BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — In the second edition of Missing Mysteries, CBS 42 takes a look at how advances in forensic technology may close the unsolved murders of Heaven LaShae Ross and Shannon Paulk.
Beth Thompson’s 11-year-old daughter Heaven LaShae Ross was reported missing on August 19, 2003 from the Willowbrook Trailer Park in Northport, AL.
“The way we as citizens live in society today, you can pretty much pick up your phone and look at anything you want to look at. Everybody has a camera now, everywhere you go there’s a camera,” Thompson said.
Beth has seen how beneficial modern surveillance cameras were in two separate high-profile missing persons cases involving a toddler and a teenager in Alabama that happened in 2019.
“Why do you think they were able to find Cupcake McKinney and Anaiah Blanchard?” she asked “That’s two right there.”
3-year-old Camille “Cupcake” McKinney was abducted from a playground at an apartment complex in Birmingham in 2019. Surveillance video footage showed her with an adult who would later be identified as a suspect in her kidnapping and murder.
19-year-old Anaiah Blanchard was last seen on video inside a Montgomery convenience store. The man later named as a suspect in her kidnapping and murder was seen on surveillance video inside the same convenience store the night she disappeared.
Not only are surveillance cameras more common today, but missing children are also found quickly by issuing Amber Alerts. The system was put in place after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was kidnapped while riding her bike in Arlington, TX, and then brutally murdered. In 1996, Dallas-Fort Worth television stations partnered with local police to develop an early warning system to find abducted children.
Marie Paulk reflected on what is available today to help find missing children since her 11-year-old daughter Shannon Paulk was abducted from the Candlestick Park trailer park in Prattville, AL in 2001. However, she is not sure if the would have helped then.
“If she had been taken out of town, I would have said yes, the Amber Alert would have helped,” Paulk said. “But seeing that she was so close to where we lived, I’m not sure the Amber Alert would have helped. We’ve had people say they saw her that day, we’re not quite ensure.”
Members of law enforcement are hoping that new technology coming out of crime labs will help solve these cases that have plagued investigators. They need evidence to build a case to prosecute those responsible for Heaven and Shannon’s deaths.
Despite the similarities in the cases, Prattville Police Department Criminal Intelligence CSI Sgt. Tom Allen said investigators have not been able to positively link the two cases.
“Some of the original investigators, it’s going to haunt them for the rest of their lives,” said Tuscaloosa Violent Crimes Unit Commander, Capt. Jack Kennedy. “This case will never be closed until we finally get a solution and find out who did this.”
As an example, Captain Kennedy pointed to the recent identification of a serial rape suspect in two sexual assault cases that occurred 10 years apart in 1991 and 2001 in Tuscaloosa, which were solved using forensic genetic genealogy.
According to Captain Kennedy, DNA evidence identified the now-deceased Elliott Higgins, a French horn instructor who created an international horn competition held twice at the University of Alabama. The competitions were held in the same year as the abuses took place. His DNA was linked to another sexual assault in Colorado in 2004.
Prattville PD Sergeant Tom Allen hopes forensic technology will continue to advance at this rate so unsolved cases can finally be closed.
“Sometimes if you look at all the evidence that we have, and that’s one of the things that technology has brought to the fore is resubmitting some of the evidence that has been submitted in the past,” said Allen. “Maybe we’ll get that break this time based on the new technology.”
He said they have a room three-quarters filled floor to ceiling with evidence in the Paulk investigation.
The large amount of evidence is why the District Attorney for Alabama’s 19th Circuit, which covers Chilton, Elmore and Autauga County, convened a grand jury in 2018.
CJ Reynolds is the new district attorney for this district and found value in what they were able to learn by reviewing the evidence that way.
The Prattville Police Department is the lead investigating agency in the Shannon Paulk case, but over the years other agencies have joined the investigation.
“In the grand jury, there were subpoenas that were issued. We brought in testimony from law enforcement,” Reynolds said, “some detectives from the Department of Corrections who had worked on the case when they were with other agencies. It was almost like this alphabet soup of law enforcement that we brought in to testify basically to construct and put all these pieces together a little bit. The reason we did that is not that we had a prime suspect that we were looking to charge or prosecute at that time, but there was so much information over such a long period of time. If we could cut through what is the technology and the testing that we have received over these 20 years, what have they discredited.”
It was through the grand jury that a long-used description of an alleged suspect was discredited and thrown out as evidence.
Capt. Kennedy said they had not gathered evidence for a grand jury to examine in Ross’s case.
“If we had enough information to do it, we obviously would have done it a long time ago,” Kennedy said. “If we take something here to a grand jury, I would expect that hopefully it would be at the level that an indictment would be issued, I would hope that would be enough for a grand jury to indict.”
There has never been a person of interest in the disappearance or murders of Heaven LaShae Ross or Shannon Paulk.
Those with any information about the Heaven LaShae Ross case are encouraged to call the Tuscaloosa Violent Crimes Unit or CrimeStoppers at 205-752-7867 (STOP). Those with information about Shannon Paulk’s case are encouraged to call Prattville CSI Sergeant Tom Allen at 334-595-0256.