North Myrtle Beach authorities still search for answers in young - WMBFNews.com, Myrtle Beach/Florence SC, Weather

North Myrtle Beach authorities still search for answers in young mother's death more than 20 years later

Shawn Neal holds her young daughter, Kirsten. The mother was killed in North Myrtle Beach in 1996. (Source: Kirsten Benninger) Shawn Neal holds her young daughter, Kirsten. The mother was killed in North Myrtle Beach in 1996. (Source: Kirsten Benninger)

NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) – A 23-year-old mother crossed the state line and never returned home.

On June 1, 1996, Shawn Neal was supposed to meet someone at the Windy Shores II Condominium complex on South Ocean Boulevard in North Myrtle Beach. It would be the last time anyone would ever hear from the Leland, N.C. woman.

Her mother, Sandy Ames, was at home playing volleyball with her ex-husband and some friends when they got word of Neal’s death.

“It was hard to believe,” Ames said. “I mean, I always thought something might happen, but you never know. When your kids aren’t in your sight, it’s kind of hard.”

Ames remembers her daughter as being a popular member of her high school marching band who had a lot of friends. There were also family vacations to the beach that were a highlight of Neal’s childhood years.

As to who would want to hurt her daughter, Ames thinks it could have been related to her apparent line of work.  

“I don’t really know what she did,” Ames said. “I guess she was an escort, but she never said escort.”

Offices found Neal’s body in the condominium, discovering she had been rendered defenseless and strangled.

Phil Webster, the former chief of police in North Myrtle Beach, was the first officer to arrive. The call started out as a welfare check.

Webster said there was no answer after he knocked on the condo’s door. Then, he saw that the door jamb was split. At that point, he went inside.

"I saw a shoe laying directly in front of me. As I recall a black ... it was a high-heeled shoe laying right in front of me on the floor and something right then told me something was wrong,” Webster said. “I remember drawing my service weapon and then stepping slightly into the room as I announced my presence and I could see Miss Neal hanging from a doorknob down the hall towards the ... what I think would be the master bedroom."

Webster recalled that officers cleared the unit to make sure no one else was inside. They then canvassed the building, hoping that someone may have heard or seen something.

Investigators also searched nearby trashcans, hoping that some clue may have been thrown away. According to Webster, the department did develop some possible suspects in Neal’s death, but no arrests have been made.

“It’s hard knowing that he’s out there,” Ames said. “He could do it again. If you could do it once, you could do it again.”

Neal’s death also took a hard toll on Ames’ son, Troy, who turned to drugs to dull the pain. His downward spiral would again bring tragedy to the family.

“I was there when he shot himself,” Ames said. “That was hard. I heard him get up off the couch. I went in there and stood and he took a gun and just shot himself. He didn’t want to be here anymore.”

Ames’ marriage eventually ended, but she is currently in a relationship and maintains contact with her granddaughter, Kirsten Benninger, who was around 3 years old when her mother was killed.

Now 25, Benninger lives in Pittston, Penn. She said her mother’s death is kind of a blur and it was around the age of 18 when she started trying to find out what happened.

Growing up without a female role model, according to Benninger, was its own type of hardship.

“I never doubt that my father loved me and did the absolute best that he could, but there was just some things that, you know, as a man, he was never, you know, the best at doing,” she said. “And I never had that whole, like, somebody to go shopping with or do the whole hair and makeup thing with.”

After her father got remarried and she moved to Pennsylvania, Benninger lost contact with her mom’s side of the family for a long time. It was at the age of 14 that she reconnected with Ames, who she calls her angel.

For Ames, the years since Neal’s death have brought no new answers. She said it’s been years since she was last contacted about the case.

Neal’s death has also resonated with those who never knew her.

"It sticks out with me,” Webster said. “It stayed with me a long time after that, thinking what happened to her? Who did this? It would be nice to find out who did this to get some closure for the family."

With both her children gone, what Ames has are memories of trips to the beach, working with her kids in the family’s bakery and receiving a ruby ring on Mother’s Day from both Shawn and Troy.

She keeps that ring in a jewelry box that has Neal’s initials on it.

As to whether someone will ever be held accountable for her mother’s death, Benninger has tempered her expectations as the years go by.  

“At this point, what can you really do?” she said. “I would hope for justice, but I’ve made my peace with what I can make peace with and, you know, I just hope that, you know, they handle it and, you know, someday when they have to meet their maker, that’ll be the ultimate judgment.”

Copyright 2017 WMBF News. All rights reserved.

  • Local NewsLocalMore>>

  • FIRST ALERT: Officials urge evacuations along ICWW, Waccamaw crests Wednesday

    FIRST ALERT: Officials urge evacuations along ICWW, Waccamaw crests Wednesday

    Sunday, September 23 2018 10:57 PM EDT2018-09-24 02:57:19 GMT
    The Waccamaw River forecast with the updated crest now on WednesdayThe Waccamaw River forecast with the updated crest now on Wednesday

    Water levels have risen to historic levels on area rivers and the Intracoastal Waterway.

    More >>

    Water levels have risen to historic levels on area rivers and the Intracoastal Waterway.

    More >>
  • Scotland County Schools closed through Sept. 28

    Scotland County Schools closed through Sept. 28

    Sunday, September 23 2018 8:53 PM EDT2018-09-24 00:53:15 GMT
    Source: Scotland County NCSource: Scotland County NC
    Source: Scotland County NCSource: Scotland County NC
    SCOTLAND COUNTY, NC (WMBF) — Another school system has opted to keep it's doors closed in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.  Schools will be closed for students Monday, September 24 - Friday, September 28.  These days will be required teacher workdays for staff, including teacher assistants.   Friday, October 5 was previously on the calendar as a teacher workday/professional development day.  It will now be a regular school day for students and sta...More >>
    SCOTLAND COUNTY, NC (WMBF) — Another school system has opted to keep it's doors closed in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.  Schools will be closed for students Monday, September 24 - Friday, September 28.  These days will be required teacher workdays for staff, including teacher assistants.   Friday, October 5 was previously on the calendar as a teacher workday/professional development day.  It will now be a regular school day for students and sta...More >>
  • 'I'm not going to be silenced': Sister of woman killed in van pens heartfelt message

    'I'm not going to be silenced': Sister of woman killed in van pens heartfelt message

    Sunday, September 23 2018 7:51 PM EDT2018-09-23 23:51:01 GMT
    Nicolette Green (Source: Donnela Green-Johnson)Nicolette Green (Source: Donnela Green-Johnson)

    MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) — The family of a woman killed after a van was swept away in flood waters in Nichols earlier this week is speaking out. Jewels Green, the sister of Nicolette Green, took to Facebook Sunday to address the circumstances surrounding her sister's passing.  "I am seeking justice for my sister. I want answers. I want admissions of guilt and culpability. I want reform for mental health illness policies and procedures," Green wrote. ...

    More >>

    MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) — The family of a woman killed after a van was swept away in flood waters in Nichols earlier this week is speaking out. Jewels Green, the sister of Nicolette Green, took to Facebook Sunday to address the circumstances surrounding her sister's passing.  "I am seeking justice for my sister. I want answers. I want admissions of guilt and culpability. I want reform for mental health illness policies and procedures," Green wrote. ...

    More >>
Powered by Frankly