Primary Position: Relief pitcher
First, Middle Names: Donald Mark
Date of Birth: April 5, 1938 Date and Place of Death: Nov. 8, 2017, Myrtle Beach, SC
Burial: Hammond Cemetery, Nichols, SC
High School: Floyds High School, Nichols, SC
College: Campbell University, Buies Creek, NC; East Carolina University, Greenville, NC
Bats: R Throws: R Height and Weight: 6-4, 200
Debut Year: 1962 Final Year: 1962 Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Chicago Cubs, 1962
G W L Sv ERA IP SO WAR
1 0 0 0 0.00 1.0 0 0.0
Don Prince pitched one inning in the major leagues and seven years in the minors, but this really isn’t a story about his life in baseball. He was later a successful insurance agent and enthusiastic private pilot. This isn’t about annuities or aviation, either. This is, instead, a sad tale about how a brother’s fidelity – yes, some might bluntly call it his stupidity – led him down a dark path where federal agents posing as hit men lurked in the shadows. This is a story about how Don Prince, baseball pitcher, insurance salesman and pilot with a wife, children, a house at the beach, and all the trappings of a good life, turned to murder to save his brother.
Donald Mark Prince was born in 1938 in Clarkton, a small farming community in southern Bladen County. His brother, Roger DeWitt, who went by the name Bill, was born a year later. Their father, Woodrow, raised tobacco, first in Bladen and then on leased land in adjoining Columbus County.
On a rainy night in 1951, Woody went to out to the tobacco barn. He was wet and barefoot when he plugged in the heater. The resulting electrical shock killed him instantly. The consequences of the tragic accident were immediate and would ripple through the brothers’ lives for decades.
With no way to support herself and her children, the widowed Carrie Prince moved just across the state line to Nichols, South Carolina, to be closer to her family. That’s where Don played high-school baseball and basketball. After graduating in 1956, he played the same sports for two years at Campbell Junior College, now a university, in Buies Creek, North Carolina. He would be inducted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 1968. Prince then went on to what’s now East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, for his teaching certificate. He would teach and coach in North Carolina high schools during the offseasons throughout his baseball career. His basketball team at Hoke High School in Raeford would go the state finals in 1966.
Prince signed his first professional contract in 1958 with the Chicago Cubs and spent all but a year of his career in their minor leagues. A career sub-.500 pitcher, he had his best year that first season when he was 11-6 with 3.76 earned-run average for the Cubs’ Class D club in Paris, Illinois. The Cubs summoned him to Chicago for the end of the 1962 season. He pitched a hitless ninth inning in a 4-1 loss to the New York Mets on Sept. 21 but was sent to the minors the following year. He finished his career in 1964 in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ farm system.
Back in Raeford, Prince continued to teach and coach but began selling insurance on the side. Within a couple of years, he opened an agency that he moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1968. He apparently did quite well. He and his wife, Jill, bought a house in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, where they raised their two children. Prince learned to fly small planes and became an avid aviator. Life threw him a curve in 1977 when Jill died, but Prince pressed on.
Dark clouds started gathering the day in 1955 when Billy E. Graham, a prominent and wealthy tobacco farmer in Olanta, South Carolina, met brother Bill at a tobacco warehouse, where the teenager was selling boiled peanuts. Impressed with the boy’s salesmanship, Graham, a bachelor, started looking out for Bill after learning that he came from a poor family and had no father. They were “really close,” the Florence County sheriff would later say. Graham, he said, “had practically raised” Prince.[i]
After graduating from high school, Bill moved into Graham’s handsome brick house with its velvet wallpaper and sunken bathtub. In the garage was the Cadillac Graham liked to drive around town. A million dollars in show horses grazed in the surrounding pastures. The two eventually started a business to farm the more than 3,000 acres of tobacco, and Bill was the beneficiary of a $500,000 life insurance policy on Graham that he had bought from his brother.
The clouds thickened as the relationship slowly came apart when interest rates rose and commodity prices fell in the late 1970s. Crops failed during the drought of 1979-80, and Graham was bankrupt. He lost it all: the Cadillac, the show horses, the handsome brick house with its velvet wallpaper and sunken tub. By 1985, it was only the generosity of friends that kept him from becoming destitute. One bought the old house from the bank and allowed Graham to move back in. He had been living in a string of seedy motels.
Bill Prince, however, wasn’t among those who aided the broken man who had once treated him like a son. In fact, Graham by then thought that Prince was trying to steal his land. Untangling the byzantine financial arrangements between the two that fueled Graham’s suspicions and ultimately led to the ugly night of June 10, 1987 requires diving into the murk of federal crop loans and land-bank rules, an unsavory task not necessary for our purposes here. All we need to know is that Prince and several partners, who included Charlie Dorn Smith, the president of a bank in Olanta, formed a business in the early 1980s to lease and farm Graham’s land and pay off his substantial debt to federal agencies. It didn’t work out, and a jury in a civil lawsuit later brought by Graham determined that Prince and his partners owed the bankrupt farmer more than $200,000.
The storm broke on that June night when fire engulfed the handsome house on the edge of town. By the time the flames were quenched, the house was a charred ruin. Graham’s badly burned body was found in his second-floor bedroom. The coroner ruled that he had died of smoke inhalation. In other words, an accident. Prince paid the undertaker $3,500 to bury his former partner and benefactor.
Rumors about the death of the popular resident circulated quickly through the small farming town. “People were not satisfied with the results of the investigation,” said Mayor Kelton Floyd. “No names were called, but they did not believe that the man just burned.”[I]
New evidence persuaded authorities to exhume the body. This time two .32-caliber bullets were found in its skull. Almost two years later, in 1989, Prince and Smith were charged with hiring a killer to execute Graham and set the fire. Prince, then 51, was convicted in 1992 and sentenced to life in prison. Free on bond while his case was appealed, he fled two years later when the state supreme court refused to order a new trial.
This is where Don Prince re-appears. He would later admit that he helped his brother for the year that he was on the run. Diagnosed with cancer, Bill was hiding in Puerto Rico, but Don brought him home for treatments. He made sure he kept his doctor appointments, paid his medical bills, and helped run the farming business in Olanta. All the while, he urged his brother to turn himself in. Bill was captured in a motel in Knoxville, Tennessee, in August 1995 and began his life in prison.
Don was a frequent visitor. He continued to manage Bill’s affairs and worked with his lawyers. His talks with his brother soon turned from crop prices and family matters. To prepare for the new trial that they hoped the courts would order, the brothers discussed ways to persuade the two key witnesses to recant their testimony. When neither seemed willing, Bill noted that one of his prison mates was getting out. He knew someone who would kill the witnesses, Bill said. That prisoner, though, was also an FBI informant.
That’s how it came to be that Don stepped out of his car at a rest stop on I-20 in South Carolina on Dec. 8, 1995. He had driven from Wrightsville Beach to pay the hit man who had killed one of the witnesses and to arrange for the murder of the other. The assassin showed Don a photograph of the dead man – doctored, it turned out — and Don handed him $5,000. The FBI undercover agent slapped the cuffs on Don. “The things you do for your brother,” he said disgustedly.[II]
The brothers were convicted the following year. Bill got 15 years added to his sentence. Don got 17. In a letter to his wife before their convictions, Bill asks about the wellbeing of his brother’s children. “I know that they are really hurt with everything that is going on,” he wrote. “But I hope they will understand that everything is my fault. I will never be able to forgive myself for the problems that I have caused everybody. But if it would be any consolation. I would have done the same for Don.”[III] Bill died in prison in 2003.
After his release, Don moved to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he died in 2017.
[I] “3 More Arrested for 1986 Olanta Murder.” The Item (Sumter, SC) April 7, 1989.
[II] United States v. Don Prince, No. 97-4329; United States v. Roger DeWitt Prince, a/k/a Bill, No. 97-4334 (4th Cir. 1999). https://www.ca4.uscourts.gov/opinions/Unpublished/974329.U.pdf.