Generally this blog is about the disappearance of Ray Gricar. Today, however, I’m going to look at another case, that of Michelle “Shelli” Whitaker. I want to draw some parallels between the two cases, in terms of evidence, the conduct of the investigation, and the conduct of the family.
This is the background of the case. Ms. Whitaker, 32, of Spartanburg, SC was not Mr. Gricar; the differences were much more that gender, age and location. Ms. Whitaker had problems with substance abuse; she was working at a “dead end job” at a diner called Waffle House. She wasn’t someone with professional accomplishments and she wasn’t exactly a solid citizen; in the month prior to her disappearance she was arrested for drunk driving and public drunkenness. Her mother, Laura Andrews, tried “tough love,” hoping that a court ordered rehab program would help her overcome her problems.1 Ms. Whitaker was angry over this approach.
After being released on the public drunkenness charge, she found a friend who took her to a truck stop. That was the last time, August 16, 2002, anyone in Spartanburg saw her. Her family became worried. Even though there were some problems with the family, she would always call. She also was attached to a small dog she owned, Sophie, who was left behind.2 Her family agreed that she would never do these things.3 They reported her missing after several days.
The police contacted her friends and discovered the man who had driven her to the truck stop. He was question and the polygraphed; he passed with flying colors and was ruled out as a suspect.3 Something else happened in the case. Another employee of the Waffle House went missing, about a month later. Her name was Heather Sellars and she had an ex-fiancé named Jonathan Vick. Mr. Vick was a suspect in, and later convicted of, the murder of another woman.2 It would be about as coincidental as World War Two that two woman would disappear from the same small business, and one of them would be associated with a murderer.
It seemed obvious what happened. The police, acting on an anonymous tip, sent cadaver dogs to search for Ms. Whitaker’s body; the found nothing. The family distributed posters and set up a website; her brother twice thought he saw her in North Carolina, but nothing came of it.1 Around the fifth anniversary, they had a “service of remembrance.”2 For six years, the case was at a dead end.
At the six year anniversary, everything changed. A woman in the vicinity of Portland, Oregon,4 was watching the television show Forensic Files on the then convicted murderer Jonathan Vick. It showed possible victims, including Ms. Whitaker. The viewer thought one of the victims looked a lot her neighbor, named Shellie Whitaker. A quick Google search led to the family website with the number of the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office.3 A stunned deputy checked and did find a Whitaker at the address. He made a call to local police, who picked up the resident. After fingerprinting, the case was solved.
Far from being a being a murder victim, Ms. Whitaker was in a stable relationship, working as a nanny, and living in Oregon4, apparently having conquered her substance abuse problems. She contacted her family a short time later and even attended her sister’s wedding.3 No charges were brought because, in walking away, Ms. Whitaker violated no law.
There are lessons from the Whitaker case that apply to the Gricar case.
1. People can voluntarily disappear. Ms. Whittaker had virtually no experience with the intricacies of law enforcement and she left no trail. She indicated that she had gotten rides across the country.3
2. Coincidences do happen. The odds that there would be two unrelated disappearances from the same small diner within a month are astronomical, but it happened.
3. The idea, suggested by another blogger, “When in doubt think murder,” delayed the resolution of this case. The police were thinking murder in this case.5 I’m not sure if the police ever checked Ms. Whitaker’s Social Security number. Was she living off the grid?
4. The case might end up being solved with the help of the Internet. Had the viewer in Oregon not Googled Michelle Whitaker, this case might still be unsolved. She could have dismissed it as coincidence.
5. The family played a role in publicizing the case. Ms. Andrews said at the fifth anniversary: "My goal and my wish is to expand media coverage to get my daughter's face in every outlet there is to let people see her face because I think there's someone out there that knows what happened to her."6 The family put it out on the Internet; the website is still up, celebrating the family’s joy at having Ms. Whitaker back. Shortly before the resolution, they began working with a local group to put Ms. Whitaker’s photo on playing cards distributed to jail inmates in South Carolina.3 The organized the remembrance service and initially distributed flyers in areas where they thought she might have been.
There are lessons to be learned from the Whitaker case that can be applied to the Gricar case.
3 This points were mentioned on a Discovery Channel program on the case, found here,
E-mail J. J. in Phila at firstname.lastname@example.org