Alabama girl's slaying unsolved 15 years later
Alabama girl's slaying unsolved 15 years later
By STEPHANIE TAYLOR
Aug. 20, 2018
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — People recognize Beth Thompson. It may take them a minute, but eventually it clicks.
"They'll say, 'You're so familiar to me,'" she said. "Then they figure it out. 'I know you, you're Shae's mom.'"
Fifteen years ago, Thompson's face was on the news almost as much as her daughter's. The disappearance of Heaven LaShae Ross, 11, from her home in Northport is undoubtedly the most publicized criminal case in the area's history, and one of the few that remains unsolved.
"It's still like Day 1, but 15 years later." Thompson said Friday during an interview at her son's home in Brookwood. "And it's a hard pill to swallow."
Shae, who would have turned 26 this year, was in her first few days as sixth-grade student at Collins-Riverside Middle School the morning of Aug. 19, 2003. It was a stormy Tuesday morning when she set off for the bus stop down the street from the family's home in Willowbrook Trailer Park.
She was just a minute or two behind her older sister, Alex, and ahead of her stepfather, Kevin, who heard a thunderclap and decided to drive the girls to school. Kevin got to the bus stop and found Alex, but Shae was nowhere to be found.
At least three neighbors reported seeing Shae that morning. A young man walking to the bus stop and a neighbor working at a computer near a window told police they saw her.
A woman who lived a few trailers down saw her, and gave police an accurate description of her clothing — the pink Bratz shirt and leggings that would be found among her remains under an abandoned house three years later.
"There's ideas we have as to who could have done this," said Northport Police Investigator Terry Carroll. "But as far as proof or any evidence, we have nothing."
There was a lot of pressure to solve the case, pressure he said he still feels as he plans to retire on his 60th birthday next year.
"This will be one that will always be with me, of course," he said. "I'll always feel like I've let the family down, and her down. People can say what they want as far as 'You did everything you could,' but you always feel that there's more you could do."
Thompson said she experienced "a very little bit of relief" when Shae's remains were found by a man looking for cans at the abandoned house in Holt. But she still craves closure.
Police have never revealed how they believe Shae was killed. She was found three years and three months from the day she disappeared.
The run-down, secluded house off Crescent Ridge Road in Holt was hard to find if you didn't know where you were going, and was known as a spot where people used drugs and did other illegal activities.
"We think someone who frequented that area around the house probably saw something, heard something or knows something," said Tuscaloosa Violent Crimes Unit assistant commander Capt. Kip Hart. "We're just asking that they reflect and decide if they need to come forward and tell us what they know."
Investigators called to the house immediately knew the remains belonged to Shae. Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office Chief Loyd Baker, who headed the homicide unit at the time, had hung an identical pink Bratz shirt in their office so investigators conducting searching fields and abandoned houses would recognize it.
He saw the pink shirt, and knew.
Thompson has some problems with the way the investigation was conducted, primarily saying she doesn't think police took the disappearance seriously at first. An AMBER alert wasn't issued, because there was no evidence to indicate Shae was in danger.
"Things are done differently now," said Thompson, who said she didn't want to speak harshly of the officers who worked the case. "I don't think they reacted fast enough. They thought my baby was a runaway. I do have some animosity about some things. This was the first case they'd ever had like this. It is what it is."
Police responded to the school and the mobile home park, looking in neighboring trailers and asking her school friends whether Shae had access to a phone or computer.
"We thought she would show up after school," Carroll said. "When she didn't, it really changed the whole dynamic of everything. We really knew we had a problem."
The next morning, a command center that would operate for the next 10 weeks was set up for the masses of local, state and federal law enforcement officers assigned to the case. The trailer park became ground zero for the family, volunteer searchers and media, who sat under tents with fans and donated water and snacks.
Tips came in from all over the country, some that were outlandish. The tips and leads have dried up, but Hart said investigators still review the case.
"I think as a community we have to ask ourselves what kind of person would do this to a child, and think about the fact that they've eluded identification and capture," he said. "We've got to step up. It's time to bring closure to the family and the community."
Shae loved butterflies, and wrote in her diary about the boy down the street and how much she loved her sister.
Only a few pages of the diary are filled, but she did go through the book and number each blank page she expected to fill with stories of the life she didn't get to live.
"I think about her all the time. Every day," Thompson said. "I wonder what she would be like, what she would look like, what her personality would be like."