MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - WMBF News is revealing new details about the search for missing 20-year old, Heather Elvis. As we discovered, the exposure and response to this missing person's case has taken even the Horry County Police Department by surprise. We've discovered social media may have cursed this investigation from the start.
Never before in Horry County has a single missing person's case generated as much attention as the case surrounding the disappearance of Heather Elvis. Since Elvis went missing on December 17, the case has gained local, state and national media exposure, a Facebook account that has attracted more than 45,000 followers, a reward pot that seems to grow by the week, and people so moved by the family's plight, they've risked their own freedom to continue the search, even if it means bending or breaking the law.
The image of Heather's face on billboards, posters, and fliers on thousands of storefronts are unavoidable from one end of the Grand Strand to the other, and nearly two months after Heather Elvis' disappearance, a simple call to supporters for another search or fundraiser, and hundreds still show up to collect donations and get the word out.
From the day Heather's car was discovered at Peachtree boat landing in Socastee, a starting point for a dozen organized searches was established. Friends and family agreed to polygraphs, phone records were captured and catalogued, and the reward for information quickly swelled to $30,000 and growing.
"We were scared to death. I still am," says Terry Elvis, Heather's father.
Terry has stayed at the center of the effort to find his daughter. Desperation and frustration are just motivators for this 53-year old father of three.
"My heart tells me my daughter is alive," he says, when asked where he thinks Heather is today. "I have to go on the assumption, and I have to go on the faith and hope that she's alive."
But Terry Elvis fears the police investigation into Heather's disappearance may barely have a heartbeat. For the first time, he wants to share what he calls a fact sheet, showing why police need only look in one place. Truth is, much of that information comes from the unauthorized release of facts from a police report.
"There's a lot of circumstantial evidence, but it all points in one direction," Terry insists.
Terry Elvis has his own prime suspect based on phone records from the original police report. He confirmed what's in that report: months ago, Heather was romantically involved with a married man she met while working as a restaurant hostess. Terry says Heather's roommate told him it ended more than a month ago. Yet, according to witness statements to police and those same phone records, there were several calls back and forth between Heather and the married man the morning of Heather's disappearance. That same roommate told police Heather was talking to the man again, and that night, he called to tell her he was leaving his wife and wanted to be with her.
"A lot of information that's been withheld and probably withheld with very good reason, maybe for the first week (of the investigation). Maybe the first two weeks. But not now," Terry Elvis says.
Terry wants this information out there, believing it could encourage more tips, more witnesses, and finally a solid suspect. Horry County detectives have another take.
With all that circumstantial evidence, many Elvis supporters are asking , who needs detectives? Horry County Police insist they need solid, physical evidence to build a case. And no one is talking about physical evidence, not here at Peachtree landing, not anywhere in this case. The only other option is perhaps having someone admit to committing a crime. That's not happening either.
One man has been the focus of the social media barrage in this case so far. We wanted to give that man a chance to defend himself. David Klugh met the man at his front door, and this is how the conversation went:
"David Klugh with WMBF News. How are you?"
"Listen, a lot of things are being said with respect to this Heather Elvis case. I wanted to give you guys an opportunity, if you'd take it, to talk with us for just a moment about what's being said, where you guys are with this."
"Is there a reason?"
"My lawyer and I just can't. I mean I'd rather not."
"How are you all holding up?"
"Um, crappy because people are threatening to kill us, and they're not in jail."
There are some people who are probably better off not saying much about this case right now. And despite social media's focus on one man in this case, investigators will tell you that effort has done more to damage their efforts than help to find Heather Elvis.
In fact, the disappearance of Heather Elvis has probably changed the face of missing persons investigations forever, thanks to social media. Facts, speculation, even lies are getting out faster than law enforcement can investigate them. In this case, it's even resulted in the unauthorized leak of evidence, and even some people choosing to conduct their own parallel investigations.
"That's the kind of information that you don't want out there," says Horry County Police Lt. Chip Squires. "…it taints the case."
"Everybody knows what's in that report. That means whoever's listening to that report, whether they had any involvement or not," says Lt. Squires. "That means who's responsible for it knows what's in that report."
Lt. Squires is not happy with what social media has done to this investigation. It has been a major interruption, even a setback in their efforts to resolve the case.
"We've tried to keep information that we didn't want out there that would hinder the prosecution of the case or hinder our investigation," says Squires. He says social media has been both a blessing and a curse.
There have also been a few other distractions in the case, including the arrest of one of Terry Elvis' close friends and the organizer of the searches, fundraising and social media efforts for Heather.
"As a friend of a father that's missing a 20-year old daughter, you do what you have to do sometimes," says that friend, Bill Barrett. "Did I do it intentionally, say I'm gonna break a law? No, sir."
"He reached out to a witness in the case and basically tried to conduct his parallel investigation with ours. And in doing that, it interfered with our investigation," Lt. Squires says.
Barrett responded, "So many people were not willing to come forward and talk to the police but they'd come tell me. And I'd say here, please just call the tip line. Come forward and tell the police this. No we don't want to get involved. I mean people would actually, physically back their cars up the street so I couldn't get their license plate number."
At a time like this, you find out who your friends are. Terry Elvis calls Barrett one of his most trusted. And one who has sacrificed a lot.
Barrett appears unphased by the arrest. "The Elvis family is still suffering. And, you know, it hits me as a personal failure to, as a team, as a group, as a community that this has not been taken care of…that justice has not been served."
As we prepare to enter month three of the search for Heather, Terry Elvis has lost patience, and is losing confidence in those charged with finding his daughter.
I asked Terry Elvis whether he believes Horry County Police are doing all they can to find his daughter. "I want to answer that the correct way. As a father in seeing it day in and day out, I will tell you they are doing their job, but not to the best of their ability. Because I haven't seen results, and it's been 47 days."
As for Terry pointing fingers at the man whose phone calls may have been the last Heather ever received: "It won't stop until we find Heather. It's not gonna stop. I can't stop," Terry says. "If I hurt your feelings, I'm sorry. I really am. But if it brings my daughter back, I'm gonna hurt 'em."
The good, the bad and the ugly - that's what social media will likely be attracting in every missing person's case from this day forward. Horry County Police admit they will have to take much greater care in the future when it comes to what they release and how they release it. In the meantime, their policy will always be "zero tolerance" when it comes to anyone interfering in the effort to bring victims like Heather Elvis home. Their investigation into Heather's disappearance continues.