After years of chasing leads, he thought he’d found the person responsible for the 1986 murder — an elderly Georgia widow who was married to his brother and left a decades-long trail of five dead husbands in five states.
Betty Neumar was charged in 2008 with three counts of solicitation to commit first-degree murder in the death of Harold Gentry.
But weeks before her trial in 2011, Neumar, 79, died of cancer.
That hasn’t stopped Gentry from continuing to press law enforcement authorities for answers. But the stress of living years with the case has taken a toll. In the last year, Gentry’s had a heart attack and a stroke, and is tethered to a portable oxygen tank.
“The question I have is, who killed my brother?” said Gentry, 67, of Rockwell, N.C. “That person is still out there. I’m going to fight to my last breath until I find out who killed him.”
Stanly County Sheriff Rick Burris said the case is no longer active, even though it’s still open.
“We’re really at a dead end,” Burris said.
Gentry spent much of his adult life pushing law enforcement authorities to solve the slaying. He always believed that Neumar — a diminutive Georgia grandmother with a shock of white hair who operated beauty shops, attended church and raised money for charity — was responsible. The case was finally reopened in January 2008 after he asked Burris, then the newly elected sheriff, to look into it.
When investigators did, they found Neumar’s trail of dark secrets.
Authorities discovered Neumar had been married five times since the 1950s and each union ended in her husband’s death. Investigators in three states reopened several of the cases but have since closed them.
Burris said his department still wants to solve Harold Gentry’s homicide.
“But we don’t have any leads,” he said. “If we get any new information, we’ll investigate. We want to bring closure to Al.”
However, Burris and Al Gentry acknowledge that the mysteries in Neumer’s past may never be solved.
From the beginning, law enforcement authorities told The Associated Press they had struggled to piece together details of her life because her story kept changing. But interviews, documents and court records provided an outline of her history in 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, but it’s unclear when their marriage broke up. They had a son, Gary, who was born in 1952.
Malone remarried twice. He 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, Fla. 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 twice — not once, as Neumar told police. 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 then determined a statute of limitations applied to the case. Investigators have said Florida law sets a time limit on prosecution of some categories of homicide, including involuntary manslaughter, but not on premeditated — or first-degree — murder.
After Florida authorities closed the case, Richard Sills’ son, Michael Sills, asked the Naval Criminal Investigative Service cold case squad to investigate. They did, but the investigation ended with Neumar’s death.
In January, 1968, Neumar married Harold Gentry, who was in the Army. The couple moved to Norwood, N.C., about an hour east of Charlotte, in the late 1970s after he retired.
Al Gentry said the couple fought constantly and, just before his brother’s murder, she had asked Harold to move out. After his death, Neumar collected about $20,000 in insurance money.
Authorities said Neumar had tried to hire three different people to kill Gentry in the six weeks before his bullet-riddled body was found in his rural North Carolina home. If it was a hired killing, the perpetrator has never been identified.
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 three years ago closed their re-examination of the death of John Neumar, saying they had no evidence his widow was involved. His family has criticized the conclusion.
At the time, John Neumar’s family said she isolated him from the rest of the family, and they didn’t know he had died until his obituary appeared in the local newspaper. When they visited the funeral home, they discovered he had been cremated.
Meanwhile, Gentry said he hopes someone will come forward with new information in his brother’s case. “It’s consumed my life. I know that. But I can’t give up.”