Seven months retired from the Marine Corps, Ernest Linn, a member of the Half Moon Volunteer Fire Department, went to work at the Circle K at Gum Branch Road and Aragona Boulevard starting in April of 1994. It was a temporary gig to help a friend out.
On May 7, 1994, Linn, 37, worked his first night shift. At 4:15 a.m. a customer found Linn's body sprawled out behind the counter. He had been shot in the back of the head four times with a small caliber pistol.
The investigation continued through the summer of 1994 as detectives with the Onslow County Sheriff's Department searched for the murder weapon - a .22-caliber handgun - and tried to determine whether an incident that occurred that night was related. A N.C. State Trooper had pulled over two men in a stolen car, but they had succeeded in fleeing authorities.
Then in July 1994, an informant provided detectives with information that led to several witnesses being interviewed, according to Daily News archives.
Authorities charged Almario Millander, who was already locked up in the Onslow County Jail on a probation violation, with first-degree murder and armed robbery.
Millander was indicted by a grand jury in Feb. 1995. The case against Millander appeared solid, and the Onslow County District Attorney's Office announced it would seek the death penalty.
But as Millander sat in jail for almost two years, the case began to unravel.
First, the .22-caliber handgun used in Linn's shooting was never recovered. Then witnesses began to back out, leave town and change their statements.
"We've had problems locating witnesses, some who didn't want to be located," Senior Assistant District Attorney Ernie Lee told Superior Court Judge Henry L. Stevens III at the time.
On June 3, 1996, with opening arguments scheduled for that morning, prosecutors announced they were dropping the charges against Millander. He was released from the Onslow County Jail after almost two years in pre-trial confinement.
His troubles with local law enforcement did not end there. Millander was convicted for driving while impaired a few weeks after his release. Over the next several years he would rack up convictions for disorderly conduct, communicating threats, assault on a female and resisting an officer, according to the N.C. Department of Correction.
In March 2007, Millander pointed a sawed-off shotgun at Robert Ridges, a young drug dealer, because Ridges had sold him low quality cocaine. Ridges, in turn, bought a 9mm pistol for $260 and went looking for Millander, according to court records.
Ridges found Millander seven hours later at a mutual friend's house. Ridges shot at Millander, chasing him down a hallway and into a bedroom. He continued to shoot at Millander even after Millander jumped through a window, witnesses testified in court.
Millander died of a bullet wound to the heart and lungs, according to an Onslow County medical examiner's autopsy report.
Sgt. Pat Garvey, a crime scene investigator with the Onslow County Sheriff's Department, testified at Ridges' trial that when he responded to the scene, he recognized Millander from his many run-ins with the law.
Ridges pleaded guilty last month to second-degree murder in Millander's death. He was sentenced to 15 to 19 years in prison.
Linn's family was notified in 2007 of Millander's death.
"Him being dead won't bring back Ernie," Linn's sister, Regina Demarco said.
She said Linn was easy-going and laid back and would do anything for anyone.
"He was the type of person who would go out of their way to help someone," she said. "He always said, ‘It's all good.'"
Linn, three years older than Demarco, left to join the Marine Corps when he was 17.
"We would write letters and share things," Demarco said. "I miss him so much."
Even with their primary suspect dead, prosecutors say they have not closed the case on Linn's homicide just yet. The Sheriff's Department hasn't either.
"Even if we have a case where we are able to exclude one of the prime suspects, as long as we are certain that there is another person who took part in the crime, we will continue to actively work the case while there are leads to pursue or we will continue to periodically review the case once all of the leads have been exhausted," said Sheriff's Capt. Rick Sutherland.
Authorities believe that while it was Millander who actually shot Linn, at least one other person was present that night in 1994.
Crime Stoppers of Onslow County is offering a reward of up to $2,500 for information leading to an arrest or apprehension in Linn's homicide.
Anyone with information can contact the Jacksonville/Onslow Crime Stoppers at 910-938-3273 or the Sheriff's Department at 910-455-3113. Callers do not have to reveal their identities.
Daily News staff member Mike McHugh contributed to this report. Contact crime reporter Lindell Kay at 910-219-8456. Read Lindell's blog at http://onslowcrime.encblogs.com