March 9, 2014

Heather Elvis: The community's daughter

In December, Heather Rachelle Elvis was many things to many people.

In December, Heather Rachelle Elvis was many things to many people.

She was both a younger sister and an older sister. She was quiet enough to have some consider her shy, but edgy enough to don the plaid skirt and open white top worn by Tilted Kilt employees that often exposed the tattoos her parents didn’t approve of on her forearm, under her ribs and on her upper right thigh. She was a friend and a best friend. She was the oldest daughter of Terry and Debbie Elvis.

As January and February came and went, Elvis quickly became more to many more people. The soft features of the young face she so desperately wanted tan began to appear on billboards and paper-sized missing posters. Her name became household as hundreds or thousands of people began talking about her whereabouts online and throughout businesses and homes along the Grand Strand. Elvis quickly transformed from a rebellious 20-year-old who enjoyed hanging out with friends, and especially her work crew at Tilted Kilt, to being the reason strangers shed tears, hugged their neighbors and loved ones, and searched through wooded areas throughout Horry County. It was all for Elvis, who became the community’s daughter.

Coming of age

Six months into her 20th birthday, she was slowly coming of age.

“She has come to be everyone’s sister, cousin, niece and child,” said April Stoddard, a friend of the Elvis family and moderator of the Facebook page “Find Heather Elvis.” She’s at that age where you’re going into adulthood and finding out who you are, where you’re going and what you want to do. Your horizon is so open.”

Elvis waited tables at the Kilt -- a Celtic-themed pub at Broadway at the Beach where servers wear skimpy outfits -- but had recently been hired as a makeup artist at Artistik Design.

On Dec. 17, she texted her father a picture of her learning how to drive a manual-shift vehicle.

For as much as she was growing, she was still a girl. She often took selfies, making quirky faces and draping her long straight hair in front of her face. She’d sprawl her legs across the laps of her friends to take a group picture.

“To me she seemed like the quiet one until you got her started,” Stoddard said. “I don’t know if it was because I was older, but she seemed like you had to get her to come out of her shell just a little bit and then she would release and start talking.”

Elvis has a younger sister named Morgan and a brother Christopher who is a little more than 10 years her elder. Christopher Elvis moved to Columbus, Ohio about two years ago. Efforts to reach Christopher Elvis were unsuccessful for the last two weeks.

“This has been very difficult on him,” Stoddard said of Christopher. “He is hurting. He is missing his little sister.”

The 2011 graduate of St. James High School has had her life placed under a microscope since her disappearance Dec. 17. Friends and strangers have muddled through her public Facebook page, Twitter account and tumblr page. Screenshots of her pictures and posts to social media are easily found on Internet searches.

Heather’s roommate, Bri Warrelmann, who has declined media interviews, said in a Feb. 9 post on her Facebook page, “I really do not wish this upon my worst enemy... not knowing what has happened to your best friend your other half is so hard... I know I don’t show my feelings but believe me I’m broken hearted I miss our late night cuddle and heart to heart sessions please just come home safe.. your(sic) so much more then(sic) my best friend your my sister also ♥”

The softer side of Heather

Those who have followed the case know the picture of Heather where she is holding the family dog, her head facing down and her brown hair pulled back with a headband. The dog is held near her heart, and her light-complected skin contrasts the dog’s black and brown fur.

But Terry Elvis sees the picture completely different. After all, he sees it as only a father could see it. It was a picture he took in the fall that he said “captures her spirit best.”

Stoddard saw the same thing when Heather was around Stoddard’s 7-year-old daughter and 3- and 6-year-old sons.

“She enjoyed being with our kids and having fun with them,” Stoddard said. “They loved her. They enjoyed playing with her, and having the attention. My youngest would sit on her lap and put his arms around her or put his hand on her leg and think he was Mr. Sophisticated. Our daughter would always look at her and was like, ‘Wow. She’s so beautiful.’ She would just want to be in her presence and have her attention also.”

Heather Elvis was impacted by children in her own way, also.

“My daughter always loved working with kids, including the ones in our Southern Baptist church, where she helped take care of them from time to time,” Terry Elvis wrote in a blog. “Heather loves animals and children and helping those less fortunate. When she traveled to Costa Rica for a missionary trip three years ago, I told her how as a diver, she might enjoy the beauty of the water – how extraordinary it is when you break the calm, and the plankton lights it up a luminescent green.

“When she returned from the trip, she said nothing of the water. ‘Dad, I have to tell you what I did that was so great,’ she said. Then she told me how she had traveled to a tiny village and talked to a small woman living in a 10 by 10 foot house with a broken roof and water leaking through it. ‘We built her a new roof,’ she told me. ‘The lady cried. And then I cried. I’ve never used a hammer in my life, and I built her a roof.’ The next day she traveled to the town’s orphanage. She taught the children how to read books and stories. She never once mentioned the water, although she swam in it with her missionary companions. She was totally selfless in her love toward other people.”

The week before Christmas

It was Dec. 17 and Heather Elvis was out on a dinner date with a man. The two strolled through neighborhoods looking at Christmas lights, which is what her father said she always enjoyed doing.

She sent her father a picture of her operating a stick-shift vehicle with the caption “Just learned to drive stick. I’m a pro.”

At the end of the date, the man dropped Heather off at her condo. From there, in the wee morning hours of Dec. 18, Heather’s green Dodge Intrepid somehow made its way to Peachtree Landing and Heather has not been heard from since.

Police say they have surveillance video that link Tammy and Sidney Moorer to the kidnapping of Elvis and have found enough evidence to charge them with murder.

Terry Elvis did not hear from his oldest daughter Dec. 18, and by the evening of Dec. 19, police came to Elvis’ door. Terry Elvis said in a blog that he didn’t think much of it since he has police friends who often stop by. But when the officer began to ask about any of his vehicles missing, he knew something was wrong.

The officer and Terry Elvis went down to Peachtree Landing to find the Intrepid vacated. The car was a mess, which Terry Elvis said was not out of the ordinary. He began frantically calling friends and family to try and determine her whereabouts. Sunday marks 82 days and nights since Terry and Debbie Elvis have heard from their oldest daughter.

As for Tammy Caison Moorer and Sidney Moorer, the husband and wife pair charged with kidnapping and murder in the case, neither are required to testify against each other on communications they had among themselves.

“There is also no prohibition against it,” Jimmy Richardson, solicitor with the 15th Circuit, said, adding either could elect to testify against the other. “If me and my wife are married, you can’t make her testify against me. However, it’s her right to assert or his right to assert if they want to. They can’t be made to.”

Section 19-11-30 of South Carolina law states with the exception of domestic violence, spouses can’t be required to disclose their communication.

“The way South Carolina’s privilege is written, it gives the spouse the option of whether they want to disclose that or not,” said Colin Miller, a criminal law professor at the University of South Carolina. “They can’t be compelled to.”

A bond hearing on the murder charges for the Moorers will be held the week of March 17.

The search continues

Using the word “was” is a struggle for Stoddard.

“I’m having a hard time even talking in past tense,” she said.

Elvis’ case is different from other missing person cases. The momentum from volunteers, friends and strangers to search for Heather Elvis began hard immediately and has shown little signs of slowing down.

Her impact on the community has prompted longer hugs of loved ones, more frequent check-ins to parents and has caused parents in the community to be the shoulder to lean on as those younger than Heather, or those her age, search for answers as to why this happened.

Stoddard said her daughter is an example of that.

“On our way to the prayer vigil, she said, ‘Mommy, she was my big sister,’ and I said, ‘I know baby,’ and I can’t really say anything after that,” Stoddard said.

A tip tent has been set up periodically over the last nearly three months as residents drop by to offer support by dropping off donations, grabbing shirts and posters that plead with people to “break the Silence” in her disappearance, and offer any information they feel would be helpful in the investigation.

The Facebook page Find Heather Elvis has more than 53,500 likes. Terry Elvis started the page and has since handed the posting and monitoring duties to Stoddard.

“It’s amazing,” Stoddard said. “It’s humbling in so many ways because these people who, I would say, have never even been to Myrtle Beach, never been in the United States, never have met the Elvis family or Heather, have poured their heart and souls into comments and messages. They’ve just been so supportive and have cried with us, and have loved with us and have hurt with us, and it’s given me more hope that maybe all is not lost in our world.

“There’s so much doom and gloom and these people just want to offer their support. We get messages that say, ‘I don’t know what to say. I just want to tell you that I’m thinking of you and praying for you.’”

Praying for the return of the woman who has become the community’s daughter.

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