NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) – Upgrades in technology and the proliferation of social media are aiding North Myrtle Beach detectives as they work to solve the city’s only unsolved murder.
Shawn Neal, a 23-year-old mother from Leland, N.C., was found dead in a condo at the Windy Shores II Condominium complex on June 1, 1996. It was determined she had been rendered defenseless and strangled.
No arrests have been made in the 23-year-old case, but police continue their investigation in an effort to bring justice to the family.
Lt. Michael Swarthout, with the North Myrtle Beach Department of Public Safety’s criminal investigations division, said Neal was in the area at the time working as an escort. The unit at Windy Shores II that she was sent to was vacant, according to police.
“The focus has always been why was she killed there,” Swarthout said.
With 21st century technology, investigators were able to take unusable or unknown DNA and send it to Parabon Nanolabs for analysis.
“It’s helped us quite a bit and it’s opened up some new leads in the case,” Swarthout said.
Those new leads have led to new interviews.
Swarthout said around 40 people have recently been interviewed as a part of the investigation. He added that police had spoken to some previously, but a lot were people that investigators hadn’t come across before.
“The internet, social media and all these things have really helped us kind of find people that were previously … unfindable back in the ‘90s,” Swarthout said.
He notes that a number of intensive man hours have been spent on the computer trying to locate people tied to the case.
According to Swarthout, the hardship regarding the escort industry is it’s one where great tax records aren’t kept and people often use an alias.
“Basically, it could take hours to finally figure out, ‘Oh, that’s this person’ because 23 years later, inevitably things have changed,” Swarthout said.
The lieutenant said the trickiest aspect of the case is how little physical evidence was left at the scene, indicating the killer or killers may have tried to clean the condo after the murder.
Another recent part of the investigation was Swarthout contacting the FBI to see if Neal could possibly have been a victim of Samuel Little, the man who has confessed to 93 murders – mostly women – between 1970 and 2005.
Investigators have only linked Little to 50 of them, but describe his confessions as credible. The FBI has called him the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history.
“I spoke with an agent there and we ruled him out as being someone that could have committed this,” Swarthout said of Little being Neal’s killer. “It didn’t really fit his … Part of it fit his MO but not all of it.”
Currently, Swarthout is looking to talk to anyone who was in the Windy Hill area – around 33rd Avenue South and Ocean Boulevard - or stayed at the Windy Shores II complex on June 1, 1996.
When asked if police were closing in on a suspect in Neal’s killing, the lieutenant said, “I feel hopeful. I feel very hopeful.”
“I think there’s somebody out there that knows what happened,” Swarthout said. “I don’t think they might have even necessarily been involved with it, but I think they know what happened and can point us in the direction of who actually did it.”
Anyone with information into Neal’s death is asked to call North Myrtle Beach police at (843) 280-5626 or the department’s tipline at (843) 447-9376.