AYDEN, N.C. (WNCT) On September 11, 1973, 21-year-old Sheila Brown was found dead in the woods off Pleasant Plain Road in Ayden.
Her pants and shoes were 75 yards away, her shirt still on but pushed up leaving her chest exposed.
Drag marks show she had apparently been dragged about 100 yards down a path.
Tire tracks also led up to the scene leading investigators to believe she was dumped at this location either unconscious or already dead.
The case was opened as a murder-rape but closed as a natural-cause death less than a week later.
It’s been 46 years and investigators and family members are still asking: What happened to Sheila Brown?
In the 1970s, racial tension was still high in Ayden, North Carolina and the Ku Klux Klan was still very active.
Despite this, some white men had somewhat of a pension for young black women and would pick them up and sometimes engage in sexual behavior.
It’s been said that some white police officers also took part in this behavior.
What we know:
Sheila Brown visited her grandmother in Ayden every summer and was visiting from New York with her three-year-old daughter, Iris, during the time of the incident. Brown was born in Ayden but had been a resident of New York for the six years leading up to her death.
While visiting Ayden that summer, Brown went for a night out with her sisters and her best friend on September 10, 1973. The initial police report shows they were at a juke-joint called Club 101 in Ayden when Brown stepped out to get some air.
After a period of time, Brown’s friend and sisters went to look for her as she had yet to return.
They were surprised to find that Brown was nowhere in sight.
In the early morning hours after the club area was closed down, they all were worried and went at sat on a bench hoping that she would show up.
According to the report, they were stunned because she had never taken off with someone without letting them know she was going to ride off with someone.
The girls said this behavior was very unlike her.
Eventually, they went home and later that day, the friend came by in the early afternoon hours to see if she had perhaps gotten home but she had not.
At that point, they knew that something was terribly wrong.
The next day, September 11, 1973, Sheila Brown was found dead in the woods posed in a degrading, grotesque position with her legs spread wide apart.
Brown was unclothed except for her shirt and the rest of her clothes were found dozens of yards away.
The case was opened as a rape-murder.
An investigation was conducted and an autopsy performed and within a week, the case was closed as a natural cause of death.
In 2015, Sheriff Paula Dance, Detective Dance at that time, was presented with the case file and decided to re-open the case because she thought something wasn’t right.
The initial investigation:
The owner of the land Brown was found one called the police to report the body.
A crime scene was set up by the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) and photos were taken of the body, the clothes, the tire tracks, the drag marks and anything else pertaining to the alleged crime.
On Thursday, September 13, 1973, an autopsy was ordered and a few days later, the autopsy results came back showing no signs of foul play, but also did not show a definite cause of death.
According to Sheriff Dance, no swabs were performed on the body.
The autopsy did show that Brown was intoxicated at the time of death, but not at a lethal level.
Officers told Brown’s family that she died from cirrhosis of the liver, but they believed this was just an excuse.
Iris Brown, Sheila’s daughter, says there’s no way her mother had cirrhosis of the liver.
“My grandmother used to come down here every year and go to the police station and ask ‘have you found out who killed my daughter yet?’, said Iris Brown. “They would tell her the case was labeled natural causes. And she would say ‘no, my daughter did not die at age 21 from cirrhosis of the liver…at 21.’ She wasn’t sick and they told me if she had cirrhosis of the liver, she would have been sick.”
In order to have cirrhosis of the liver, typically, one must be a heavy drinker for at least a decade, sometimes more.
Brown was 21, recently had a child and according to friends and family wasn’t a very heavy drinker.
Somethings don’t add up:
A rape-murder case being closed as a natural cause death raised red flags when Sheriff Dance re-opened the case in 2015.
She reached out to people involved in the case such as the lead investigator.
He told her he got a confession in the case and put his notes in the file, but Sheriff Dance was in possession of the file and she says there was nothing about a confession.
“He gave me a story that did not mesh,” said Sheriff Dance.
This fact along with the racial tension at the time of the case has Iris Brown and many others believing law enforcement could have been involved.
“I located people who remembered this case from back in that time and amazingly most of the people say that their conversations and information led them to believe that the person who perpetrated this crime could have been related in the law enforcement field,” said Sheriff Dance.
The lead investigator later took a job at another Sheriff’s department in the state. There he was charged with rape and sent to prison in an unrelated matter.
2015 brings a new lead:
During Sheriff Dance’s 2015 investigation, she received approval to exhume Sheila Brown’s body from the family plot at South View Cemetery in Kinston but she ran into a problem.
“We could not identify which grave was hers,” said Sheriff Dance. “There was no headstone no marker. During that time, records were not kept by the gravesite.”
This brought hopes and dreams of an answer for Brown’s family crashing down.
“That hurt more than anything right there,” said Iris Brown. “Because when they talked about exhuming her body, I got so excited because of the new DNA evidence I was like we’re going to finally know who did this. And then to me, because it’s a technicality of not knowing which grave is hers.”
With this, leads ran out.
The drag marks in the woods were consistent with a person with legs relatively closed who was not fighting.
According to Sheriff Dance and as you can see in the photo, there were no gaps in the marks as there would be if someone was kicking their feet while being dragged.
This leads Sheriff Dance and others to believe Brown was already unconscious or dead while being dragged through the woods.
Brown’s body showed no bruises on her wrists or otherwise and no signs of trauma, so one could assume she did not fight or struggle.
Sheriff Dance said according to interviews she conducted, Brown was feisty and would have fought had she been in a dangerous situation and able to.
Due to the tire tracks, the drag marks and the lack of bruising, several theories came about as to what happened to Brown.
“The evidence pretty much shows that it was likely she was probably raped in a car or in a vehicle. There are tire tracks that were there that would substantiate that,” said Sheriff Dance. “The drag marks from when she was dragged from the car would be consistent with a person that was either unconscious or deceased at that time because there was no interruption in the drag marks of the legs or the feet. So there’s no digging into the dirt to try to fight. And the drag marks would have been consistent with drag marks being closed essentially. But as shes found, her legs are grotesquely positioned apart.”
None of these theories has been proven.
It is believed that the perpetrator threw her clothes out of the car due to them being 75 yards away from her mostly naked body.
To this day, no one knows for sure what went on that fateful September night in 1973.