Authors: Daleen Berry,Geoffrey C. Fuller
The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese
The Truth Behind the Headlines
By Daleen Berry and Geoffrey Fuller
BenBella Books, Inc.
Copyright © 2014 by Daleen Berry and Geoffrey Fuller
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
This book is a work of non-fiction; however, certain liberties have been taken with scenes and dialogue in an attempt to recreate what happened the night Sklyer Neese was murdered. This is the authors’ version of what might have happened that fateful evening. It is their attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible. Based on extensive research, some names and locations have been changed to protect the privacy and anonymity of the people we interviewed.
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Every parent’s nightmare is the death of a child, but a child’s disappearance can be even worse. Not knowing what happened—did she run away or was she kidnapped?—can stretch for hours or days or months. Every minute of every day the parents of a vanished child experience a helter-skelter of emotions that swerve from worry to fear to anger. And, as Mary and Dave Neese discovered, a disappearance sometimes ends in their worst nightmare coming true.
Geoff and I began following Skylar’s story because we’re both parents. Geoff’s stepdaughter Celeste was the same age Skylar was when she went missing, and Skylar’s photo on the MISSING posters reminded him of Celeste. My experience of those first months after Skylar vanished is more emotional: I have four adult children—two of whom were once runaways. I knew in my own small way what the Neeses endured.
We also know how difficult it is to rear children today. Challenges exist when kids are babies and toddlers, but you can control who children see, where they go, everything they do. Parenting teens is an entirely different matter. It’s like learning some Spanish for your vacation to Cancun—only to discover everyone there speaks Russian. Rearing teenagers in today’s fast-paced, plugged-in world is so challenging, parents need all the help they can get.
Add crimes against children to the mix. As a print journalist, I’ve been covering crime since 1988, and the nature of missing-children cases changed subtly during that time. For instance, we now know that most kids who go missing do so because a family member has taken them. Usually, a custody dispute or other family dynamic is at the root. In these cases, the whereabouts of the child quickly become clear. The situation can take months to resolve and provoke emotional extremes, but custody battles are not stranger danger.
And when a child is in danger, we no longer imagine a stranger in a trench coat hiding behind a tree waiting to snatch an unsuspecting youngster. Instead we picture someone far more sinister: the Internet predator. The man in the trench coat has become a faceless, nameless hunter, and today we are rightly concerned about who our children are socializing with as they surf the Web.
Geoff and I were both children in 1970 when two female freshmen from West Virginia University, Mared Malarik and Karen Ferrell, disappeared. Three months later their headless bodies were found 10 miles south of Morgantown. Eugene Paul Clawson was eventually convicted of the murders, but much of law enforcement and the public still suspect he had nothing to do with the crime.
On the same day Mared and Karen were kidnapped, Charles Manson and his followers, who called themselves the Family, were in the middle of their trial in Los Angeles. Geoff and I both later read
as adolescents, the book that provided insight into cultic behavior and the personalities of members of the Family. The disappearance of Mared and Karen and the trial of the Manson Family has haunted us both since our teenage years.
Those cases occurred decades ago, yet people are still appalled by them. This case is equally disturbing—and we believe those old cases provide clues into the motive behind Skylar’s murder. This is one reason Skylar’s story captivated us from the outset. Geoff and I both wondered what factors had led to her disappearance. Later, Rachel’s confession had echoes of the earlier cases and also reminded us that the biggest danger to our children comes from people they know—and usually know well.
We know how difficult it is to try to help teens understand that parents really do know best. We are not just being arbitrary when we tell them not to hang out with someone because that person bad news. We’re not being old-fashioned when we require our kids to follow the rules; we’re not being mean when we insist on consequences for breaking rules. Most rules have reasons behind them. The problem is, teens don’t always want to listen to their parents, who are hopelessly uncool and will never really “get it.”
That’s what my daughters thought. They were quite fortunate, and so was I. Less than twelve hours after they each ran away (in separate incidents, four years apart), police officers found them and brought them home. Mileah, my eldest, was 14 when she began hanging with the wrong crowd. In fact, Shelia Eddy reminds me of a girl in that crowd named Debbie. Debbie came from a troubled background, so I had done my best to keep Mileah away from that environment. But Mileah was a lot like Skylar, fearless and willful, and determined to be with the friend she so admired.
Since I worked with local law enforcement, the Preston County Sheriff’s Department quickly dispatched an officer to search for my daughter. He found her at Debbie’s house that same night, and after he cautioned her about the dangers of running away, I took her home.
When my second daughter, Trista, ran away, we were living near Oakland, California. As soon as I realized she was gone, I called the police—who told me the same thing Dave and Mary Neese were told when they reported Skylar missing: “Unless we have a clear indication she’s been abducted, the only thing we can do is keep an eye out for her.”
California’s AMBER alert was being tested on a regional basis in 1999, and it didn’t go statewide until 2000. Even if it had been in place then, the system wouldn’t have been activated in her behalf. Trista simply didn’t meet the criteria.
So I did the same thing the Neeses did: I found a good photo of Trista and emailed it to the police, where they shared it with their patrol officers. Then I set to work designing a MISSING poster, planning to make hundreds of copies and personally recruit every friend I could find to help me cover an area that then had almost half a million people.
I had no idea if we would find her dead or alive, but I knew if someone unsavory picked her up before we did, the chances of finding her alive would be greatly reduced. I was terrified. Fortunately for Trista, an observant beat cop recognized her and returned her to our Livermore home late that night.
So I understood what it felt like to be Mary and Dave Neese, to not know where your daughter is, or if you will ever see her again. I had lived through two very brief episodes—nothing nearly as extreme as their prolonged anguish—and my heart aches for any other parent forced to feel the kind of terror I did.
Not long after Skylar disappeared, Trista, now 31, and I were walking on the rail-trail that circles Morgantown. We were in Sabraton, and I remember wondering if we would see Skylar. Rumors ran amok, saying the 16-year-old teen had been sighted on that part of the trail. Was she really just another runaway, hiding out with a cute boyfriend? Thinking of the gruesome cases I’ve covered as a reporter, I prayed that was all that had happened to Skylar. Prayed she wasn’t somewhere being tormented by an online psycho.
When Geoff and I learned that Skylar had been murdered by someone close to her—by her best friend—our hearts went out to the Neeses. We wanted to tell their story, and Skylar’s story, in a way that would honor her memory, as well as highlight the dangers other parents need to understand. We hope this book does just that.
The following list describes the people who appear in the pages of
The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese
. A person’s name on this list is not meant to imply cooperation with the authors’ investigation or interview process, only that the individual played a role in the case.
The Neese Family
: The only child of Dave and Mary Neese, Skylar was a University High School honors student focused on her goals of earning a scholarship, attending college, and becoming a lawyer. The sunny 16-year-old was known to be an informal teen counselor for many of her friends.
: Skylar’s mother and an administrative assistant in a cardiac lab who fought like a mama bear to find out what really happened the night of July 6, 2012. She fought equally hard for the return of Skylar’s remains and for justice for her only child. Mary lets her husband speak for her in televised interviews, but she has been active on Facebook.
: Skylar’s father and a product assembler at Walmart, Dave reluctantly took center stage with the media, discussing his daughter’s murder, fighting for passage of Skylar’s Law, and seeking justice for his little girl. Dave’s on-camera dignity, despite his visible sorrow, has been widely commented on by the public.
: Skylar’s maternal aunt, Carol developed a special bond with Skylar when she was born that lasted until the teen’s death. She read the Bible to her niece and took her to church, and the two loved to playfully argue and prank each other.
: Skylar’s brainiac older cousin and Carol’s son, Kyle was once like a big brother to Skylar. He watched as she grew into a popular, pretty teen and questioned her choice of friendship in Shelia, whom he called a “bad seed” when the girls were still in middle school.
: Dave’s aunt by marriage who lost contact with her ex-husband’s side of the family after the divorce, Joanne had begun reestablishing connections with the Neeses when Skylar disappeared. Joanne was a great comfort to Mary and Dave, as well as a one-woman army when it came to coordinating volunteers in the search for Skylar in the fall of 2013.
: A cousin of Skylar who did not know her at all. This didn’t stop her from posting a Facebook alert about Skylar’s disappearance, however.
Jennifer and her son Hayden started the first and largest Facebook page, TeamSkylar<3. At first useful in the search for Skylar, TeamSkylar<3 degenerated into a forum for gossip and innuendo until Mary and Dave withdrew their participation in disgust. Jennifer Hunt’s claims to insider information became increasingly bizarre throughout the fall of 2013.
Skylar’s Friends and Acquaintances
: One of Skylar’s closest friends, Shania is a fiery redhead and Clay-Battelle High School volleyball player. She hung out with Shelia and Skylar as much as Rachel did. Because she came to Shelia’s defense early on, she was viewed as a suspect in Skylar’s disappearance and falsely accused by many local teens. She is still ostracized by them today.
: Rachel’s ex-boyfriend, Mikinzy is a guitarist and vocalist who was head over heels in love with her. When he finally learned the truth about Rachel, he came to believe he had been lied to and used for months.
: The older of two Blacksville brothers, he was indicted in September 2012 on five counts of third-degree sexual assault. He pled guilty to count one of the indictment and is now on home confinement. He was also a person of interest in Skylar’s disappearance until Rachel’s confession cleared him.
: The younger of two Blacksville brothers, Dylan was linked sexually with Shelia. Before moving to Morgantown in the early summer of 2012, he hosted small parties that Shelia, Skylar, and Rachel attended. Dylan was a person of interest in Skylar’s disappearance until Rachel’s confession cleared him.
: One of Skylar’s two best friends, Shelia Rae, as her family calls her, is an only child. Pretty and intelligent, Shelia was an honors student at University High School until the fall of 2013. Shelia pleaded guilty to first-degree murder on January 24. She received a life sentence and is eligible for parole in fifteen years.
: Because he was the last person known to have interacted with Skylar before she snuck out, Eric was considered an early suspect in her disappearance. He was also one of three teens called to testify at a federal grand jury.
: Skylar’s closest male friend, Daniel said Skylar was the first person he came out to. He was the only boy who was involved in social activities with Skylar, Shelia, and Rachel outside of school. He became obsessed with finding Skylar, and his unremitting pressure contributed to Rachel’s confession.
: Skylar’s partner in dance class. The pair texted each other for moral support when they realized they shared a common bond: they both had two best friends and were being excluded by their two other friends.
: Skylar’s oldest friend and an aspiring meteorologist, Morgan is the only child of a local doctor and his wife. Skylar was a daily visitor in the Lawrence home during elementary school, and the Lawrence family took Skylar with them on many day trips and extended vacations.
: Another of Skylar’s closest friends, the soft-spoken Hayden had distanced herself from Skylar because she didn’t like Shelia. Hayden, also an only child, got Skylar a job at Wendy’s. Not long before Skylar’s murder, the two friends were becoming close again.
: A friend of Floyd Pancoast’s, 18-year-old Brian was driving the night Officer Teets pulled Skylar and her friends over for curfew violation.
: Tattooed with a shaved head, 19-year-old Floyd Pancoast was a brooding young man who confided in Skylar. They often went joyriding together.
: Another of Skylar’s best friends, Rachel was an honors student at University High School. The budding singer and actress broke down just after Christmas, 2012, and was committed to a psychiatric hospital. Upon her release, Rachel confessed, led police to Skylar’s body, and plead guilty to second-degree murder on May 1, 2013. Rachel will be sentenced February 26, 2014.
: A distant cousin of Shelia Eddy, Crissy, twenty-one, was also like Shelia’s older sister. She staunchly defended Shelia on Facebook and Twitter. Her loyalty to Shelia drew false accusations from the public that she was involved with Skylar’s murder.
Tara Eddy Clendenen
: During most of Shelia’s childhood, Tara was a struggling single mother. She works as an accountant for a car dealership. In October 2011, Tara moved with her new husband and Shelia from the economically depressed town of Blacksville to the more affluent Morgantown.
: Shelia’s stepfather, Jim is a coal mine foreman who sends his new wife, Tara, flowers every month on their anniversary date. Jim is rumored to have recently cashed in his retirement to pay $500,000 for Shelia’s legal fees.
: Shelia’s birth father, Greg had a serious car accident that left him with a traumatic brain injury and permanent disability. He and Tara divorced in 2000. His family’s land is near the murder site. Greg, who was devastated by his daughter’s actions, loyally stood by her.
: Rachel’s mother, Patricia works as a sales representative for Comcast Cable and handles some of their business accounts. By turns lenient and controlling, Patricia believed presenting an image of perfection to the world is vital.
: Rachel’s father, Rusty works at an upscale men’s store in Morgantown. He looked the other way as Patricia controlled Rachel, preferring to be his daughter’s friend rather than her parent.
Law Enforcement (in order of appearance)
Officer Robert McCauley
: A part-time Star City police officer at the time of Skylar’s disappearance, McCauley is a veteran law enforcement officer who took the initial 911 report of Skylar’s disappearance. McCauley turned the case over to Officer Colebank because it required a full-time investigator. He has since retired.
Officer Mike Teets
: Teets stopped Skylar and her friends after curfew in the late spring of 2012. He released Floyd Pancoast and Brian Moats, both of whom were over 18. He called Shelia’s and Rachel’s fathers and drove Skylar home.
Officer Jessica Colebank
: The first Star City police officer to work full-time on Skylar’s case, Colebank was obsessed with finding Skylar throughout the fall of 2012. Along with the FBI and West Virginia State Police, she logged hundreds of hours on the case, and was one of the first investigators to insist that Shelia and Rachel were hiding something.
Chief Vic Propst
: Chief of the Star City Police Department, Propst is a longtime law enforcement officer who functioned in a supervisory role in the investigation into Skylar’s disappearance.
FBI Agent Morgan Spurlock:
An FBI agent and accountant, Spurlock is known for his boyish looks and ever-present backpack. He worked on the bank robbery case and Skylar’s disappearance.
Corporal Ronnie Gaskins
: The lead investigator on Skylar’s case, the thoughtful, soft-spoken state trooper initially took an interest in Skylar’s disappearance when he thought it might be connected to area bank robberies. Gaskins enlisted the aid of Trooper Chris Berry and together the two tracked down many of the key facts about the case.
Senior Trooper Chris Berry
[no relation to the author]: A self-assured, brash state trooper, Berry was originally transferred from the Fairmont detachment specifically to investigate the bank robberies. He took a personal interest in finding Skylar because he was so moved by the contents of her diary. Working on the case, often without pay, severely strained Berry’s marriage.
Monongalia County Sheriff’s Deputy Timothy Hunn
: A friend of Jessica Colebank’s, Hunn procured ATVs for himself, Colebank, and Berry to ride during their off-hours, searching the backwoods of the remote, tree-covered western panhandle of the county.
Greene County Coroner Gregory Rohanna
: An elected Pennsylvania official, Rohanna refused to release Skylar’s remains in early July. His actions created a huge public outcry and focused even more media attention on the murder, as people threatened to protest on his office steps.
Monongalia County Prosecuting Attorney Marcia Ashdown
: Ashdown has been prosecutor since 1996 and was lead prosecutor in the case of West Virginia v. Shelia Eddy. Although she runs a tight-lipped prosecutor’s office, she has been known to speak out on issues involving the rights of women and children. She is also a zealous prosecutor in child abuse cases.
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Perri DeChristopher
: Second chair in the case against Shelia Eddy, DeChristopher is known as an effective litigator. She just completed a two-year term as secretary of the West Virginia Prosecuting Attorneys Association. She functioned as the Neeses’ primary contact about progress in the cases against Rachel and Shelia.
: Shelia’s defense attorney, Benninger is a big bear of a guy who got his start as a personal injury attorney. Benninger has a commanding demeanor in the courtroom. He reportedly told Shelia’s parents his job was to simply keep her from receiving a life sentence.
: Rachel’s lead defense attorney, Angotti is known as a thorough and skilled criminal lawyer, the son of former Monongalia County prosecutor Sam Angotti. He is experienced, well-connected, and smart.
Monongalia County Circuit Judge Russell M. Clawges
: Known as a deliberative and fair judge, Clawges has held the position since 1997. He and his wife reared two daughters.
University High School Faculty
A new principal at the time Skylar disappeared, Burgess mandated that faculty and staff not discuss Skylar’s murder or events subsequent to it. Her actions in the wake of Skylar’s murder have been widely criticized by students and parents.
: An assistant principal at University High School, Cheesbrough was arguably the “face” of the UHS administration. He was well liked by UHS students.
: Rachel’s drama teacher, Kyer consistently defended Rachel, telling other students to leave her alone. The day after Rachel was charged with Skylar’s murder, it was rumored Kyer was so distraught he missed school.
: A UHS science teacher at the time of Skylar’s murder, Demchack taught the class in which students say they overheard Rachel and Shelia discussing the best way to dispose of a body. He has since retired.
Becky Benson Bailey
: Becky went to school with Dave Neese and was ranting one night over the inaction in Skylar’s case when she came up with the idea to expand the AMBER Alert program. Skylar’s Law mandates that police contact the AMBER Alert system and that the AMBER system treat all missing children and teenagers—regardless of how they came to be missing—as actual kidnapping cases unless an investigation proves otherwise.
: One of Tom Bloom’s former students, Chuck became interested in Skylar’s disappearance and helped Bailey write Skylar’s Law. He works in the public school system in Maryland.