Chatham County, N.C. The residents of Twin Falls, Idaho expressed shock after hearing a prominent and well-known member of their community had been murdered while on a business trip to Siler City, North Carolina. More than 50 years later, the baffling murder mystery still remains unsolved.
In the early morning of April 1, 1969, a salesman, William Collar of Columbia, South Carolina prepared to leave the Siler City Motor Lodge when he discovered the body of Robert Van Auker fatally shot to death on the walkway outside his room. The case baffled investigators and more questions arose than answers. Who would gun down a person that lives over 2700 miles away? There was no evidence that he had any connections to the area except for a business meeting with Kellwood Plant executives. The killer has never been identified.
In the late 1960s, Siler City, North Carolina was booming with manufacturing industries. At the time, there were 18 manufacturing plants that employed 2,850 workers out of a population of an estimated 5,000. Among these manufacturing companies was a hosiery company with a large division plant owned by the Kellwood Company. The Kellwood Plant was the largest employer in the county by 1970 with 80% of sales going to Sears Roebuck and Company. The plant was responsible for producing women’s and children’s nylon hosiery, tights, leotards and children’s stretch shirts.
Robert Van Auker was a 51-year-old wealthy construction contractor from Caldwell, Idaho and owner of Van Auker Construction Company. He was visiting the Siler City area to negotiate an expansion contract with Kellwood Company to build a plant in Twin Falls that would become the first garment manufacturer in the State of Idaho. Van Auker had secured a 15-acre site to construct the 130,000 square foot facility which would become the largest concrete building in the city of Twin Falls. Town officials and the Governor of Idaho, Don Samuelson, were in constant conference with Bob McKinely, president of the Siler City Division, in the planning stages of the plant. The new plant would be a major breakthrough in Idaho’s efforts in moving forward to diversify its industrial industry in the hopes that other manufacturers would follow.
Mr McKinely had previously met with the Governor on his official visit to Idaho Falls and stated in The Times-News, “was impressed with the wonderful folks in the Twin Falls area, the fine climate, abundant labor supply, favorable tax climate and two-day access to West Coast markets. I can’t remember any news in recent years that has brought as many smiles and excitement as Kellwood’s announcement, and I am indeed highly pleased and gratified both for Twin Falls and the entire state.” The local Chamber of Commerce was planning a celebration when the group returns to Twin Falls. Kellwood Company officials reported that six families from North Carolina would relocate to Twin Falls to train their new labor force to work in the plant.
As the ground was being broken for the new plant, the Twin Falls executives arrived at the Greensboro airport on March 31, 1969. Among Mr Van Auker where his four other business associates – Ray Bowell, of Howell Construction Company; Albert Stoddard, sales and office manager of Ready Mix Concrete, John Coryell, an engineer for Boise Power and Light Company, and Dave Rau, general superintendent of Van Auker Construction Company traveled with him for the negotiations.
The businessmen rented a car and checked in to the Albert Pick Motor Inn, had dinner and turned in for an early evening. The next morning, they drove to Siler City and registered as a hotel guest at the Siler City Motor Lodge just off highway 421. After they checked in to the motel, that had breakfast at Bill’s Good Food Restaurant near the motel. After breakfast, they met with John White, Vice President of Kellwood and spent the remainder of the day at the Siler City plant.
Planning a night of entertainment for his out of town guest, Mr White made reservations at the Pines Restaurant near Chapel Hill off highway 54. After their discussions regarding the new Idaho plant, the men returned to Siler City Motor Lodge to for a quick nightcap and retired to their adjoining motel rooms for the evening around 11:00 that evening. And the mystery begins.
From this point, the details of what happened next become baffling for investigators. When Mr Collar found Mr Van Auker in the early morning, Van Auker was lying face-up on the walkway drenched in blood in front of his motel room. His right arm was extended high above his head and in his right hand was a Hertz Rent-A-Car brochure. Mr Collar immediately notified the motel manager, Brownie Andrew, who then notified the Siler City Police Department and the Chatham Count Sherriff’s Office. Van Auker was shot once through the heart with a .32 calibre bullet, fired at close range in front of room No.5. There was a gash on the back of his head, which probably resulted when his head hit the concrete pavement after the shooting. The Chatham County sheriff, C.A. Simmons stated that no witnesses heard any shots that had been fired throughout the night and no weapon was found at the scene.
Tracking Van Auker’s movements, investigators stated he started making phone calls from his room. He made a total of 13 long-distance phone calls through the motel switchboard until it closed at 12:30. It is believed he resumed his phone calls to the phone booth located outside the motel but the phone calls did not provide investigators with any clues relating to his crime. The last number he placed was written on the Hertz brochure found under a porch chair near Van Auker’s body. They also found a floppy style rain hat and two buttons – one leather and one plastic and was believed to belong to the person who murdered the victim. The FBI was quickly called in to help with the investigation. They sent the unusual items they found to Washington, D.C for analysis but did not reveal any clues as to who they belonged to. Authorities are certain the hat and buttons did not belong to the victim.
Investigators quickly ruled out robbery because Mr Van Auker was wearing an expensive gold watch and had a few dollars in his trouser pockets. His wallet was also found on top of his dresser in the motel room where the door was found open. His wallet contained several hundred dollars in negotiable checks. His friends did inform investigators that Mr Van Auker often carried a considerable amount of cash attached to a money clip but no money clip was found. His business associates told investigators that Van Auker did not have any loose cash and had asked them that afternoon to cash a check for $300. Investigators did determine that the crime was premeditated, but by whom?
Friends of Van Auker stated that he had spent a fortune keeping various labor unions from making encroachments into his business. Van Auker was fanatical in his opposition to labor unions and his high-powered business tactics had earned him quite a few enemies in the competitive construction field. Robert Van Auker was 5 foot 11 inches tall, weighed 175 pounds and wore a toupee. His close friends described him as a genius in the construction business and was a hard businessman who would do anything to win a contract.
Unmasked History Magazine contacted Sheriff Mike Roberson of Chatham County regarding this unsolved case. Sheriff Roberson was kind enough to contact retired Sheriff Donald Whitt who remembered the incident when he was a new deputy in 1969. Sheriff Roberson stated in an email that Sheriff Donald Whitt told him the NC State Bureau of Investigators and the Federal Bureau of Investigations worked the case. Sheriff Roberson related to us that, “We have not found records of the investigation (if FBI took the case, then they may have them all). As you might know records at that time were not kept the same way nor are they easily searched.” Unmasked History Magazine made several attempts in contacting the NC State Bureau of Investigations inquiring on the case through emails and phone calls, but they have not replied to our request.
After his death, Van Auker’s son, Ronald W. Van Auker took over the contract for his father to finish the Kellwood Plant and published an advertisement in the local Idaho newspaper.
Mr Van Auker left behind his wife, Mary and was the father of two children, Ronald and Susan.
Can you help investigators solve this baffling mystery?
Human nature tells us that when someone thinks they’ve gotten away with something over the years, they tend to talk to others. In months of independent research and investigation into this case, Unmasked History Magazine found an abundance of information leading up to the tragic murder. Local Idaho newspapers advertised the meeting with the Kellwood Plant executives in Siler City and even announced the day Mr Van Auker would be in town. There were also a recent labor union protests in Idaho. With Mr Van Auker being against unions, is it possible the suspect was not even from the Siler City area and was a labor union activist? Investigators indicated that the crime scene did not reveal a robbery and was possibly premeditated. Did the killer follow Mr Van Auker to Siler City from the Idaho area?
If you have heard anything in the past through family stories or remember a chance encounter with a stranger wearing a floppy hat during that time that could help reveal any leads regarding this case, please contact the Sheriff Mike Roberson of the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office at (919) 542-2811. Let’s help bring the Van Auker Family some peace in finally knowing what happened to their father and who committed this senseless murder.
Land Use & Survey Analysis Report, January 1968 – Siler City, NC – North Carolina State Archives.
Chatham County 1771-1971 – Wade Hampton Hadley, Doris Goerch Horton, Nell Craig Strowd – 1976. Edwards Brothers, Inc. Publishers; Lillington, North Carolina.
The Idaho Free Press (Nampa, Idaho); Vol XLVIII No. 134 September 13, 1967.
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