TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - Heaven LaShae Ross would have been 21 years old this year.
Alex Ross sometimes thinks of how her younger sister would have turned out as an adult. She imagines she would have been a lot like her - outgoing, fun and sometimes goofy. But she usually remembers her as the 11-year-old little sister who wrote in her diary about Halloween costumes and the boy down the street.
"There are a lot of things I can't remember about her, though. They've been overshadowed by what happened to her," Ross said. "I can't remember her smile or her laugh. I should be able to hear that. But I tell myself that this is life, and that everything happens for a reason."
Ross, now 23, had just turned 13 when her life changed forever. The highly publicized disappearance of her sister, who was found dead three years later, caused her family years of heartache.
"It has been a rough 10 years," said Beth Lowery Thompson, the girls' mother. "A rough, rough 10 years."
It was late summer 2003 when Shae Ross disappeared during a rainy Tuesday morning walk to the bus stop at Willowbrook Trailer Park in Northport. This past Monday marked the 10-year anniversary of her disappearance.
Members of the community closely followed what's likely the most high-profile criminal case in Tuscaloosa County's history. Volunteers searched property across the county. Individuals and businesses donated to a reward fund that quickly reached $70,000.
People who never met Shae or her family joined them in mourning the sad, but long-suspected, outcome when her remains were found under an abandoned house in Holt three years later.
"This is one of those cases that the entire community was invested in," said Northport Police Investigator Terry Carroll, who led the search for Shae. "Nobody wants to see a child hurt. It just kind of touched everybody to some degree."
It's been seven years since that grim discovery and investigators are still searching for her killer.
"I'm at peace with her death," Alex Ross said. "I've been at peace since they found her. But I want to know who did it and why."
Thompson, 44, moved to Foley less than a year after Shae's body was found.
"I didn't want to be there anymore," she said during a phone interview last week. "I couldn't be there anymore."
She said has photos and belongings of her youngest child around her new home. Shae's photo is the first thing she sees when she wakes up, and the last thing she sees before going to bed.
"I have dreaded this year. I did not want to see this year come," Thompson said of the anniversary.
This year has turned out to be more difficult than Thompson expected. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer about six weeks ago and is recovering after a full hysterectomy. The 21-year relationship with her husband Kevin Thompson ended around the same time. And she's still mourning the recent deaths of her stepfather and an 18-day old grandson.
Thompson's cancer diagnosis made clear that she may never know what happened to her daughter.
"I don't want to be another Patsy Ramsey," she said. Ramsey died in 2006 with the 1996 murder of her daughter JonBenet still unsolved. "I don't want to die without knowing what happened to my kid."
Alex had left the trailer at 6:50 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 19, 2003, just a few minutes before her younger sister. Shae left around 6:55 a.m. Their stepfather Kevin Thompson heard a thunder clap and decided to drive the girls to school and left at 7:01. Shae somehow disappeared during that narrow window.
"I took a lot of blame for it when it first happened." said Alex, who also goes by her first name Jamie. "What if I had just waited for her? And why did they grab her? Why didn't they grab me, too?"
Police response to the missing child report Thompson filed that morning became more serious when Shae didn't show up once school hours had passed.
An AMBER alert was never issued because police had no evidence that Shae was in danger.
A team of law enforcement agents, including some from every agency in the county and the FBI, descended on the trailer park and went door-to-door. They reviewed video from a nearby Steve's Grill & Billiards, which yielded no clues. The response from the community was swift and massive.
On the third day of her disappearance, Winn-Dixie donated yellow ribbons that teams of searchers pinned to their shirts. Buddy's Food Mart immediate offered a $5,000 reward. Olive Garden sent food, Kmart sent snacks and Kinko's, Office Max and Kwik Copy ran off 33,000 missing fliers with ink jets donated by Home Depot.
Law enforcement agents saturated the neighborhood and worked at a command center set up at Northport police headquarters. Members of local, Birmingham and national media camped out with family and friends under tents at the trailer park, waiting for any kind of update. Search teams from out-of-state showed up, but no leads ever surfaced.
Thousands of tips were called in, many of them outlandish. A truck driver saw a wolf on U.S. Highway 82 and suggested that Shae had been attacked. A psychic said that a childless woman had taken Shae because of her mild-mannered disposition. One man said that he could find Shae by using a device that would track her aura.
"We checked out every lead," said Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office Division Chief Loyd Baker. "You never know if someone is giving you a good lead under a guise because they don't want to incriminate themselves or someone else."
The relationship between the family and volunteers disintegrated as the case dragged on without a resolution. Lowery accused the head of a volunteer group of stealing $500 donated by a church and police were called to the volunteer center to resolve a shouting match that erupted between family members and volunteers. Many volunteers withdrew their support after a September 2003 fire in Shae's room that destroyed most of her belongings. The fire was ruled suspicious. Some members of law enforcement, volunteers and the public suspected that Shae's parents knew more than they let on. Lowery said at the time that the scrutiny of her family was likely because she and Thompson were an interracial couple, and because they lived in a trailer park.
Alex Ross said that the attention directed at her family, along with losing her sister, was difficult for her as a teenager.
"I feel like I wasn't able to be a teenager," she said. "I'd be allowed to go to the mall or maybe two hours. I couldn't do anything."
Ross said that she experiences occasional anxiety that she blames on what happened to her sister. She doesn't like to be in a home with the door unlocked and sometimes overreacts when she hears strange sounds in her house.
She suspects that would stop if investigators are ever able to make an arrest in the case.
"I feel sorry for whoever did this. There's no way that whoever did this hasn't thought about it every day for 10 years, unless he or she is a real cold-hearted person," she said. She's thought about it a lot, but has no theories about who killed Shae.
"I honestly don't know. It could have been someone with a hatred for our family," she said, "or just a sick bastard."
Beth Thompson said that it's painful to think about her little girl who didn't have a chance to grow up.
"I love her. I miss her. I miss her so much. I've missed knowing what she would have been like. I've missed raising her, teaching her," she said. "Sometimes this is all too much to bear."
Shae was a tomboy who wasn't afraid to get muddy playing in the nearby creek. She played trombone and dressed as a cheerleader for Halloween. Her diary is full of entries about how much she loved her sister. She only wrote in it for a few months, but several of the blank pages she intended to fill are numbered in her messy 10-year-old script.
Paige Battle, the girls' first cousin, was 11 when Shae disappeared.
"Now I have kids of my own," said Battle, now 21. "Any little thing that might happen triggers it back up."
She worries about her kids when they're not in sight. She has butterfly tattoos in honor of Shae, who decorated her room with them.
"I think if we actually knew who did this, our family would feel better. It's been hard," she said. "It's torn our family apart."
Frances Taylor, Shae and Alex's aunt, believes that someone knows.
"Secrets get told," she said.
Investigators have never said how Shae was killed. Her family doesn't even know.
Baker, who worked the case when he was commander of the Tuscaloosa County Metro Homicide Unit, said that investigators have interviewed three people who, for whatever reason, falsely confessed to the crime.
"That's information that only we know and the killer knows," Baker said.
Authorities were called to a rural dirt road in the Holt area on the afternoon of Dec. 19, 2006. A man walking his dog found her skeletal remains after his dog ran into a crawl space of an abandoned house off 44th Court that backed up to Hurricane Creek, just eight miles from Willbrook Trailer Park. An early theory was that a homeless person had died while seeking shelter.
Baker knew it was Shae as soon as he saw the yellow and black Athletech backpack he had sought for more than three years.
"I knew exactly who it was," he said.
Other possible evidence was recovered from the scene, but he won't say what. He did say that no DNA evidence was recovered because she had been exposed for so long.
"We have collected some trace evidence from around that body that we have not been able to match to any source," Baker said. "Maybe we'll be able to as technology improves." Hair and fibers are examples of trace evidence.
Members of the media, including a crew from "America's Most Wanted," were allowed to walk through the house after investigators had processed the scene. Broken glass, trash and damp, stained carpets covered the floors. The porch had collapsed and floors inside had fallen in. The house sat in a clearing overlooking Hurricane Creek and was known by people in the area as a spot for drug activity and prostitution. It's not clear whether Shae was killed at the house or if her body was taken there later, he said. The house has since been destroyed by an unintentional fire, he said.
Investigator Carroll, who headed the case as Northport's juvenile division officer, went on to work in the homicide unit and continued to investigate the missing person-turned homicide case. This is the case that will stay with him forever, he said.
"There are a lot of us who feel that way," he said.
Carroll went to Washington, D.C., along with investigators from Prattville and Twiggs County, Ga., to discuss the case with investigators with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. A theory had been floated that the three cases could be connected due to remarkable similarities.
All three girls were 11 years old. All were abducted from trailer parks near U.S. Highway 82. And all three disappeared two years apart - 1999, 2001 and 2003 - and within one week in the month of August.
The federal investigators said there was not enough evidence to determine whether the cases were connected.
"They did say 'you're not going to find out what happened until you find out how she got out of that trailer park'," Carroll said.
The investigators who know every witness statement by heart and every detail about every piece of evidence agree about a lot. But they disagree about some aspects of the case, including who did it and when. Baker and Carroll declined to elaborate, but said that differing opinions can be beneficial to an investigation.
Like the family and the rest of the community, they're hopeful that one day they'll get the information they need to crack the case.
"This was a case that affected the whole community," Baker said. "It was a hard case for the community to come to terms with."
Beth Thompson thinks that she will better be able to come to terms with what happened if someone is held accountable.
"All I want is justice for Shae. She didn't ask for this. None of us asked for this," she said. "I ask that whoever knows who did this do please have a conscience, so we can put this to rest. This is a lot for a family to deal with. Be considerate enough to please give us a little peace of mind."
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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