SC Missing: The long and twisting road of the 'I-20 girl' case

WIS is launching a new franchise called S.C. Missing. We're investigating missing person cases and looking for new leads that could hopefully shine light on these cases. The first is an in-depth look into a 14-year-old missing person case that turned into a murder investigation. This case is known as the "I-20 girl."

This is just part of our investigation. The rest of the investigation will be posted tonight shortly before our special on this case airs at 7 p.m.

DARLINGTON COUNTY, SC (WIS) - A wooded area at a truck stop on Interstate 20 in Darlington County was a crime scene 14 years ago when a woman's body was discovered. For more than a decade, this woman lay in a Darlington County cemetery without anyone knowing her name.

Former Darlington County Coroner Eldridge Norton gave her a funeral, but for 11 years, he had no name on the marker. Norton said the woman died by asphyxia due to strangulation.

Norton was the coroner when Lee County dispatchers got a 911 call from an anonymous trucker that he found the woman's body at a rest area on the westbound side of the interstate.

"She was probably 150 yards off a park where people pulled into a rest stop, and she was lying face down and has been there for 30 days, at least," Norton said.

Former Darlington County Sheriff's Capt. Andy Locklair, who was a rookie at the time, was the lead investigator in the case.

"I got handed the case," Locklair said. "I was working this area at the time."

Locklair said it was the biggest case of his career. In August 2000, Locklair was sitting inside the sheriff's office when the call came out about the body.

"Heard the call come over the radio and you hear they've got a body in the woods," Locklair said. "A lot of people show up and you know it's going to be a major crime scene."

Investigators taped off the crime scene, and S.C. Law Enforcement Division agents processed evidence. The woman was faced down and partially covered in pine straw. Investigators say her bra and a wire were twisted around her neck.

As investigators cleared the scene, Locklair was left to piece it all together.

"At the end of the first 48 hours, we didn't have anything," Locklair said. "We didn't have any fingerprints because of the decomposition of the body. We didn't have any identifying marks of anything of such that would help us. We were behind the 8-ball with this case early on."

Investigators dubbed the case: The I-20 girl. SLED agents used the woman's skull to reconstruct her face, then sat back and waited for a break to find out who this woman was. But they knew early on, it would take something short of a miracle to solve the case.

"No. 1, you've got to find out who you're dealing with," Locklair said. "How did that person get here and how did that person die? And, trying to figure all that out, you start asking questions in your head. You're thinking like you would in any other case – it's all going to fall into place, and we'll start getting information coming in and it just didn't happen in this case."

The county coroner also strived to find answers to the case.

"I always felt like she belonged to somebody," Norton said. "I just took interest in it and wanted to keep looking."

Norton spent the next 11 years working to put a name with the file he still holds on to. In 2001, Norton decided not to seek re-election, and on his last day in office, he buried the unidentified woman. She was the only mystery from Norton's two decades in office.

The wire used to strangle the woman was unidentified. A pathologist took DNA samples from the woman after investigators concluded that might be the only way to get a positive ID on the woman.

"She could have been from anywhere," Norton said. "When you're talking about finding her in a wooded area off of any interstate, it doesn't mean that they're local, and by chance, she probably would not be local."

SLED's composite went public, hoping someone would recognize the face. Years went by, and there were no leads. The I-20 girl's case went cold.

"Four years into this deal, the information slowly ceases and you start to get one every six months – an inquiry – and someone will run across a missing persons website," Locklair explained. "And they'll have somebody on there, and you'll start getting a little bit at a time, then that's it."

The leads slowed to nothing and investigators still had someone they were looking for to question. The anonymous trucker who called 911 to report finding the woman's body didn't hang around to show officers what he found or where the woman was. Investigators tried to find the trucker and even called him a person of interest, but to this day, Darlington County investigators haven't found that man.

"It was suspicious to us when it first happened to the point where we looked to try to find who he was – it was the first thing we did," Locklair said. "For a long time, he was a person of interest – trying to figure out who this person was."

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