NC NC - Daria Elaine Wade, 23, Union Grove, left to die, 9 Dec 1976

Jun 28, 2021
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First I'd like to say that this is an unfinished article I will eventually publish on my own site, but I'm including the main details of this neglected case here.
I still have some sources to check, and one or two people to talk to who may have some information, as well as an email in to the Iredell County Sheriffs dept. Anything new I discover will be added in future posts as it becomes available, but for the moment this is enough to get the ball rolling on this case that has been effectively forgotten.

December 9th, 1976. Howards Bridge road in northern Iredell county.
Just after lunch time, a local resident named Claude Howard discovers the nude body of a deceased female on the edge of a farm field just off the main road near the bridge the road is named for. How and why she was there and just who left her there is still a mystery to this day.


Wade as a high school senior.

Daria Elaine Smith was born in Nottoway, Virginia on New Years Day, 1953.
I haven’t been able to find much about her early life, but by the time high school rolls around she’s living with her parents in Lanham-Seabrook, Maryland attending DuVal High School, which today is a prominent public magnet school.
Daria seems to have been a good student, and was involved with numerous activities, including the school’s forensic league and numerous musical groups. She also was a student government representative.
She graduate from DuVal in 1970, and disappears from the public record until 1973, when she enlists in the US Army and is sent to Viet Nam.

Of note, at the time of her enlistment women could only serve in a few capacities, and due to her rank at discharge, was most likely an army nurse. Her enlistment ended May 2nd, 1975. It’s highly likely that she met her future husband Charles Ray Wade during her time in the service. He also served in Viet Nam and was discharged as a PFC (private first class). Wade was originally from Wilson, NC.
The couple are married 15th of March, 1975, three months before Daria leaves the army. In the end, whatever drew Charles and Daria together wasn’t enough to keep them together. Though there was no legal divorce, the couple separated fairly quickly.

Based on what records are available, it’s believed that post discharge and pre separation, the Wades moved to Salisbury together attend Livingstone College, an historically black Christian school. It’s possible this was accomplished using funds from the GI Bill.
Daria’s parents either follow her to NC or had already moved here, though I suspect it’s the former, as they are living at 721 Old Plank road, which is on the street behind that runs behind the college.
Neither of the Wades ever appear in the Livingstone College yearbooks. Daria would not have been there long enough and Charles must have dropped out after his estranged wife’s death.

Midday of December 9th, 1976 Charles Howard noticed a woman’s fur coat laying in the muddy track of a side road that led to a farm field. As he stopped to investigate, he also found shoes and a pair of dungaree style pants with a black belt before realizing that they belonged to the body of a young black woman, who was laying not far away in the middle of the road, near a mud puddle.
Daria Wade was nude, but retained curlers in her hair, earrings, a ring on each hand, and a third ring was found on the ground nearby.
To the Iredell County Sheriff’s department, who responded to the scene, there were no obvious sign of what had killed her. The NC State Bureau of Investigation, who were called in to assist had the same experience. Wade had a scratch across her back and a noticeable bruise on her hip, but no signs of major trauma or injury. There was no ID or a pocketbook, and it would be a day or better before the hard work of Lt. Detective Deane Barnette paid off, and the young woman they found in the mud would have her name back.


Tom Thompson, the sheriff of Iredell county was quick to tell the Statesville Record & Landmark at the time “That place is used as a lover’s lane and for drinking parties”.
I have been unable to substantiate that claim with anyone in the area. At any rate, it seems highly unlikely a nearly impassable muddy wallow would be the scene of that kind of carrying on, and seems even more unlikely an African American girl would, in the year 1976 with race relations being what they were, be out partying with the local farm boys of north Iredell.
He also noted that a witness or witnesses had seen a light colored Chevrolet station wagon in the area that night. It’s unknown if, and probably unlikely the vehicle was ever found.


A picture I took today of the area where Wade was found. The bridge that was present in 1976 has been replaced- you can see the original stacked rock embankment middle left.

The weather the night before had been particularly cold, with the temperature remaining below 20 degrees Fahrenheit from midnight until about 8 or 9 AM, a couple hours before Wade’s body was discovered. An autopsy performed in Raleigh would eventually conclude the cause of death as exposure, but would also indicate that Wade had a blood alcohol level of .18, which would be considered in most people “very drunk”, and a good bit higher than the legal state threshold of .10. It was also casually noted that there was “some evidence of drugs in the body”, but this is never clarified or further explained. The only other evidence of note was that Wade had scratches on her knees, as if she had been crawling on the ground before her death. There was no evidence of sexual assault.

No obituary is available for Wade online (but I hope to check Rowan county's archives for the local paper soon, which are not digitized), but her death must have been a nightmare for her parents. She would be buried with honors in the Salisbury National Cemetery, her headstone noting her service to her country in Viet Nam.

After an article on December 11th noting the autopsy results, no other word is ever published about Wade’s death in Iredell county again. She is either purposely forgotten or the case goes cold.
Perhaps Sherriff Thompson thought enough attention had been paid to the accidental death of a drunken black girl from another county. Perhaps there simply was no other course of discovering what happened with no further leads or evidence to pursue. Any attempt to understand what happened and why would be speculation.

But it has to be noted that someone brought Wade to that muddy field in Iredell county, over an hour from home, and completely off the main road. Someone left her there in the below-freezing temperatures, and someone is owed some blame for what happened to her.
Who this party or parties might be is not likely to ever be known. It would of course be no great leap of the imagination to think that Wade’s estranged husband must have been looked at, but he was never charged, and so whatever evidence or suspicions there might have been (if any) it would not have been enough to pursue charges.
The exact events that lead to Daria Wade’s death are unknown, but I would like to make a few conjectures based on what evidence there is.

Terminal burrowing and more importantly in this case, paradoxical undressing are well established phenomena that are seen in cases of hypothermia, and Wade shows signs of both, having been found nude and with abrasions on her knees.
I have to believe that whoever brought her to Iredell county had planned something untoward. Either abandoning her, as happened, or something far more appalling. Whatever the case, I would deduce that the bruise on her hip might have been a result of that action- perhaps suffered as she was shoved or kicked out of a vehicle. Left there in the dark woods, drunk, alone, she wouldn’t have had much of a chance of surviving the night, and ultimately didn’t.

I also want to say that the chance of accidentally finding the location where she was left is almost impossible. Most of the highways that would make the drive shorter today were not present in 1976, and the path from Salisbury would be across numerous rural roads, making numerous turns. To randomly arrive on Howards Bridge road in the middle of the night is a near impossibility. While the road does start at NC highway 901 just in front of Union Grove school, the road itself only goes further into country, really going nowhere unless someone makes several specific turns.

So why would someone have known the area? The late 1970's were the raucous end of the Union Grove Fiddle convention, which by that time had devolved into drugs, fighting, and if the rumors can be believed, rape. People came from all over the country to attend the festival, and in it's last years, there were a lot of unsavory types coming too.
I believe it was the year before Wade was found that the Hells Angels were barricaded from entering the festival by the Iredell County Sherriff's Department. In fact, there's a (locally) famous picture of deputies lined up across highway 901, blocking the Angels from coming down the road.
They are standing right in front of where Howard Bridge meets NC-901.

Purposely Forgotten
I think Wade's case was likely abandoned without much effort. She had a lot working against her. She was an outsider. She was immoral in many people's estimation, due to her autopsy. She was African American. And that last one is one I don't bandy around without caution, but I know this area, I know people who were alive at the time, and the death of one drunk black girl probably didn't elicit much sympathy.