SHELBY, N.C. -- The mysterious deaths of three elderly Shelby women in 2003 created a climate of fear among some seniors and their families.
The victims lived within two miles of one another. All three were found dead in their beds, with doors unlocked and phone lines cut or yanked out.
In December 2009, police charged Donald Borders, 53, of Cherryville with the rape and murder 79-year-old Margaret Tessneer, who was one of the three victims. Authorities said DNA evidence linked him to the scene of Tessneer’s death.District Attorney Rick Shaffer said the DNA investigation and backlog of cases have delayed the trial.
Jury selection in Borders’ trial will begin Jan. 14 in Cleveland County Superior Court. Shaffer, who is not seeking the death penalty, said the trial will take about a week.
Borders is being held in the Cleveland County Detention Center under $300,000 bond.
Tessneer’s family declined to comment on the case as did Borders’ defense attorney, David Teddy.
Taft Borders said his nephew continues to maintain his innocence and “is putting his trust in God.”
“We’re hoping he gets a fair trial and justice,” Borders said. “We don’t know what happened. We want the truth to come out. We love him and stand behind him.”
He called Donald Borders “as good a person as you’d ever meet.
“He’d give you the shirt off his back,” Taft Borders said.
Shelby Police Chief Jeff Ledford said last week that investigators have looked for evidence that would connect Borders with the other two deaths, but “so far, we haven’t found that.”
An autopsy showed Tessneer was badly bruised on her chest, abdomen, upper arms, legs and feet. Officials said the number and color of the bruises indicated a struggle, but they couldn’t determine a cause of death.
The other two deaths were listed as natural in autopsy reports, officials said. The family of one of the victims believed she was suffocated.
In the years following Tessneer’s death, several detectives of the Shelby Police Department worked the case. As potential suspects were interviewed, DNA samples were taken, but no matches were made, according to court documents.
Search warrants obtained in 2009 showed that in April of that year another detective was assigned to the cases and that he asked for help from a special agent with the State Bureau of Investigation.
The investigators spent several days reviewing the cases and decided to find the people listed in the original case file as suspects.
Borders was one of those questioned in 2004, but according to the warrants, the case file showed that no DNA was collected from him when detectives found him at a Charlotte homeless shelter.
As the investigators began questioning suspects and gathering DNA, they interviewed Borders on May 4, 2009, at his mother’s home in Cherryville.
According to the warrants, Borders acknowledged he had been interviewed in 2004 about the death of an elderly woman and that he had not given any DNA.
He refused to submit to a DNA sample during the interview and turned down other requests over the next two weeks, the warrants stated.
As the investigation progressed, the officers learned Borders was wanted in Gaston County for a charge of assault on a female. When he was arrested May 16, 2009, Gaston County police collected an item that belonged to Borders for a DNA sample, the warrants stated.
The warrants allowed police to make a more thorough test on Borders, including hair and saliva.
DNA collected in 2009
Last November, Superior Court Judge Richard Boner ruled that key DNA evidence could be used in Borders’ trial.
Teddy, the defense attorney, had filed a motion to suppress the evidence on the grounds that methods police used to get the DNA samples violated Borders’ rights.
According to court testimony reported by the Shelby Star, Gaston County police serving a warrant on Borders in 2009 had collected a cigarette butt from him in an effort to get a DNA sample.
An officer testified that when he later went to the Cherryville home where Borders was staying to arrest him, the officer offered a cigarette to Borders, who was handcuffed.
After Borders took a few puffs, the officer offered to take the butt. Borders agreed.
An SBI agent testified that a DNA profile developed from the cigarette was a match for DNA collected from Tessneer’s home.
According to the Star, Teddy said officers should have cleared this method with lawyers or a court official and that Borders’ Fourth Amendment rights had been violated.
Boner ruled that once Borders gave the cigarette to the officer he’d also given up his expectation of privacy.