BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — It’s been over two decades since 11-year-old Heaven LaShae Ross and Shannon Paulk were reported missing in Alabama, just two years apart. There have been no answers in either case, but plenty of questions about the similarities in the circumstances surrounding their deaths.
Shannon was abducted from the Candlestick Park trailer park in Prattville on August 16, 2001. Her mother Marie Paulk said she is hopeful someone out there will come forward with information to catch her daughter’s killer.
The last day she saw her daughter alive started like every other day in their home.
“I had to be at work at four in the morning and she was asleep on the couch,” Paulk said. “So I kissed her on the forehead and I left with my other daughter being there with her.
Paulk said that afternoon when she got off work around 2:30 p.m., she picked up her grandson from the babysitter and decided to go get Shannon something from the store to cheer her up.
“Shannon was upset because me and her father separated and we was getting a divorce. So I figured she was out playing with her friends, cause she knew everybody in the trailer park,” Paulk said. “There was no strangers to her. She was out playing so I figured I’ll run and get her some stuff from Walmart that will make her happy.”
Then, Shannon didn’t return home at the time she normally would have.
“When it started getting dark and she didn’t come in, we started getting worried,” Paulk said. “Cause she always came in before it got dark, because she knew that was part of the rules.”
Despite a frantic search of the neighborhood by Marie Paulk and her other daughter Lisa, Shannon was nowhere to be found. They then called the police department to officially report her missing.
Jim Byard was Mayor of the City of Prattville for 12 years, including in 2001 when Shannon was abducted and murdered.
“Shannon Paulk’s case stands out in my mind for two reasons,” Byard said. “Number one the only missing person’s case during my time as Mayor. Certainly the only missing child.”
Byard said back then Prattville was a city of about 30,000 people and something happening like a missing eleven-year-old child affected the entire community,
“Because we don’t have that a lot,” Byard said. “We don’t have that in our largest cities in Alabama.”
The other reason the Shannon Paulk case stands out to him is that she was abducted the day before his birthday.
“Early on the morning of August 17, 2001, I got a call from our police chief that said they had been working a missing person’s case,” Byard said. “Ultimately she never came home.”
Shannon’s abduction also took place just before the start of the school year.
“When school began at her elementary school it was obvious that there was an 11-year-old child missing,” Byard said. “There were yellow ribbons on just about anything that you could put a yellow ribbon on.”
Months later, Shannon’s body was found by rabbit hunters in a wooded area of Autauga County on October 6, 2001.
Byard puts up a yellow ribbon on his Facebook Page when his birthday comes around each year, in remembrance of Shannon and her family.
“I put a small blurb at some point during my birthday I think of Marie Paulk, [her] family and of course Shannon Paulk,” Byard said. “This soul deserves to be remembered.”
When Marie Paulk thinks about her baby girl, she remembers the day Shannon was born — May 8, 1990.
“She had a head full of black hair. I could give her two ponytails. She was nine pounds, my biggest baby. Her sisters loved her. She was just chunky,” Paulk said while tearing up. “It’s a heartbreak I just can’t get over. It’s one of the biggest losses and something I never imagined ever happening. I just hope we have closure. I miss her so much because not a day goes by that I don’t think about her.”
Heaven LaShae Ross
Beth Thompson’s pain is mixed with anger over the disappearance and death of her daughter Heaven LaShae Ross who was reported missing on August 19, 2003, in Northport. It was just two years after the abduction and murder of Shannon Paulk.
“And here I am, 20 years later, asking you the same thing I asked then now,” Thompson said. “Who, what, when, where, why? And your answer is always I don’t know.”
Heaven, called “Shae” by her family, left their home in the Willowbrook Trailer Park in Tuscaloosa County and headed to the school bus stop just up the street from their home. She left the house within five to 10 minutes after her sister Alex, who now goes by Jamie, did.
It was about to rain as the girls left separately for the bus stop. After a loud clap of thunder, the girls’ stepfather Kevin Thompson decided to drive the girls to school rather than have them wait for the bus in the rain. He drove from the house to get them but only saw 13-year-old Jamie at the bus stop.
The two returned to the house and noticed Shae wasn’t there either. They then woke Beth Thompson, who worked an overnight shift. Jamie says their stepfather was always the one to wake them for school and get them ready.
“The worst day of my life was 20 years ago when at 7:05 that morning I knew my child was missing,” Thompson said. “I didn’t wait all day, I knew immediately that something had happened but nobody took me seriously.”
Tuscaloosa County Violent Crimes Commander Captain Jack Kennedy discussed the case with CBS 42’s Sherri Jackson, as the death of Heaven LaShae Ross is still being investigated as a homicide.
In 2006, the body of the 11-year-old who had been considered missing for three years was found in Holt.
“When the original report came out, police were looking at it as a runaway juvenile,” Kennedy said. “We get a lot of those every day. We solve almost 100 percent of those. We find them in a few hours, they call or we pick them up.”
But, what happened in this case is part of the reason Heaven’s mother gets angry.
“She was considered a runaway,” Thompson said, “They had to wait until the bus run in the afternoon to make sure. They had to wait until the bus run in the afternoon.”
“[Beth’s] frustrated,” Kennedy said. “She doesn’t want anyone to forget, because what she wants is what we all want. A conclusion to this we want the person responsible, the person who committed this crime to be held responsible for it.”
For the last 20 years, whoever killed Heaven LaShae Ross has gotten away with it. The family just held a balloon release marking the 20th year of her disappearance — the last day they saw her alive.
Despite massive community searches with hundreds of volunteers, Heaven’s body would be found in the same county where she vanished from underneath an abandoned house.
Captain Kennedy believes that is an indicator that whoever killed her is from the area.
“The fact that she was found in our community in the Holt area, that would lead you to believe that whoever did this is also from our community,” he said.
The similarities between Heaven LaShae Ross’ death and that of Shannon Paulk have garnered national attention over the possibility that they could be linked.
“Anything is possible. A lot has been done on missing person cases as well. Those leads have come in. Those connections are trying to be made, but I would say it is rare that that actually occurs,” Kennedy said. “It doesn’t mean it’s not true in this case. Obviously whoever has done this has not been arrested and charged for this crime. But in most crimes of this nature, the victim is known to the suspect.”
However, Kennedy also said it does not mean that there are no instances when the perpetrator is a stranger to the victim.
“Because there obviously are these random people that travel around and victimize people and serial killers, and like you said repeat child abductors,” Kennedy said.
A number of true crime genre programs have explored the mysteries of what happened to Heaven LaShae Ross and Shannon Paulk. Most examine what their cases have in common with each other and how similar they are. The two cases involve young girls reported missing after either walking alone to a school bus stop or walking alone in a mobile home community.
Prattville Police Department Sergeant Tom Allen with their Criminal Intelligence/CSI says those programs generate tips.
“I probably get two or three a week, tips coming in,” Sgt. Allen said. “I got one last week through another agency from north Alabama as a matter of fact, that called, that we are working on now”
Beth Thompson said Heaven’s case exposed her to cases of other missing girls from the South.
“It was after Shae Shae come up missing, I learned about Shannon Paulk, I learned about Teresa Dean, I learned about quite a few other little girls,” Thompson said.
Three months before Heaven LaShae Ross went missing, 13-year-old Tabitha Tuders was last seen walking to her school bus stop on the morning of April 29, 2003, in Nashville.
Two years before Shannon Paulk was kidnapped, 11-year-old Teresa Dean was walking to a friend’s house in her mobile home community in Twiggs County, Georgia on the evening of August 15, 1999. Neither she nor Tabitha Tuders has ever been found.
“One of the things we have got going right now is we have another state that we have been working with and also a federal agency that is working with us to review all the information on Shannon’s case again,” Byard said. “That is one of the things you are talking about they are trying to link a case in another state to ours. And that’s what we are going to see if they are linked it could have been nationwide. It could have been someone who was going through the state. We don’t know. One of those cases might be the one that helps ours.”
Police have not named an identifiable suspect in the Shannon Paulk case or that of Heaven LaShae Ross.
“Just like the ones you’re talking about in Tuscaloosa. Similar ages, similar circumstances,” Sgt. Tom Allen said. “Are they linked? And, just like today, we haven’t been able to link those cases.”
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.