Documented in film, crime T.V. shows and now captured in this book; read about Larry Gene Bell and his reign of terror in South Carolina.
Former South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) forensic photographer Lieutenant Rita Y. Shuler leads us through the twenty-eight days of terror and shocking events of one of the most notorious double murders and manhunts in South Carolina history. Shuler shares her own personal interactions with some of the key players in this famous manhunt and investigation. Also included are Bell's chilling calls from area phone booths to the Smith family, along with his disconcerting interviews and bizarre actions in the courtroom, which show the dark, evil and criminal mind of this horrific killer. This case has been featured on the Discovery Channel's FBI Files, episode "Cat and Mouse," and in the CBS movie Nightmare in Columbia County, which can still be seen on Lifetime TV. It currently runs as the episode "Last Will" on Court TV's Forensic Files.
About the Author
Lieutenant Rita Y. Shuler was supervisory special agent of the Forensic Photography Department with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) for twenty-four years. She interfaced with the attorney general's office, solicitors and investigators, providing photographic evidence assistance in the prosecution of thousands of criminal cases. Her interest in photography started as a hobby at the age of nine with a Kodak brownie camera. Before her career as forensic photographer, she worked in the medical field as a radiologic technologist for twelve years. Her interest in forensic science evolved when she X-rayed homicide victims to assist with criminal investigations. Shuler received her specialized law enforcement photography training at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy in Columbia, South Carolina, and the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Shuler holds a special love for South Carolina's coast and is a devoted crabber and runner. She resides in Irmo, South Carolina.
Read an Excerpt
28 days of terror
My early morning four-mile run felt good. I've always loved mornings, the start of another day to love life. It was already seventy-five degrees and another picture-perfect day at Edisto Beach, South Carolina. Edisto Beach is one of the last unspoiled beaches on South Carolina's coast with a laid-back atmosphere and Southern charm.
There was an extreme heat wave going through South Carolina, with temperatures hitting one hundred degrees for the last several days. This was one of my getaway R&R weekends away from work. I was 160 miles from SLED headquarters in Columbia, and everything was right with my world.
Just the day before, Friday, May 31, 1985, even though the temperature was one hundred degrees, the sky had been a beautiful vivid blue, not a cloud anywhere. The conditions for crabbing were perfect. I had spent most of the day on Bay Creek Inlet holding onto a line with a chicken back hooked on the end with a metal shower curtain hook, pulling in blue crabs. I caught about four dozen of those big boys. It was a good day's catch.
Today would be another good day for crabbing, but first I had to make a supply run to the corner IGA grocery store. I needed to get more chicken backs for bait and, of course, beer and ice. Crabs always seem to bite better when there's beer around.
My only thought right then was to get back to the crabs, so I rushed to the IGA, jumped out of my Jeep and hurried to the door. I did a quick glance at the newspaper rack right outside the door and stopped dead in my tracks. The bold headlines of the State newspaper read, "Missing Teenager Feared Abducted," and accompanying the headline was a photo of Sharon "Shari" Faye Smith. I leaned down, grabbed it out of the rack and started reading:
Car found in driveway, door open, and engine running. Sheriff Deputies and volunteers conducted an air and ground search of a wooded area of rural Lexington County Friday for a 17-year-old high school senior feared abducted after her car was found abandoned in the driveway of her family's home in the rural community of Red Bank on Platt Springs Road, ten miles from Lexington, South Carolina. Shari's parents found Shari's blue Chevette at the end of their driveway around 3 p.m. Friday. The door was open and the engine was running. Bare footprints were found leading from the car to the mailbox, but no return tracks to the car were found. Lexington County Sheriff James Metts stated, "Nobody saw anything. We have no clues. She vanished."
Sheriff Metts requested the assistance of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED).
As I left Edisto Island Sunday morning heading back to Columbia, I picked up the Sunday State paper. The search for Shari was again front-page news.
The search had continued on Saturday in the one-hundred-degree blistering heat for the missing teenager from Lexington. It took on an added urgency when it was learned that Shari had a rare form of diabetes, diabetes insipidus, commonly know as water diabetes. This type of diabetes required that Shari drink large quantities of water and take her prescribed medication.
Shari always stopped and checked the mail on her way into the house. Around 3:25 p.m. on Friday, May 31, her mother had glanced out of the window of her home and saw Shari's car in the driveway at the road near the mailbox and told her husband, Bob, that Shari was home.
Minutes later, Mr. Smith looked out the window and saw Shari's car still parked at the road. He became concerned when his daughter did not continue up the 750-foot driveway to the house, and he could see no sight of her around the car or mailbox. He rushed to his car and drove down to check on her. He called to her as he got out of the car but got no response. He did not see his daughter anywhere. The car was running and the door on the driver's side was open. Shari's purse, towel and black jelly shoes were in the car. He opened her purse and saw that her medication was inside. He knew Shari never went anywhere without her medication. His greatest fear was confirmed: Shari was missing.
Mr. Smith raced back to the house and yelled to his wife that Shari was gone. Frantically he picked up the phone and dialed the Lexington County Sheriff's Office.
Mrs. Smith ran out the door and got in the car. She sped up to the end of the driveway, jumped out and walked back and forth screaming Shari's name. Knowing her daughter, she knew she was probably nowhere around since she did not answer. She knew that Shari had vanished.
Law enforcement officers responded immediately to the Smiths' home. Air teams were called in for the search, and the Emergency Preparedness Division of the governor's office set up a tractor-trailer operation center in front of the Smiths' house. The trailer was equipped with radios, telephones and twenty-four-hour coverage. This enabled law enforcement officers to accomplish tasks faster rather than having to travel back and forth to the law enforcement centers.
The Smiths' spirits were uplifted at one point on Saturday when they received a phone call from a man saying, "I have Shari. I want money." This was only to be shot back down when the call turned out to be a hoax.
Officers began checking out calls of sightings of suspicious vehicles in the area around the time of the incident. One call was from two males who had traveled on Platt Springs Road between 3:00 and 3:15 p.m. that Friday afternoon. As they passed the Smith residence, they saw Shari at her mailbox and the car in the driveway. They remembered a car coming toward them going in the direction of the Smith driveway, and as the car passed, the witness glanced in his rearview mirror. He saw the taillights of the passing car light up and the car stop at the Smiths' mailbox. They said it looked like an '82 or '84 Oldsmobile Cutlass, reddish-purple in color, and the driver looked like he was in his thirties. In approximately five to ten minutes, the two males drove back past the mailbox. They saw Shari's car but did not see Shari.
Shari's boyfriend, Richard, had met Shari at the Lexington Post Office in downtown Lexington on Friday morning. Together they met Shari's mother at a Lexington bank around 11:15 a.m. to get travelers' checks for Shari to take on her senior trip to the Bahamas after her graduation that Sunday.
After her mother left, Richard, Shari and their friend Brenda parked their cars in the Lexington Town Square Shopping Center parking lot around 11:30 a.m. and rode together to a swimming party at Lake Murray just a few miles away.
Shari was wearing white baggy shorts and a yellow tank top over her yellow-and-black dot two-piece swimsuit. She had a beach bag packed with an extra bathing suit, towel, black jelly shoes and a white- and-black striped shirt she had worn to school that day.
Shari called her mother from the party around 2:30 p.m. Shortly afterward, around 2:45 p.m., Shari, Richard and Brenda left the party and drove back to the shopping center parking lot to pick up their cars.
Brenda left, and Richard and Shari spent a few minutes together in the parking lot talking. They kissed goodbye and departed in separate cars.
Richard followed Shari until she turned down Highway 1 heading toward her home. As he went past the bank clock in the parking lot, he noticed the time as 3:05 p.m.
Sunday, June 2, was to be Shari's big day. She was to graduate from Lexington High School and was scheduled to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" with her classmate, Andy Anu.
I knew this case would be waiting on me when I returned to work that Monday morning. It was the last thing I thought about before finally going to sleep that night, and it was the first thing that entered my mind as I opened my eyes the next morning.
The early morning was silent and peaceful as I stepped out the door for my morning run before work. This morning, with every step pounding on the pavement, my thoughts were on Shari Smith's disappearance. It was around 6:45 a.m. when I got back from my run. As I opened my front door, the phone was ringing. The caller was Lieutenant Jim Springs, SLED latent print crime scene investigator.
I worked so closely with the crime scene investigators that they all knew my morning routine of a run before work. Jim was hastening, "Rita, I guess you were out running. I've been calling. We need you at headquarters ASAP to photograph a letter involving the Shari Smith disappearance. The letter has been intercepted at the post office and is being delivered to SLED as we speak."
Within minutes I was showered, dressed and walking into headquarters. The letter had arrived by the time I got there. Specialized photography was imperative to document the original form of the letter and envelope before any scientific analysis could be performed.
As I was photographing the letter, Lieutenant Springs told me of some of the events surrounding the call and letter. A call had come into the Smiths' house around 2:20 a.m. that morning, Monday, June 3, informing them that they would be getting a letter in the mail today from Shari around one or two o'clock. That was the usual time the Smiths' mail was delivered. The male caller's voice sounded muffled and disguised. He told Mrs. Smith that he wanted to give them some information and tell them certain things so that they would know this was coming from Shari and that the call was not a hoax. He described in detail the outfit that Shari was wearing when Mrs. Smith last saw her at the bank and the shopping center. He told them at the top of the letter would be 6/1/85, and the time would be 3:10 a.m. He said it had really been 3:12 a.m., but he had rounded it off. He ended with, "They are looking in the wrong place. Tell Sheriff Metts to get on TV at 7:00 a.m. on Channel 10 and call off the search."
The Smiths now knew that this must be the man who had Shari. No ransom demands were made, so money did not appear to be the issue for the caller. The call was not recorded, but Mrs. Smith took notes as the man talked.
The call was traced through Alltel telephone records to a pay phone outside of Taylor's Store on Highway 378, about five miles outside of Lexington and twelve miles from the Smiths' home. The caller had vanished by the time officers arrived at the location. The telephone was processed for prints, but no identifiable prints or useful evidence was found.
The Lexington County postmaster, Thomas Roof, was alerted and met Officers J.E. Harris and Richard Freeman with the Lexington County Sheriff's Office at about 4:00 a.m. Monday morning at the Lexington Post Office. Mr. Roof allowed them to sort through all of the Lexington addressed mail in the post office and the bag of Lexington addressed mail that had arrived from the Columbia distribution post office earlier that morning. In the bag from Columbia they found a letter addressed to the Smith family. The letter was found at approximately 7:00 a.m., and Shari's father was transported to the post office to take delivery of the letter.
It was a white legal-sized envelope. The Smith family address was written on a small loose-leaf, pocket-sized, blue-lined sheet of paper approximately three and a half by five inches, the size notepaper in a notebook that would fit in your pocket. The sheet was pasted to the envelope. It was postmarked June 1, 1985, in Columbia and had a twenty-two-cent mallard duck stamp in the upper-right corner. There was no return address. Inside the envelope were two sheets of blue- lined yellow legal paper eight and a half by eleven inches in size bearing handwriting and printing.
After photographic documentation of the letter, Lieutenant Mickey Dawson with the SLED Questioned Document Unit examined the letter, which was titled "Last Will and Testament" and dated 6/1/85 at 3:10 a.m. Dawson compared the handwriting in the letter to known handwriting of Shari Smith and positively identified the letter to be in Shari's handwriting. The letter appeared to be a farewell.
When a person vanishes, there are always unanswered questions. Is the family involved? Did she leave on her own? Was she a runaway? Was she abducted? How could she simply just disappear into thin air?
Shari leaving on her own was certainly a possibility at this point, but with her rare form of diabetes, she would never leave her essential medication behind. Shari was to graduate on Sunday and after that she and her classmates were to go on a cruise. She had every reason to stay.
Lieutenant Dawson and SLED Questioned Document Examiner Gaile Heath processed the envelope and letter on the Electrostatic Detection Apparatus (ESDA). The ESDA is an instrument that develops indented writings from paper products. It works on the opposite principle of a printing press. Instead of coating raised letters with ink to create an image, the ESDA fills in the indentations on the document in question with graphite particles called "carrier particles." When an imaging film similar to Saran Wrap is pulled tight over the document, a readable image can possibly come through, making the indentations legible in varying degrees in such a manner that the indentations may be captured in hard copy form and the information from these indentations made available for investigative use.
In this case, if anything was written on the sheets of the legal pad before the sheet where Shari wrote her "Last Will and Testament," there was the possibility that the pressure of the pen or pencil would make the indentations go through to her sheet.
The product of the ESDA process disclosed numerous indentations on the first page of the "Last Will and Testament." There were faint impressions of numbers that had the appearance of telephone numbers. Other faint indentations on the document appeared to be "Bob" with a circle around it, "beef sticks," "Mother" and the letters "J" and "S."
The envelope and "Last Will and Testament" were then processed for trace evidence (any material from the body or foreign materials around the body).
After completion of the photography, questioned document and trace evidence examinations on the envelope and "Last Will and Testament," Lieutenant Jim Springs processed the documents for latent prints. Numerous prints were developed on both pages of the letter. I photographed and printed a one-to-one-ratio exact size photograph of each.
Lieutenant Springs' results of the comparison of the latent prints from the letter to Shari's known prints were as follows:
On page one, one latent print was positively identified as the right ring finger of Sharon Faye Smith; two latent prints were positively identified as the right thumb of Sharon Faye Smith; and one latent palm print was positively identified as the right palm of Sharon Faye Smith.
On page two, one latent print was positively identified as the right thumb of Sharon Faye Smith.
The envelope did not yield any prints suitable for comparison.
Another phone line was set up for incoming and outgoing calls at the Smith home. After the first call, in the early morning of June 3, a recording device was placed on their personal phone line, and the line was to remain open in the event the caller should call again.
That Monday afternoon, June 3, at 3:08 p.m., a second call came into the Smiths' home. The Smiths' older daughter, Dawn, answered. "Hello."
"No, this is Dawn."
"I need to speak to your mother."
"Could I ask who's calling?"
"Ok, ok, hold on just a second please."
(Lapse of a few seconds)
"Have you received the mail today?"
"Yes, I have."
"Do you believe me now?"
"Well, I'm not really sure I believe you because I haven't had any word from Shari, and I need to know that Shari is well."
"You'll know in two or three days."
"Why two or three days?"
"Call the search off."
"Tell me if she is well because of her disease. Are you taking care of her?"
At that point the line went dead.
The call was traced to an outside pay station at Eckerd's pharmacy in the Lexington Town Square Shopping Center, which is about seven miles from the Smiths' home. As with the first call, the caller was gone by the time officers arrived at the location, and no identifiable prints or evidence were found.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder In The Midlands"
Copyright © 2007 Rita Y. Shuler.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
28 Days of Terror,
The Smith Trial,
The Helmick Trial,
About the Author,