WMBF Cold Case: Family searches for answers in “The Boy in the Woods” case

Special Report: Boy in the Woods

MURRELLS INLET, SC (WMBF) - Murrells Inlet is a picturesque place, and in summertime, it’s a mecca for vacationers.

The area is vibrant with life. But the thriving trees shielding newly-built homes near a bustling business 17 are hiding more than singing song birds.

“It’s a very powerful story. It’s a very compelling story. A lot of unanswered questions,” Mike McGonigle said.

In these trees, 37 years ago, someone hoped the leaves would swallow a secret.

“We’ve been told repeatedly that at the time Murrells Inlet was a very homey, close community and things like this just didn’t happen,” McGonigle said. “I’m willing to bet there are some people out there who really didn’t know that the boy in the woods had a name, that the boy in the woods had a family and they may remember the incident of the boy in the woods,” McGonigle’s family friend Jim Cosgrove added.

The boy in the woods story starts in June 1982. Frank McGonigle was 26 years old. He was the sixth of nine children. He had loving parents. But he left his home of Kansas City, Missouri to find his fortune, his brother, Mike explained. He withdrew all his money from his bank account and ended up in Murrells Inlet.

No one has come forward to fill in the blanks about what happened when Frank got to Murrells Inlet from Kansas. All his brother, Mike McGonigle and Cosgrove know is Frank camped out among the Murrells Inlet trees. That was the last thing he ever did.

“They found Frank’s body in some woods between Business 17 and 17 in Murrells Inlet. Very much like these trees behind me now,” Cosgrove said.

A group of boys on their bikes found him that summer of ‘82. The story goes they ran up to Nance’s Restaurant to call police.

“There was a ring of bricks for a fire ring, and they found Frank’s sleeping bag there, he was propped up against a tree,” Cosgrove said of what he’s learned from the Georgetown’s County Sheriff’s Office.

Cosgrove read the hard copy of the report when he came to Murrells Inlet to investigate Frank’s death in 1995.

The report said Frank was shot in the head. He was robbed, his ID was gone. Nothing identified him to police. A lost soul no one knew in the tight knit coastal community. Frank became “The Boy in the Woods.”

“For nine years I did not know what happened to my brother. And it went from hopeful that maybe he had just gone out to find his fortune in the world and we would hear from him someday, to despair as the years passed. We found ourselves with knowing that something bad had happened to Frank, but not knowing what that was was really difficult and painful,” McGonigle said.

A family back in Kansas City that no one here knew about. The Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office couldn’t match DNA at the time. It didn’t exist. Frank laid in then county coroner Mack WIlliams’s morgue for five years.

“They picked up the body and brought it back to Georgetown, and I used county money and bought an inexpensive casket and a vault,” Williams said about wanting to do right by Frank and the family Williams assumed he had somewhere.

Williams had the grave blessed and buried Frank at Elmwood Cemetery in Georgetown.

“I had put a marker on the grave saying it was an unknown,” Williams said.

Overlooking the crossroads, under the gaze of a cross from a nearby church. It’s a fitting grave for a boy who was searching for deeper meaning, and from a Catholic family far away.

“There was a time when I didn’t think we’d ever identify him, he’d just be there in a grave in Georgetown,” Williams said of Frank.

Then, on the nine-year anniversary of Franks disappearance, a breakthrough.

“In 1991 a curious detective on the Kansas City, Kansas police department came across this now almost decade old missing persons report and decided to further investigate,” explained Cosgrove.

The new technology brought in A DNA match. The ‘Boy in the Woods’ now had a name. His family and police had the most answers they’d ever gotten.

“The local sheriff’s department did everything they could, they had some people they considered to be persons of interest, but they were never able to come up with any conclusion to the investigation,” Cosgrove said of what came next.

A former print reporter, Cosgrove was inspired to write a book on Frank. It started in 1995 and he came to Murrells Inlet to investigate and talk with people.

“I worked with the local sheriff’s department, the county coroner and I interviewed some of the local folks. I began to realize a lot of people in town knew about this but not everybody was telling me exactly what happened. I think some people are holding back information,” Cosgrove said.

He believes they found the site in the trees where Frank was murdered. Jim and Mike said many of the people here at the time are now gone or dead, and the police report, the sheriff’s office said, is now lost in storage. A case it seems, that will only get colder. All that’s left are a brother’s pleas.

“You never know what tiny little question may get answered that brings the whole thing together. According to the police report, there were some suspects that they pursued but never were able to pin anything on. You know those guys are dead now, so nobody really cares, nobody needs to protect them,” McGonigle said.

McGonigle and Cosgrove came back to Murrells Inlet to ask more questions. Mike and Frank’s mother did not want Cosgrove publishing a book back in the ‘90s but gave him her blessing before her death.

“To have them come and experience this and to see the community where their brother died. For me that’s been the richest part of this is to see Mike discovering this town and discovering the area and some of the details surrounding his brother’s death, that’s pretty powerful,” said Cosgrove.

So now they’re back, working on the book about Frank, searching for answers in a community with secrets buried in change. They’re hoping you can help give a family some peace of mind 37 years after they lost the one they love.

If you have any information, no matter how small, of Frank McGonigle you’re asked to contact the Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office at (843) 546-5102.

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