Photographs of 43 people are push-pinned to a cork board in the office of Oconee County sheriff’s investigator Dean Brown.
All the people pictured are somehow related to case of Sheila Carver, who is missing. Some are witnesses, family, friends or suspects. Investigators believe Carver was killed in 1998 at age 33. She was last seen on June 16 that year, near Seneca where she lived.
At least six of the people, including at least one suspect, in the photos on Brown’s cork board have died since investigators first tried to find Carver’s body or learn what happened.
The case remains unsolved.
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In a file folder on a side table in Brown’s office is the case of Baylus Frank Smith, found dead in the Coneross Creek off Rock Crusher Road in Oconee County in April 1975.
Smith’s files were buried in stacks at the county coroner’s office and a two-page file at the sheriff’s office.
Tucker Hipps, a Clemson University student who fell to his death while on an early-morning fraternity run in 2014, is the latest unsolved case to land in Brown’s lap.
Brown has what is likely the lightest case load at the sheriff’s office. He’s a part-time employee, three days a week.
Most deputies and investigators get 20 to 25 cases a month.
Brown has 12. Not per month. He just focuses on those dozen cases. Seven homicides. Four missing people, who are believed to have been killed or gone missing under suspicious circumstances. Hipps fits into neither category, but his death remains unsolved and unexplained.
The cases range in date from Smith’s death in 1975 to Hipps’ death in September 2014.
Brown was hired two weeks before Hipps died, fulfilling a campaign promise by Sheriff Mike Crenshaw.
The sheriff was one of several who investigated Carver’s death, and he has kept up with her family.
Crenshaw hired Brown to help relieve pressure on the rest of the deputies, said Capt. Greg Reed, Brown’s supervisor.
Reed and Brown were both narcotics detectives years ago when Brown was a Pickens County sheriff’s deputy before working at the State Law Enforcement Division.
“(Brown) has the local knowledge, and he’s worked with a number of agencies so he knows how things work,” Reed said.
Reed and Brown don’t use the words “cold case.”
“If I had a loved one who was murdered, I think hearing someone call it a cold case wouldn’t be good,” Reed said. “People hear cold case and they think nothing’s being done. We’re continuing to work these. We think unsolved cases sounds better and helps the family to know someone is still looking out for them.”
Having a dedicated unsolved cases investigator is a luxury. It happened in Oconee County when the sheriff didn’t fill a secretarial position and shuffled money around to pay for Brown, who doesn’t get benefits.
Anderson County sheriff’s Lt. Steve Reeves handles his county’s unsolved cases, along with heading the office’s internal affairs unit. Anderson city police have at least two unsolved cases, and often the investigators stay on their cases, said Lt. Mike Aiken, a city police spokesman.
Aiken said he helped to crack one of the unsolved cases assigned to him, the death of Beverly Reed, a 29-year-old who was stabbed to death in May 1997.
Relationships are key to many unsolved cases. Ex-girlfriends and ex-wives are some of the best sources for tips about long-ago deaths, said Brown.
It was no different when they solved Reed’s death, Aiken said. Police investigators were able to talk to an ex-girlfriend of Timothy Dunya Cunningham in 2010. Cunningham was arrested and in 2012 sentenced to six years for the involuntary manslaughter of Reed.
“We constantly make contact with the victim’s family,” Warren said. “The littlest detail they have, or hear about, can make the difference.”
It’s a struggle against time, Brown said.
Investigators retire or die. Suspects change addresses, names and move to different states.
And getting enough evidence to bring charges that stick in court is tough enough for current cases, much less decades-old cases, said Reed, who also heads Oconee County’s criminal investigation division.
Brown has not solved a case yet. He’s eager to move one from unsolved to solved.
But it will take time and luck.
“It’s good for a family to know that someone is still looking to solve their case,” Brown said. “Everyone is looking, waiting. It’s stressful to not have solved them. But I am energized to get the leads that will solve these cases.”