The sheriff’s patrol car’s blue and red lights flashed as it sat on the edge of Crawford Road, facing a stone overpass shrouded in a thick skin of graffiti.
As a light rain came down, Capt. Troy Lyons emerged from the patrol car, gesturing toward the 1930s-era Tour Road overpass.
“I came up on this one Halloween, and someone had hung what looked like a person from the overpass,” Lyons said. “We pretty quickly figured out it was a prank, but people do that kind of stuff out here.”
Lyons returned to his car, switched off the flashing lights and put the patrol car back in drive. Just over a mile down the road, Lyons slowed the car to another stop, this time pointing at a white cross staked a dozen feet from the edge of the road.
The cross carried a handwritten name and two dates: Eric Nesbitt, 2-10-75 to 8-16-96.
A dark past
Buried in the center of York County, the 3.6-mile-long Crawford Road carries a decades-long history of homicides, ghost stories and mischief.
Local law enforcement doesn’t consider Crawford Road a hub of criminal activity, although numerous bodies and skeletal remains have been found in the area over the last 30 years.
Lyons, who has been captain of the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office investigations department since 2010, is skeptical of the ghost stories, despite Crawford Road’s supernatural — and sometimes gruesome — legacy.
“I’ve been on that road many times, and never once seen anything that made me think there are ghosts out there,” Lyons said.
In recent history, there have been four people found on Crawford Road and another two bodies were found in the woods nearby, Lyons said.
Only one case, the skeletal remains of Michael Ellis found near the intersection of Goosley and Crawford roads, is not considered suspicious.
James “Jimmy” Johnson went missing on January 30, 1990 after trying to sell his Mercedes Benz to a “J. C. Giles,” Lyons said.
Johnson met the man at the Omni Hotel in Newport News the day before, but the man said he wanted to ensure his wife liked the car before he bought it. The next day, the men met again — and that was the last time Johnson was seen alive.
On Feb. 6, 1990, a crew cutting trees hanging into the road after an ice storm found Johnson’s body in the woods, according to Maj. Ron Montgomery, the captain of investigations at the time.
Johnson had been shot once, his wrists were handcuffed and his legs were bound.
An episode of “America’s Most Wanted” three years later, in 1993, was what finally cracked the case and identified the suspect as Juannito Edwards. He was later sentenced to two life terms plus 22 years in prison.
Lyons believes another death on Crawford Road, believed to be Tonya Lane, is also connected to Edwards, but he has never been convicted of the crime.
Lane’s body was found in the same vicinity as Johnson’s, and she had previously testified against Edwards in a separate case, Lyons said.
In 1996, another body — that of Langley Airman Eric Nesbitt — was found at the intersection of Tower and Crawford roads. Two men, Daryl Atkins and William Jones, were convicted of robbing him and shooting him eight times.
Both men are now serving life in prison.
In March 2000, the body of Shawn Demonta Mabry was found beaten in the woods off Baptist Road, a short distance through the woods from Crawford Road. To this day, an iron stake marks the spot where he died, Lyons said.
Mabry’s killers, Chad Patrick O’Handley and Jon Morris Wolford, were convicted of beating and murdering Mabry in a Buckroe home earlier that month.
The connection between all the convicted killers: A personal connection with Crawford Road.
The fourth and most recent death on Crawford Road involved an 18-year-old Portsmouth man, Austin Baxley.
On March 13, 2018, York County convicted a 22-year-old man in connection to the July 2016 death of the teen.
Julian Rios pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony in the York-Poquoson Circuit Court.
Rios’ sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 5, after the trial of one of his co-defendants.
He is one of three people who has been accused in Baxley’s murder.
The third person, Antionne Hinton, was sentenced to five years in prison with a year and a half suspended in January 2019. He pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact in a homicide.
“Four people left the city of Portsmouth, and only three of them returned,” York-Poquoson Commonwealth’s Attorney Benjamin Hahn said during Rios’ trial. “… Three returned to Portsmouth and left Austin Baxley dead on the side of the road with multiple gunshot wounds.”
According to Lyons, one of the three people accused of killing Baxley had a personal connection to Crawford Road — although it’s not publicly known which person holds the connection.
York County historian Frank Green, 59, has seen the legacy of the road through multiple lenses.
Green worked as a deputy sheriff from 1982 to 2006. Like Lyons, Green is skeptical of any ghosts.
“You’d find people on the road ghost hunting, or up to mischief, but I never saw anything I’d call a ghost,” Green said. “But we used to tell people if they kept hanging around down there, they’d become a ghost.”
Green is also a past president of the York County Historical Society.
“The road is actually spelled two different ways,” Green said. “It’s Crawford with a ‘w’ on the York County side, but on the Newport News side, it’s Crafford, with two ‘f’s.”
According to Green, Crafford is the correct spelling, named after a prominent family in the area.
Any rumor of Civil War and KKK-related hangings at the graffitied overpass also have little evidence to back them up.
Changing times — sort of
Crawford Road is not as dense or isolated as it once was — development has now crept in on either side of the road — but Montgomery said it was extremely isolated in the 80s and 90s.
The road was known for its isolation, attracting those trying to get rid of evidence.
“Periodically, when we did have a homicide, the victim would turn up somewhere off of Crawford Road in the woods,” Montgomery said. “Several times in my career, that has happened.”
One Crawford Road case has stayed in the back of Montgomery’s mind.
“There’s still one case I look at every so often that I’m intrigued with — Tonya Lane,” Montgomery said. “We’ve never been able to forensically prove that’s her.”
“But I’m still working on that and still hopeful.”
Editor’s note: This story originally published in March 2018, but has been updated on the case status for the people accused in the death of Austin Baxley.