Mystery of Charlotte woman missing since 1965 leads former Atlanta police detective to Mount Holly

At 81, retired Atlanta police detective Ray Pate stays on the Internet – a pastime that’s leading him to Mount Holly on the trail of a Charlotte woman who disappeared nearly 50 years ago.

Maybe it’s a wild goose chase, but the veteran lawman still feels compelled to dig deeper into the infamous “Case of the Missing Bride.”

Mary Shotwell Little, 25, a secretary at the Citizens & Southern Bank in downtown Atlanta, had been married for six weeks when she vanished on Oct. 14, 1965. The Myers Park High School graduate had dinner with a friend that evening at Lenox Square shopping mall in the upscale Buckhead district. After the meal and a little shopping, she headed for her car.

What happened next remains a mystery.

In the mall parking lot, police found Little’s 1965 Mercury Comet with bloodstains and a set of women’s undergarments inside.

That November, investigators announced that Little’s signature was on gasoline credit card receipts from purchases made in Charlotte early on Oct. 15, the day she was reported missing, and later that afternoon in Raleigh.

The unsolved case became the stuff of legend in Atlanta.

Today, the Internet teems with theories about what became of Little. And there’s also speculation about a possible connection between her case and the murder 18 months later of Diane Shields, a 22-year-old woman who worked in the same bank and had lived with some of Little’s roommates.

About a year ago, Pate stumbled on a 2010 blog post from Susan Carpenter Scott, an attorney who has investigated the Little and Shields cases on her own. Scott had obtained law enforcement records that included a 1966 interview FBI agents conducted with a Georgia prison inmate who confessed to involvement with what may have been the Little case.

The man, who has since died, spun a complex story about how two other men in Atlanta told him about kidnapping a woman, taking her to a small green house with a wrap-around porch in Mount Holly and later killing her. He said the men told him someone paid them $5,000 each to abduct a girl named Mary, but he gave no further details.

In a recent newspaper article, Pate saw a photo of a house in Mount Holly that matched the description given by the inmate. Even though Pate later learned the house has been demolished, he’s made two trips to the eastern Gaston County town and plans to return.

“God has given me an order to work on this thing and try to solve it,” Pate said on a recent stop in Mount Holly. “I’ve got to come here. What else have I got to do?”

A spokesman for the Atlanta Police Department said that as recently as January of this year an investigator reviewed the Little file and validated her as an official missing person. Also, he said that in 2009-2010, a missing persons investigator in the department’s homicide unit did a full review of the case, but “unfortunately, no progress in the case was made.”

Little’s family declined to comment on Pate’s efforts.

Monica Caison, founder of the Wilmington-based CUE Center for Missing Persons, thinks older cold cases like Little’s are “very solvable.”

“I see so many missing persons found by accident,” she said. “And I see how things come together by being in the right place at the right time. Cases are being solved all the time from way back in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.”

Now an attorney in Prescott, Ariz., Scott was a resident of Macon, Ga., when she started looking into the unsolved Little and Shields cases.

“I’m an investigator at heart,” Scott said.

To her surprise, she said a clerk in the Atlanta city legal department provided copies of a 600-page report on the Little case. Scott posted much of the material online, including the FBI’s 1966 interview with the prison inmate. She said that although agents concluded the inmate’s story wasn’t credible, she feels otherwise.

“Something inside me tells me it was true,” Scott said. “He told so many details.”

She’s encouraged by Pate’s probing into the case.

“I think it’s awesome,” Scott said. “I’m hoping someone out there is still alive who can tell something. I wish Mr. Pate the best of luck. This case needs to be solved.”

A Wilmington native, Pate joined the Atlanta Police Department in 1960. He remembers the Little and Shields cases, but didn’t work on the investigations. After retiring from the department in 1985, he ran an office supply store and real estate office.

Pate’s wife of 54 years died in 2013. Disabled by a stroke, he spends much of his time on the Internet. His granddaughter helped him log onto Scott’s blog and include a message with his email address.

Meanwhile, he is focused on Mount Holly. A caretaker drives Pate, who lives in McDonough, Ga., there and he rides around town looking for anything that might might prove or disprove the prison inmate’s story.

“If I can’t prove the inmate’s story I can’t prove anything else,” Pate said.

In the FBI interview, the inmate mentioned a large rock near the house the woman was allegedly in and said he could hear a train whistle in the distance. Pate found a big rock near the location of the house pictured in the newspaper article he’d read.

“I’ve got a lot of smoke,” Pate said of the case. “There may be a a little heat. But I don’t see any fire yet.”

For as long as he’s able, he’ll keep coming back, retracing his steps, looking for something he might have missed.

“I’m taking one little piece at a time,” Pate said. “I’ll never leave Mount Holly. Not until I solve this case. After I’m gone, I hope somebody else takes the ball and rolls with it.” Researcher Maria David contributed to this story.