A year-long investigation uncovers new details in a 14-year-old murder mystery along Interstate 20 in Darlington County. More shocking is the man once named a prime suspect in the case may never be charged. Now, a year later and a re-examination of the evidence, investigators and the victim's family talk to us.
“It leaves me very frustrated, number one,” said Fourth Circuit Solicitor Will Rogers. “What my role is, and what we want to do, is seek justice.”
It has been 14 years since an unknown woman was found dead; four years after investigators declared they had a suspect; and one year after questions about the case rocked the Darlington County Sheriff's Office.
Now, Rogers formally revealed he does not have a criminal case to make.
“It may be a situation where we can't ever move forward because of the strength of the case,” Rogers said.
The mystery of the woman known as “The I-20 Girl” started in 2000, when an anonymous trucker reported discovering a body in the woods near an I-20 rest stop in Darlington County. For a decade, she was a mystery, with investigators hoping a model created from her skull might help someone recognize her.
The breakthrough finally came in 2011 when police formally announced DNA samples revealed the “I-20 Girl” was 33-year-old Michelle Haggadone, missing since 2000 from North Carolina. They also said at a 2011 press conference she'd been murdered by interstate trucker John Wayne Boyer, calling him a serial killer who would pick up and murder prostitutes along his routes.
What the investigators didn't mention was that while Boyer was already locked up, they had not officially filed any charges against him yet.
“Well, certainly in hindsight at the time that press conference was done, it was our expectation that we had the information,” said Darlington County Sheriff Wayne Byrd, “and I think a great deal of trust was put into one of our officers.”
Byrd says that officer was the detective who had originally investigated the scene. Capt. Andy Locklair questioned Boyer in a North Carolina prison. Boyer was already serving a 12-year sentence for the 2003 murder of Scarlett Wood.
Locklair, pictured here, at the site where Michelle Haggadone's body was located in 2000.
Locklair got what he declared to be a clear confession for Haggadone's murder. But last year, our investigation revealed the case had not been passed to prosecutors.
“Well when it was brought to my attention a year or so ago, we didn't have any information in our office,” Rogers said. “We didn't have information on evidence.”
That prompted questions. Suddenly, within days of our investigation, Locklair filed a warrant saying that “statements and evidence” implicate Boyer. Locklair was forced to resign, accused by the sheriff of “failing to follow procedure” and “attempting to cover up” what he had failed to do.
“I think quite honestly I think Andy felt like he had to get a warrant to cover the fact that he had made promises to this family that the guy was going to be charged,” Byrd said.
The real problem, say Rogers, Byrd, and Locklair, was that some of Boyer's confession matched evidence investigators had developed. And some of it didn't.
Haggadone's autopsy revealed she was strangled with a wire, but Boyer claimed he choked her with a shirt. Investigators say that the two of them knew each other, but Boyer never said that.
“Yes, we believe he committed the crime,” Byrd said. “Do we believe he committed it the way he confesses he committed it? That, we're not sure of.”
“There is a statement and there is some evidence,” Byrd continued. “Now, that evidence obviously is not enough to convince the solicitor that we need to move to trial with this case, which means that we need to continue our work.”
Still, Rogers admits the turmoil in the sheriff's office surrounding this investigation, including Locklair's resignation, could come back to haunt him in court.
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“Defense lawyers always try the law enforcement officer or the agency anyway,” Rogers said. “They just put them under the microscope.”
But, the sheriff doesn't think the case is at a risk.
“I don't think it has hurt the case as far as going to court,” he said. “What it has done is created a great deal of questions about the work he did and exactly what exists and what doesn't exist as far as the public is concerned.”
Byrd says he spoke with Haggadone's mother Cathleen Applegate as the controversy erupted last year.
“I would say that it wasn't a very pleasant conversation and certainly I understood her emotion given what she'd been told was going to be done and was not done,” Byrd said.
Byrd says his investigators do have specific witnesses and potential witnesses, who they are still looking for who might provide some answers. He's also holding out hope for advances to better handle some of the evidence that the State Law Enforcement Division already has in its lab.
But at this point, he says, it's better that the case against Boyer remain in limbo than go to court and fail.
“You have to bring closure in a way that you're successful,” Byrd said. “You only get one shot when you go to court and you don't want to go into court with a case that you feel like you can't win.”
“She loved the water,” said Cathleen Applegate, Haggadone's mother. “When you can get out into nature, and just be a part of nature, and the water, and the sun. Good memories.”
Walking along the North Carolina beach, Applegate keeps alive her daughter's memory, and her own demands for justice, demands which have become angrier and more painful with the latest news that criminal charges will likely not come any time soon against her daughter's accused killer John Wayne Boyer.
It is at the point that her demands are also aimed at Byrd and Rogers.
“I want an apology from both of them for letting this continue on for as long as it has, years,” Applegate said. “My family has gone through a lot, and I just think that everybody needs an apology from at least those two people because they have done nothing but drag their feet.”
In 2011, after more than 10 years of simply not knowing, Applegate says there was heartbreak, but also sad satisfaction when investigators made their announcement that they had identified the woman found dead at that I-20 rest stop all those years before as Haggadone and that they had identified Boyer as her killer.
But that satisfaction has long since turned to frustration as the official charges against Boyer never seemed to quite materialize.
“She was known as ‘the I-20 Girl' for years and then, after the DNA was done, then she had a name,” Applegate said. “So, Michelle has a name and she's buried in the most beautiful spot. I appreciate what people have done for this family, and yet I carry a grudge for the ones who have the job of doing it and never do it.”
For this family, the long vigil waiting for answers has been grinding, especially for Haggadone's daughter, Gabrielle.
“Gabby, she's struggling in life, and I think it's affected her the most,” Applegate said. “We'll drive by a place and she'll say, ‘My mom and I went there,' or we'll go by a street and she'll say, ‘We picked flowers there.' And that just breaks my heart because her heart is broken. She's not healing like she should because there has not really been any closures.”
And Haggadone's son, Skyler, will soon be starting college.
“Michelle's son is now 19 years old,” Applegate said. “I got him when he was 2. I'm the one who's took him to therapy. I'm the one that goes to school.
“But he has to keep looking over his shoulder,” she continued. “Because he calls me Mom, and he says, ‘Mom, when is it going to stop?' And then you know I have to explain to him that it's not going to stop until they know, we know, something about your mom. And he's just -- he wants answers yesterday. And so do I.”
“I don't want people coming up to me and saying ‘I saw you on TV.' Or ‘I saw your sister and I asked her about this or that.' It's so old,” Applegate said. “I just I just want to put this behind me. And I don't know when it will be put behind me because nobody's doing their job.”
Applegate says she's always been honest with her grandkids about Haggadone's troubled life. She also says the response from law enforcement would have been different if the victim in this case were somebody else.
“If it would have been your daughter, if it would have been his daughter, sheriff's daughter, Will Rogers' daughter, do you think they would have let it slide as long as they have? No. No. No. They'd be on everybody's case but you know, they just yawn,” Applegate said.
Haggadone is buried in a Hartsville cemetery, in a grave that had no name on it for a decade, until she was finally identified in 2011. But four years later, the mystery remains unsolved and the case has gotten colder still.
“The longer this goes on, the more bitter I am,” Applegate said.
Notwithstanding challenges building a case to connect Boyer with Haggadone's death Byrd has offered his reassurances that Boyer will spend the rest of his life in prison, but for Applegate, it's not just a matter of total years behind bars.
“I want him to serve his chunk of time saying I'm serving this time for Michelle Haggadone,” Applegate said. “I want that to be recognized. I want him to do time for my daughter. And I know every day that he's doing time, but I want it recognized by the police departments, all the system that goes with it, I want my daughter -- I want them to know why he's in jail. I want him to know why he's in jail.”
The case against Boyer has rested almost entirely on one jailhouse interview and his apparent confession. It is something experts say can work to make a murder case, but they say it's also risky because "confessions and interrogations can get complicated."
“It's a one-in-a-million kind of thing,” Darlington County Sheriff's Office Detective Andy Locklair previously said in 2013. “You go and you sit down and you talk with people, and you hope that they will give you a confession because at this particular point, that's all you're going to have.”
Back when he talked with us about Haggadone's murder case, Locklair said his interview with suspect John Wayne Boyer and the confession Boyer gave him were crucial to cracking this mystery.
“In many cases, the confession becomes the lynch pin of a successful prosecution and conviction,” said Seth Stoughton, assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law.
Stoughton warns that interrogating a suspect and getting that all important confession is a high stakes matter of art, and skill, which is full of risk for an investigator.
“You don't want to contaminate a drug sample or a firearm investigation,” Stoughton said. “You also don't want to. And there's a risk of contaminating a confession.”
Stoughton says most law enforcement today use what's known as The Reid Technique, which is a carefully divided two-stage approach for questioning a suspect. First to establish whether you've actually got your man, then in the second stage, and only then, to persuade your suspect to confess. That's a process that raises the potential for fiascos if the lines between the stages get blurry.
“If an investigator goes in with the predetermined thought, ‘I want to get a confession from this person,' then any information he gets from that person, he is going to read and interpret in a way that supports his ultimate goal, getting a confession,” Stoughton said.
Dr. Laura Pettler is an expert stepping in to help solve cold cases, and she says it's important for investigators to keep in mind a confession doesn't mean a case is closed.
“You never assume that the confession is going to be admissible in court,” said Pettler of the American Investigative Society of Cold Cases.
Locklair acknowledged that when he went to Goldsboro, N.C., where Boyer was already locked up for another murder, he didn't have much, but he decided to play it like a poker game, bluffing his way to get Boyer to open up.
“I said, 'I have two cards in my hand, but I'm going to do better than that. I'm going to show you one of them,'” Locklair previously said. “And it's just a pure bluff.”
“I'm left with what actually happened in real cases, the person going, ‘Oh my God, I did. I must have. I must have done that. And I must have done that because you're telling me that there's incontrovertible physical evidence that I did it. Well, if you're telling me that, and there's physical evidence, I must have done it, even if I don't remember that,' Stoughton explained. “Poof! There's your confession.”
After some back and forth in his card game with Boyer, Locklair played his bluff, announcing a card he didn't really have.
“I said, ‘Why would your DNA be on this wire, which was used to strangle this person?'” Locklair asked Boyer. “And he looked, set back in his chair, and he actually said, at first he said, 'My DNA ain't on that wire, because I strangled her with my shirt.' To one-up me, he actually confessed to killing her.”
To Stoughton, such deception, or “exaggeration of the evidence,” is a tool an interrogator can use.
“Legally that's within the acceptable permissible boundaries of law enforcement deception,” Stoughton said. “The legal boundaries on what police officers are allowed to do have not kept pace with the psychological research, with the behavioral research that shows that those tactics cannot always do, but certainly can significantly increase the risk of false confessions.”
And while the eventual confession, written up for a defendant to sign, then goes on to become an official record, Stoughton says what really happened in the interrogation is seldom recorded, leaving prosecutors stuck simply trusting that all was done properly.
“In many of these cases that we've actually seen, both trials and plea deals, there have been false confessions,” Stoughton said. “We know that prosecutor, who may have no reason by the way, to suspect that there're problems with the confession, puts a lot of weight on that.”
And with the prosecution unable to move forward at this point, Pettler says that doesn't necessarily mean a suspect will never face charges.
“If they are saying they have a confession and nothing else it doesn't really tell us much, it tells us there is not apparently to prosecute based on the confession,” Pettler said. “Sometimes the reason is that people say i can't prosecute this case because I don't have enough evidence. Sometimes maybe there's not enough evidence because it's not the right guy, but you don't know that until you find the right guy.”
We reached out to John Wayne Boyer for his side of the story, but he declined.
Boyer is due to finish his prison sentence in North Carolina for the 2003 death of Scarlett Wood in July. From there, prosecutors in Tennessee plan to put him on trial for the 2005 murder of Jennifer Smith. That still leaves the 14-year-old cold case of Michelle Haggadone with no one facing charges.
The family hopes one day for closure.
“One thing to always remember in cold cases is time is your friend,” Pettler said. “People who were loyal to each other in 1995 may not be loyal to each other due to divorce or a falling out or something of that nature in 2015. Sometimes people turn on each other and they come forward and say let me tell you what I know about the death of that victim.
“The other kind of case we have is the ones we don't know who did it,” Pettler continued. “We don't have a suspect. We don't have anything and those are obviously the hardest to work and to solve. It does not mean those victims are not important. It does not mean that we do not work on them and it does not mean they are forgotten. They are remembered and we still move forward."
Moving on is one thing that Haggadone's family has a hard time doing. Her mother blames this on the lack of work by investigators and prosecutors to try to close her daughter's murder case.
Byrd said an apology to Haggadone's family is warranted.
“I think I tried to offer her one at that time,” he said. “But she was not interested in hearing that at that particular time. I'd be glad to apologize to her.”
Rogers offers reassurance to Haggadone's family.
“We are still seeking justice and that's what my ultimate goal is for her,” Rogers said.
As to whether John Wayne Boyer will ever return to South Carolina to face charges in the Michelle Haggadone case, that's a question that only time will tell.
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