Ten years ago, Daniel Moses retired from truck driving and settled into his tiny hometown, where he grilled chicken on a backyard grill and earned his nickname, “The Barbecue Man.”
He stood 6-2, a big man who practiced karate. But everyone around Rich Square knew him as a gentle giant, delivering his chicken dinners by hand.
Then in 2011 — a decade ago almost to the day — his house burned to a blackened wreck. Investigators found the door locked, the air-conditioner running, his car in the driveway and his tools on the grill.
No trace of Daniel. His dog trotted home alone a day later.
The landscape offered few clues. Around Rich Square, 100 miles northeast of Raleigh, flat farmland and swamps stretch for miles in every direction. Surrounding Northampton County is home to only 19,000 people, roughly the population of Knightdale.
So questions about Daniel’s likely death haunt his large family, especially his sister Sheila Moses, who says investigators gave little attention to a missing Black man.
She believes answers will only come through a federal investigation — merited, she said, because Daniel’s phone pinged on a Virginia cell tower days before the mysterious fire.
But the FBI has long declined to intervene in the rural case, citing no obvious violation of federal law, so Sheila Moses struggles alone to keep her brother’s disappearance on law enforcement radar.
“Since he left us,” she said, “my sister has died from breast cancer and my mother from COVID-19. How many of us will die before we find out what happened to Daniel? Will we all leave this earth not knowing?”
Daniel Moses’ disappearance is hardly the oldest missing person case in North Carolina. That grim record still belongs to Terry and Alan Westerfield, 11 and 6-year-old brothers who vanished from a Fayetteville movie theater in 1964. Three years ago, the Fayetteville Observer described that 54-year-old case as a “blank wall.”
Daniel’s is no less puzzling, leaving none of the usual missing-person clues.
He had no criminal record and no history of mental illness. He liked to fish and ride small go-karts. His elderly mother lived next-door and his older brother Ben farmed the land around the corner.
Wherever he went that day and however he got there, he left a locked door and a running air-conditioner. And he didn’t take his own car. Ben Moses heard a window break at his house, but all signs pointed to his brother being home to deal with it.
“Whatever happened to Daniel is something so simple and right under our nose,” Sheila Moses said. “You’re dealing with a man who was 59 and the body of his 40 year old, worked out every day, had a black belt. No one man took him. Somebody knew him. Right under our nose.”
From the outset, local investigators did not treat the case as a homicide. The Northampton sheriff’s office found no conclusive proof that the fire and disappearance were connected. No blood was found inside the house, even after a Luminol test. The former police chief in Rich Square who helped fight the fire said the air-conditioner likely sparked the blaze.
In 2011, Capt. D.H. Harmon of the Northampton Sheriff’s Office told the N&O, “There’s no evidence other than he’s missing and it’s suspicious.”
But in the days before the fire, Daniel had talked about fishing in Virginia. Once he went missing, Sheila Moses said, the family tried calling him for days, getting only voicemail messages and finally no answer at all.
His sister says now that had the sheriff accepted an initial offer of help from the SBI, they might have tracked Daniel’s phone while it was still working.
In 2013, two years after Daniel Moses went missing, longtime Northampton Sheriff Wardie Vincent retired after 30 years, according to the Chowan News-Herald.
Two years later, Vincent’s son, a former Northampton deputy, was charged in an undercover drug-trafficking sting that netted 13 active and ex-officers. He is now serving six years in federal prison.
Sheila Moses said the last thing the sheriff would have wanted in 2011 was more SBI agents nosing around his office. State agents did not join the missing person case until eight months later — only after Sheila Moses wrote to then-Gov. Beverly Perdue. U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield wrote federal officials asking for help, but they have declined thus far.
Moses would like District Attorney Valerie Asbell to request federal aid, hoping that her voice would add to the call. But she has not taken this step, and she declined to answer the N&O’s questions about whether her office might do so, citing the ongoing investigation.
In this instance, Moses sees ties to Elizabeth City, where District Attorney Andrew Womble declined to press charges against sheriff’s deputies who shot Andrew Brown Jr. in the back of the head in April, and resisted calls from as high as Gov. Roy Cooper to bring in a special prosecutor as a federal investigation continues.
“I have the same questions the people in Elizabeth City have,” she said. “What is going on in Eastern North Carolina with Black people, and where is the FBI?”
Understanding the frustration
Only Sheila Moses’ persistence has kept the case alive.
Last year, after nine years, an eight-person search team, including SBI agents and sheriff’s deputies, combed the farm across from Daniel’s old house, covering 65 acres with a cadaver dog. They searched a 38-foot well with an underwater camera. They found nothing.
Jack Smith, the current Northampton sheriff, told the N&O that he has known the Moses family for 40 years and understands their frustration.
But since the case, one officer involved in it has died, he said. Another got fired. Another left the office and moved on. The SBI has reached out to federal investigators, he said, and is now helping immensely.
“I hate to say this, but we’re only human,” he said. “We’ve talked to everybody we can think to talk to, and many of them before my time as sheriff. I don’t know what else we can do. Sometimes, you just don’t have any more leads.”
Sheila Moses said she knows her native Northampton ranks among North Carolina’s poorest counties, and investigators are doing the best with what limited tools they have.
But she can’t help thinking that for law enforcement, a 59-year-old “Barbecue Man” living outside a town of 780 has been easy to let go.
She vows not to let that happen.