Trail grows colder in missing-persons cases
It has been nine months since Lisa Shuttleworth, the 34-year-old single mother of Ryan and his 14-year-old sister Krystina, vanished from her Beech Island home. Like so many disappearances before hers, the case has confounded investigators who are short on clues and resigned to chasing down rumors.
"We've searched places, dug up places, but they turned out to be nothing but rumors," said Capt. Wallace Owens, the chief investigator with the Aiken County Sheriff's Office. "But even if it's a rumor, we'll pursue it."
Ms. Shuttleworth's disappearance isn't the only unsolved missing-person case in the Aiken-Augusta area. In March 2002, Alzheimer's sufferer Mary Alice Dixon, 86, walked away from her home in New Ellenton and has never been found. Another Alzheimer's victim, 86-year-old Sadie Edney, wandered from a Richmond County personal care home in May 1992.
"Alzheimer's patients are hard to find with tracking dogs," Capt. Owens said, explaining that they don't run and shed dead skin cells the way prison escapees do. "You can't track them like fugitives."
Then there are the abducted children: Jeremy Grice, who at age 9 disappeared from his North Augusta home in 1985, and Tilwanda Cheatham, who was 8 when she vanished from her Aiken home in 1989. Augustan Tiffany Nelson was 10 when she was last seen riding her bicycle on Getzen Drive in June 1994.
Richmond County sheriff's Investigator Ronald Sylvester, who specializes in missing-person investigations, said there have been no new leads in Tiffany's case.
"It's tough for the families,'' said Capt. Owens, who says his investigators have run down "a ton of leads" in the Shuttleworth case. "At a certain point they begin to think foul play is involved, and we do, too, but we can't say that. We don't have a crime scene."
In Aiken County, as many as 10 missing-persons cases are reported each month. Investigator Sylvester said Richmond County handles anywhere from 50 to 80 cases a month.
"Usually within two or three days they turn up," alive and well, Capt. Owens said.
"The vast majority are found," Investigator Sylvester said. "The majority are not in danger."
However, there are exceptions - two very visible ones during the past several months in Augusta.
Tamara Dunstan, 29, who was abducted from her mother's west Augusta home in late April, was expecting her first child. Her remains, along with those of her unborn child, were found off a rural road in Edgefield County.
Shanequa Carpenter, 24, who also was expecting a child, wasn't reported missing until a motorist called sheriff's deputies after finding her infant daughter and toddler son on a south Augusta roadway.
Her body was found severely burned less than a mile from her home.
The case attracted nationwide media attention.
As the days stretch on, investigators turn to family and friends to cobble together a personality sketch of the missing person: Are there relationship troubles, emotional problems or issues with substance abuse? Did the person have any reason to run away?
"We've had some folks who decided they just wanted to leave," Capt. Owens said.
Should people decide to pack up and go, authorities can track them through a nationwide FBI system by using their Social Security numbers.
"If they move to California and get an apartment, the system will alert us," Capt. Owens said.
Tracking missing and abducted children is much harder. Unless they show up to register in a school with doctored documents, there is no paper trail of credit card receipts or cashed checks, as there is with adults.
Lt. Troy Elwell, an investigator with the Aiken County Sheriff's Office Juvenile Investigation Division, says he has gotten little help from relatives in the 1989 Cheatham disappearance. In the ensuing years, people have moved and become difficult to find. Some haven't been cooperative, he said.
"The older the case gets, the harder it gets, no matter what," Lt. Elwell said.
Law enforcement typically relies on standard publicity tools to get the missing person's face out in the public: fliers, nationwide crime bulletins, news releases. In recent years, Internet sites featuring missing and endangered people have multiplied.
Investigators have increasingly relied on more analytical methods. In the Shuttleworth case, they turned to a criminal profiler with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division "to help give us a direction to go in," Capt. Owens said.
Sheriff's officials have used cadaver dogs, administered polygraph tests to at least two potential suspects and processed three cars, all to no avail. About the only thing they haven't turned to is a psychic, Capt. Owens said.
"I know some agencies have used them, but I've never seen where it helped any," he said. "I'm kind of skeptical about that."
Mrs. Mabrey, desperate for any news about her daughter, says she has given serious thought to consulting a psychic detective.
"We don't have anything to lose," she said. "We just feel helpless at this point."
The gnawing uncertainty is the worst part of her daughter's disappearance, Mrs. Mabrey said.
"Just not even knowing what has happened, it just consumes you day and night,'' she said. "I'm just so afraid this is becoming a cold case. I don't know how in the world we are going to survive just not knowing."