NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) – A 23-year-old mother crossed the state line and never returned home.
On June 1, 1996, Shawn Neal was supposed to meet someone at the Windy Shores II Condominium complex on South Ocean Boulevard in North Myrtle Beach. It would be the last time anyone would ever hear from the Leland, N.C. woman.
Her mother, Sandy Ames, was at home playing volleyball with her ex-husband and some friends when they got word of Neal’s death.
“It was hard to believe,” Ames said. “I mean, I always thought something might happen, but you never know. When your kids aren’t in your sight, it’s kind of hard.”
Ames remembers her daughter as being a popular member of her high school marching band who had a lot of friends. There were also family vacations to the beach that were a highlight of Neal’s childhood years.
As to who would want to hurt her daughter, Ames thinks it could have been related to her apparent line of work.
“I don’t really know what she did,” Ames said. “I guess she was an escort, but she never said escort.”
Offices found Neal’s body in the condominium, discovering she had been rendered defenseless and strangled.
Phil Webster, the former chief of police in North Myrtle Beach, was the first officer to arrive. The call started out as a welfare check.
Webster said there was no answer after he knocked on the condo’s door. Then, he saw that the door jamb was split. At that point, he went inside.
“I saw a shoe laying directly in front of me. As I recall a black … it was a high-heeled shoe laying right in front of me on the floor and something right then told me something was wrong,” Webster said. “I remember drawing my service weapon and then stepping slightly into the room as I announced my presence and I could see Miss Neal hanging from a doorknob down the hall towards the … what I think would be the master bedroom.”
Webster recalled that officers cleared the unit to make sure no one else was inside. They then canvassed the building, hoping that someone may have heard or seen something.
Investigators also searched nearby trashcans, hoping that some clue may have been thrown away. According to Webster, the department did develop some possible suspects in Neal’s death, but no arrests have been made.
“It’s hard knowing that he’s out there,” Ames said. “He could do it again. If you could do it once, you could do it again.”
Neal’s death also took a hard toll on Ames’ son, Troy, who turned to drugs to dull the pain. His downward spiral would again bring tragedy to the family.
“I was there when he shot himself,” Ames said. “That was hard. I heard him get up off the couch. I went in there and stood and he took a gun and just shot himself. He didn’t want to be here anymore.”
Ames’ marriage eventually ended, but she is currently in a relationship and maintains contact with her granddaughter, Kirsten Benninger, who was around 3 years old when her mother was killed.
Now 25, Benninger lives in Pittston, Penn. She said her mother’s death is kind of a blur and it was around the age of 18 when she started trying to find out what happened.
Growing up without a female role model, according to Benninger, was its own type of hardship.
“I never doubt that my father loved me and did the absolute best that he could, but there was just some things that, you know, as a man, he was never, you know, the best at doing,” she said. “And I never had that whole, like, somebody to go shopping with or do the whole hair and makeup thing with.”
After her father got remarried and she moved to Pennsylvania, Benninger lost contact with her mom’s side of the family for a long time. It was at the age of 14 that she reconnected with Ames, who she calls her angel.
For Ames, the years since Neal’s death have brought no new answers. She said it’s been years since she was last contacted about the case.
Neal’s death has also resonated with those who never knew her.
“It sticks out with me,” Webster said. “It stayed with me a long time after that, thinking what happened to her? Who did this? It would be nice to find out who did this to get some closure for the family.”
With both her children gone, what Ames has are memories of trips to the beach, working with her kids in the family’s bakery and receiving a ruby ring on Mother’s Day from both Shawn and Troy.
She keeps that ring in a jewelry box that has Neal’s initials on it.
As to whether someone will ever be held accountable for her mother’s death, Benninger has tempered her expectations as the years go by.
“At this point, what can you really do?” she said. “I would hope for justice, but I’ve made my peace with what I can make peace with and, you know, I just hope that, you know, they handle it and, you know, someday when they have to meet their maker, that’ll be the ultimate judgment.”
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