16 years later, Deb Boogher still searching for clues to vanished son

Greenville NewsApril 12, 2014 

Deborah Boogher, left, sits with Amanda Outen on a bench in the South Carolina Botanical Garden in Clemson that Boogher dedicated to her son Jason Knapp who disappeared on April 12, 1998.

BART BOATWRIGHT — Greenville News

Deb Boogher has willed herself to wake to thousands of sunrises since the disappearance of her son, and she’s traveled even more miles in eternal hope of a resolution.

The search for Clemson University sophomore Jason Knapp — then only 20 years old with what seemed a bright future ahead of him — has lasted nearly as long as his age at the time he disappeared.

It was 16 years ago today — when Easter fell a week earlier than this year — that friends last saw him and that his mother last spoke to him by phone from 600 miles away, five days before his car was found parked and abandoned at Table Rock State Park.

Every April, Deb has traveled from her hometown of York, Pa., to Clemson, where she first set her only son free to become a man — for reasons she says she can’t fully explain.

The time that has passed hasn’t helped salve the pain.

“Everybody thinks because Jason’s gone so long now, it should be getting easier,” the 62-year-old cement plant worker said on a recent spring day, joined by one of Jason’s college friends at a bench dedicated to her son at Clemson’s Botanical Garden. “It actually gets harder. I don’t know what his life might have been and what memories we might have had.”

The first step would be knowing simply if her son is still alive.

It is a truth that has eluded her, friends and authorities who say they have run out of places to look.

“It’s almost like reading a novel, and the whole last chapter is cut out of it,” said Chad Brooks, a captain in the Pickens County Sheriff’s Office, who is still seeking any credible lead that can be offered.

The disappearance raises countless questions about Jason’s fate and about two long-unsolved cases involving the killings of other Clemson students — which, while all unrelated, have left authorities similarly frustrated.

‘In a happy place’

Amanda Outen had decided she couldn’t handle the rigors of the training involved in earning a coveted spot in the Army elite ROTC Pershing Rifles drill team, but Jason convinced her to stick it out.

The two were close friends.

The Thursday before his disappearance, both Jason and Amanda (then known by her maiden name, Elliott) had received news that they had made the cut.

The following Saturday afternoon, Amanda ate lunch with Jason at a favorite spot, the Huddle House, and then never saw or heard from him again.

“He was totally looking forward to the future,” she said, sitting next to Deb this week on a bench where the two laid flowers. “He had so many things to look forward to. He was just in a happy place.”

Jason had transferred to Clemson in the fall of 1997.

Early on, he had wanted to be a pilot in the Air Force, but, his mother said, he learned he was colorblind like her.

He turned to pursuing an education that he hoped would land a career in NASCAR.

In the fall of 1997, the Michigan college that Jason thought would move him forward wasn’t working out, so he transferred to Clemson to seek a mechanical engineering degree.

In the spring of 1998, Jason was doing well academically and would talk to his mother nearly every day, sharing with her plans to find an apartment with a friend for the summer and fall.

Jason called his mother on Good Friday and told her the good news about his induction into the Pershing Rifles.

The next day, Deb spoke to her son several times as he looked for an apartment.

Later that night, Jason rented a movie. Two of his roommates were out of town for the Easter weekend, and at about 10:30 p.m., the third left as Jason was watching the movie.

It’s the last time anyone reports having seen him.

The roommates returned after the weekend and assumed that Jason had gone home to Pennsylvania.

However, by Friday, they called Deb to ask if she had seen or spoken to him.

Her husband told her to call the police.

The next sign of Jason was his car, a 1990 white Chevy Beretta, locked and parked in the first row of spaces along the lake at Table Rock.

Inside the car, authorities found a park pass that had been bought between 3 to 5 p.m. on Easter Sunday. Tests later showed Jason’s fingerprints on the pass.

A park ranger had seen the car for more than week, but at first wasn’t suspicious because hikers often left their cars parked for several days without signing the guestbook at the trailhead.

Also inside the car were receipts from earlier in the day at a Wendy’s restaurant near his Central apartment and an Ingles grocery store in Seneca where earlier in the day he had bought a six-pack of root beer and some fruit juice.

Authorities say Jason had withdrawn $20 from his bank account and that no other activity had taken place on the account since then.

Amanda and other Pershing Rifle cadets joined Deb and scores of search parties to scour the mountains to find him.

The trails have been reworked since then, the lake drained for maintenance.

No trace.

Driving through the tears

Deb used to drive down alone.

The time to think — about being in sole control, about losing another child to miscarriage years before Jason was born — became too much. She couldn’t see to drive through the tears.

Three years after her son’s disappearance, she developed breast cancer.

Following her surgery, the doctor told her she needed to wait six weeks for chemotherapy. She refused and told him why she needed to do it earlier. She needed to be in Clemson, for another anniversary.

The doctor agreed. She would have radiation on Friday and be in Clemson on Monday.

Now, she flies and rents a car, visiting different spots — Jason’s old apartment, Table Rock, the bench in the botanical garden, the police.

“This is the last place that Jason was, and I feel it in my bones,” she said. “I need to come down kind of to reconnect with him. I want people to realize that we still haven’t found him. We still don’t have a clue why he disappeared.”

The routine is the same, every year.

Deb meets with investigators each visit to review the file and ask questions.

There aren’t answers.

The case is difficult, Capt. Brooks of the Pickens Sheriff’s Office said, because its structure is so simple.

“We’ve had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of leads that have all just been dead ends, basically,” Brooks said.

Some have been “off the wall, crazy,” he said.

City of Clemson Police Chief Jimmy Dixon, whose department handed the case over to Pickens County authorities because Jason’s car was found in their jurisdiction, said his investigators “exhausted every possible lead we could exhaust from the get-go.”

Still, after all these years, even the finest detail, perception or insight can seem so significant.

Deb and Amanda point out how obsessed Jason was with his car stereo.

In 1998 — before smartphones existed to satisfy technological curiosity — having a detachable face on a car stereo was en vogue, and Jason was all in, Amanda said.

Even if they went inside a Huddle House and could see the car through a window as they ate, Jason would remove the face of the stereo, she said.

“It was obsessive,” she said.

When the car was found at Table Rock, the stereo face was attached.

“If he drove that car into the park, he didn’t think he was ever going to have that car again,” she said.

The example of the stereo is but one of a number of clues that have been considered but don’t answer the central question of what happened to Jason, Brooks said.

What was his state of mind? While some say Jason was in good spirits, other people interviewed during the investigation had mentioned how Jason had been depressed, Brooks said.

Jason was more of a mountain biker than a hiker, but he could have gone to walk the trails.

The search for him was exhaustive, but Brooks recalls the case of a hiker who fell 50 feet from a cliff and landed on a ledge just 4 feet wide, with an expanse below another 70 feet.

The hiker broke his arm and was rescued, Brooks said, but the circumstances demonstrated just how lost a person could get.

There just isn’t enough evidence to support a theory, he said.

“It’s a complicated thing because it’s so simple,” he said, “yet it’s so difficult because you just don’t know what happened.”

‘In this case, coincidence’

Over the years, Deb has had to acclimate to a particular cruel reality of the life of a parent whose child is missing: At any moment, you might get a call, and it will be the worst thing you have ever heard.

The macabre connection is everlasting — until the case can be solved.

In February 2004, hunters in Oconee County found a skull in some woods in the Welcome Church community.

The State Law Enforcement Division and Oconee County investigators built a clay facial reconstruction from the skull.

They pursued the possibility that the skull could be that of Jason’s.

Deb said the news left her with tortured, conflicting emotions.

“All you think about is finding him, bringing him home, and if I have to have a funeral, that’s what I want to do,” she said.

Ultimately, the skull was determined to be that of a man in his 40s.

In another case, Deb was faced with the words of a killer — directed toward Jason’s family.

In April 2008, Pickens County investigators interviewed Gary Michael Hilton, who had pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison for killing a hiker in the Georgia mountains and was a suspect in the deaths of a couple in the North Carolina mountains near Brevard.

Former Pickens County Sheriff David Stone released a recording of the interrogation, in which Hilton denied any involvement in Jason’s disappearance.

Hilton also addressed Jason’s family.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Hilton said in the recording. “I’ve seen my victims’ families crying in court. I know what you’re missing. I want to assure you that there is absolutely no light that I can shed on the matter of your son.”

Hilton went on to say, “I say that realizing that it certainly fits in with the modus operandi that I’m assumed to have used in several crimes that I’m suspected of, but it is, in this case, coincidence.”

Another dead end.

Two other cases confound authorities

The frustration over Jason’s disappearance is shared by investigators who have also been confounded in two unrelated, unsolved crimes involving Clemson students from the 1990s — years before the death of Tiffany Souers, who was raped and killed inside her Central apartment in 2005 and a man sentenced to death for killing her.

In the other two cases, women have been killed but no one has been charged.

Stacy Brooke Holsonback was barely 18 when she came to Clemson in 1996 to pursue a career in medical research when her body was found in Lake Hartwell in February 1997.

In June 1992, Norsaadah Husain, a Clemson graduate student from Malaysia, was preparing to speak at a national meeting of food scientists about her process for removing caffeine from tea when she was abducted from a Central coin-operated laundry.

Her body was found in a remote area of Oconee County months later, where evidence suggested she had been sexually assaulted.

Two young men, both Clemson students, told police that Holsonback had been with them four-wheeling in a field just off U.S. 123 between Clemson and Seneca on a warm winter night.

They told authorities that the vehicle got stuck in the mud, they got in a fight and then Holsonback began a three-mile walk back to campus. Her body was found the next day. She had been strangled.

Husain was a petite, 30-year-old graduate student, folding her clothes at the laundry just before sunset. She had been attacked. Her blood was spattered inside and out, and an autopsy showed she had been stabbed in the throat.

“It’s a case that has haunted us for years,” said Lane Byers, a Pickens County sheriff’s lieutenant detective who has investigated both Husain’s and Jason’s cases.

Byers said he thought he might have a break in the case when another woman’s body was found near where Husain’s body had been, but no connection could be found.

In January, Byers said he received a call about a pair of brothers in Oconee County who had been interviewed years before but were reported to having something new to say. Nothing came of it, but the tip was added to the case file, he said.

“It didn’t pan out like we were hoping — but it was at least someone remembering the case and still talking about it,” Byers said. “Unless we’re looking at it and not seeing it, there’s nothing there that we can dig in on. I would love for somebody to call in. That would just make my day.”

Byers said he also is troubled by the mystery surrounding Jason’s disappearance.

“We will never stop looking for him,” he said. “We want to have the answers, too.”

Deb fears the day might never come.

“I don’t know how much time I have left on this Earth, and I want to find out what happened to my child before I leave this Earth,” she said. “I don’t want to die and leave all these loose ends.”

Deb says she isn’t seeking “closure” — a term she often hears.

“To me, the word ‘closure’ means you’re basically shutting the door and just forgetting about it,” she said. “You never have closure, because even if I find out what happened to Jason, there’s all kind of questions.”

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