More from the series
The Storm’s Path
The Charlotte Observer and The Raleigh News & Observer go deep into one of the deadliest hurricanes and the all-time costliest storm to strike North Carolina. Our investigation retraces Hurricane Florence’s destructive steps to ask: Are we ready for the next one?
Shannon Godwin was putting plywood on the windows of his home the day before Hurricane Florence was expected to make landfall when he got the call.
The Columbus County 911 center was on the line: A man had been riding a moped out on U.S. 74 when he was hit from behind by a pickup truck. Godwin, a part-time medical examiner, would need to determine whether an autopsy was necessary.
There was little question about how the man died; state troopers estimated the moped was moving at about 35 miles per hour when it was hit by a truck going 70. The rider was wearing a helmet but judging by his head injuries, Godwin concluded he died instantly.
There was also little question about who the man was.
Kenny Ray Davis carried a blue, waterproof bag full of documents, including old ID cards and his birth certificate. Davis died three days before his 62nd birthday.
But there was more, much more.
Davis seemed to have all the important papers of his life in that blue bag. There were birth certificates for his parents, Allen Jackie Davis and Jennie Elizabeth Davis, and their marriage license from 1954. He even had his father’s discharge papers from the Marine Corps.
There were also several Manila folders with paperwork indicating Davis was working to settle the affairs of his deceased parents. His father died in 2013, and his mother had passed away on July 4, only two months before her son.
Davis labeled the contents of each folder, including “IRS” and “Bills to be paid” and “Mustang,” for his mother’s car.
“He had everything with him,” Godwin said. “He was very organized.”
Godwin would use the papers and the 12 contacts in Davis’ cellphone to try to find a relative or another person to notify of his death. He hoped to find someone to claim his body and perhaps settle Davis’ affairs, as Davis had been trying to do for his parents.
It became apparent that Davis was likely homeless. Among the papers was a letter dated July 13 ordering him out of the apartment in Wilmington where he had been living with his mother, because he was not on the lease. The Highway Patrol listed Davis’ address as a building in the Long Leaf Shopping Center where he had a mail box.
No one knows where Davis was going on his moped, but he apparently left Wilmington that morning, headed west. He didn’t have a change of clothes or even a toothbrush with him, but the bag full of paperwork led the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Raleigh to conclude that Davis was fleeing the storm.
Under federal guidelines, a person who dies in a motor vehicle crash while evacuating a hurricane is counted among the victims. And so Davis was added to the official list of people who died as a result of Florence in North Carolina, which now stands at 46.
Because he died so early, before the hurricane even arrived, Davis was the storm’s first casualty.
He called himself Cowboy
Davis died on a remote stretch of U.S. 74, two miles west of the community of Evergreen, at 11:11 a.m. on Sept. 13.
The narrow shoulder of the four-lane divided highway was grooved to alert drivers who drift off the pavement, so troopers think Davis probably rode in the roadway with traffic whizzing by at 70 miles per hour or more. The driver who hit him, a 27-year-old man from Lumberton, was cited with misdemeanor death by motor vehicle.
Davis may have left Wilmington the only way he could. After being sent to prison for habitually driving under the influence of alcohol, he didn’t have a driver’s license. He had bought the moped a couple of weeks before he died. It was registered and insured, Godwin said.
Godwin called all 12 contacts in Davis’ LG flip phone, including two taxi companies, a man who might have been interested in buying the Mustang at one point and another who gave Davis odd jobs. There were also two old friends in Michigan, where Davis was born, who said they heard from him once in a while.
Godwin learned a little more about Davis — that he called himself The Cowboy and that those who knew him considered him a loner who dropped off the radar every now and then. Godwin said he didn’t like to believe that Davis had no one to look after him when he died.
“Everybody’s got people. So it’s sad to think of not having people,” he said. “But I don’t know that he wanted people. It’s almost like he made a conscious effort to not have people. … He kind of did his own thing.”
Godwin’s search for someone to claim Davis included a call to Andrews Mortuary in Hampstead, which had handled the funerals for both his father and mother. Michael Anderson said he had worked with Davis to plan his mother’s funeral that July.
Davis didn’t want an obituary published, Anderson said in an interview with The News & Observer, and only about six or eight people showed up for the funeral, which included a graveside service. There was no minister; Davis was the only person who spoke.
“He got up at the appointed time and said a few words about his mom and thanked everybody for being there,” Anderson said. “And then he was ready to go.”
Though the service was quick and simple, Davis had made sure his mother was buried in a casket next to her husband at Sea Lawn Memorial Park.
“Kenny was in a situation where he didn’t have a whole lot himself, so he could have done something like had her cremated and had no services at all,” Anderson said. “But it was very important to him for her to be buried beside his dad, her husband. So he took care of what needed to be done.”
Anderson doesn’t know who came to Jennie Davis’ funeral and whether any of them were relatives of Kenny’s.
Holding out hope
Godwin has kept everything Davis had with him the day he died, including all the paperwork. The clothes, including the blood-stained wide-brimmed hat that had been tied around Davis’ neck, are still in a plastic bag in his garage. Godwin holds out slim hope that a distant relative will come looking for him.
Godwin is a native of Columbus County. He went to nursing school right out of high school and has had a varied career, both caring for patients and managing other nurses. He worked as an emergency room nurse and critical care transport nurse at WakeMed and Rex hospitals in Raleigh and for the Veterans Administration in Durham.
Since 2015, he has been a nurse manager at a VA clinic in Brunswick County. He’s a part-time medical examiner in Columbus County, on-call when he’s not working at the VA. His wife Tara, a former paramedic in Cary, is also a part-time medical examiner.
Godwin says his father, a farmer, died of a stroke when he was 7. He thinks part of his desire to care for patients and their families stems from his father’s early death.
If a court granted him the authority, Godwin said he would be willing to settle Davis’ affairs for him. He said he would donate any money Davis has coming to him from his mother’s estate to a charity or a cause, except he doesn’t know what causes were important to him. For all the details of his life contained in that blue bag, Godwin says he doesn’t really know Davis.
“One thing I don’t know about him is what he loved,” he said. “Other than his mama.”
Davis’ body was taken to a funeral home in Whiteville, where he was cremated. It’s not clear if his ashes remain there still; the funeral director did not return several calls.
There was not a plot for Davis next to his parents at Sea Lawn Memorial Park.
“It would have been awesome if I could have found a way to have his remains put there with them,” Godwin said.
“He made sure that they were tended to and taken care of, and if he would have wanted to be anywhere it would be there.”