Brittanee Drexel 10 years later: Voices from the case recount a decade without closure

Editor’s Note: Thursday, April 25 marks the 10th anniversary of Brittanee Drexel’s disappearance from a Myrtle Beach hotel. Despite searches and jailhouse statements, she has not been found, and nobody has been charged in connection to the case. We chose to tell this story in an alternative format. If you’ve kept up with her disappearance, you’ve read 10 years’ worth of reporting, but you’ve never read it through the words of her family, friends, investigators and informants about the emotional toll of what happened to Brittanee Drexel.

Brittanee Drexel, a high school junior in Rochester, New York, was preparing for spring break. She pleaded with her mom to let her join friends on a trip to Myrtle Beach.

Brittanee’s mother Dawn Drexel: She asked me if she could go to Myrtle Beach. I said, “Brittanee, you are not going to Myrtle Beach.” “No, you are not going.” She goes, “Why mom? Nothing is going to happen to me.” I said, “There is no parental supervision.” I said, “I don’t know the kids you are going with,” and I said, “Something is going to happen.”

It did.

On April 25, 2009, 17-year-old Brittanee was spotted on surveillance video leaving the Blue Water Resort, on Ocean Boulevard. She has not been seen since.

While officials believe she was murdered, her remains have not been found. That has left her friends and family without closure.

Family, friends, investigators and jailhouse informants talked about Brittanee, the case and what it’s like spending a decade without answers of what happened after Brittanee ran away to Myrtle Beach with friends.

Dawn Drexel: Around noon or 1 o’clock [the day she went missing] I asked Brittanee what she was doing and she was like “Oh, we’re just at the beach.” Now, they call our lake back home a beach, it’s Sherlock Beach. She said, “We’re at the beach just hanging out.” I said, “What are you doing later?” She says, “I’m going to go hang out at my friend’s house and watch movies.” I said, “OK.”

I told her I will call you later cause we were going to a family barbeque that day she said, “OK, mom. I love you, I will see you tomorrow.” Those were her last words to me.

Photos provided by the Drexel family

Brittanee’s boyfriend John Grieco: She seemed like she was having a lot of fun, just a regular, old spring break kind of weekend. Then the night she didn’t respond to me. I knew there was something going on. It’s kind of hard to put your finger on it. It’s more of an instinctual feeling that you get.

After about four hours, five hours of her not responding, which was very unusual, I ended up calling her mom and breaking the news.

Dawn Drexel: Between 9:15, quarter to 10, Brittanee’s boyfriend, John Greico, called me and told me Brittanee was in Myrtle Beach and they couldn’t find her. And my heart just dropped. I’m like, “What do you mean she’s in Myrtle Beach and they can’t find her?”

Because Brittanee had never done anything like that and traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles from our house.

The blonde teen was wearing a white top and black shorts as she walked out of the Blue Water Resort around 8:15 p.m. Brittanee’s phone last gave off a signal on April 26, 2009, in Georgetown County, South Carolina. That same day, Dawn and others drove from New York to Myrtle Beach to search for Brittanee.

Dawn Drexel: That Sunday, just being so upset and everything, trying to get down here took us 18 hours. My phone was just blowing up. There were people calling me left and right. Just very sad, very quiet drive here.

I had her friends calling me crying. It was just horrible, my family trying to find out what is going on.

Childhood friend Jessica Fico: I was prom dress shopping with my mom and my cousin had called me. So I sat down and could tell she was upset. So I sat down and she told me. I just remember sitting in the middle of the mall crying and my mom told me “Just stop crying. Let’s go — we got to go dress shopping and she’ll be found by tomorrow.”

It’s just crazy it was 10 years ago, but at the same time, it feels it was just yesterday.

Alex Lang

Dawn said she first went to a TV news station to get Brittanee’s photo to the public for help. She then met Myrtle Beach police and reported Brittanee was missing. The search began.

Many missing people cases are quickly solved.

John Grieco: I thought maybe there was some crazy underlying story; got drunk, broke her phone. Some crazy story. Up until the time I was driving down, 12 hours after I had last spoke to her, that is when it hit. This could be something a lot larger than I’m anticipating.

Dawn’s cousin, and seemingly second mother to Brittanee, Renee Tomasso: I tell people you hear about children going missing all the time. But, you never think it’s going to happen to you. Then when it did, it was like surreal.

At the beginning it was like Dawn is going to get Brittanee and bring her back. A week goes by and no Brittanee. Another week goes by and no Brittanee. And it’s scary you just think what could have happened to her.

Dawn Drexel: I got here, and I was realizing what if the worst happened. What if she’s in the water? Or what if someone did something really bad to her? I knew she didn’t runaway. I knew that for a fact, and I had to prove that to law enforcement because I knew how Brittanee was.

The Sun News first published a story of Brittanee’s disappearance on April 28. The report says that she traveled here with friends and met a group of men on Friday night. She met them again Saturday night before she went missing.

Dawn and friends scoured Myrtle Beach searching for Brittanee. They tried to retrace her steps and talk to people who may have seen her. It was then the case started to garner more regional and national attention as Brittanee’s disappearance stretched into days and then a week.

Dawn Drexel: To be honest with you, every single day from sun up to sun down, we were out passing out fliers talking to people, walking the boulevard. Walking from the Hotel Bar Harbor, from where she was staying to the Blue Water just to see how far it was. We walked it at night to see what was lurking around there. We did so much within the two-and-a-half months I was here looking for her.

Myrtle Beach Police Cpt. David Knipes (who spoke to The Sun News days after the disappearance. Myrtle Beach police officials declined to comment for this story): You can’t rule anything out. There’s no clear-cut indication that there is foul play, but there’s no clear-cut indication there isn’t. We don’t have any indication that leads us to one or the other. We’re taking it very seriously, and we’re following up on every lead, clue and piece of information.

John Grieco: She was probably the closest person I was with in my life, so it was extremely disturbing. I didn’t sleep for a long, long time, which only added to the stress. I just remember going to bed having nightmares and waking up to realize the nightmare was real.

Brittanee Drexel’s grandfather Al Wagner (center) hands out T-shirts with a photo of the missing New York teenager Friday evening at Hurl Rock State Park in Myrtle Beach. Photo By Randall Hill

Before the nightmare, Brittanee’s life was that of the typical All-American girl, one described as the girl next door. Brittanee loved her two younger siblings and earned good grades in school. She was a soccer forward — as Dawn described it the one who scored the goals — and was into hair and makeup. While in high school, she also took cosmetology classes.

Brittanee rarely caused trouble, besides the minor shenanigans from normal teenage years.

Drexel 3289293.JPG
Brittanee Drexel Photo provided by the Drexel family

Renee Tomasso: When she was a little girl, she loved Barney. I just remember watching Barney video back to back to back. She would watch it and rewind it, watch it and rewind it. Me and Dawn knew every Barney song. We knew every video because Brittanee would watch it constantly.

Dawn Drexel: She’s my first-born. She was just so sweet, had a great personality. She loved family; she loved all her friends. She was my soccer star; she played soccer since she was 5. She was really good at it. She was just a genuine, good person.

Jessica Fico: She was always that strong-willed. She was never one to start drama. She was always that spunky outgoing girl that she could make anyone smile.

John Grieco: We met on a blind date, and she was a lot of fun. We were together on-and-off for the next few years. She was a very happy go-lucky person. She was extremely happy. Always giddy, excited, happy.

Dawn Drexel: At first she wanted to do some modeling and after that she wanted to be a nurse. Specifically in the OB/GYN unit. Brittanee has always loved kids. She wanted to have a family. She wanted to be able to have kids and be married. She had her whole life ahead of her.

During Brittanee’s late teens, Dawn divorced Brittanee’s step-father. It wore on the 17-year-old with her siblings possibly living with their dad and Brittanee staying with her mom. Their family splitting.

John Grieco: Her parents were going through a divorce, which created a little bit of a turmoil. Which created a little bit of misdirection, kind of led her down the wrong path.

Photo provided by the Drexel family

Dawn Drexel: She was about three years old when I met my ex-husband, and we were together for 13 years. All of the sudden, the family was getting broken up. It was very, very hard on the kids.

I think her going through that, and being a teenager, and having issues with her boyfriend at the time; I think it was just life in general. She just wanted to get away and figuring nothing was going to happen.

Several leads came to police after Brittanee went missing. Someone said they saw her getting off a bus in Georgetown. But, police said it wasn’t her. A gas station attendant said they believed they had Brittanee on surveillance video and asked the family to take a look.

Brittanee’s disappearance also started to garner national attention. It was eventually featured on national television programs and in news magazine. A billboard in Myrtle Beach asked for information. Family and friends led searches for Brittanee.

John Grieco: We just did everything we could to work with the community down there and help out the police as much as we could.

I sent a mass text to everybody in my phone with her picture. And spread the news that nobody has heard from her and please contact the police or have her contact us. So I sent out that mass text and it went wild. It went, you know what they say, viral.

I thought that was a positive thing for her case. The more people recognized her or have an idea of what happened to her, now [there was] an outlet to contact the authorities or contact us.

Dawn Drexel: When Britannee first went missing, I think I didn’t sleep for probably the first week. As time went on, I had a really hard time sleeping. I would go to bed at 3 in the morning wake back up at 5 or 6 in the morning. I’m tired. I’m tired. But, I have to fight for Brittanee because I’m her voice. I have to fight for her. I really, really want to find Brittanee and bring her home.

You start to lose hope that you are not going to find her. I felt hopeless because my daughter needed me and I wasn’t there. And you think about people that hurt her and what if she was raped and killed? A lot of things went through my mind. My main focus that whole time was finding her.

After two-and-a-half months of searching, Dawn returned to New York. She had two other children and needed to resume work. Dawn felt like she was leaving Brittanee behind.

Dawn continued to search for information and stayed in contact with the police. But, weeks turned to months and then years with little-to-no information.

In August 2011, police searched a Sunset Lodge room on U.S. Highway 17 in Georgetown County in connection to the case. Officials were mum on the findings from that search.

People gather during a Brittanee Drexel vigil on Monday, April 25, 2016. Drexel has been missing from Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach since April 25, 2009. A candlelight vigil was held at the tree planted in Drexel’s honor in Grand Park at The Market Common. Janet Blackmon Morgan

Dawn moved to the Myrtle Beach area in 2013 as it allowed her to feel closer to Brittanee. Dawn worked with an organization to help families of other missing person cases, including Heather Elvis. She continued to fight for Brittanee and for information.

In 2016, the FBI’s investigation revealed new information. Jailhouse informants provided details of what happened to Brittanee after she left the hotel. The investigation turned to Timothy Da’Shaun Taylor as a person of interest. He is currently in prison on an unrelated charge.

As part of a federal case, FBI investigators detailed what they believed happened to Brittanee.

FBI Investigator Gerrick Munoz in a 2016 court hearing: De’Shaun Taylor actually picked her up from Myrtle Beach, brought her back down to McClellanville, showed her off, introduced her to some other friends that were there. And they ended up, you know, from what we understand without getting too much into it and going through all the testimony, they ended up tricking her out with some of their friends, offering her to them, and getting a human traffic situation.

Witnesses said they saw Brittanee being abused in a “stash house” in the Georgetown area. A stash house is a dilapidated home where people would hang out. There was some drug use, but it was not the center of a major drug operation.

The informants said they saw Brittanee at the home suffering days of torture.

Brittanee Drexel Provided photo

Jailhouse informant Taquan Brown, who is currently in prison on an unrelated charge: I was called to McClellanville by Taylor who wanted to borrow some money.

When I went down to talk to him about this money he wanted to borrow, and I saw this white girl in this abandoned house in McClellanville and she had a black eye. Like eight to 12 guys were in there, and they were having sex with her. So we walk through to get to the back of the house to talk about this money situation. On the way coming back out of the house, I didn’t pay no attention.

Gerrick Munoz: Britannee Drexel ran out of the room. She was then described as pistol whipped and brought back into the house. At that point the father, Shaun Taylor, goes back into the house, and actually he hears two shots fired. And he is assuming at that point that the father had actually shot the daughter — or shot Brittanee Drexel. And then Brittanee was then wrapped up and taken away from the house.

Taquan Brown: [Two days after Brown first visited the house he returned] While I was in the front talking, the girl ran out the side/back door and she was running towards the back. I guess there is a dirt road back there or something.

Like four guys ran behind her and chopped her, pistol whipped her and took her back into the house. As I see it, the guy in the front yard told me, “hold on a second” he had to go inside. So he went inside. He goes inside, and after he goes inside, I hear like two shots. Two gunshots. At this time I’m trying to get the hell out of there because I’m thinking someone has been shot.

Gerrick Munoz: Several witnesses have told us that Miss Drexel’s body was placed into a pit, or a gator pit, to have her body disposed of. Eaten by the gators.

Investigators told Brittanee’s family what they believed happened. The news came without an arrest. In 10 years, nobody has been charged with Brittanee’s disappearance.

Dawn Drexel: I got a phone call from the FBI that they wanted to meet with me on Brittanee’s case. We came and met with the [Assistant U.S. Attorney], probably three or four FBI agents and the Myrtle Beach police and part of the Brittanee task force. We sat in this room and they proceeded to tell me what they believed happened to Brittanee that they got from the jailhouse informant. I sat there and I just started crying. Just like, how could somebody do this to my daughter? She didn’t deserve this, you know? She was at the wrong place at the wrong time, you know?

It was surreal. That was a very hard day for me having to tell my kids what happened to their sister. We walked out of there, and I felt really sad that this is the outcome. But, also frustrated, because now here it is, two years later and nothing.

I’m frustrated. I want justice for my daughter. I’ll get it one way or another, and I’m not going to stop fighting for it. I will be in their face. I don’t care, it’s not their child, it’s mine.

“We need your help so we can find Brittanee’s remains and bring her home to lay her to rest and make sure that monsters like this can no longer victimize this community or kill anyone else’s child,” Dawn Drexel says by a poster of her daughter Brittanee Drexel in a press conference in McClellanville on Wednesday, June 8, 2016. The FBI announced they believe Brittanee Drexel was alive and seen being held against her will in McClellanville a few days after she was reported missing from Myrtle Beach in 2009. The investigators believe Drexel was killed in McClellanville and they are asking for witnesses to step forward. Janet Blackmon Morgan

Dawn also had one message if she ever gets to speak to the people that were at the Georgetown house.

Dawn Drexel: I hope this never happens to one of your kids. You’ve ruined our life. You took away the most precious thing from me. You took away our girl. You took away her life, her dreams, everything she had planned for her future, and I think it should be taken from them.

The information from the jailhouse informants led to new Georgetown area searches in 2016 and 2017. FBI investigators admitted they were told of several locations where Brittanee’s remains could possibly be located. But, there are 30 to 40 nearby places where alligators congregated. The searches drew national attention as family, friends and the general public attended and tried to learn what the FBI knew.

Dawn Drexel: To see how many people came out and supported these searches, and the people, they took time out of their own life to search for my daughter meant the world to me. But, seeing something so large-scale, they had helicopters, they had ATVs, they had horses, they had three or four different counties; it was crazy.

I was holding out hope. I think we had hoped for quite a long time that she may still be out there. But, from what we learned, that’s not possible.

FBI Spokesman Don Wood said this week: We searched a relatively large section of land out there for days. Again, that points to the dedications of the investigators on this, that will go anywhere, follow any lead where it takes and we’ll deploy any resources necessary to take positive steps and find information.

Following a March 2017 search, FBI officials said they were getting closer in the case, but still had work to do. That was two years ago.

Don Wood: We continue to receive information from the public and continue to receive leads and develop additional leads from that information.

Dawn Drexel: I’ve had people tell me, “Dawn, you’ve done all you can do.” They are like, “You’re the strongest person I know.” I just felt I had to keep going because who else is going to do this for Brittanee. I’m the only one that has been down here for all her searches, has moved here, has kept up with law enforcement and kept up with the FBI. It’s hard and it’s very tiring, and at the same point, there is a lot of frustration.

Chad Drexel faces the sky and takes several deep breaths in a press conference in McClellanville on Wednesday, June 8, 2016. The FBI announced they believe his daughter Brittanee Drexel was alive and seen being held against her will in McClellanville a few days after she was reported missing from Myrtle Beach in 2009. The investigators believe Drexel was killed in McClellanville and they are asking for witnesses to step forward. Janet Blackmon Morgan

Those frustrations remain today. For Brittanee’s friends and family, it can be difficult reflecting on the past 10 years as it seems like the disappearance was “just yesterday.”

Nobody talked about having closure and certainly there is no “moving on.” While they’ve all found a new normal, there are almost daily thoughts of Brittanee even a decade later.

Dawn Drexel: I think first and foremost I want Brittanee found. I want her to have her memorial and I want to lay her to rest. Secondly, I want a conviction and I want the person who’s done this to her to be in prison for the rest of their life. I know that’s not going to happen.

In a lot of missing person cases, they don’t get half the sentences they should.

Taquan Brown: I wish [the Drexel family] nothing but the best. I hope they get the closure they need.

Photo provided by the Drexel family

Don Wood: It’s 10 years and we still don’t have anybody in custody, which is obviously not our goal, but we are making positive steps.

John Grieco: I don’t think it’s a situation that you can move on from. Everyday routines and activities, they kind of relate to who that situation has molded into. It’s almost like it’s become part of every single day.

I had to almost condition myself to not think about it daily, so I could try to lead a relatively normal life after that. It doesn’t just affect me, it affects everyone around me.

It impacts my daily routine, my daily activities.

Dawn Drexel: I don’t think a parent ever gets closure when this happens to their daughter. I think you get a resolution. But, the resolution isn’t good enough for me. I want to know how, why, what, when. I want those questions answered. I understand I might not get that. But, I have every right to. I’m her mother.

Renee Tomasso: I still can’t wrap my head around the fact she’s not coming back. It still seems surreal to me. I can’t even explain the feeling that I’m never going to see her again.

I think about the last time I saw her a week before she went away. A week before she left. I have a younger son that wasn’t even a year old when she left and she always called him “her baby.” I just think about the last time I saw her. Like I said, I can’t wrap my head around the fact I am never going to see her again. I just look at her picture, and I can’t wrap my head I will never see her again.

Dawn Drexel: It doesn’t seem like 10 years, it seemed like it just happened. It’s been a long time. I still have Brittanee’s voicemail, and I still listen to it just to hear her voice. It doesn’t get any easier. But, I know that she’s watching over me, and she’s the one pushing me, and making me strong to do what I need to do to really get resolution to what happened to her.

Related stories from Myrtle Beach Sun News

Alex Lang is the True Crime reporter for The Sun News covering the legal system and how crime impacts local residents. He says letting residents know if they are safe is a vital role of a newspaper. Alex has covered crime in Detroit, Iowa, New York City, West Virginia and now Horry County.