Barrett Cousino
State:NC
County:Union
Most Serious Crime:Kidnapping
Reported Crime Date:1975
Convicted:1975
Exonerated:1977
Sentence:28 to 32 years
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID