The Shondra May Mystery
By: Wayne Brown
The cold, damp chill of winter hung in the sky over central Mississippi on February 4th, 1986. It was not a day of particular significance in Forest, Mississippi, the County Seat of Scott County, but within in a short time it would be. By late evening that perspective on the day would change and the events of the day would launch a mystery which is still unsolved over 25 years later. On this fateful day early in February of 1986, rape, murder, and mystery would visit itself on the residents of this rural central Mississippi community.
17 year-old high school student, Shondra May, lived with her mother, father, and adopted brother, Tim, in an unincorporated community known as “Pea Ridge”. The community was basically a place on the road where a handful of people lived. It was located off of Highway 35 North in northern Scott County near the adjacent southern border of Leake County. Shondra’s father, Richard, worked as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River. Richard was away from home for long periods with his work up and down the river leaving Shondra’s mother, Genell, to look after the issues of parenting Shondra and her brother, Tim. From all accounts, Genell had been up to that task of providing a positive home environment and friends say that Shondra was a good and caring person.
Shondra May attended a private school known as “Leake Academy” located in the Leake County community of Madden, Mississippi, a 14-mile drive northeast of Shondra’s home in the Pea Ridge community of Scott County. Shondra was a member of the Senior Class of 1986 and graduation was just a few short months away. Shondra’s routine in these winter months of 1986 included attending her daily class schedules at the academy after which she would drive back past her home in Pea Ridge to the town of Forest located 13 miles to the south. She worked part-time at a local McDonald’s mostly on evenings and weekends to earn extra money for her personal needs. On the 4th of February, according to witness testimony, Shondra had attended her school classes in the morning. At around 6 PM that evening of the 4th, Shondra clocked in for work at the McDonald’s with no awareness that the precious last hours of her young life were ticking away.
Forest, Mississippi is a small town and numbering a population of just over 5,000 people in 1986. The surrounding area of Scott County was nearing the 20,000 mark in population in that year. For a small Mississippi town, Forest was fortunate in that it had acquired a local McDonald franchise. This likely was related to the fact that Interstate Highway 20 transited east to west just south of the small town allowing some potential draw to the fast food outlet from pass-through interstate traffic. For a few young teenagers in the area, it also was an opportunity to work part-time and earn a few dollars in the process. Shondra was among those lucky few but unknowingly was on her last night on the job.
February 4, 1986 was a Tuesday and a rather slow one with a low count of evening traffic passing through the fast food outlet. It was a cold, damp and rainy night causing people to stay home and not venture out unless there was no other choice. As a result, by 7:24 PM, Shondra had clocked out due to the slow customer traffic. Eager to get in the hours, she stayed around the restaurant for a while in the hope that the traffic would increase. Finally, about 7:40 PM, she gave up and decided to leave marking the last time anyone in the restaurant would see the young, hazel-eyed, brunette alive. Before departing, She used the restaurant phone and called her mother to let her know that she was on her way home. Departing the restaurant, Shondra had no way of knowing that she would never arrive home.
Back at home, Shondra's mother, Genell, was concerned that her daughter had not yet arrived. More than enough time had passed for her to make the trip from Forest. Shondra’s father, Richard, had called and Genell expressed her concerns. Richard instructed Genell to contact Shondra’s uncle and have him drive the route to see if Shondra had encountered car problems. The search began to bear fruit almost immediately. As Genell opened the front door of the house, she spotted Shondra’s car sitting along the road less than 100 yards from the house.
A check of the car revealed no sign of Shondra. Inside the car was Shondra’s purse and belongings all seemingly intact and untouched. A close look at her purse would later reveal that Shondra’s driver’s license was missing from the normal assorted inventory. Outside the driver’s door, which was ajar, there was no clear evidence marking Shondra’s departure from the vehicle. Shondra was nowhere to be found on that cold and rainy winter evening as her car sat abandoned on the narrow dirt road in Pea Ridge, Mississippi. Among her things was a receipt for a Valentine’s card purchased at a Forest variety store. But the card was not found in the car.
Shondra had left McDonalds in her 1985 Isuzu I-Mark and stopped off at a local TG&Y variety store in Forest. Her purpose in stopping there was in preparation for the upcoming St. Valentine’s Day on the 14th. She purchased an oversized Valentine’s Card according to witnesses who remembered her being in the store that evening. Those who knew her speculated that the card was for her then boyfriend, 19-year old, Tony Adams of Edinburg, Mississippi, located 27 miles northeast of Shondra’s home. Adams was a student at Edinburgh High School at the time.
Scott County law enforcement was called into the search and eventually State (MBI) and FBI investigators joined in an attempt to assist. As the night wore on, the mystery of the missing young and attractive brunette began to take shape. Evidence was lacking at the site of the car as there were no signs of forced entry or any type of struggle. It was as if Shondra had reached a point within view of her home and then just disappeared into thin air. By morning, word of Shondra's disappearnce had spread. Excitement and fear soon gripped families throughout the adjoining counties. Soon posters bearing the smiling face of Shondra became common sights in store front windows, at shop counters, on bulletin boards, and on telephone poles. Literally thousands of people were on the look-out for this young girl who had literally disappeared right in her own front yard without a clue.
As in most cases of a missing person, law enforcement agencies usually do not treat it as a “missing person case" until the subject has been missing for more than 48 hours. Such was the case in Shondra’s disappearance. The site where the car was parked was never treated as a “crime scene” with any attention to preserving footprints or tire tracks and the car was never dusted for fingerprints. Relatives had found the car before law enforcement arrived on the scene and had moved it from the spot to the house. In the process, foot traffic contaminated the site before any decision could be made to investigate it as a crime scene. In effect, evidence was lost to consequence; evidence which might have opened doors later in the process.
Rumors and false leads began to surface mostly leading to dead-ends in the case. Hour by hour the days of February 1986 played themselves out as March approached with the coming spring. As each day passed and faded, so did the hopes of finding Shondra alive. The situation continued with little change for a total of 22 long days before a break came in the case. That break would move the status of the case from a missing person mystery to one of brutal and stark murder. For Shondra’s family and friends, things were only going to get worse as day dawned on the 26th of February 1986, Shondra’s 18th birthday.
The area of Hinds County west of the Mississippi State Capitol of Jackson, Mississippi contains a lot of forested, isolated country today and likely had even more back in 1986. On the morning of 26 February, near the town of Bolton, Mississippi, an off-duty fireman on a hunting expedition came across an object of suspicious nature floating in the cold waters of Baker Creek. The creek ran near a bridge crossing on Champion Hill Road near Interstate Highway 20. The fireman alerted authorities who came to the scene and fished the object from the creek waters. Removing the black plastic garbage bags which encased the mystery, investigators found the battered remains of Shondra May. After 22 days, Shondra whereabouts was finally pinpointed approximately 80 miles from her home and in an area where the lifeless remains of others had also been found over the years.
Investigational techniques and crime scene safeguards were not as fully developed in 1986 as those we see in use today. That point was made very clearly in the mid-90’s in reviewing contaminated evidence at the murder scene of Nicole Brown Simpson and friend, Ronald Goldman, in the now famous O.J. Simpson case. DNA techniques were still very limited at the time and a thing of the future. In removing Shondra’s body from the creek waters and examining the remains, some evidence was either contaminated or potentially lost at the scene. Questions still linger as to whether any type of DNA was harvested at the time. As the old saying goes, when one door opens, another one closes began to take on a familiar truth in the Shondra May case.
Examining Shondra’s remains, the medical examiner found that she had been bound and gagged with a packing-tape commonly used in poultry-raising and processing facilities common to the region in where she lived. The initial autopsy did not yield any conclusive results and a second autopsy by a different source was ordered. That examination found that the cause of death was strangulation. There were marks related to strangulation in the neck area. There were also indications of sexual assault. The time of death remained uncertain and the reason cited was the length of time which the body had been in the creek waters. The examiner estimated that Shondra had lived for as much as 17 to 19 days and that possibly her body had been in the water 3 to 5 days after her death. There was also some speculation as to whether the body had also been exposed to some level of refrigeration for some period which would mean that the time she was alive may have been even shorter than originally projected. Shondra’s whereabouts was no longer a mystery. Now the questions focused on why she was killed and by who.
Over time, leads came and went and a bevy of suspects were considered including Shondra’s father and her boyfriend, Tony Adams. Both were cleared after more in-depth investigation. Some theorized that an individual known to pose as a policeman in the area around Meridian, Mississippi might have been involved though no evidence of value could be obtained to prove it. Multiple suspects were considered with no real progress in finding the killer. Local law enforcement members took polygraph tests in an attempt to expose anyone hiding within the system that might be involved.
In August of 1992, a Richard Weeks, then incarcerated in a Missouri jail on charges, was transported back to Hinds County, MS for questioning regarding the murder of Shondra May. Weeks had spent time in the Scott and Bolivar County jails in 1987 and 1988 on forgery charges. Initial there was hope that Weeks might be a break in the case, but no new evidence was obtained from his interrogation.
On March 2, 1993, a story in the Tuscaloosa (Alabama) News, discussed the potential ties of suspect, Kenneth McLain, who had been charged in February of 1993 of the murder of Lori Hill, a resident of Ellisville, Mississippi At the time of her murder, she was 18 years of age and pregnant. McLain was said to have stopped Ms. Hill while impersonating a police officer. Ms. Hill was strangled and her lifeless body was dumped into a creek. Tuscaloosa police were also questioning McLain in the murder of Chanda Fehler, age 24. Charges against McLain, a resident of Brandon, Mississippi, in the Lori Hill murder were later dropped due to a lack of evidence. While there were several similarities between the Chanda Fehler case and that of Shondra May, there was no hard evidence to link either of them to Kenneth McClain.
Chanda Fehler disappeared after leaving the Riverside swimming pool facility. Her car, still in the swimming facility parking lot, was discovered by police with the driver’s door slightly ajar, the interior light on, and her purse and wallet open on the passenger seat on June 10, 1987. Her body was discovered four days later afloat in the Black Water River. A concrete cinder block had been used to weight the body down but was insufficient to keep it from floating. Her wrists and ankles were bound with wire, and the body was nude. The cause of death appeared to be drowning.
In the Fehler case as in the May case, evidence was overlooked, botched, or disregarded. The time that the body was exposed to the water had also undermined the gathering of critical evidence in the case. McClain was questioned but never charged in the Fehler case. Reporters from the Jackson, Mississippi, newspaper, “The Clarion Ledger” attempted to question McLain but when the line of questioning focused on the Shondra May case, McLain stopped the interview and declined any answers with his attorney citing his fifth and sixth amendment rights. McClain remains a suspect of high interest but to date no hard evidence has emerged relating to the May or Fehler cases to uphold a grand jury indictment.
Two other murder cases which might have some similarity to the May case occurred in 2001 and 2005 in central Mississippi. Mousey Boxx of the Forkville, MS area was murdered in 2001 and his remains were found in Rankin County, Mississippi. Sidney Jones was murdered in 2005 and her remains were discovered near Morton, Mississippi, located between Forest and Jackson in Scott County. Information on these cases is not detailed on the Internet though authorities may feel there are some similarities to the May case. Though investigational techniques and evidence preservation had surely improved by the year 2001, both cases remain unsolved.
The Shondra May case remains unsolved today. Now, almost 30 years after her abduction and subsequent murder during those cold, rainy days of a February winter much has been speculated as to the motive and manner in which Shondra became a victim of such a cruel plot. Still, without hard evidence sufficient enough to bring an indictment of a suspect, the case remains as cold as it ever was in those first hours after her abduction.
There are factors in the case that point in particular directions. Based on the evidence or lack thereof in and around Shondra’s vehicle, one could conclude that she might have either known her abductor or recognized the person as a person of authority (i.e. a police officer). There were no evident signs of a struggle and nothing was in disarray. There were no distinguishable footprints near the driver’s door which may have been made by Shondra as she exited the car or by someone approaching the car. There is no mention of other footprints in the evidence though the ground about the vehicle was likely softened by the rain. Whether there were footprints or tire marks is lost due to the lack of preservation of the site as a crime scene at the time.
The fact that Shondra’s license was missing from her purse may be an indicator of the events that may have taken place, for example, a sinister party posing as a law enforcement officer making a traffic stop. At the same time, it may just be coincidence in that she may have used the license earlier as identification to write a check and simply placed them into a pocket of her clothing. If Shondra was being stopped by authorities, why would she not opt for the safety of simply pulling up in front of her house instead of stopping less than 100 yards short of it in response to the flashing lights? Obviously she did not feel threatened whatever the case.
Short of a confession by a person with a heavy conscience, it is highly unlikely that the Shondra May case will ever be resolved. Shondra's family, those who attended school and worked with her, and a large community of people who were shocked and horrified by this tragedy will spend much of their life not only remembering Shondra but also constantly returning to their memories of that cold Mississippi February in 1986.
Prior to reading this article, did you have any knowledge of this case?
© 2013 Wayne Brown