State News

July 18, 2013

Man who searched years for brother’s killer dies

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Al Gentry simply ran out of time.

For nearly 25 years he searched for his brother’s killer and followed the trail to a Georgia widow with a dubious past.

But the stress from chasing leads and pressuring police contributed to heart disease and other serious health ailments, his wife Diane Gentry said Wednesday.

The Rockwell, N.C., man died Monday in a hospice. Al Gentry was 68.

“He always bounced back from everything. And in my mind, I thought he’d bounce back from this. But this time was different,” Diane Gentry told The Associated Press.

The couple was married for 34 years.

Gentry, who grew up in rural North Carolina, held various jobs over the years, working in factories, driving a truck and selling items at flea markets. But it was his quest to solve his brother’s slaying that defined and consumed his life.

After years of searching, Gentry thought he’d found the person responsible: Betty Neumar, a beautician who had left a decades-long trail of five dead husbands in five states. Among them was Gentry’s brother Harold, who was shot to death in 1986.  

Neumar was eventually charged in 2008 with three counts of solicitation to commit first-degree murder in Harold Gentry’s death.

But weeks before her 2011 trial, Neumar, 79, died of cancer.

Even after her death, Gentry continued to press law enforcement authorities for answers. He told the AP late last year he hoped someone would come forward with new information.   

But Stanly County Sheriff Rick Burris says the mysteries in Neumar’s past may never be solved. He said Wednesday the case is no longer active, even though it’s still open.  

“I think we know who the shooter was and I’m not going to go there ... But when you don’t have any more leads and you’ve exhausted every avenue, what do you do?” he said.

Gentry long believed that Neumar — a diminutive, white-haired Georgia grandmother who operated beauty shops, attended church and raised money for charity — was responsible. In January 2008 he persuaded Burris, then the newly elected sheriff, to reopen the case.  

When investigators did, they discovered Neumar’s trail of dead husbands.  

It turned out Neumar had been married five times since the 1950s and each of her husbands had died. Investigators in three states reopened investigations into several of those deaths but have since closed them.  

From the beginning, law enforcement authorities told The AP they had struggled to piece together her life because her story kept changing. But interviews, documents and court records provided an outline of her marriages North Carolina, Ohio, Florida and Georgia, the states where she was married.  

Her first husband was Clarence Malone. They married in Ironton, Ohio, in 1950 and had a son, Gary, in 1952. The marriage broke up, but it isn’t clear when.

Malone was killed with a gunshot in the back of the head outside his auto shop in a small town southwest of Cleveland in November 1970. His death was ruled a homicide.  

Gary was adopted by Neumar’s second husband, James Flynn, although it’s unclear when she met or married him. She told investigators that he “died on a pier” somewhere in New York in the mid-1950s. She and Flynn had a daughter, Peggy.  

In the mid-1960s, Neumar, then a beautician in Jacksonville, Fla., married husband No. 3: Richard Sills, who was in the Navy. In April, 1967, police found his body in the bedroom of the couple’s home in Big Coppitt Key. Neumar told police they were alone and arguing when he pulled out a gun and shot himself. Police ruled his death suicide.  

But after Neumar was charged in North Carolina, Florida authorities took another look.  

They uncovered Navy medical examiner documents revealing Sills may have been shot not just once, as Neumar told police, but twice. One bullet from the .22-caliber pistol pierced his heart, while a second may have sliced his liver. No autopsy was performed.  

Florida investigators planned in 2009 to exhume Sills’ body for an autopsy, but scrapped the plan after determining a statute of limitations applied to the case.

In January 1968 Neumar married Harold Gentry, who was in the Army. In the late 1970s, after he retired, the couple moved to Norwood, N.C., about an hour east of Charlotte.  

Relatives said the couple fought constantly and, just before his slaying, she had asked Harold to move out. After his death, Neumar collected about $20,000 in insurance money.

Authorities later said Neumar had tried to hire three different people to kill Gentry in the six weeks before he was shot to death.

She also had a life insurance policy on husband No. 5, John Neumar, who died in October, 2007. She met him when she moved to Augusta, Ga.  

Georgia authorities took another look at Neumar’s death, but closed the case three years ago. They said they had no evidence his widow was involved. His family has criticized the conclusion.

Meanwhile, a memorial service for Al Gentry will be held Saturday at a Norwood church. His wife plans to visit Harold Gentry’s grave with her husband’s ashes to whisper a prayer. It was the first place Gentry went after hearing about Neumar’s arrest. That’s where he told his brother: “We got her.”

In the pain-wracked weeks before Al Gentry died, he didn’t talk much about the case.

“He got to where he didn’t mention it anymore,” his wife said. “Maybe he had peace with it. I hope so.”

———

Follow Associated Press writer Mitch Weiss at twitter.com/mitchsweiss

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