Nearly five years after Erica Parsons was last seen, her diminutive skull and bones were delicately sifted by detectives from the red clay of upstate South Carolina, the final chapter of her short and ever-tragic life, an all-American horror story.
Erica – who was given up at birth to a family said to despise her – was found in deep, rural Chesterfield County, S.C., after her adoptive father told authorities where to find her, people close to the investigation told The Charlotte Observer.
Authorities in Rowan County, where the undersized and partially deaf girl lived a life of servitude and abuse, said they would announce details in coming days in a story that transfixed the region – and the nation – for years.
Erica’s decomposed remains, tugged from the soil in a remote area not far from where Sandy Parsons’ mother lived, has already been carried to the N.C. Medical Examiner’s Office and identified.
Sandy Parsons, the adoptive father of the missing girl, has recently begun talking to authorities about the case from prison, people with knowledge of the case confided to the Observer.
It is not known whether he has struck some kind of arrangement that could involve a plea deal if he testifies against his wife, Casey Parsons.
Authorities said late Thursday they learned in August that Erica was more than likely deceased, but did not elaborate on specifics.
Both Sandy Parsons and his wife were convicted last year of financial crimes that included cashing adoption assistance checks totaling more than $12,000 after her disappearance, and are both in federal prisons.
Sandy Parsons, 42, is serving eight years in a prison in Butner and his wife, Casey Parsons, 41, is serving 10 in Tallahassee, Fla.
Authorities said Erica’s remains were recovered by Rowan County detectives who were joined by agents from the FBI and N.C. State Bureau of Investigation.
David Marshburn, a Smithfield private investigator, was retained last year by a family member to help look for Erica's body.
Working on a tip, Marshburn said he examined an area near Pageland, S.C., in June, and was planning on organizing a large-scale search soon if other tips he was pursuing petered out.
Casey Parsons had always maintained that she gave Erica to the girl’s biological grandmother named “Nan” Goodman at a fast-food restaurant.
She had said during the investigation that Goodman – who authorities were never able to find – lived in a white house with two chimneys, a long front porch and a horse pasture beside it, Marshburn said.
When Marshburn and his lead investigator, Marsha Ward, went to explore the area, they saw a dwelling that eerily matched the description: two chimneys, long porch and a pasture with a couple of horses.
Only one thing – the house wasn’t white; it was brown.
Marshburn said that Sandy Parsons’ stepfather, who lives in the residence, told him that Casey Parsons always liked the house “but she thought it would be prettier white.”
Marshburn said the house was at least two miles down a dirt road from the main highway, a “very secluded” area, he said.
Timber had recently been harvested in the woods nearby, which Marshburn said makes searching difficult because the ground is disturbed and limbs and wood are strewn about.
Marshburn said he passed on the information about the tip and the house to the FBI and Rowan County authorities investigating Erica's case.
Food as punishment
After Erica’s disappearance, the Parsons both insisted in interviews – including a nationally televised grilling on “Dr. Phil” – that they had given the girl to a woman they believed to be her biological grandmother, Irene “Nan” Goodman of Asheville, handing her over at a McDonald’s and then never hearing from her again.
Home-schooled, developmentally disabled and isolated from other children, Erica lived a life of punitive discipline and degradation, according to federal court testimony in 2015.
Food was often withheld from her as punishment, her adoptive brother James Parsons testified. If Erica stole a cookie or something else to eat, she’d be fed canned dog food by Casey Parsons, he said, an event that would occur up to twice a month.
It was James Parsons who reported her missing on July 30, 2013 after a squabble with his parents.
He told investigators it had been more than a year and a half since anyone had seen her, sometime before Christmas 2011 when Erica was 13.
Raised by others
Erica was born Feb. 24, 1998, the daughter of Carolyn Parsons, who relinquished parental rights as did Erica’s biological father, Billy Dean Goodman.
Carolyn Parsons said she gave up the newborn because she couldn’t afford to raise her and didn’t want the child to struggle as she did, spending much of her childhood in foster care or homeless shelters.
Billy Goodman’s sister, Teresa Goodman, offered to take the baby, but she was told that other arrangements had been made for Erica.
“I would have raised her as my own child,” Goodman told the Observer. “To think she could have lived with us and been loved, truly loved.”
Erica went to live with her uncle, Sandy Parsons, and his wife Casey Parsons, when she was five months old. She was adopted by the couple in 2000.
When Erica’s picture flashed on her TV screen after the disappearance, Teresa Goodman recognized the family resemblance instantly. She had never met Erica or Sandy and Casey Parsons – who lived only a few miles away from her Salisbury home – but felt an instant and urgent connection to the girl.
Frustrated after years of mystery, she heard about Marshburn after he and his certified cadaver dog, Kaz, located the body of Kelli Bordeau, an Army combat medic, two years after she disappeared from Fayetteville in 2012.
Marshburn had befriended one of the suspects in the case, and finally persuaded him to lead him to woods where the woman was buried.
Once there, Kaz found the shallow grave.
Goodman felt drawn to Marshburn and called him about a month later. Marshburn agreed to take the case.
He told her he was adopted too, and waived his fees.
House of horrors
Rowan County child welfare authorities investigated allegations in 2004 that Erica was being abused. Casey Parsons told them that Erica had gone to live with one of her sisters. and the inquiry was apparently closed.
In March 2005, Erica returned to the Parsons home. She wasn’t enrolled in Rowan schools, but was to be home-schooled.
Erica would occasionally visit with her biological mother, Carolyn Parsons. Their last meeting came in January 2011 at the Whataburger grill on Main Street in Mooresville.
Erica, who spoke little that day, wore a cast and splint. She had fallen out of a tree, Casey and Sandy Parsons told her.
But testimony in the 2015 trial of the Parsonses for fraud drew a horrific picture of abuse directed at the girl who was virtually imprisoned – often sealed alone in a closet – in the family home.
James Parsons, the Parsons’ oldest biological son, said he and other children in the family routinely abused the girl, often at their mother’s urging. He once broke her arm, he said.
“I would hit her, physically abuse her, fists, belts,” he said under oath.
He said he abused Erica from the time he was age 5 and stopped when he was 16.
“I didn't want to hit her no more,” he said. “I couldn’t stand it.”
He said his mother encouraged the other children to abuse Erica, and he often saw Casey Parsons punished the girl with violence.
“She would beat her with a belt if she didn't listen,” he said. “Mama would bend her fingers back.”
His father, Sandy Parsons, would hit her with his fist on top of her head, James Parsons said. At one point, the girl developed a bald spot because of scabbing, he said.
Erica was often locked in a closet in the various homes the family lived in, he said.
Sometimes she was beaten for relieving herself on the floor, he said, while locked in.
Tara Cataldo, the FBI lead case agent on Erica’s disappearance, said investigators inspected the Parsons’ home on Miller Chapel Road near Salisbury in August 2013. They noticed holes in the wall beside a bedroom closet that seemed to be from an old eye-hook lock typically used to hold screen doors closed.
Carpet and wall board from the closet were sent to the FBI laboratory, and traces of Erica's blood and other DNA – believed to be from saliva or urine – were detected, she said.
Five photos of Erica were also recovered from a computer in the home, she testified – all of Erica, on different days, standing in a corner.
‘Like a zombie'
James Parsons told the court that the last time he saw Erica was in the autumn of 2011, when she was standing in a corner as punishment.
“She didn’t look too good – she looked like a zombie,” he testified. “She said she did not feel good. She said she could not breathe too good.”
Casey Parsons, he said, told the girl “to shut the f--- up.”
He said Erica was gone the next morning, and he never saw her again. His parents had left early that day, which was unusual.
When they came back, they told him Erica had gone to live with her biological grandmother.
Sister took Erica
Robin Ashley testified that her sister Casey Parsons did not bond with Erica in part because she despised Erica’s biological mother. “She couldn't stand to look at her face because she reminded her of Carolyn Parsons,” Ashley said.
Erica came to live with Ashley twice over the years.
One of those times, in the summer of 2004 when Erica was about 6, Ashley said she noticed that the girl was bruised on the backside. Casey Parsons had sent her away because she didn't want to hurt her anymore, Ashley said.
“She lost control,” Ashley said. “She didn’t want to end up killing Erica.”
Ashley said that Erica was treated like “a little slave.” Erica was made to stand in the corner for long periods as punishment.
She said Erica wasn’t allowed to play with other children at family gatherings because she was often being disciplined.
‘A little Cinderella’
Janet Parsons, Sandy Parsons’ stepmother and Casey Parsons' mother-in-law, testified that for a time in 2011, they all lived together in her China Grove home.
“Erica wasn’t treated as kindly as the others,” she said. “She had to do more chores. She was kind of like a little Cinderella – she had to do the chores.”
Janet Parsons said that Casey Parsons and the rest of her family once went to the beach, and Erica was left in the house alone.
Her grandfather found her hiding. She said she was told not to be seen while the others were at the beach.
After she was reported missing, Erica’s face went on billboards and her image was flashed nationwide on television.
Casey and Sandy Parsons were invited to Los Angeles for a taping of a “Dr. Phil” episode on the case.
They flew out west and went sightseeing the day before the show. On TV, they stuck to their story about giving to girl to “Nan,” whom they understood to be her biological grandmother.
But host Phil McGraw said other family suspected them in Erica’s disappearance.
“Your own people are pointing the finger at you,” he told them.
“I did not kill Erica,” Casey Parsons replied.
Sandy Parsons took a lie-detector test for the show. He was asked whether he caused Erica’s disappearance.
Result: Sandy Parsons said no. “Strongly deceptive,” said polygraph expert Jack Trimarco.
Rowan County deputies were joined by the FBI and other federal agencies in a widespread search for Erica.
At one point, authorities with search warrants tore up the back deck behind the Parsons house. Another search of the property turned up a collection of printed material about the JonBenet Ramsey murder in Colorado and the case of Susan Smith, who drowned her children in South Carolina.
A red wooden shed the Parsonses used was searched on the China Grove property of Sandy Parsons’ parents. Among the items retrieved: teeth and a hammer.
Authorities checked with every school district in the state to see whether the girl – who once had a special teaching plan drawn up for her because of hearing loss – had enrolled anywhere. She hadn’t. Nor did her Social Security number ever turned up in any Medicaid records nationally.
“There is an absolute absence of records about Erica Parsons, who has disabilities,” IRS agent Robert Norlander testifiedduring the fraud trail, “because she is dead.”
When it came time for U.S. District Thomas Schroeder to sentence Casey Parsons, he echoed the agent’s conclusion and issued a blistering condemnation:
“You and your husband did something horrible, horrible with her,” he said.
“What happened to her is known only to you and God. In the dark of the night, you did something to her.”