The Last Truck Stop : Michele Whitaker
Missing: August 2002
For "Shelli" Whitaker, an attractive 32-year old, life had become difficult. Working a dead end job at Waffle House and abusing drugs had put her at odds with her family, especially her mother, Laura Andrews. When Shelli is arrested on a drunk driving charge her mother refuses to help, believing that some jail time and court appointed drug rehab might straighten up her daughter.
But, a week later Shelli is arrested again for public drunkenness. A fight with her mother ensues and Shelli storms out to be with friends.
At first, no one notices Shelli had disappeared. But on Monday, August 8, 2002 Shelli's mother awakes worried. It has been days since she's heard from Shelli. Despite her daughter's degenerate lifestyle she always eventually checked in. That day, Shelli becomes a missing person.
After questioning Shelli's friends, Police find one who had given her a ride to a truck stop on I-85 hours before she went missing. Over the next six weeks fliers would be circulated and searches made in towns across the region. Nothing.
Despite her struggles, Shelli wasn't the type to ignore her family, says her sister Lynda Andrews. She would still show up on the birthdays and holidays, and any silly occasion," she said. "Shelli is a very sweet person — she'd be the one to call."
In late September of 2002, a month after Shelli vanished, the disappearance of another young Spartanburg woman puts a chill on Shelli's case. Heather Sellars, 21, a co-worker of Shelli's at Waffle House goes missing. The cops immediately focus on her boyfriend, Jonothan Vick, who they already suspect in an unsolved 1995 rape and strangling death of a local hairdresser named Dana Satterfield.
Did Michele Whitaker know Jonothan Vick? Had she also become his victim? When Police discovered links between Whittaker and Vick, this missing person's case turned into a homicide investigation.
But, Vick doesn't roll over for Spartanburg Sheriffs, and investigator Tom Smith doesn't have the evidence to convict him of any murders. By the end of 2002, Heather Sellers is presumed dead and Shelli Whitaker's case is cold.
Three years go by. Michele Whitaker's oldest brother, Bruce Andrews, who works Charlotte, N.C., said he "sees" Shelli in crowds. "Twice I've followed women I spotted, thinking it was her her."
While Spartanburg Sheriffs slowly build a case against Jonothan Vick, there is another disturbing lead in Michele's case. On October 13, 2005, an anonymous, hand-written letter arrives at the Spartanburg County Sheriff's Office.
Investigator Tom Smith reads the letter, which says that Michele Whitaker's body is buried near a pond in Landrum, South Carolina. The details in the letter suggest the writer knew Michele. But, police searches using cadaver dogs turn up zilch. Sheriffs hold a press conference about the letter hoping to draw out the author again. The bait is never taken and Michele's case is cold again.
Three more years pass with no signs of Shelli. Laura Andrews cannot help feeling that her daughter is dead. Yet, she and her husband never give up hope. They move from Spartanburg to Rock Hill, but keep their old telephone number in the hope that Shelli might call.
In the summer of 2008 a woman watches a crime program (Forensic Files on Tru TV) about the recent murder conviction of a Spartanburg man named Jonathan Vick. In addition to photos of his two victims, Heather Sellars and Dana Satterfield, is a picture of Michele Whitaker, who police still believe was murdered by Vick.
The woman watching is stunned. One part of this report is dead wrong. She knows one of these women. Shelli Whitaker is her neighbor and is very much alive!
Local news reports and headlines announce that Michele Whitaker, now 38 and missing for 6 years has been found alive and safe. She reunites with her mother and siblings in South Carolina.
After six years spent believing their daughter/sister was likely dead, there are many questions, hurt feelings and raw emotion. In time, Shelli's family knows that answers and healing will come. Now it's time for hugs, tears and laughter.