6-year-old Brittney Beers lived with her mother, Tina Stetler and her uncle, James Allen Beers, in Village Manor Apartments in Sturgis, Michigan. She attended Fawn River School and loved art and playing outside. One picture that made her particularly proud was an arrangement she had made from oak leaves pasted on paper. Her half-sister, 10-year-old Dixie, described her as being “very shy” and “so scared and skittish about talking to strangers.” Like Dixie, she was a tomboy and loved being outdoors.1
Dixie and Brittney were both daughters of Raymond Beers but lived with different mothers. While the sisters were close, they mostly saw each other at the Jerolene playground. “I was not allowed to visit Brittney’s house,” said Dixie. “It’s a complicated situation. Brittney’s mother lived with my dad’s brother.” Both families lived within a short distance of the playground and the sisters would meet there to play.
On the evening of the 16th of September, 1997, Brittney was playing outside the apartment. She was wearing a white tank top with a floral print, pink tie-dye shorts and white sneakers. At around 8:30PM, her mother went to run errands, leaving Brittney playing alone on her bicycle outside. Just 5 minutes later, Brittney’s half-brother spotted her sitting on a bench out the front of the apartments as he walked to the Burger Dairy store nearby. She appeared to be speaking to a man sitting in a red or brown car.
This was the last time anybody ever saw Brittney. She was reported missing later that night at 10:30PM.
A search party was assembled and they assisted police in the foot by foot search of the area surrounding Brittney’s apartment. Sturgis public Safety Director, Geoff Smith, was one of the first officers to respond to the missing child report and remembers the night extremely vividly. “That first night was about 20 hours long. We slept for about four hours and we were back at it. It felt like that for a couple of weeks,” he recalled.2 A bloodhound was able to track Brittney’s scent to the parking lot of a nearby convenience store frequently used by interstate truckers but the scent stopped here.3
At one point in the investigation, they focused on a 40-acre area where Brittney was known to play that included open fields, railroad tracks and storage buildings. No matter where investigators and volunteers alike searched, there was absolutely no sign of Brittney. Early on in the investigation, authorities speculated that it’s more and more likely that Brittney was abducted rather than she ran away. “There’s certainly a potential for an abduction,” said agent Chuck Goodwin. “It’s pretty reasonable to think that there’s obviously something more than her just having wandered off or run away…”4
Rumours about the family started to circulate through the streets and neighbours spoke of neglect and abuse in the household. Several people noted that Brittney was often spotted playing outside on her own and once told a neighbour that her mother would lock her out of the house if she was bad. A neighbour, Gale Ashbrook, often saw Brittney playing alone in a sandbox near her own apartment. She would tell Brittney to go home because the sandbox was quite far from where she lived and she shouldn’t have been out there alone. In fact, just days after Brittney disappeared, James Allen Beers was arrested on unrelated domestic violence charges. He was accused of striking Stetler with a bottle.
The last ever photograph of Brittney was taken by a babysitter on Children’s Day at the St. Joseph County Grange Fair. It was taken just the day before she disappeared. There was a stark change in Brittney’s appearance: her hair had all been chopped off. “Uncle James chopped her hair because he said she wasn’t taking care of it,” said Dixie.
Then in January of 1998, Brittney’s 13-year-old brother, Joshua Lee Folsom, and her 3-year-old sister, Autumn Stetler, were removed from the home due to alleged abuse by James Allen Beers. Stetler had been urged to leave James due to the abuse but when she refused, her children were taken from her care. Following their removal, Stetler had dispositional hearings where she was ordered to find a job, maintain a residence stable and suitable enough for her children and most importantly, stay away from James. “I’m not going to return the children to her with James Beers around, knowing her son is afraid of him, knowing what he’s done to other children,” said St. Joseph County Family Court Judge Thomas Shumaker.5
The court records also showed allegations of child abuse from Brittney’s father, Raymond Beers, and Kevin Folsom, who was the father of Joshua. Folsom was convicted on a charge of criminal sexual conduct and had been in prison since 1996. And who was Folsom’s victim? Brittney. At just 3-years-old, Brittney was sexually abused by him. Her abuse came to light when she refused to let her babysitter bathe her one evening. When the babysitter questioned her, Brittney told her that Folsom had been molesting her. In an August 1995 interview, Folsom told police that he had become aroused while bathing the toddler and started to touch her.6
To say that Brittney didn’t have a picturesque childhood would be an understatement.
Autumn’s father was Lonnie Garvie, a cook at Herrmann’s East Side Food Shop. Unfortunately he passed away in 1996 but those who knew him said he was a good father and would often be seen feeding Brittney and her siblings in the restaurant. Maybe he was the stability that the family desperately needed. “I think someone took her to give her a better home,” theorised a waitress at the restaurant where he worked.7
The following year, Stetler had a termination petition hearing in which she volunteered to give up her parental rights. She admitted that she just didn’t have accomodation or finance to take care of her two remaining children. Brittney had been removed from the petition as she still remained missing. “If she is found, a separate petition will be formed for that case,” said Probate Court Judge Thomas Shumaker.8 Tina asked that her father be granted custody of Joshua while a brother and sister-in-law be granted custody of Autumn.
Over the forthcoming years, police investigated over a thousand leads. Age progression images of Brittney were released every once in a while in the hopes that somebody somewhere knew something and would come forward. Moreover, missing person posters with Brittney’s face on the front were plastered to the back of 500 Zeller Bach Trucking semi trailers while another 200 were displayed on NASCAR and Hot Rod Association vehicles.
In 2000, investigators chased a lead that came in from Detroit. Over 2,000 pornographic images were discovered on a computer in the St. Clair Shores home of Russell Tombs, 41. In more than a dozen of these photographs was an unidentified girl who appeared to be 4 to 6-years-old. The photos illustrated the young girl crying, being raped by an older man and tied up in a laundry room and in a bedroom. “We think this pornography was made domestically in the United States,” said Macomb County Prosecutor Carl Marlinga. “Most child pornography comes from Europe, and this looks different – the furnishings, the appearance of the place.” St. Clair Shores police released a photograph in the media of the little girl in the hopes that somebody could identify her. They shortly received a phone call from the Sturgis Police Department who considered that the girl in the photographs could have been Brittney.
The following week, however, they determined that it wasn’t her. The girl in the photographs was later tracked down in Texas and testified against her parents who were convicted of charges related to child pornography.
One of the suspects in the case was Daniel Kevin Furlong who was convicted of the 2007 murder of 11-year-old Jodi Parrack. He was arrested after he attempted to restrain a 10-year-old girl from White Pigeon with electrical cords and threatened her with a knife in his garage. Thankfully she managed to escape but after this arrest, DNA in his car linked him to the murder of Jodi. “We believe Furlong was in the area at the time, but nothing right now points to him in the Beers case other than the fact he’s being charged in the murder of another young girl,” said Sturgis public Safety Director, Geoff Smith.9 Furlong was extensively investigated as a suspect but Smith declared “he couldn’t tell me the truth about anything,” adding that “I can’t eliminate him, but can’t make him a person of interest. I just can’t believe anything he says.” He was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison for the murder of Jodi.
Every year, to mark Brittney’s disappearance, a group of people would gather at the Village Manor Apartments where Brittney was last spotted. The bench where she was last seen is now long gone but the memories still remain. Ruth Ann Beers and her husband, James, who lived in Corpus Cristi, Texas, made the trip most years to commemorate Brittney. They are Brittney’s grandparents. Brittney’s own mother attended just one vigil.
Eventually, the case started to go cold and Sturgis police now receive little to no tips in the case. Nevertheless, they continue to examine whatever leads trickle in and continue to re-examine old information in the hopes that one day, they could get a break in the case. As of today, Brittney Beers still remains missing.
If you have any information about the disappearance of Brittney Beers, please call Surgis police at: 651-3231.
- Sturgis Journal, 14 September, 2007 – “Without a Trace”
- Sturgis Journal, 16 September, 2017 – “Case of Missing Sturgis Girl Remains Unsolved”
- The Herald-Palladium, 17 November, 1997 – “Missing Girl’s Mom Deals with Loss”
- Battle Creek Enquirer, 21 September, 1997 – “No Clues Found in Search for Girl”
- News-Press, 6 September, 1998 – “Woman Still Seeing Man Deemed a Risk to her Children”
- South Bend Tribune, 13 February, 1998 – “Child Abuser Tells What Led Him Astray
- South Bend Tribune, 4 February. 1998 – “Court to Rule on Fate of Missing Child’s siblings”
- Sturgis Journal, 21 August, 1999 – “missing Girl’s Mother Gives Up Parental Rights”
- Sturgs Journal, 17 September, 2015 – “Police: Beers Reward May Not be Valid”