The kidnapping and gruesome murder of 17-year-old Sharon Faye Smith led to the largest manhunt in South Carolina’s history. Sharon’s abductor would taunt her family for weeks by calling their home and sending letters. One of those letters was written by Sharon herself – a final will and testament. Her last words will shock you…
Sharon “Shari” Smith was a 17-year-old senior in high school. She was known for her outgoing, witty personality, even winning her senior class’ “wittiest” superlative. Born to Robert and Hilda Smith in 1967, Shari was the middle child. On May 31, 1985, Shari was just two days from graduating high school. She was scheduled to sing the National Anthem at the ceremony, and she would later leave for her senior class cruise trip.
Unfortunately, Shari would not live to see either of those events. Shortly after coming home from a pool party, Shari went to the end of her driveway to check the mailbox. Just 700 feet away from the house, Shari’s father recalled watching her from the home office. However, after a few minutes passed by, and Shari did not come back in the house, her father rushed outside.
What he discovered is every parent’s worst nightmare. He found Shari’s car door open with the motor running, and her purse sitting on the front seat, but no sign of Shari.
Wasting no time, Shari’s parents called the Lexington County’s Sheriff’s Office and reported their daughter was abducted. The Smith family was particularly wealthy and influential, so the initial assumption was that the motive for the kidnapping was money. The officers told Shari’s family to look out for a ransom call.
Just two days later, they did receive a call, but the kidnapper was not looking for ransom money. The man on the phone told Shari’s family she was alive, and instructed them to wait for a letter he would send the next morning.
Law enforcement searched through the county’s mail, where they discovered a letter addressed to Shari’s family. This letter would become the key piece of evidence in Shari’s case.
The top of the letter read “Last Will & Testament” in Shari’s handwriting. It had the date “6/1/1985” and time “3:58 AM.” Shari had written “I LOVE ya’ll!” at the top. An excerpt from the letter reads:
“I love you Mommy, Daddy, Robert, Dawn, & Richard, and everyone else and all other friends and relatives. I’ll be with my father now, so please, please don’t worry! Just remember my witty personality & great special times we all shared together. Please don’t even let this ruin your lives, just keep living one day at a time for Jesus. Some good will come out of this. My thoughts will always be with you & in you!”
Perhaps the most chilling part of the letter was the two words Shari wrote in the middle of the page: “casket closed.”
Police had no leads and were unable to trace the first call. So, Shari’s family had to wait for the kidnapper to call again. And he did. He called multiple times, each with a differently disguised voice.
On one of those calls, the kidnapper gave detailed directions to an abandoned building. Law enforcement rushed to the location, where Shari’s body was found in the backyard. An autopsy suggested she had been dead for several days, putting her death right before she wrote the letter. The autopsy also revealed duct tape residue on her face, suggesting suffocation as her ultimate cause of death.
In a final act of pure evil, Shari’s kidnapper called her family on the night of her funeral, explaining in detail exactly how he tortured and killed her.
After further examination of the letter, a forensics team was able to conclude that the paper came from a legal pad. They were also able to isolate indentations from previous pages torn off the pad, which allowed them to identify part of a phone number. The phone number would eventually lead them to a 50-year-old Ellis Sheppard, whose house is just 15 miles away from Shari’s home. A forensic search of Sheppard’s home revealed the killer had been there. However, Sheppard and his wife were on vacation at the time of Shari’s murder. A solid alibi.
Police played the voice recording of the phone call for Sheppard, and he instantly recognized the voice. It belonged to that of Larry Gene Bell, an electric worker housesitting for the Sheppards while they were on vacation. Law enforcement later discovered that Larry had a history of deviant sexual behavior, including making outrageous phone calls and even the attempted kidnapping of a young woman.
Larry was arrested on June 27, 1985. He attempted to fake mental illness, even acting out fake outbursts and claims that he was Jesus Christ. It took the jury 47 minutes to find him guilty of kidnapping and first-degree murder.
After 11 years of rotting in prison, Larry was executed by electric chair in 1996.
Not even the harshest punishment could bring back Shari, but what could have easily ripped a family apart forever actually drew Shari’s family closer. They established a scholarship in her name, and Shari’s mother and sister wrote books in her memory. Most inspiring of all, Shari’s father explained that Shari’s last will and testament, the piece of evidence that ultimately led to the arrest of her kidnapper, gave more closure than any punishment could. “She knew where she was going,” he said. In maturity far beyond her years and through an amount of strength no human should have to cultivate, Shari faced her death with grace and dignity.