On the night Amy Lou Buckingham was murdered outside her home in Tunnelton, West Virginia, Sharon Pingley retreated into her nearby home afraid.
The metal on wood “ca chunk” of the deadbolt lock provided little comfort that April night in 2015.
Buckingham’s murderer, a man Pingley helped convict of stalking two years earlier, was on the loose only a few miles away, and she was worried she might be next in his crosshairs.
“Fear,” Pingley said, recalling that night. “When we found out he killed that woman in Tunnelton, we didn’t leave the house. We didn’t leave until we heard he’d been caught.”
Buckingham’s murder came after a grim warning Pingley had delivered to prosecutors two years earlier.
“I said, ‘You know there will be another (victim),’” she said. “I hope my words ring in (the prosecutor’s) ears forever more. I said there will be another.”
Buckingham never knew 28-year-old Timothy Davison of Maine. His murder along Interstate 81 near Greencastle in January 2014 triggered a long-fruitless multi-state manhunt.
In life, Buckingham and Davison were separated by nearly 1,000 miles, but in death they appear to be connected by one man — John Wayne Strawser Jr.
Time and time again, Strawser came to the attention of law enforcement, and time and time again, he walked away. With numerous victims and numerous arrests on his record, Strawser bucked the system, serving less than two weeks in jail.
He was not stopped until after he murdered Buckingham, and he now stands accused of killing Davison, who appears to have been at the wrong place at the wrong time that night on I-81.
Two people are dead, one man is implicated in both killings, and the criminal justice system tasked with protecting people appears to have failed them all.
“If (the courts) would have done what they should have done, instead of slapping him on the flippin’ wrist, he’d have been in jail and those two people would probably still be alive,” said Elizabeth Butler, who Strawser was charged with stalking in 2013.
Court hearings in Butler’s case would coincide within days of both deaths.
“The night ... he killed Ms. Buckingham, he was only two miles from my home when he got loose from the cops,” she said. “My dad went through every roadblock, came to my house and got me and my daughter because I wouldn’t take my vehicle out of the driveway. I was scared to death. ... I said ‘Oh my God. He’s headed to my house. I’m next.’ He was that close.”
Strawser grew up in Preston County, West Virginia, a rural area near Pittsburgh that borders Pennsylvania and Maryland. The area is quintessential Appalachia.
Roads bend and wind around the hilly terrain, rather than cutting through it. Homes, at times, appear out of place, as if they had been delicately set on top of the uneven landscape, not firmly secured to a foundation.
“His grandparents lived right above us and his dad is just a gentle soul,” Pingley said.
She reflected on times when Strawser and his siblings came to her home as children to get rhubarb to take to their grandparent’s home nearby to make a pie.
Pingley’s husband served as Strawser’s Boy Scout troop leader.
“They were just normal,” Pingley said. “Maybe it was a little tougher growing up in Terra Alta (West Virginia). I don’t know. I just never would have thought, no, I never would have thought.”
As he transitioned into adulthood something changed in the little boy Pingley described as a “little ornery.”
By the time Treva Cline, the mother of Pingley’s granddaughter, met Strawser in 2012, he was already well into a dark and violent pattern of behavior with his intimate partners. But Cline only knew him as her co-worker.
She didn’t know about his multiple arrests for assault and stalking.
She didn’t know about the women who sought court orders protecting them from him.
She didn’t know one woman told authorities that Strawser threatened to cut her unborn child out of her, or that another accused Strawser of striking her child and pouring bleach over her clothes when she tried to break up with him.
She didn’t know that during one fight Strawser stole a woman’s truck by jamming a pocket knife into the ignition.
She didn’t know, because she said Strawser did not appear to be that kind of man.
Between 2000 and 2001, Strawser was charged with a cluster of offenses, including felony motor vehicle theft. In 2004, he was convicted of misdemeanor second degree assault, which was followed by a nearly four-year absence from the criminal justice system.
Beginning in 2008 there was an increase in the frequency of cases filed against him. Three women sought domestic violence and peace orders against him, and he was charged twice with theft between March 2008 and when Cline met him in 2012.
“When I first met him he was really friendly,” Cline said. “He just seemed like a nice a person. He talked about going places. He talked about going to the beach.”
The two began hanging out and went on a few dates, but that friendly, nice person Cline met at work quickly changed.
“He got really jealous,” she said. “I had just met him, you know. I only knew him two months and he was really jealous and got mad.”
Strawser’s jealousy and anger came to a raging boil one night in August 2012 when Cline was out with Pingley’s son, the father of her child. The two had not been together for some time, but Cline said they continued to co-parent their child.
He began calling and texting. Strawser eventually showed up at her home, but she wasn’t there.
“(Cline) started seeing him less and less and was a little bit less interested in him,” said Pingley, who lives next door. “He starts stalking around. He’s in the area, always in the area. It was getting really annoying.”
Pingley watched every time Strawser drove by the home, turning the outside lights on to let him know she had seen him.
After Pingley put her granddaughter and husband to bed, her dog began barking, alerting her that something outside wasn’t right.
Strawser had tried to ring her door bell, but it didn’t work.
She went to the door, looked outside and yelled to Strawser, who was making his way to Cline’s home.
“When he turned and looked, it was the look. It could have been like that girl from ‘The Exorcist,’” Pingley said. “I knew it wasn’t over, but I didn’t know what he would go on to do.”
She was right.
Strawser returned later that night and thrashed Cline’s car, ramming his pickup truck into it.
“He destroyed my car,” Cline said. “He hit it multiple times with his truck. He took the valve stems out of the tires. He took my spark plug wires. The windshield was broken. He ripped out all the wires from under the steering wheel.”
In total, Strawser did more than $3,500 in damage to the Honda Accord.
Strawser texted Cline telling her that he would call police and say she had hit him and fled the scene.
“U either call me with n The next 2 mins or I will call The cops and have then Set at The church waiting on u 2 go 2 work,” Strawser said in one text that was entered into evidence.
“Fine I will call them say u hit me and left The scene I have ur tag,” he said in another that accompanied a photo of Cline’s license plate.
To help sell the ruse, he even took parts of the car with him that he planned to use as evidence, including a side-view mirror. When Cline didn’t respond he turned to threatening suicide, implying it would be Cline’s fault if he took his own life.
“I so bably need 2 cry is so Unreal,” he wrote in a text sent shortly after midnight. “Where r u @.”
“Would u b the 1 2 come find me ? If I would shoot myself,” he wrote less than an hour later. “Plz my family couldn’t/dnt need that.”
By morning Cline went to the police and filed for an emergency protection order, but not before Strawser made contact a few more times.
“I made u happy and I was the only 1 u was with sense May,” a text at 9:18 a.m. said. “Kinda hate 2 trust women and u just showed me again. Cant trust them. Thanks.”
Cline became one of more than 12,000 people to report a domestic violence incident to police in 2012, according to West Virginia State Police.
On April 15, 2013, Strawser was sentenced in Cline’s case to six months in prison after pleading guilty to misdemeanor stalking.
That sentence was suspended and Strawser was placed on probation for two years.
As part of his probation and the protection from abuse obtained by Cline, Strawser was ordered to not possess or own any firearms. In West Virginia, like Pennsylvania, firearms may be transferred to a family member or another person who does not live with the person required to surrender their firearms.
Answering questions from police after Buckingham’s murder, Strawser said he had handed over numerous firearms to his sister after Cline obtained the protection from abuse in 2012, a process that typically requires the person to go to the sheriff’s office, undergo a background check and fill out a form saying he was handing over the guns. That form was blank in Strawser’s case file.
“He didn’t do any official transfer, it doesn’t work that way in West Virginia,” Preston County Prosecuting Attorney Melvin Snyder said. “If you do it between family, you don’t have to do any paper work. I can walk up and sell an individual in my family a gun for whatever and there’s not paperwork done on that at all.”
So, despite at that time Strawser being a convicted felon since 2002, which made it a misdemeanor for him to own or possess any firearms in the state of West Virginia, Strawser faced no charges.
Snyder appeared unaware of Strawser’s 2002 felony conviction when asked about it in June.
The Sentinel presented case information about the conviction to which Snyder said, “As to the Maryland conviction, if it was a felony, his possession of a firearm in West Virginia would be a misdemeanor crime.”
A National Crime Information Center background check clearly listing the 2002 Maryland conviction was in the case files for the offense against Cline and the murder of Buckingham.
Less than three months after being sentenced in West Virginia, Strawser was charged with nearly identical charges — stalking and malicious destruction of property — only a few miles away in Garrett County, Maryland.
In this case, Butler filed for a protection from abuse order, telling authorities Strawser sexually assaulted her and was told not to come back to her home, court records stated.
He became angry, showing up a day later.
As Butler was drawing her evening bath, Strawser began pounding on the door. She hid inside her bathroom until he left. For hours afterwards, Strawser drove past her home, like a shark circling its prey.
He called and sent text messages. He went to the door and pounded on it again around 1 a.m., according to court records.
Around 2:30 a.m., Butler said she heard a loud bang and the sound of Strawser’s car driving away. He continued to circle for another three hours, Butler told police.
“He tried to deny everything, but I was sitting in my house,” she said. “I saw him do this. ... He texted me the same thing 13 times, ‘Are you going to let me in or do you want me gone?’ Thirteen times he texted me the same thing.”
It was not until the morning that she felt comfortable to go outside. When she did, Butler was greeted by a similar sight Strawser had left for Cline.
Strawser had scratched up her truck and broken out her tail lights, she told police.
Butler only went on one date with Strawser.
“He changed my whole outlook on Facebook and how I post things, because I had made a comment and I was feeling down and he asked if he could take me to lunch,” Butler said. “In three days he done damaged my truck because I wouldn’t sleep with him.”
Butler’s case didn’t lead to a conviction. It was only after Strawser killed Buckingham that prosecutors pushed for the stalking charge, Butler said.
On Dec. 30, 2013 — four days before Strawser is accused of killing Davison — Butler’s case was placed on an indefinite postponement known as STET. In return for halting prosecution in the case, Strawser was to pay Butler $800 in restitution, which he has yet to do.
Strawser did more than $1,200 in damage to the truck, Butler said.
“I wasn’t OK that it was put on STET,” Butler said. “(Prosectutors) said I had to allow him time to come up with the money.”
Butler said she wanted Strawser punished.
She said he continued to harass her even after she filed charges, but she received no relief from authorities.
“He was driving up and down past my house 15 to 20 times a day,” said Butler. “There was nothing I could do about it. I had to deal with it, because I lived on a main road.”
The ordeal with Strawser has changed the way Butler deals with relationships with men, she said.
“From now on I do not care, if I date anybody I’m going to look them up,” Butler said. “I’m going to look them up before I date them.”
A condition of Strawser’s probation in the Cline case was he could not leave West Virginia unless he received approval from the probation department. Prosecutors in Maryland were aware of his conviction in West Virginia and were aware that he was on probation, according to court records.
Strawser made the STET deal with prosecutors the same day a second woman in Garrett County came forward seeking a peace order against him for stalking her since the previous month.
The second victim told authorities Strawser had been stalking her after the two broke up. She said she had ended the relationship because Strawser had become jealous and accused her of cheating on him on multiple occasions.
He showed up at her work, sent her text messages and even interrupted her while she was at the movies with her friend, she told police.
Strawser again threatened suicide “since he knew it would worry me,” she said. This time he sent a photograph of the bullet he planned to use.
Both women stated Strawser owned firearms. Butler — like several women before her — told police he carried at least one firearm inside his vehicle.
Why was a man with a clear pattern of violence and a growing list of alleged victims and charges allowed to remain unchecked?
“Very often domestic violence isn’t taken too seriously,” said Judy King, executive director of the Rape and Domestic Violence Information Center. “Or, if someone stalks someone who is a former intimate partner, people don’t take that too seriously. They don’t connect the dots, even if the law says ‘you must connect the dots,’ they don’t.”
Multiple attempts to contact Garrett County State’s Attorney Lisa Thayer-Welch via phone and email for explanation went unanswered.
The Preston County Probation Department refused comment as to why Strawser’s probation was not revoked given the charges, citing that Strawser is currently awaiting sentencing for the Buckingham murder.
There is, however, no doubt what Strawser’s sentence will be. West Virginia law requires Strawser be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“We used to always say the violence escalates over time and happens more frequently over time, and I think that is true,” King said. “Unless there is some kind of intervention, unless the law or someone, kind of pulls them up short and lets them know that’s not OK, it’s working for them. It’s pretty effective to get his partner to do what he wants, so why give it up?”
Snyder said his office was not informed of the Garrett County charges, Strawser’s probation was not revoked, he was not criminally punished for terrorizing either victim, and he again made it through the system largely unscathed.