Without key evidence, Elvis, Pipkin murder cases to challenge attorneys

troot@thesunnews.comMarch 17, 2014 

Within three months in 2002, four people were reported missing and later four unrelated people were each convicted of murder in the cases.

At the time of the convictions, which occurred in 2004 and 2006, the bodies of two victims had not been recovered, and today their whereabouts remain unknown.

During the last four months, two Horry County women, Heather Elvis and Angie Pipkin, were reported missing and three people are charged with murder in their cases.

The women’s bodies also have not been found.

The two recent cases will present a unique challenge to lawyers because without a body, prosecutors are tasked to show the crime was committed, which law experts described using a Latin term, corpus delicti, and defense attorneys can use that in court to dispute their clients were involved.

Two suspects in the Elvis case will appear in court Monday for bond hearings.

Law experts say murder cases being tried without a body are rare, but Horry County has the distinction of being where the first such case in the state occurred in 1986 and six similar cases have followed.

“You’ve got to prove that someone has been killed. That’s an essential element of murder. When you don’t have a body, the way you do that, is you prove their pattern of life leading up to their disappearance,” said Greg Hembree, a state senator who served as the 15th Circuit Solicitor from 1999 to 2013 and prosecuted the previous cases from 2002. “You prove that their pattern of life has been ended. It’s circumstantial evidence of a murder and it’s strong circumstantial evidence.”

The idea that a crime occurred when a body hasn’t been found was in the spotlight during the 1949 case of John George Haigh, also known as the acid bath murderer in England, said Colin Miller, an associate professor of criminal law and evidence at the University of South Carolina.

“Without a body you can’t conclusively prove cause of death, time of death or where the death occurred,” Miller said. “You have to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Authorities have not released much information regarding what prompted police to file the murder and kidnapping charges against Sidney and Tammy Moorer in the Elvis case. The 20-year-old was last seen the night of Dec. 17 and last heard from Dec. 18, according to authorities. In a report filed by an Horry County police officer, Elvis’ car was found late Dec. 19 parked at Peachtree Boat Landing. The officer called Elvis’ father, because the vehicle was registered to him, to inquire why it was parked there.

In the murder and kidnapping arrest warrants, police said that on or about Dec. 18, the Moorers kidnapped and murdered “Heather Elvis with malice, forethought” at the Peachtree Boat Landing.

In arrest warrants filed against 46-year-old Randy Robinson, who was charged with murder earlier this month in Pipkin’s case, authorities said he killed the 32-year-old woman, dismembered her body and disposed of it in Darlington County.

More information in both cases is expected to be released as the cases move through the judicial process.

Until then, law experts point to previous cases in the area, including the first in the state, which also was in Horry County and involved Alvin Owens being convicted and sentenced to death in 1986, two years after the disappearance of Garden City Beach businessman Ernest Vereen. Owens later appealed and in 1991, he was sentenced to life in prison.

“The challenge is they don’t have a body. That presents a problem for the prosecution, because they carry the burden of proof. They rely on circumstantial evidence like in the Owens case that shows a crime occurred,” said Kenneth W. Gaines, a University of South Carolina professor of law. “It does present a problem for the prosecution because it’s a lot harder job with circumstantial evidence rather than having a body to point to . . . to show the person is actually dead. As in the Owens case there was a lot of circumstantial evidence from which the jury could conclude that it originated from a death.”

Because of Vereen’s routine, it was noticeable when he was kidnapped before a ransom note appeared in the mailbox of Vereen’s son, who called police, officials said.

“What was nice for those prosecutors in those cases, the victims made it exceedingly unlikely they would disappear from life,” Miller said. “That’s what really the prosecution has to do in these cases [Elvis and Pipkin]. They need to have witnesses to show patterns. All these show how they are tied to the community and without any explanation they would not just disappear off the face of the earth.”

Attorneys and police in the Elvis and Pipkin cases declined to comment about the cases and how they expect to proceed with them in the judicial process.

Even with several such cases in the Myrtle Beach area, law experts said they are typically rare.

“This is not the usual case; most of the time they have a body. It’s not something that happens everyday,” Gaines said. “It’s not something that would happen on a frequent basis for sure. Usually, law enforcement is pretty good about finding the body.”

In other previous cases, officials used similar patterns to determine a crime had been committed:

•  In August 2002, authorities investigated the disappearances of Willfred Brown and Elton Rutledge in Georgetown and charged Jody Ward with murder. Portions of the men’s bodies were later found buried in a wooded area off Indian Hut Road. Ward was convicted in 2004 and is serving two life sentences.

•  A month later, Conway authorities investigated the disappearance of 4-year-old Kynande Bennett, whose mother, Vartasha McCollough-White, reported she last saw the toddler at a Kmart store in Whiteville, N.C. The child’s body has not been found, but in 2006, her mother was convicted of homicide by child abuse and is serving a 20-year prison sentence.

•  In November 2002, a multi-state search began after 44-year-old Alice Donovan was abducted from the Conway Wal-Mart store. Two Kentucky prison escapees, Chadrick Evan Fulks, 36, and Brandon Basham, 32, were ordered in 2004 to be put to death by a federal jury in Donovan’s kidnapping and murder. Their cases are in the appeal process.

Donovan’s remains were found in 2009.

Contact TONYA ROOT at 444-1723 or follow her at Twitter.com/tonyaroot.

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