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Murder of a Nobody

Kevin Sibbitt, a 911 Dispatcher, listens to a call. (Photo: JBLM PAO / Flickr)

Victim on Lot 5

Dispatcher: New Hanover County 911
Belton: Uh … (mumbling) … murder … I want to report … (mumbling) … dead.

Diane Clemmons Belton was a nobody. For a time, years ago, after the local lottery shot a commercial with Belton behind the register, her co-workers at the Scotchman convenience store and filling station humored her like a celebrity. “Every time they showed the lottery, her face would pop up,” says Stacy Humbles, the store manager. She was ecstatic, co-workers say, but the joke faded, and life as a part-time sales associate at Scotchman soon returned to normal: in at 5 PM, out by 11, “How can I help you?” and “Which pump?” and the phone calls – always the phone calls. “Don’t forget the six-pack,” he’d say.

She liked NASCAR and bowling, and she dined so often at the Goody Goody Omelet House that the cooks knew her by name. Between the filling station and her full-time job as a kitchen supervisor at the Department of Corrections (DOC), Belton worked hard. Overtime even. But she didn’t have any goals, her family admits, just hoping to make ends meet in the port city of Wilmington, North Carolina.

Her dyed black hair fell to her shoulders, and because her social life hunkered in the shadows of an 80-hour workweek, she was rarely seen in anything but her navy blue Scotchman polo or white-collared DOC uniform. She was proud of the white; she worked her way up from the blue. And for the past 18 months, she wore a walking cast, khakis stuffed inside, to support her ankle, still healing from a minor corrective surgery on her Achilles tendon.

She had two kids, a son and a daughter, but they’d grown up and had jobs and kids of their own. She left her first husband decades ago, and her second, following a fatal heart attack, left her. In 1999, she married her third, an odd and very quiet man named Ray Belton, a sometimes-employed electrician who claimed to love NASCAR as much as she did. She was punctual, organized and loyal to a fault, but for all practical purposes, Diane Belton was a nobody: no money, no fame, no mission. So, on the night of September 3, 2011, when the electrician drank his brandy and pulled the trigger, few seemed to notice.

“I don’t even know if ignored is the right word,” her son Stephen would later say. “You don’t even know about it.”

Dispatcher: Do you need a rescue unit?
Belton: No ma’am.
Dispatcher: Do you need an officer?
Belton: I really … I guess I need … cause wife accidentally got shot.

Absent the Outpouring

Ray was charged with second-degree murder the following afternoon, bail set at $500,000, and in the week to follow, Diane Belton’s name appeared in the local newspaper exactly twice, once on page 1A and later on 1B, both in 400 words or less. Local reporters drove by the crime scene, 219 S. Kerr Ave., Lot 5, and scraped together short blurbs with the modicum of information released by the Wilmington Police Department, and the alleged crack of the gunshot heard by the Rodriguez’s next door. By the end of the weekend, news of the crime vanished altogether.

And why not? It was a low-profile, open-and-shut case, and in the grand scheme of things, Belton was just one of more than 1,000 women in the United States killed each year by their “intimate partners.” She was just a kitchen supervisor with a bum heel, not a public figure or star athlete or student body president. She wasn’t a wealthy, attractive real estate agent like Gail Tice, Wilmington’s domestic abuse “poster child,” as New Hanover County District Attorney Benjamin David described her.

Previously evicted from Wilmington’s “premier gated private golf community,” Tice’s estranged husband snuck past the gates of the Landfall neighborhood on September 29, 2004 – violating his restraining order – and sat outside her window with an illegally purchased handgun, waiting for Tice to wake up. When she did, around 6:45 AM, he fired six rounds through the window and then reloaded, shooting until Tice reached a study room to call 911. When police arrived, they found her husband standing on the porch, gun lying next to him. Inside, Tice lay facedown in a pool of blood, clutching a telephone.

“The case got a lot of publicity precisely because it happened to a beautiful woman who was in a gorgeous home and had a great social standing,” David says. “The media was mobbing us on that case, and nobody’s talking about this one.” The public outcry in the weeks following Tice’s slaying was manifest, but not atypical for a community figure. Friends established the Gail Tice Memorial Foundation, which endowed a local domestic violence shelter, and Walk The Loop, an annual walk in her memory through Wrightsville Beach.

The Landfall Murder, as it came to be known, represents a pivotal moment in local law enforcement’s approach to domestic violence cases. Mandate now requires that law enforcement officials in New Hanover County receive four hours of domestic violence training a year, a bigger step than one might think in a state that failed to prosecute spousal rape until 1993, the last in the United States to remove the exemption.

“There’s been a cultural shift,” David says. “We really are focusing on this issue now, because you can’t tell me where the next bank robbery is going to be or where the next DWI is going to happen. But domestic violence is actually, in a way, preventable, because you see, like a slow train wreck, some of these bad ones coming at you.”

But that was in response to Tice, a local luminary, not Belton, the cash-poor wife of a drunken electrician, no restraining orders on file. There’s simply too little time, too few column inches to cover every Belton. One of 1,000; it’s almost a cliché.

“Absent that outpouring or that community outrage, we’re stuck with what we’ve got in those initial stories,” said Robyn Tomlin, executive editor of The Wilmington Star News.

Dispatcher: What?
Belton: Dead.
Dispatcher: Who’s dead?
Belton: My wife.
Dispatcher: She’s dead?
Belton: Yea, for certain of it.


Wilmington lies in southeastern North Carolina, wedged between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean. Home to EUE/Screen Gems Studios, Wilmington dubbed itself “Wilmywood” and offers tours of filming locations for a slapdash roster of productions. If not for the beach, people know Wilmington for what was filmed there – “Dawson’s Creek,” “Blue Velvet,” etcetera – spurring local media to craft entire stories around D-list celebrities and their brush with the city; a recent Star News headline read, “John Corbett recalls Port City fondly.”

Downtown Wilmington and the upscale beach communities are separated by ten miles of nearly contiguous strip malls and car dealerships. The city’s few thoroughfares are constipated with traffic, and while Wilmington claims a population of only 106,000, it’s not unusual to find up to 50,000 tourists in town on any given weekend.

Diane Belton lived in between thoroughfares, in between attractions, in between the reasons people choose to live in and visit Wilmington, in a small, unnamed trailer park opposite a vacant warehouse. The trailers hedge a circular drive, and each one is different: a different color, a different state of disrepair.

But there was a time in the 90s, before the park switched owners, when Belton, “felt privileged to live there,” Stephen says. It used to be quiet and well kept, filled mostly by retirees, and everyone owned their mobile homes. But the trailer park eventually switched hands, and, overnight, things changed. Suddenly it was a rental neighborhood: tenants constantly driving in, driving out, heavy bass rattling the wafer-thin walls, and the Wilmington police made regular visits – drug busts and domestic disturbances.

Despite the changes, she stuck around, financially incapable of leaving. At some point, Belton, always proud of appearances, caved in. Lot 5 was no longer something to smile about. Mildew crept up the beige aluminum siding; a mess of duct tape held the air conditioner in place.

That was the state of Belton’s home when she returned from work on the afternoon of Saturday, September 3, 2011. A few hours later, her neighbor Cesar Rodriguez allegedly heard a scream and a bang, but thought nothing of it. “He said the Beltons were quiet,” reported the Star News, “but that Davis [Ray] Belton was friendly to all the residents of the neighborhood.”

Dispatcher: Is she in the house with you?
Belton: I’m looking at her right now.

Stagnant Journalism Protects the Perpetrator

“I don’t know why journalists feel so compelled to say, ‘We talked to the neighbor and they said he was a really nice guy,'” says Kris Macomber, an evaluation specialist with the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Durham. “It’s this idea that humans are one-dimensional. How can somebody who waves hello to me everyday kill his wife? In the end, it’s like saying, ‘He seems really nice, so maybe she pushed him, had a bad day.’ It misrepresents what’s really going on.”

The coalition recently tasked Macomber with tracking all domestic homicides in North Carolina in 2011. The job entailed analyzing media coverage surrounding the homicides, dissecting the anatomy of the reports, the specific language used and the sources cited by the journalists. Current research on media coverage of domestic violence suggests victim-blaming language – what author Cara Hoffman calls “protecting the perpetrator” – is still unwittingly in vogue, a problem Macomber’s own findings confirm.

“There is absolutely no discourse or framework for which journalists know how to write about violence against women,” she says. “There just lacks a general vocabulary or framing that really puts the focus on the perpetrator.”

Macomber and others active in the anti-domestic-violence movement scorn what they perceive as stagnant journalism. They’ve watched Congress take great legislative strides in combating domestic violence over the past 40 years, most notably Sen. Joe Biden’s $1.6 billion Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 (now at risk of being dangerously eroded in the current Congress ), while, says Macomber, traditional journalism has remained “in this bubble standstill.”

Advocates argue that the sources cited by journalists, usually law enforcement officials and other authority figures, dehumanize the victims by omitting information from closer sources like friends and family. And quoting a police officer places the story in a legal, rather than a social context, they say, “potentially portraying the situation as one that the police will take care of or that is under control,” according to a 2002 report in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence. [1] But perhaps their biggest concern is that most domestic homicide cases are presented as isolated, one-off crimes, detached from a larger social context in which domestic violence is pandemic.

“Every story is this tiny little snapshot, written about like it’s this isolated incident, when it’s not,” Macomber says. “Violence against women is a global phenomenon dating back thousands of years. We can look at all the violence against women all over the world and see how a man who kills his wife in Wilmington and a man who killed his girlfriend in Raleigh and a man who assaults a woman in so and so” – Macomber stops to regain her composure – “it’s all connected.”

On December 14, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued the results from the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 1 in 4 women have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner.

This is the context Macomber and others see as crucial to responsible media coverage of domestic violence, a context bridging thousands of years and claiming millions of victims worldwide.

“The person who writes that story frames how people will read it and respond to it,” Macomber says. “There’s an enormous amount of power with how people frame these stories.”

Witness to Pain

Rae Brown lives in a modest brick home in Castle Hayne, North Carolina, about ten miles north of Wilmington. An ashtray rests in the moth-eaten living room carpet; a picture of Diane Belton, holding her grandson, sits on her dresser. She answers the door in a pink bathrobe.

“Diane and me was best friends,” she says, an aquarium pump humming in the background. “She would laugh, had that pretty smile. We just cut up.”

Brown, 48 and currently on medical leave, met Belton at the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Department in 1993. They both worked the kitchen, and it didn’t take long, in the narcotic hours of the night shift, before they shed the professional distance and got real. Soon they were spending their breaks together, grabbing dinner at T.G.I. Friday’s or the Olive Garden, and covering each other’s shifts when the other was sick, or “sick.” And when life in Lot 5 turned violent, Brown offered Belton a home for the night, begging her friend to leave Ray Belton.

“When she hurt, I cried,” Brown says.

And in recent years, Belton hurt too much. More often than not, she’d come to work with fist-sized bruises up and down her arms and legs, and above her cheek, too.

“She’d just cry, and she’d say she wasn’t gonna leave him because he ain’t had nobody,” Brown says, lowering her voice. “And she’d be so tired. She’d be needin’ awful sleep, so tired. And I’d say, ‘Diane, don’t worry about it, I got your back, I got your back.'”

Belton: A Life

Diane Belton’s own mother never did come back. She drove her daughter and two sons to their grandmother’s house in Dalton, Georgia, said she had to pick up some medicine, and never returned. Her name was Thelma, just like her daughter, Thelma Diane, and word had it she ran off with another man, never to be heard from again. Diane Belton was five years old, then called Thelma after the woman who dropped her cold.

Raised in the Deep South by her grandmother Manna, Belton started sweeping classrooms in the fourth grade to earn her lunch tickets. “Grandma did the best she could for us, although we were pretty much underprivileged,” says her brother, Donald Owens, one year Belton’s senior. When she was nine, her father, Charles, moved to Goose Creek, South Carolina, and shortly after married a childcare worker named Gloria. Four years later, in 1969, Belton and her siblings moved to Goose Creek, too, sleeping under the same roof as their father for the first time since Thelma disappeared on her medicine run.

Years later, after the children graduated and moved out, Charles received notice of Thelma’s death through a Georgia newspaper. “Seems she left her insurance with you all,” he told his kids. “No thank you,” they all replied.

Dispatcher: Is your wife breathing?
Belton: No.
Dispatcher: She’s not breathing?
Belton: No. She works for the Department of Corrections, and she had trouble … she hates guns, she had trouble firing mine, little pistol. She brought home a .40 caliber. I’ll explain it, though …

Escape Route

Diane Belton was quick to move out after graduation. She moved to Charleston in the early 70s and found work at the J.M. Fields department store, where she caught the eye of Joseph LaFrance, a lanky 22-year-old fresh out of the Air Force and working a temp job in the sporting goods section across the aisle. He thought she was pretty and outgoing; she wanted to move in.

“You take a 22-year-old guy who hears that from an attractive woman, what’s the obvious answer?” LaFrance says. “I thought I was on top of the world.”

Soon enough, Belton was pregnant, and though marriage was already a topic of discussion, “When I found out she was pregnant, we set a new wedding date and moved it up so we’d be married before our first child was born.” She gave birth to her first child, Stephen, in June of 1975, and LaFrance accepted a job with the Civil Service shortly thereafter. “Everything seemed to be headed in the right direction,” LaFrance says. But Belton was still young, and by the time she gave birth to her daughter, Christy, a year later, she was no longer the same breezy, animated girl he knew at the department store.

“Christy was less than a year old when it seemed like all communication broke down,” says LaFrance. When he left for work, the couple next door watched as Belton paid a sitter and left the house herself; back before sunrise, LaFrance, who worked the night shift, never knew she was gone.

“I guess the romance was gone and the burden of having to rear two children was a little overwhelming for her,” LaFrance says, “so she started looking for an escape route.”

The escape route was a construction worker named Cliff Clemmons, and Belton, like Thelma before her, made her exit without so much as a goodbye.

Dispatcher: Where’s your wife at now?
Belton: She’s sittin’ in the recliner, dead as a rock.
Dispatcher: Is she awake?
Belton: No, ma’am.
Dispatcher: Did she shoot herself?
Belton: No, I accidentally shot her.
Dispatcher: You accidentally shot her?
Belton: Yes, ma’am.

The Comeback

After the divorce, Belton moved with Clemmons, an “old-fashioned southern gentleman,” according to Stephen, to Kissimmee, Florida. They married in 1982, and although she couldn’t have predicted the upswing in her husband’s business, she would never be as well heeled again. Clemmons demanded a lot from Belton, a clean house and three meals a day, to start, in addition to her own jobs, but he gave a lot in return, and, for the most part, they were happy together.

Perhaps, at 27, her conscience was catching up to her, or she was simply more mature, but LaFrance, too, had remarried, and the thought of losing her kids drove Belton to reconnect. She invited her kids to vacation with Clemmons and her in Florida, and later, when they moved to Wilmington, her 16-year-old son Stephen moved, too. They got along well and enjoyed each other’s company, but “We didn’t have a really close mother-son kind of bond,” he says.

In 1994, Stephen left for college, and Clemmons and Belton relocated to a small trailer park just off Kerr Avenue. It was a trailer park, to be sure, but it was clean, selective and well kept. Something she could take a little pride in.

Dispatcher: How old is your wife?
Belton: She’s 50 somethin’, I don’t know.
Dispatcher: Where did you shoot her? Where did you shoot her at?
Belton: Apparently I shot her in the back of the head.


Clemmons suffered a fatal heart attack in 1995. He was 51. Belton kept his last name, living alone and working odd jobs, but eventually, she found herself browsing online dating web sites and classified ads. She finally struck a match with Davis Ray Belton, a hazel-eyed electrician from nearby Carolina Beach. Like Belton, he went by his middle name, and, until his brief appearance on the morning news, few knew him by anything different. Looking back, most of Belton’s friends and family have trouble pinpointing what, exactly, constituted their chemistry. Eventually, they land on NASCAR – they both loved Dale Earnhardt – but when they spoke it aloud, that commonality fell flat and desperate, as though they wished it were something more.

“He just wasn’t a classy person,” Stephen says. At 65, Ray was ten years Diane’s senior, and his health was an issue. He had severe diabetes and a wounded knee, ostensibly preventing him from holding a full-time job. After their marriage in 1999, Ray spent most of his time in Diane’s mobile home, drinking beer and watching NASCAR. Each morning, she’d sort his pills and fix his lunch, but even at that, “He’d want her to come home just to heat up his food,” Brown says. She found him jobs, set up his interviews, but he never lasted more than a few weeks straight.

He liked to say that in his prime he was the best electrical contractor in North Carolina, that his work was highly sought after, that he had a whole slew of men working beneath him and that, to this day, he has friends in the Hell’s Angels just waiting for his call if anyone tries to cross him. He was a textbook misanthrope, a loner, flailing for status through comically antiquated ideas of the iron fist. He was socially reserved, and when he did speak, it came straight out of left field, dogmatic and half-baked. “He was somehow better than other people because he held this particular opinion, and all the other people just had things wrong,” Stephen says. When she left town to visit family, Ray seldom accompanied her, and when he did, he made no attempt to clean up; maybe shaved, maybe not, never on purpose. Old sneakers and sweatpants, Dale Earnhardt tee.

Little else is known about Ray. Public records show he was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, though what social milieu he was raised in remains unclear. And the North Carolina Divorce Index indicates he has at least three ex-wives in addition to Belton. While none of them could be reached, a woman named Lisa Turner recently submitted the following comment on the WWAY Channel 3 web site below the report on Belton:

I am not surprised that Ray would kill his wife. I was married to him in the early 80s and he shot at me and would threaten to kill my whole family if I left. I finally got away…. I am glad he is behind bars, he is a sociopath and probably feels no remorse about this killing…. I have had not [sic] contact with him since the early 90s. He has done terrible things that will probably never come up, but he is finally charged with Murder and will get what is coming to him…. He loved to wave guns around and threaten women. I hope the case is tight enough to where he will go and die in prison. That is what he deserves!

Those who knew Belton say her husband never referred to friends or family, never mentioned – aside from the Hell’s Angels – work associates or drinking pals. The Wilmington Police Department lists a man named Larry Tinsley as Ray Belton’s nearest living relative, though, in fact, Tinsley bears no familial relation and is merely a former co-worker of Ray’s. Tinsley initially agreed to be interviewed for this article, but canceled shortly after accepting, saying he felt uncomfortable speaking about Belton without his permission.

Six years into her third marriage, Belton was nearing 50, working two jobs and 14-hour days, living in a home she could no longer respect and taking care of a man she could no longer endure. Her life had become a series of bills, her husband deadweight and drunk.

Dispatcher: In the back of her head?
Belton: Yes ma’am.
Dispatcher: When did you do this, sir?
Belton: Last night.
Dispatcher: And you’re just now calling us?

Harried by a Needy Child

Even at work, Belton couldn’t escape the realities waiting for her back home. Like a needy child, he called incessantly, checking in about this and that, but mostly about the six-pack he demanded she bring home. Her co-workers knew she didn’t appreciate the calls, “but then when she’d get off the phone, she’d never say a bad word about him,” says Humbles, her manager at Scotchman.

In 2007, the DOC promoted Belton from food service officer to food service manager, from the blue uniform to the white, allowing her to drop the secondary gig at Scotchman. “Whatever I asked her to do, it was never a problem,” says Roland Davis, her DOC supervisor.

But lately, the job worried Belton. The DOC required annual recertification, physical fitness test included. Still fighting infections from a botched surgery on her Achilles tendon, she failed the first exam, and though she never complained about it at work, the fleeting wince said everything she wouldn’t.

“Having a bad ankle and having to move and shoot a weapon, that slowed her down,” Davis says.

Concerned about failing the test at work, she drove home on September 3, 2011, to find her husband’s mess, and her mess of husband, and – perhaps – this time she wasn’t so complacent. Perhaps she told Ray to clean it up himself – perhaps not. The crime-scene details are classified. Diane and Ray may have ignored each other altogether, or Ray may have simply gone berserk. Though the court will attempt to reconstruct the picture, only Ray will ever know. Nevertheless, Ray was intoxicated and tetchy. He would set down his brandy to show her his gun, as Brown says he so often liked to do, maybe mention the Hell’s Angels and his forgotten prosperity. Or perhaps not. But this time, he would go too far.

A day after pulling the trigger, he would call 911.

By September 4, yellow police tape surrounded Lot 5, and for a moment, as the gurney was wheeled through the broken screen door, neighbors gawked at Diane’s body. Through cracked blinds and tinted windows they peered, just to catch a glimpse of the neighbors who had kept to themselves.

“She wasn’t a celebrity. It’s not the gossip of the town. It’s a story that unfortunately probably unfolds over and over and over again in many communities across the country and across the world, and it’s tragic,” Stephen says. “But it doesn’t seem to affect society at large, only those closest to it.”

Dispatcher: Where’s the gun at now? Is it on the floor?
Belton: Yea. It’s on the floor, I have it close. The thing went off and then I said, “Are you okay?” because her hair blew up, back of her head. I said, “You okay?” she says, “Yea.”
Dispatcher: So you went to bed then?
Belton: So I put the pistol … (mumbles) … I drank a brandy … (mumbles) … this lady is the best thing that ever happened to me.

Creating an Awareness

Citing “safety concerns,” on October 13, 2011, the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Department transferred Ray to Raleigh Central Prison, where he now resides. Due to attorney-client privilege, Belton’s lawyer, New Hanover County public defender Jennifer Harjo, declined to comment.

“The only thing I can tell you,” she writes, “is that my client is extremely distressed over the loss of his wife. He loved her dearly.”

But as far as the public and press is concerned, the story has long been forgotten, the consequences of little interest.

“I think that is the story,” Macomber says. “How do you create an awareness of something that has already been constructed as not worthy of a story?”

1. Bullock, C. F., and J. Cubert. “Coverage of Domestic Violence Fatalities by Newspapers in Washington State.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 17.5 (2002): 475-99. Print; abstract available online.