KERSHAW COUNTY, SC — Residents of Elgin and the family of 18-year-old Briana Rabon breathed a little easier Saturday after the arrest of a 21-year-old man in the young woman’s killing.
But the heinousness of the crime and the realization that the girl’s last moments were most certainly brutal sent chills through a community that has been on edge since Rabon’s body was discovered by children on a dirt road in Elgin on Wednesday.
“I know the community was shaken by this,” Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews said. “People were afraid to let their children go outside.”
An autopsy found that Rabon was strangled, Kershaw County Coroner Johnny Fellers said Friday.
Kelly has a criminal record and got out of jail in November on probation after serving just more than four months for receiving stolen goods.
Just weeks before that arrest, he was arrested for first-offense criminal domestic violence. “He beat his girlfriend,” Matthews said. Kelly asked for a jury trial on that charge but has not gone to court, according to Kershaw County court records.
Kelly worked at the Hooters restaurant on Two Notch Road in Northeast Richland, Matthews said.
Rabon, a hostess at two Columbia-area restaurants, and Kelly knew each other but were not involved romantically, Matthews said. They might have met in high school, although they were three years apart.
Rabon’s mother grew concerned after not seeing her daughter active on social media for many hours, Matthews said. The mother called her daughter’s workplace and learned she did not show up on Tuesday.
Her mother filed a missing person report at the sheriff’s department about the same time Rabon’s body was found Wednesday afternoon. And deputies found a car matching the mother’s description of Rabon’s red Ford Focus at the Waffle House restaurant in Lugoff, at S.C. 601 near Interstate 20.
Initially, investigators thought they had video footage at the Waffle House of Rabon and a suspect, but the images turned out not to be of Rabon, Matthews said.
But video footage at a Kangaroo gas station near the Waffle House did help the investigation, Matthews said, and Kelly was sought for questioning.
Kelly voluntarily met with investigators, the sheriff said.
During the interview, he changed his story several times about where he was that day, although he did admit that he was with Briana Rabon, Matthews said.
“I think that once he realized that he was being caught in his lies, he asked to have an attorney present,” Matthews said. “At that time we had to stop questioning him.”
On Friday, investigators obtained a search warrant, went to Kelly’s parents’ home, where he lives, and seized his dark-colored Chevy Impala, Matthews said.
SLED forensics agents processed the car and found “considerable evidence” that linked him to the crime scene, Matthews said. Based on that, Kelly was arrested and taken to the Kershaw County Detention Center on Friday night.
Kelly and his parents live on Leslie Branham Road, not far from where the body was found in a wooded area behind the Haigs Creek subdivision, Matthews said.
Rabon was living outside Kershaw County, Matthews said – in Fairfield County, he believed.
She worked as a hostess at a Texas Roadhouse restaurant and the Titled Kilt restaurant in the Harbison area.
“We are saddened by the tragic news of the death of one of our valued employees, Briana Rabon, who worked at the Columbia pub,” said a statement issued Friday by Rabon’s employers at Tilted Kilt. “Our thoughts and prayers are with her family at this difficult time.”
Allyssa Cokley, an early childhood education instructor and preschool director for Kershaw County Schools, said in an emailed statement Saturday that Rabon worked with preschoolers and first-graders while in high school. Students loved her smile and sense of humor, Cokley said.
“Briana was a very special student and the news of her death is extremely difficult to endure,” she said.
When Rabon finished her internship at Wateree Elementary, the first-graders in the class were sorry to see her go, as was her supervising teacher, Cokley said. “Briana will be missed.”
What happened Tuesday night still isn’t clear, nor is it clear how Rabon and Kelly knew each other.
Briana Rabon’s Facebook page says she had worked at a Hooters, but it does not say which location. A manager at the Two Notch Road Hooters said he had no comment and referred a reporter to a media telephone number that went to voice mail.
The sheriff said he believed Rabon and Kelly agreed to meet Tuesday night at the Waffle House, where she left her car and got in his vehicle and was later “brutally murdered.”
Any physical evidence will help build the case, Matthews said.
“It’s a big puzzle,” he said. “We have to find the pieces, and then we have to put them together.”
Investigators are not sure whether Rabon was killed where her body was found, Matthews said.
After Kelly’s arrest, the department received multiple Facebook messages from the community, especially those who lived in Haigs Creek, thanking them for the swift response, Matthews said.
However, the community was still shaken.
“In a small community, everybody knows everybody,” Matthews said. “People who knew her probably knew the boy who killed her.”
He said the two families were devastated.
The Rabon family lost a daughter, a sister, taken needlessly by a cruel act, Matthews said.
“I have to say that his family must be devastated as well. They recently lost one of their sons in a tragic ATV accident, so they’ve gone through a lot as well.”
Members of the Rabon family attended Saturday’s press conference, but the sheriff said they did not want to speak to the media.
Matthews said that when he called the Rabon family to let them know an arrest had been made, Briana’s mother became quiet and said she did not recognize his name. He said she was relieved, grateful and emotional. The girl’s father was also relieved, and stoic.
A family friend answering the phone at the Kelly residence Saturday said the family will make a statement at a later date.
No date has yet been set for a bond hearing. Matthews encouraged members of the community to attend.
“When a courtroom is packed with the people who don’t want to see somebody like him get out, I think the judge would be a little hesitant to set a low bond,” Matthews said.
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Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.