Unraveling a Manteo murder mystery 

By on April 10, 2024

Writer John Railey tackles the case of Stacey Stanton in his new book

By Mary Ellen Riddle | Outer Banks Voice

It was February of 1990, and the Outer Banks was preparing for the tourist season when a horrific murder occurred in Manteo.

Rumors raced across the county. Was the perpetrator who brutally stabbed the young and beautiful Stacey Stanton in her downtown Manteo apartment, Clifton Eugene Spencer, an acquaintance of the murder victim, the victim’s ex-boyfriend, Norman Judson “Mike” Brandon Jr., or someone else?

This local writer clearly remembers the passionate back and forth at the time of “who did it?”  It was a complex case involving drug use and alcohol, tangled relationships, and questionable past histories of the two men and possibly racism. One thing was clear; the islanders were in shock. For the leading law enforcement personnel, the case was solved. For others in the legal system, injustice was done, and the wrong man was accused. For author John Railey and the Stanton family it is clear who killed Stacey Stanton.

The case piqued the interest of Railey who has spent much of his life on the Outer Banks and calls it his “canvas.” He is the author of several locally set books including The Lost Colony Murder on the Outer Banks: Seeking Justice for Brenda Joyce Holland. The national, regional, and state award-winning writer and investigative journalist came prepared to sink his teeth into the tragic Stanton occurrence. His latest book Murder in Manteo: Seeking Justice for Stacey Stanton is the result

Published this month by The History Press, the 190-page book covers the case in detail. By employing his investigative chops and his natural writing ability, Railey’s written a compelling story that reads like a mystery novel. But he reminds us through the gradual introduction of real-life details that this is no novel, but a tragedy over which all can weep.

Railey was prepared from an early age to take on such a project. “My hard-charging defense lawyer/father took me into prisons and on outside witness interviews when I was a child, so I was hard-wired for this,” says Railey. “I majored in English at Carolina [UNC], which gave me a good understanding, especially through Shakespeare, of human nature and the power of narrative storytelling to effect justice.” And Railey worked for North Carolina newspapers for 35 years, often in investigative reporting.

In Murder in Manteo, he writes that the 28-year-old year-old Stanton was away from the loving arms of her South Jersey family testing her wings on the Outer Banks and historic Roanoke Island. She worked cutting hair and as a server at the well-known Duchess of Dare, a restaurant in downtown Manteo where locals would meet.

Stanton confided to her parents that things were rocky with her boyfriend. They wanted her to come back home. But she was busy working to make ends meet and trying to make a fractured relationship with her boyfriend work.

To bring to life the case and the multiple people involved and getting inside the head of Stanton and her thoughts, Railey read the discovery case files. Also, in authoring the book he said, “I drew from the confidential SBI file on the case, hundreds of my own interviews with lawyers, a key suspect and island insiders.” He delved into case files, transcripts, records and county commissioner meeting minutes and articles in multiple newspapers. In total, he interviewed at least 50 people and studied crime scene photos. It took him a year to complete the book.

Stacey Stanton and her cat Molly. (Courtesy of the Stanton family)

When asked what the toughest part of the process was, he pointed to the crime scene photos of Stanton’s body. Railey says that you cannot do investigations or author accurate books unless you study those photos, so you will know the right questions to ask and scenarios to consider.

“But the images don’t leave you,” he says. “They haunt the canyons of your mind. Law enforcement officers and fellow true-crime writers tell me such images haunt them as well. It’s all the harder as you get to know the victim, even if you never met her in life. Stacey’s fine family brought her alive for me in a visit with them in her South Jersey hometown. She was a compassionate, good person—so the crime-scene photos were all the harder to take.”

As Railey investigates the violent case, he wades through questionable work by some law enforcement officers, meets champions for justice and interviews locals who were mainstays on Roanoke Island when Stanton was present. For Outer Bankers, he presents a memorable walk through the past through black and white photos and his writing.

Railey uses his gift to recreate settings such as the local bar in downtown Manteo where the players in this real-life drama hung out. Readers are also guided through Stanton’s apartment, the murder scene located within walking distance from the pub. The discovery files contained details that transport readers into Stanton’s downtown apartment such as a mattress on the floor, and a magnet of her and her father on her refrigerator, and the white walls of the apartment that contrast with the blood on the bathroom sink.

Today, many of the people involved in this mystery are dead. Some law enforcement folks would not talk to Railey, and one hung up on him. And yet, he managed to write a fact-filled account based on real records and the dogged investigation by a man who for the past several years has investigated mitigating factors in death penalty cases for the state of North Carolina.

Photo of author John Railey. (Credit: Kathleen Railey)

What does it take to be a good investigative reporter? “Tenacity, attention to detail, curiosity and courage, the latter of which I am still learning,” says Railey. “You haven’t been on a good investigative chase if you haven’t had a Pitt Bull charge you!”

As the reader travels through the trials and tribulations of Railey’s real life characters, the most riveting question of all continually comes to the fore: Who killed Stacey Stanton? Some law enforcement factions believe it was Clifton Spencer. Others believe it was Mike Brandon. Did drugs play a role? Was racism a factor in the eventual arrest?

One of the men spent 17 years in prison for the crime. The other is dead. To hint here at answering the primary question would be a shame all in its own. For the timing of introducing the case components is so artful, the reader would not want to journey through the pages any other way than with Railey as the consummate guide. Discovering the truth does not always happen quickly, and in the words of popular novelist Stephen King: “Remember that ‘The truth is in the details.’” That is something that Railey is a master at presenting. He comes to a conclusion but leaves it for the reader to discover at the end as in every good mystery novel.

(A book signing and discussion panel featuring author John Railey, podcaster Delia D’Aambra and attorney Chris Mumma, is on May 16, 6 p.m. at COA in Veterans Hall. duckscottage.com. Murder in Manteo: Seeking Justice for Stacey Stanton, The History Press, 190 pgs., $24.99. For preorders of the book go to Murder in Manteo: Seeking Justice for Stacey Stanton (True Crime): Railey, John: 9781467155700. It will be available at local bookstores May 13 and at several Barnes and Nobles stores statewide.)



Barnhill Building Group has been selected as the Construction Manager @ Risk by the College of the Albemarle and is seeking to pre-qualify construction trade contractors to submit bids for the furnishing labor, materials, equipment, and tools for the new College of The Albemarle – Allied Health Sciences Simulation Lab (COA Health Sciences) located in Elizabeth City, NC. Please note: Only subcontractors who have been prequalified by Barnhill will be able to submit a Bid.

The project consists of the new construction of a 38,000-sf, 2-story expansion to the existing Owens Health Sciences Center and will house classrooms, labs, and a simulation lab. The site is just over just over 4.5 acres and is located on an active campus. This new construction will be a steel structure with a brick and metal panel veneer, curtainwall, and storefront glazing with a PVC roof membrane.

Principal trade and specialty contractors are solicited for the following Bid Packages:

BP0100: General Trades

BP0105: Final Cleaning

BP0390: Turnkey Concrete

BP0400: Turnkey Masonry

BP0500: Structural Steel & Misc. Steel

BP0740: Roofing

BP0750: Metal Panels

BP0790: Caulking / Caulking

BP0800: Turnkey Doors/Frames/Hardware

BP0840: Glass & Glazing

BP0925: Drywall

BP0960: Resilient Flooring

BP0980: Acoustical Ceilings

BP0990: Painting & Wallcovering

BP1005: Toilet Specialties / Accessories / Division 10

BP1010: Signage

BP1098: Demountable Partitions

BP1230: Finish Carpentry and Casework

BP1250: Window Treatment

BP1400: Elevators

BP2100: Fire Protection

BP2200: Plumbing

BP2300: HVAC

BP2600: Turnkey Electrical

BP3100: Turnkey Sitework

BP3290: Landscaping

Packages may be added and/or deleted at the discretion of the Construction Manager. Historically underutilized business firms are encouraged to complete participation submittals.

HUB/MWBE OUTREACH MEETING: Barnhill Building Group will be conducting a HUB/MWBE Informational Session. You are encouraged to attend the following session to learn more about project participation opportunities available to you. These seminars will help to: Learn about project and scope; Inform and train Minority/HUB contractors in preparation for bidding this project; Assist in registration on the State of North Carolina Vendor link; Stimulate opportunities for Networking with other firms. Location and time TBD. Please visit our planroom at https://app.buildingconnected.com/public/54da832ce3edb5050017438b for more information.

Interested contractors should submit their completed prequalification submittals, by July 22, 2024, to Meredith Terrell at mterrell@barnhillcontracting.com or hardcopies can be mailed to Barnhill Contracting Company PO Box 31765 Raleigh, NC 27622 (4325 Pleasant Valley Road, NC 27612).



  • Mike Raphone

    We all knew Clifton Spencer didn’t do it back then. Especially not when Stacey was found with a wad of blonde hair in her hand. How the case against him ever held water is beyond me, except for the obvious Good ol’ Boys club made it look that way.

    Wednesday, Apr 10 @ 11:36 am
  • Charles

    I have a feeling a new book swapping the title of Manteo to Rodanthe will be next.

    Thursday, Apr 11 @ 10:15 am