For three frustrating, fruitless years, authorities hunted for Erica Parsons – using computers, search warrants, tracking dogs.
Their unexpected break came only this summer, the path to her body materializing from a federal prison in Butner.
It was there that Sandy Parsons – the adoptive father of the girl whose 13 years on Earth were spent in harsh servitude and gruesome exploitation – reached out to authorities through an intermediary.
He had completed a year of his eight-year term for fraud, sentenced for cashing Erica’s adoption support checks long after she disappeared. His wife, Casey Parsons, is serving 10 years on the same crime in a federal prison in Tallahassee, Fla.
It is not known whether Sandy Parsons gave in to heartfelt guilt or hoped to build a bargaining position from prison. Kevin Auten, the Rowan County sheriff, said Monday that no plea deal has been struck, no promises made.
But in July, Auten said, a line of communication was opened with Parsons.
Parsons was assigned to the federal correctional center north of Durham in part, say those familiar with the case, because authorities wanted to keep him close should a break in the case ever develop.
Family members have said that his wife was the dominant partner in the marriage. “Sandy will do what Casey tells him to do,” their son James Parsons testified at the Parsons’ 2015 federal trial.
But once free of his wife’s influence, Sandy Parsons – who has a fifth-grade education – began acting more independently, say those familiar with the case.
Erica Parsons was reported missing in July 2013 by James Parsons, her adoptive big brother, after he had a quarrel with his parents. He said late 2011 was the last time he saw Erica, who was developmentally disabled and ever the target of harsh punishment from her adoptive mother.
He testified that the last night he saw her, the girl was standing in the corner, a frequent punishment, and appeared unwell. “She looked like a zombie,” he said.
“She told my parents she did not feel good. She said she could not breathe too good.”
His mother, Jamie Parsons said, told the child “to shut the f--- up.”
Her face went on billboard, posters and national TV after the search for her began. Casey and Sandy Parsons said they had given the girl to her maternal grandmother, a woman called Nan Goodman who they met through Facebook.
Authorities could find no such woman, and confirmed Erica’s real maternal grandmother had died years earlier.
Federal agencies, including the FBI and IRS, became involved in the case. National data bases were scoured to see whether Erica’s Social Security numbers – she had two, not unusual in adoption cases – ever appeared in Medicaid or any other records.
No school system in the state had any record of her enrolling after her disappearance. Even Department of Motor Vehicle records were checked in all 50 states after she would have turned 16 to see if she’d ever gotten a license or a ticket. No trace.
Focus on parents
Armed with search warrants, authorities went through the Parsons’ home on Miller Chapel Road near Salisbury. An FBI evidence team found a closet where the girl would be imprisoned for long stretches of time and found her DNA – either from saliva or urine – on the floor.
In August 2013, A storage shed the Parsons used on the China Grove property of Sandy Parsons’ father was searched. Found inside: human teeth and a hammer.
In October 2013, for two days, police dogs searched the grounds of the Miller Chapel Road house and other places in Rowan County known to the Parsons. Nothing of note was found.
Sheriff Auten said an investigative strategy developed where Rowan County deputies would lead the missing persons case, and the FBI would pursue the fraud charges.
Three months after the Parsons were sentenced in March 2015 for fraud, a review of the case was conducted by Rowan Sheriff’s Lt. Chad Moose.
By then, authorities were all but certain Erica was dead. They began preparing for a possible homicide case – even without her body.
Break in the case
This summer, Sandy Parsons told a relative that he was trying to work out a deal with prosecutors.
He boasted that Erica’s body would never be found without him. She was buried in a place where hikers, hunters and wandering children would be unlikely to find her.
Investigators checked old wells and looked for possible graves around China Grove, near the Parsons old house, and elsewhere in Rowan County. Nothing of note was found but a dialogue with Sandy Parsons continued.
In August, investigators learned Erica was indeed dead – and had been for a long time – and turned their attention to remote land near Pageland, S.C., not far from where Sandy Parsons’ mother lived, and an area that he knew well.
Several trips were made by teams of FBI and Rowan investigators, but the grave was not pinpointed.
On Sept. 27, Sandy Parsons was taken to the area and led authorities down a remote road to a small mound shaded by pines.
He was driven away, back to prison. A team went to work that included investigators from Rowan County, the FBI, the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation, the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division and the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office.
For nearly 10 hours, they gathered clues and lifted Erica’s skeleton from the soil. Many of those present, Auten said, have children of their own.
Their careful, deliberate ministrations appeared to be one of the few traces of dignity directed toward the girl in life – or death.
They found the remains just yards from a desolate, earthen path in a shallow grave. Whoever disposed of Erica hadn’t carried her small body very far and hadn’t dug very deep.