A massive pet peeve for some parents can often be persuading their children to take up practical hobbies and do something more productive with their time instead of gazing endlessly at the television screen. However, that certainly wasn’t the case when it came to 11-year-old Heaven LaShae Ross from Northport, Alabama.
Heaven excelled in playing the trombone and it was something she absolutely adored doing. She could have been a professional one day and her mother never had to encourage her. Heaven’s family and friends affectionately gave her the nickname Shae. She had fiery red-hair and hazel-eyes and she most certainly wasn’t afraid of getting down and dirty with the boys. She could often be found romping around at the nearby creek with the neighbourhood kids.
Just because she was considered a tomboy by those who knew her and wasn’t afraid of a little mud, that doesn’t mean that she didn’t also enjoy the more feminine things that the world had to offer such a young girl. The Halloween before, she had dressed up as a cheerleader and had recently started to recall her daily activities and feelings in her bright pink diary. She delightedly wrote about the boy down the road who she had a crush on and how much she loved her big sister. Her bedroom was decorated with butterfly stickers. 1
On the morning of 19 August, 2003, Shae left her home at Willowbrook Trailer Park, in Northport, Alabama, to walk the short distance to the bus stop on Hunter Creek Road. It was approximately 6:55AM when she departed, school backpack in tow.
Shae was a pupil at Collins-Riverside Middle School and she lived at home with her mother, Beth Lowery, her stepfather, Kevin Thompson, and her 13-year-old sister, Alex. Moments after she left, thunder came crashing down. Her stepfather decided that he would drive Shae and her sister, Alex, to school. He didn’t want them getting caught in the storm that was fast approaching. As he went outside to call Shae back, she was nowhere to be seen.
A neighbour later reported that she had seen Shae that morning at approximately 7:00AM on Creek Road, which is the road that the bus stop is situated on. She said that it appeared as though Shae was making her way toward the bus stop but she never made it to the bus. Beth immediately assumed that something perilous must have happened to Shae because it was far too out of character for her to run away from home or even play truant from school.
Shae was a home bird. In fact, shortly before her disappearance, she had planned on staying at her grandmother’s in Gulf Shores for three weeks but after just three days, she came back home because she was homesick.
Beth immediately called the police to report Shae missing, but much to her dismay, police refused to issue an Amber alert, claiming there was no evidence of a kidnapping. This was a case of a missing person as opposed to a kidnapping, they insisted: “We can’t call it abduction because if anyone saw it, they haven’t told us,” announced Northport police Sgt. Kerry Card. 2
Instead of issuing an Amber alert, police conducted door-to-door checks on the trailer park, asking if anybody had seen anything out of the ordinary. Shae was described as being 4’6” and weighing 80 pounds. Her tender age should have been cause for concern but alas, one couldn’t help but feel as though police seemed disinterested. On the day of her disappearance, she left the house wearing a hot pink Bratz t-shirt with some matching capri pants and baby blue suede tennis shoes.
Despite the lack of enthusiasm on the police’s part, the initial response from the community was immense, with the case attracting national attention. Winn-Dixie in Northport donated yellow ribbons for the volunteers in the search for Shae to wear. Olive Garden and K-mart provided food for the enthusiastic search parties, while Kinko’s, Office Max, and Kwik Kopy printed out fliers to be distributed with Home Depot donating the ink.
The U.S. Postal Service participated in a new program referred to as the Deliver Me Home Network. Mail carriers delivered over 16,000 fliers containing information regarding the disappearance of Shae to local residences and businesses. 3
Shae’s photograph was broadcast on a large screen during a University of Alabama football game at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Texas-based Laura Recover Center, which is an organization that helps search for missing children, sent 60 of their members to Northport to offer assistance. The reward for information climbed up to a hefty $70,000.
If effort alone was enough to bring Shae back then there is no doubt that she would have come home one hundred times over.
For several weeks following her disappearance, volunteers were proactive in the search for Shae and gave up as much of their free time as possible. However, things eventually turned sour when volunteers got into a dispute with Shae’s family. Beth Lowery claimed that the leader of one volunteer group stole $500 that was donated by a church while volunteers accused the family of not actively helping them search for Shae. The apparent theft was something that Pam Channell, the head of the volunteers, staunchly denied, saying that had cashed all of the donated cheques and handed the money directly to Beth.
Police were called to a squabble that had erupted at the volunteer center. Soon, as is the case with many disappearances, the family fell under a cloud of suspicion. There was no denying that the family certainly didn’t live a picturesque lifestyle and they certainly wouldn’t ever be awarded with family of the year. In 2000, Shae was listed as a witness when Kevin was charged with harassment following a domestic dispute. As Shae had attempted to run for help, Kevin threw her to the ground. Nevertheless, Beth was adamant that Kevin and Shae had a very close bond: “They did everything together,” she asserted. 4
In an attempt to alleviate the mistrust the community was feeling towards them, Kevin and Beth both took a lie detector test, with both passing. Beth declared that she thought the reason they fell under such scrutiny and were looked down upon was because they were an interracial couple, living in a trailer park.
The month after she disappeared, on the 18th of September, police announced that they had picked up 21-year-old Evin Ryland for questioning. Evin was a friend of Shae’s older brother, Blake. In the past, Evin had harbored runaways and on one occasion, even helped Blake hide out when he ran away from home. When police eventually tracked Evin down, he was harboring two 16-year-old runaways. Police announced that he wasn’t a suspect and just wanted to speak to him because he was somebody of interest. He did know the family and certainly engaged in seedy activity involving underage teenagers, after all. He was soon ruled out as a suspect.
By the following week, the Ross family was subjected to even more misery when an inexplicable early-morning fire erupted in their trailer. Confined to Shae’s bedroom, it destroyed much of her possessions. Investigators could not determine how the fire started but they ruled it as suspicious.
As winter approached, Beth brought Shae Christmas presents and lay them under the Christmas tree in the hopes that she would return in time to open them. Christmas came and went and police were still no closer to figuring out what happened to Shae than they were when she first disappeared. As her birthday rolled around on the 11th of June, her family released balloons featuring Shae’s photograph, but the day was tarnished by heartache and longing for her return. It was challenging to remain optimistic when police still had no suspects. Every few weeks, police would receive a promising phone call from a concerned citizen who was adamant that they had spotted Shae. These calls came from countrywide and while they gave everybody a brief boost of morale, they all turned out to be false flags.
For the next three years, the Ross family held on to the hope that Shae would one day be found safe and sound. She could finally open all of the birthday and Christmas presents that her mother had accumulated over the years she was gone, they hoped.
This hope was obliterated when her skeletal remains were found stuffed into the crawl space of an abandoned house in Holt on 19 December, 2006. A man discovered her remains when he was walking his dog. He told police that his dog had ran off and scurried into the tight crawlspace of the abandoned house, which is where he discovered Shea.
Lying beside her remains, nestled among trash and smashed bottles, was Shae’s school backpack. The area, which was along a dirt road just eight miles from Willowbrook Trailer Park, was known to be a magnet for antisocial activity as well as prostitution. Police never released her cause of death, but did confirm that she had been murdered. It seems reasonable that, after three years in the harsh Alabama weather, her corpse would have been far too decomposed for a cause of death to be determined. Exposure to the elements made it impossible for any DNA or fingerprints to be lifted from her body.
Just a few months before the somber discovery, the family had held a vigil for Shae at the trailer park where they still resided. They released a number of balloons bearing a photograph of Shae: “We’re hoping that the balloons will just reach somebody that knows something about what happened to my daughter,” Beth said. 5 Shae’s funeral took place at Wills Funeral Service Chapel on the 23rd of December with more than 130 people attending to pay their final respects.
After three long and harrowing years, the grim, albeit long-suspected, outcome at least provided some answers and gave family and friends closure. However, at the same time, the discovery raised even more questions. Why was Shae killed? Was Shae killed by someone she knew? Did Shae accept a ride from a friendly face to avoid the approaching ominous weather? These are questions that the whole town of Northport have mulled over the years and continue to contemplate today. Her disappearance featured on several television shows, including America’s Most Wanted, and the generated dozens of leads, but as of yet, none of those leads ever panned out.
What really happened on that stormy day in 2003, remains a macabre mystery to everybody other than Shae and the person who took her life.
If you have any information about the murder of Heaven LaShae Ross, please call the Northport Police Department at (205) 339-6600.