As investigators work to determine what killed Christina Bennett, Rhonda Jones and Megan Oxendine, their loved ones say their deaths are the latest tragedy in a city and county rife with violence.
“It’s a bad area,” Khelia Oxendine, one of Megan Oxendine’s sisters, said of Robeson County, North Carolina, where her sister’s body was discovered on June 3, 2017.
"There’s all kinds of violent mess there," Taylor Oxendine, Megan’s youngest sister, added.
North Carolina is divided into 100 counties, and while Robeson is the 22nd most populated, it has the greatest prevalence of homicides of the state and holds the grim distinction of one of the nation’s most violent rural communities.
Young people are twice as likely as those in other parts of the state to die before they come of age.
In Lumberton specifically, the chances of being raped, assaulted or killed are one in 55 in 2016, making it the most dangerous city in North Carolina, government data showed.
By comparison, those in Oxford, the second-most dangerous city in North Carolina, chances are one in 88 that you would become a victim of a violent crime.
And only an hour and a half away, in Pinehurst, N.C., residents have a one in 2,658 chance of becoming a victim of a violent crime.
Founded in the Inner Banks region of North Carolina in 1787 by Officer John Willis after he fought in the American Revolution, Lumberton was a shipping point used for lumber by the Navy.
Lumberton — and Robeson County as a whole — was a destination for settlers of all ethnic backgrounds. White families looking to put roots down in the latest frontier and free families of color who had left Virginia settled there throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
The area has also long been home to many Lumbee, a state-recognized American Indian tribe, with about 40 percent of Robeson County’s population identifying as Lumbee, according to the 2000 United States Census report.
Today, it is the most ethnically diverse county in the U.S. More than 68 percent of its residents are American Indian, black or hispanic.
The city and county continued to see significant growth through World War II, but as time went on, manufacturing plants, jobs and people steadily left the area.
The most common jobs held today in Robeson County and Lumberton, specifically, are in production, administrative positions, sales, construction and extraction, according to U.S. government data.
To date, Lumberton is home to less than 22,000 people.
“It’s a small town, very close-knit area — everybody knows each other, family-oriented, a lot of churches there... but I also remember just seeing a lot of impoverished areas,” Nate Rodgers, a reporter who covered the deaths of Bennett and Jones, told InsideEdition.com. “I just kept hearing... 'the murder rate in Lumberton is unbelievable. A lot of these murders go unsolved and we want answers.'"
More than 30 percent of those living in Robeson County live below the poverty line, while the median household income is about $31,000, significantly less than the national median of $59,000.
In Lumberton, the figures are even grimmer, as 35.1 percent of the population live below the poverty line.
Drug addiction is rampant in the area in which Christina, Rhonda and Megan were found, as well.
“Drugs are the root cause of most property and violent crime throughout our county,” Burnis Wilkins, who was recently elected sheriff of the Robeson County Sheriff’s Department, told The Robesonian in May.
He proposed creating a dual county, multi-agency gang and drug task force to “seek out drug dealers at all levels that continue to wreak havoc on our county."
He added: “These dealers are the cause of prostitution and drug addiction. The prostitute seeks out men for cash to purchase drugs due to addiction. The break-ins and larcenies that occur are again related to the fact that the items stolen are traded to a drug dealer or pawned to purchase drugs. An aggressive yet professional approach would be implemented in tackling our county drug problems, which would, in turn, lower crime rates as it pertains to the crimes mentioned.”
And those familiar with Lumberton say Christina, Rhonda and Megan’s deaths are several of the latest mysteries hanging over the city and Robeson County as a whole.
At least five unidentified bodies, three belonging to men and two to women, were found in Robeson County between 1978 and 2004, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System’s database.
The database also notes that since 1989, at least 13 people have vanished from Robeson County, seven of whom disappeared from Lumberton.
Between 2002 and 2005, Brian Lowery, 31; Stephanie Lewis, 21; and Jessica Lowery, 25, disappeared. Billy Gene Hammonds, 36, hasn't been seen since Nov. 26, 2016.
“He said, ‘I’m going up to ma’s, I’ll be back in 30 minutes,’” his wife, Pamela Hammonds, told InsideEdition.com, before breaking down in tears. "I’ve just waited for so long for someone to listen to me, and it’s just so emotional."
Hammonds was officially reported missing 13 days after he was last seen, and his wife, who now lives in Florida, has made countless trips back to Lumberton, where her husband grew up, hoping to get answers.
“There have been no leads,” Pamela Hammonds said. “Billy, he had his problems with drugs. I just want him acknowledged.”
She’s passed out flyers and created a Facebook group and held vigils in hopes that someone will come forward with information about her husband. A search for Hammonds conducted on Dec. 13, 2016 uncovered a bloody shoe, but it could not be linked to the missing man.
“Billy burned a lot of bridges and he hurt people,” Pamela Hammonds acknowledged. “But you know, he has a mother, he’s got a wife, our family. We need to know [what happened]."
She’s convinced that her husband is dead at this point, but she wants to be able to lay him to rest.
“I just want justice,” she said.
Cynthia Jacobs, 41, was reportedly last seen alive in East Lumberton on July 27, the same month 22-year-old Eric Evans vanished from the area, authorities said.
And Abby Lynn Patterson, 20, was last seen getting into a brown Buick around 9th Street in Lumberton at about 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 5, 2017. Patterson’s loved ones are now offering a $5,000 reward for information related to her whereabouts.
“As a mother I'm begging for someone to someway (sic), somehow let us know where our sweet Abby is,” Samantha Lovette, Abby’s mother, wrote on Facebook.
The FBI announced in November they are also investigating Patterson's disappearance, which they do not believe is related to the deaths of Christina, Rhonda or Megan.
“The Lumberton Police Department is currently involved in separate, active investigations to locate all three people,” a spokeswoman with the FBI said of the Patterson, Evans and Jacobs cases. “At this time, we have no evidence the suspicious deaths of these women are connected to any of [the] missing persons cases.”
The discovery of Christina, Rhonda and Megan’s bodies reminded some of two cases of women found dead several years earlier.
“Hey, you got to remember … there were two more women found in that same area,” a local council member told Rodgers, the reporter who covered the mystery, he said.
On March 30, 2003, the body of 23-year-old Michelle Ann Driggers was found in the driveway of a small, overgrown cemetery. She was found face down in the dirt, nude with her clothes scattered around her body. She had been beaten and appeared to have been hit in the head with a blunt object, according to reports at the time.
Driggers’ friends said she was last seen about 3 a.m. the previous day near Chippewa Street in East Lumberton.
Then, on July 12, 2003, the body of 36-year-old Lisa Hardin was found in the woods behind a warehouse off Chippewa Street, several feet from an unused railroad spur.
Hardin’s body had been badly bruised and appeared to have been “hit with some type of object,” then-Lumberton police Capt. Clayton Oxendine told The Robesonian at the time.
Both women had a history of sex work, and authorities at the time addressed the concern of a serial killer in the area.
“It could be coincidental or it could be that someone is out there targeting prostitutes,” then-Lumberton Police Chief Robert Grice told The Robesonian. “But, at this point, it’s just too early to tell whether the two homicides are related."
No arrests have ever been made in the killings.
Shelly Lynch, a spokeswoman for the FBI, said authorities have no evidence the deaths of Christina, Rhonda or Megan are connected to any other cases.
Hardin was survived by her mother and three siblings, while Driggers left behind her parents, three children and four siblings.
"I miss and love you, Michelle," Driggers’ mother wrote on a memorial page for her daughter. "You will always be here in my heart."