BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — In the second edition of Missing Mysteries, CBS 42 is taking a look at how advancements in forensic technology could close the unsolved homicide cases of Heaven LaShae Ross and Shannon Paulk.
Beth Thompson’s 11-year-old daughter Heaven LaShae Ross was reported missing on August 19th, 2003 from the Willowbrook Trailer Park in Northport, AL.
“The way we as citizens live in society today, you can basically pick up your phone and look at anything you want to look at. Everybody has a camera now, everywhere you go there is 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 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 in a Birmingham Housing Complex 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 convenience store in Montgomery. The man who was later named as a suspect in her kidnapping and murder was seen on surveillance video inside the same convenience store the night she went missing.
Not only are surveillance cameras more prevalent today, but missing children are also found quickly through issuing Amber Alerts. The system was put into place after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was kidnapped while riding her bicycle in Arlington, TX, and then brutally murdered. In 1996, Dallas-Fort Worth broadcasters teamed up with local police to develop an early warning system to find abducted children.
Marie Paulk reflected on what’s available today to help find missing children since her 11-year-old daughter Shannon Paulk was abducted from Candlestick Park trailer park in Prattville, AL in 2001. However, she’s not sure if it would have helped back 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 have had people say they had seen her that day, we’re not really sure.”
Members of Law Enforcement are hopeful that new technology coming out of crime labs will help solve these cases that have stumped investigators. They need evidence to build a case to prosecute those responsible for the deaths of Heaven and Shannon.
Despite the similarities in the cases, Prattville Police Department Criminal Intelligence CSI Sgt. Tom Allen said investigators haven’t been able to positively link the two cases.
“Some of the original investigators, that’s going to haunt them for the rest of their lives,” Tuscaloosa Violent Crimes Unit Commander Captain Jack Kennedy said. “This case is not going to be closed ever, until we get resolution at the end 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 that 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 that was twice held at the University of Alabama. The competitions were held the same years the assaults occurred. His DNA was linked to another sexual assault in Colorado in 2004.
Prattville P.D. Sergeant Tom Allen is hopeful that forensic technology will keep advancing at this pace so that unsolved cases can finally be closed.
“Sometimes if you look at all of the evidence that we have and it’s one of the things that technology has brought to the forefront is resubmitting some of the evidence that has been submitted in the past,” Allen said. “Maybe this time based on the new technology we get that break.”
He said they have a room that is three-quarters full from the floor to the ceiling with evidence in the Paulk investigation.
That sheer amount of evidence is why in 2018, the District Attorney for Alabama’s 19th Circuit, which covers Chilton, Elmore and Autauga County, convened an investigative grand jury.
C.J. Reynolds is the new District Attorney for that district and found value in what they were able to learn by going through the evidence in that way.
Prattville Police Department is the lead investigating agency on the Shannon Paulk case, but over the years other agencies have participated in the investigation.
“In that grand jury, there were subpoenas that were issued. We brought in testimony from law enforcement,” Reynolds said, “Some investigators with the Department of Corrections that 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 indict or arraign at that particular moment but there was so much information over such a long period of time. If we could cut through maybe what is the technology and the testing that we received over these 20 years what have they discredited.”
It was through that grand jury that a long-used description of an alleged suspect was discredited and tossed out as evidence.
Captain Kennedy said they had not compiled evidence for a grand jury to examine in Ross’ case.
“If we had enough information to do that we would obviously had done that long in the past,” Kennedy said. “If we take anything here before a grand jury I would expect it would be, hopefully, to the level that an indictment would be issued, I would hope it would be enough for a grand jury to indict.”
There has never been a person of interest named in the disappearance or homicides of Heaven LaShae Ross or Shannon Paulk.
Those with any information on Heaven LaShae Ross’ case are urged to call the Tuscaloosa Violent Crimes Unit or CrimeStoppers at 205-752-7867 (STOP). Those with any information on Shannon Paulk’s case are urged to call Prattville CSI Sargeant Tom Allen at 334-595-0256.