August 29, 1999, was the last time Theresa McKinney heard from her daughter, Shannon. It was the mother's birthday, and Shannon always called her mother back home in Omaha, Neb., on holidays from wherever she was. She also regularly called her own little daughter, 4-year-old Alyssa, asking her to sing to her and tell her she missed her mommy.
This time, Shannon asked her mother to come all the way to Jackson, Miss., to get her. Things had gone sour in the city where she had landed a few months before—914 miles and five states away from the Omaha flatlands where her family waited and worried.
This was nothing new. The year Shannon had already spent in Jackson had been rotten. Shannon, then 22, had left Omaha because she was pregnant for the third time, and it was likely that Omaha authorities would take this baby away from her, too, just like they took the last one, Kayla Marie, who was born with crack in her system.
Shannon had been cultivating a nasty drug habit ever since she was 12, and had been declared an unfit mother by the state at age 20. Her mother believes that one of her daughter's unsavory friends in North Omaha had people in Jackson, so they took off and came here. Shannon was known for "running" without notice, as her mother calls it, often hitchhiking with truck drivers to get away from her problems.
Her escape was wasted, Theresa, 46, says now. Shannon told her mother months after coming to Jackson that the child, a little boy, had died at birth in Jackson.
All that Shannon had found in her flight to a small Southern city, it seemed, was a new location in an unfamiliar place with people who would encourage her addiction, not to mention prostitution to make ends meet. Here, she lived with a pimp in a house on North Mill Street, along with several black prostitutes, or at least so she told her mother. She also said she was beaten often by men she encountered.
"One time she called me, she was being beaten while she was on the phone with me. I could hear it. … But she didn't want me to come get her," McKinney said by phone from Omaha last week.
But that Aug. 29, Shannon did want to go home. McKinney told her she could not afford to take time off from running Downtown Metro Hairstyling, the barbershop she has owned in downtown Omaha since 1988. And she herself was in the middle of the trauma of a divorce. Theresa told her daughter she would send her a bus ticket if she would use it. Shannon said she would think about it.
"I was thinking it was just one of those 'Come and get me, I'm tired of this life' phone calls," Theresa says now. And she had heard that often before. "I was going through my own grief, and I didn't hear it. If I wasn't going through the crap I was going through, I might have heard the difference in her voice."
Shannon called back Sept. 11, but her mother was at a business class at Metro Community College. Instead, Shannon talked to her daughter's babysitter, who later told Theresa that her daughter sounded "high" and was not making much sense. The babysitter didn't let her talk to Alyssa because the house rule was that she had to be sober to talk with her little daughter.
That phone call was the last time the McKinney household heard from Shannon. And they would not know what happened to her for more than five years.
Love Amid the Chaos
Theresa herself had been a young mother, giving birth to Shannon at 16, and was an "active alcoholic" for many of Shannon's childhood years, up until her daughter was about 12, and she started a 12-step program to help her get clean. Shannon's father, Robert Thomas, an ironworker in Omaha's crumbling steel industry, was only 17 when Shannon was born, and left the house when she was 2. Neither were very good parents and were not experienced in laying down routine and rules—even though they were good providers, especially after Theresa attended barber school when Shannon was 4.
But a nice townhome, plenty of food on the table and decent clothes did not amount to good parenting. Theresa treated Shannon more as a girlfriend than a daughter.
"At 16, what do you know about motherhood?" Theresa said last week. "I messed up."
She calls Robert—whom she remarried last November after many years of separation—a "Disneyland Dad" when Shannon was little. "But I don't mean he was a bad guy or anything; he didn't know how to discipline," she said.
Theresa learned later that a friend of a stepfather who followed Robert had likely molested Shannon when she was around age 6. With minimal therapy to counter the abuse, Shannon was already at a serious disadvantage. The symptoms popped up early. At 7, Shannon began having violent rages, screaming and kicking in walls.
Then came the drugs. During her elementary school years, Theresa says Shannon was already losing herself in the dizziness of sniffed fumes from hair products, and she had taken to running away from home on numerous occasions, knocking heads with Omaha child-welfare authorities and, eventually, at the age of 14, becoming a ward of the state because her mother couldn't control her. She lived at girls' homes and in various foster placements, but continued to use drugs, according to her mother, who now admits to simply not knowing how to reverse her daughter's problems.
"I couldn't do anything with her. She was a runner," Theresa said.
Shannon had her first daughter, Alyssa, at 19, and soon after started using crack. Theresa took over caring for Alyssa when she was about 8 months old because Shannon couldn't stay clean long enough to notice a dirty diaper. "Shannon didn't willingly give her up. She was taking her to crack parties and stuff," Theresa said.
Soon after losing Alyssa to her mother, Shannon started hanging out in truck stops—hooking, her mother believes—and her drug habit worsened. She got pregnant again by a different man, with Kayla Marie, then lost her to the state, then a year later started expecting once again—prompting her decision to move to Jackson to elude the authorities so she could keep her third baby and raise him herself.
Shannon would never have aborted any of the babies, Theresa says now. "Nope. I think Shannon really was searching for unconditional love. Growing up with her at my age, she did not get that from me."
South Toward Jackson
When Shannon arrived in Jackson in 1999, her lifestyle had hardly changed even though she wanted to have her own baby so badly. Theresa says her daughter, who called her often regardless of her circumstances, soon linked up with a man named Larry Stokes in a house with four other prostitutes on North Mill Street.
Theresa believes that Stokes was Shannon's pimp, but Stokes today says that he and Shannon had a personal relationship. He says he felt deeply for Shannon and still has pictures of her on his wall, more than six years after he saw her alive for the last time.
"She was a close friend," Stokes said by phone last week. "I still got pictures of her on my wall. I got some clothes that belong to her that I don't let nobody touch, but I don't want to talk about that."
Indeed, Shannon told her mother that she was Stokes' "main girl in the house" and his girlfriend. She talked about the other women, but did not give her their names—or name any of the "johns" she dealt with here. "I begged and begged her to come home," Theresa said.
Shannon wouldn't return to Nebraska, though, even though she would sometimes ask her mother to come get her when things got really bad. But she had always run off again the other times her mother had gone after her, and Theresa had her own life—and little granddaughter—to deal with at home.
"I told her, 'I can't run all over the country.' Now I kick myself in the butt. Had I known, I would have gone and gotten her," she said.
Shannon had some quieter, more reflective moments during her time on Mill Street. Her mother said Shannon was fond of sitting under the noise of the Fortification Street overpass, near Stokes' house, listening to the cars overhead and talking to God. Shannon had told her mother that she was weary of the hard life of hooking on Mill Street, and was looking into getting into strip-club dancing to get out of prostitution. Shannon was a petite girl—5 foot, 3 inches, about 100 pounds—but had a nice form and could probably make a good living, at least for a while, she thought.
But after Sept. 11, 1999, the calls from Shannon stopped, which they had never done before.
Bodies in Bolton
After almost three weeks of no word from Shannon, Theresa began to worry. On Oct. 1, 1999, she sent a letter to her at the Mill Street address. When Shannon did not respond by mid-October, Theresa called both the Jackson and Omaha police departments.
"The hardest part was to get somebody to take the report," she said. "Omaha said to call Jackson; Jackson said I had to do it from Omaha." Finally, JPD assigned Velma Johnson of the Missing Persons unit to the case. Theresa said she started posting missing posters and developing a case file. Johnson could not be reached for this story.
On Halloween Day, 1999, squirrel hunters in rural Hinds County ran across two sets of skeleton remains in the woods near St. Thomas Road, with clothes folded neatly next to them. Three days later another partial skeleton and a skull were found near the first two—bringing the grisly body count in that small area to four in the span of four months.
On July 19 of that year, service workers had found the body of a badly decomposed black woman in the bottom of an oil well on St. Thomas Road just 500 yards from where the new bodies would be found.
"It would be highly unusual if there wasn't a connection," Sheriff McMillin told the media on Nov. 3, 1999, after the next three bodies were found near Bakers Creek.
Then-Hinds County Coroner Robert Martin had ruled that someone had murdered the first "Jane Doe" with a gunshot to the stomach. In November, he told the media that the other bodies, at least three of whom were women and all naked, had suffered trauma as well, and he believed that at least one of them was attacked with a screwdriver. McMillin, however, remained close-lipped about any evidence found, saying the cases were part of an ongoing investigation.
In fact, Martin's public remarks about his findings upset the sheriff mightily at the time; he said that the coroner was interfering with the investigation. McMillin soon made it clear that he did not want the public to be privy to details of the murder findings, including how they were killed.
Within a week, on Nov. 8, the sheriff obtained a court order from Circuit Judge Tomie Green to prevent any other official from "sharing, releasing or otherwise discussing any information to the public, the media or any other entity" in the case "to protect the integrity of the investigation surrounding the identification and apprehension of any suspects." The restraining order specifically listed the coroner by name.
McMillin's gag order on public information in a potential serial killing drew outrage from many in the community. The Clarion-Ledger editorial board wrote: "An investigation is not aided by keeping the public in the dark. The sheriff should reveal any information that can serve to inform the public and spur more information, retaining only critical details that only a suspect would know."
The Vicksburg Post opined that "secrecy over Bolton bodies may help killer escape," calling the dispute a "political feud." The paper added that "[p]eople have shown very little alarm about this, but they should."
But McMillin remained adamant in 1999, saying that such details could jeopardize his department's investigation. Late last year, when asked why he asked for a gag order then that could stymie the public from helping solve the case, the sheriff says that he does not recall such an order being issued.
"Not that I know of. There wasn't a case really," he told the Jackson Free Press several weeks ago. This week, however, he said he does remember the gag order—and that it was necessary at the time. "There wasn't a lot of cooperation between the sheriff's department and the coroner's office then," he said.
But there were dead bodies. By mid-November 1999, the Sheriff's Department had identified one of the bodies found Oct. 31 as Mable Lee Conic, 41, a troubled Jackson woman who had been reported missing by her mother in July after last being seen at the corner of Mill Street and Botnick Court, near where Shannon lived, getting into a red sports car with two men.
McMillin would not reveal then how Conic had died, and said her remains were identified by dental records of missing persons. He told her family members that they could drive to Memphis to pick up her remains for burial. Her nephew, a funeral director, picked up the remains and placed them in the casket for burial. They were skeletal, he said, and he had to arrange the bones in the casket for burial.
In November 1999, Hinds County Sheriff's Deputy Dennis Moulder called Theresa McKinney and alerted her to the newly discovered bodies and said the coroner had ruled that one was a white female. Because Shannon was the only white woman reported missing in the area, it was likely her. He asked Theresa if she had dental records for her daughter.
Theresa immediately overnighted Shannon's dental records, which included her 12-year-old molars. She talked to a JPD detective who told her that a pair of jeans folded near the remains had had the name of one of Shannon's housemates written inside them, leading her to believe that her daughter had borrowed jeans from someone else in the house.
But two months later, after numerous calls from McKinney, Moulder finally told her that he was "99 percent sure" the body did not belong to Shannon. McKinney says Moulder told her that the remains found had likely been left out in the open for eight months to a year—far longer than the time Shannon had been missing. He also told her that the dental records she sent did not match any of the Bolton remains.
Moulder has since left the Sheriff's Department and could not be reached for comment. McMillin said this week that he "cannot address what she's been told by other people," and not a conversation that was not in writing. "I can't confirm that," he said about Moulder's comments to Theresa.
With the Jackson trail cold, McKinney took her search elsewhere, accepting the generosity of local Omaha detective Denny Whelen, who had walked into her barber shop, where she was collecting donations to help her find her daughter. He offered his services for free, saying he would do the best he could to find Shannon.
"I've never paid him a dime. He's been a rock, I'll tell you that," McKinney said.
Whelen began looking around in nearby cities, from Lincoln, Neb., to Rockford, Ill. He and Theresa put up missing posters everywhere they could think of; her sister, who was dating a truck driver, even took posters to distribute at truck stops when she rode along with him. Theresa even heard a rumor that her daughter had been murdered somewhere in Omaha.
By 2001, Whelen had started inundating Jackson and Hinds County authorities with phone calls, determined to follow the trail here and see what turned up. He talked to Stokes, who told him that Shannon and a black woman were missing from his house, but that he didn't know more than that. Whelen also talked to the police department but said they didn't find the department very helpful.
"The biggest thing standing out about this investigation was that there was no investigation done," Whelen said last week. "They find the remains of four or five people, and it's like there's no answers, and nobody cared. We called and called the JPD and couldn't get anybody to answer the phone. We heard that was the norm. The cops don't answer the phone down there. It's kind of a strange police department."
Whelen eventually gave up calling and came to Jackson. Once here, though, answers were still hard to find.
"The case got transferred around, and every time somebody didn't want to talk about it, they'd refer the questions to somebody else," Whelen said, adding that he then took his investigation to the sheriff's office, eventually picking up the dental records Theresa had sent them in 1999.
Whelen said he was shocked by what he discovered there.
"They hadn't even unpacked them. They didn't even take them out of the envelope. They'd been sitting there unopened for months. We got down there and asked for the records back, and they gave us back the exact same package we'd sent them in," Whelen said.
"They'd never been opened."
'We Made a Mistake'
It would be another three years of unfinished misery for the McKinney family before the cold case would warm up again. In October 2004, investigator Rebecca Pittman of the Hinds County Sheriff's Department called Theresa out of the blue. She told Theresa that she had been assigned the cases of the unsolved female homicides from 1999. Only Conic had been identified, and no arrests had ever been made for any of the murders.
Then Pittman asked if Shannon had had a hearing problem. "Nobody had ever asked about that," Theresa said. She told the new investigator that Shannon had had two surgeries on her right ear as a child and had a significant scar before her right ear. Doctors had said she would lose her hearing as she got older.
The investigator asked then if dental records were available. "I said I had already done that, but Rebecca said she saw no mention of that in the file," she said. Once again, the mother overnighted the records to Hinds County. Meantime, Pittman told her not to talk to the press much about the new development because the sheriff might stop the investigation.
McMillin denied this week saying such a thing. "I'd never say anything like that. If that's attributed to me, that's a misquote," he said.
This time, they opened the envelope. Pittman called Theresa again on Nov. 4, 2004—five years and four days after the squirrel hunters found the bodies—and told her the white woman's body was Shannon. Theresa was floored and asked why the testing hadn't been done in 1999. "She told me there was some error in a report stating that the remains had been there since 1998"—before Shannon came up missing.
"My guess is they're putting it on the coroner," Theresa said. Former Coroner Robert Martin did not return phone calls by press time.
When Theresa asked Pittman about DNA testing of the remains to be absolutely sure, Pittman told her it wasn't necessary, she says. "Plus, she said it would take two years to get that done because the FBI does it," she said. In fact, DNA testing can be done in 60 days in a laboratory in New Orleans, even though it is expensive. Sheriff McMillin told the JFP that DNA is not necessary due to the dental records:"If we don't need to, there's no sense in doing it."
McMillin now admits that the case was bungled then. "There was an error in the report that dealt with the date, and as a result of that error, that particular lead was not pursued," he told the JFP late last year.
"That was just human error. We can't blame that on a blip in a computer system. We made a mistake."
After Pittman dropped her bombshell in 2004, Theresa asked when she could bring home her girl and bury her properly. But Pittman said that she was investigating the case and had a prime suspect; thus, the remains would not be returned until there was a trial.
This news upset Theresa, especially since she knew that Mable Conic's remains had been returned to her family and buried in early 2000, just weeks after being found on St. Thomas Road. She said Pittman told her that Conic was different because she was full body, not skeletal—a statement that, if correct, contradicts what Conic's nephew remembers arranging in her casket.
It is also a position that befuddles some other experts in the field. "I can't think of any legitimate reason why it would be necessary to keep human remains any longer than it takes to complete the necessary forensic testing. Obviously, the remains can be well documented through photography in order to present as evidence at trial," said Assistant District Attorney Dana Cummings from East Baton Rouge Parish in Louisiana. Cummings has tried numerous homicide cases, including the prosecution of serial killer Derrick Todd Lee, who raped and stabbed to death Millsaps College graduate Murray Pace and other women.
This week, McMillin said he is not sure why they haven't been returned, yet. "To tell you the truth, I can't answer that. I have to see why,"he said, adding that it might be because the remains are being saved because the district attorney's office might need them later.
Hinds County District Attorney Faye Peterson said she is not involved in the investigation, but has been updated on its progress. She declined to provide further details, but said that the fact that the remains had not been returned was news to her. "I'm surprised. I had assumed the remains of Ms. McKinney had been returned by now,"she told the Jackson Free Press.
In January 2005, Theresa got tired of waiting to get her daughter back from Mississippi, and she and Alyssa held a memorial service at the Bethany Funeral Home in La Vista, Neb. "I needed some closure," Theresa said. Several hundred people attended.
'I Don't Trust Anybody There'
After several attempts starting last fall and a referral by the sheriff, investigator Rebecca Pittman last week refused to talk to the Jackson Free Press about the McKinney case. She would not discuss, confirm or deny Theresa's statements without a list of questions provided to her in advance, which she said is "the way it's done in Jackson."
After being told that JFP does not provide questions in advance of interviews due to journalistic standards, Pittman then said, "I would rather not comment on this case because it's an ongoing investigation."
However, in December 2004, Pittman was willing to talk to the media about her discovery, despite the "ongoing investigation." She told the Associated Press' Jackson bureau chief that she had helped identify Shannon's remains "through medical and dental records" and had uncovered new leads. "Now with the positive ID of Shannon McKinney, we can put together witnesses and forensics in this case. … We suspect one or more related individuals were involved in this multiple homicide," she told AP.
Pittman added that after her conversation with Theresa, "I had a really good sense we were on the right track."
The AP report quotes Pittman saying that she asked for dental records, not mentioning the tragedy of errors to that point—only quoting Theresa about her grief over her missing daughter.
However, a report in the Omaha World-Herald the day before told a different story, detailing what had transpired to date between the McKinney family and the authorities here in Jackson. "But all those efforts—and the emotional roller coaster—were futile, because Shannon's remains were at a Mississippi crime lab all along," the paper reported. It then quoted Theresa in a way that the Mississippi story did not: "It's so unfair that I could've known this years ago."
Theresa wants the remains back more than ever now; working with Omaha attorney John Green, she recently filed a lawsuit against the Hinds County Sheriff's Department for negligence and to get her daughter's body sent home. When she gets it, she plans to have the remains DNA-tested herself to ensure that it's really Shannon.
"Who do I trust? One minute, it's not her; the next, it is. … I need to know 100 percent that this is her. … I don't trust anybody there anymore," she said last week.
'Rush to Judgment'?
The sheriff expresses compassion for Theresa's position. "I can identify with Ms. McKinney's frustration over what she thinks is the mishandling of the case; however, she doesn't have knowledge of all the aspects of the investigation that I do. Consequently, I think she's making a rush judgment without having all the facts," McMillin said.
McMillin said that, since Pittman's discovery, his department has "assembled a cold case unit with cooperation from the FBI, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and we're still looking at different leads." He said he is not ready to officially name a suspect—or to provide more of the facts that might help put the mother's mind at ease more than six years after her daughter was killed.
Although McMillin stops short of saying they have a "suspect," he does say they are looking at a "person of interest" in all the murders.
But the sheriff is now verifying one salient detail—and his account matches what coroner Martin told the press in 1999. "The victim was stabbed—stabbed in the head with a screwdriver, a Phillips head," McMillin told the JFP.
"There's nothing I could do to satisfy her,"he said of Theresa. "Even though we've been working on it all this time, it won't be enough. Maybe she'll get some closure when she gets her body back."
Theresa says that, to her knowledge, little has transpired since Pittman helped identify her daughter almost a year and a half ago. "Nothing's happened out your way," she said. She calls people in the district attorney's office here, including a victim's assistant, looking for information, solace and closure.
"They all tell me they're going to call me back," Theresa said, "and they don't. I don't think they have once called me back when they said they're going to. You have a strange town down that way."
Adam Lynch and Ann Williams reported for this story. The McKinney family was photographed for the JFP at their Omaha home by Marlon A. Wright, a photographer for The Reader, the alternative newsweekly in Omaha, Neb.
Correction appended above: The story originally stated that Bolton is Sheriff McMillin's hometown. However, he lived there, but grew up in Natchez. We apologize for the error.
This was a heart-wrenching story. I feel sorry for the mom and shannnon...and the kids... :o(
I’m not surprised at all regarding the egregious investigation conducted by both JPD and the Sheriff’s Department. I would certainly encourage Mrs. McKinney in having a DNA test performed.
- K RHODES
It goes to show no matter what path you choose or who you are, you still are a child or a mother or a sibling no matter how much trouble you get in.
This is a really sad story and I hope they get every penny they deserve from the Hind Co. Sheriff's office! They should never disregard a case just becasue they think the victims are throwaways.
Sad to say, but my own personal experiences with the JPD fit with this pattern. Of the three crimes I know of personally, all three were not investigated. In fact, we were treated as "annoying" because we wanted investigators to follow up on leads we had provided to them. In one circumstance we were even able to provide the police with a social security number (this was larceny & the pawn shop owner had the social security number of the person who brought in the stolen merchandise). Nothing was done and I think it's a pretty sad reflection of this whole problem when the people at the office don't answer the phone.
Indeed this is a sad story of how drugs can destroy a life. What's even sadder is that this child suffered so gravely without the necessary help before she got addicted to crack. Though it's admirable the mother made failed attempts to save her daughter I'm not satisfied with the efforts she put forth early on. Shannon's father should be lined up and beaten. Too bad the pimps and drug dealers didn't get him instead of Shannon.
This story depicts too vididly what happens to our daughters who are drug users and abusers. Pimps and drug dealers are heartless. They are the last people anyone should have to depend on for help or safety.
I personally know of a girl that was well-liked in the community I grew up in, who to amazement of many started staying away from home and abusing drugs. Her mother found out where she was and went to get her. Her mother walked into this crack house and saw her daugter performing multiple sex acts on multiple guys and hollered out to her daughter. The daughter looked at the mother a brief second and went back to doing what she was already doing in front of her mother. The mother finally succeeded in getting her daughter away from that life. By the time she succeeded, however the daughter was practically blind in one eye and now looks very deformed. She used to be a pretty girl with an amazing personality.
We, all, would be ver wise to stay away from anything that can get evil control of us. This story can make a person wish they were without a child.
- Ray Carter
Though it's admirable the mother made failed attempts to save her daughter I'm not satisfied with the efforts she put forth early on.
Theresa isn't either, Ray. One of the things that I ran out of space for and didn't get into this piece is that Theresa wants her story to serve as a warning for other parents, and young people, about the dangers of child-bearing during such an naive age and about the dangers of drugs and how they can tear apart your life. The truth is, parents aren't raised, necessarily, to know how to deal with serious addiction problems. And we can lambaste them for making mistakes ... or we can figure out how to better educate them both about the perils of having children so young and about the cycles of addictions. And the services must be available.
On the other end of the spectrum, I believe Theresa's story can function as a mirror for society to consider how we deal with tragedy that occurs to the least among us. I think there are lessons for everyone in her story.
And I must take my hat off to Theresa for being so frank and upfront about her own shortcomings and mistakes.
BTW, this story is drawing attention from the journalism community -- long-overdue attention for a family in immense pain.
The "Missing Shannon" story is on the cover of Omaha's alternative weekly this week -- in the McKinneys' hometown. See that version here.