Crime & Courts

Police: Witnesses not truthful in disappearance of teacher Bianca Tanner, case upgraded to homicide

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police upgraded their search for a missing teacher to a homicide investigation Thursday, saying they don’t believe some witnesses are telling the truth about what happened to Bianca Tanner.

On Thursday, officers searched homes, a car and a creek near uptown Charlotte in an attempt to find Tanner, 31, who was reported missing Sunday afternoon. Investigators have expanded the search as far as Virginia and have enlisted the help of police in Greensboro, where Tanner lived before moving to Charlotte last month.

Police have not named a suspect in Tanner’s disappearance, but /Charlotte police Chief Rodney Monroe said there are inconsistencies in witness statements.

“Some of those we have interviewed, we do not believe they have been forthcoming with us,” Monroe said in an afternoon press conference. “We just don’t feel that this is a simple missing persons case.”

Tanner was reported missing by her boyfriend, Angelo Smith, around 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

Smith told investigators he last saw her around midnight Sunday when she walked out of his apartment on Druid Circle, about a mile north of uptown. Neighbors told police they heard the couple arguing.

Tanner’s sister, Cerise Richardson, said disappearing without contacting family or checking in on her 3-year-old son is out of character. Monroe said the boy is safe and with relatives.

“She would never leave her son for anything,” Richardson said. “If anyone has her, please let her go. We want her home so badly.”

A new start

Tanner moved to Charlotte on May 29 from Greensboro, where she had taught at Reedy Fork Elementary since 2007. She was working on a doctoral degree in education administration, according to her profile on the school’s website.

She had been living with Smith for two weeks, her sister said. A police report said she had been hired by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ Project LIFT, which seeks to improve educational opportunities for West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools.

“She was ready to pursue an advance in her career,” Richardson said. “She had been in Greensboro about 10 years. She was looking for change, new opportunities in a more metropolitan area.”

On Thursday, authorities focused their search on areas near Statesville Avenue, where the last signal from Tanner’s cellphone was recorded. Tanner’s bank card has not been used since her disappearance, Monroe said.

Around noon on nearby Double Oaks Road, about 15 officers combed abandoned houses, wooded areas and creeks. Around the corner on Statesville Avenue, the Fire Department’s dive team searched Irwin Creek while police officers scoured its banks.

Friends of Tanner’s from her alma mater, N.C. A&T University, and strangers have turned to social media for help.

Monroe said changing the case from a missing persons investigation to a homicide means officers can bring more resources.

On Thursday afternoon, the department raised the reward for information that leads to an arrest to $5,000.

Tumultuous relationship

Smith, who reported her missing, has faced several criminal charges in the past decade. All were dismissed.

Christopher Hamilton of Greensboro told the Observer that he dated Tanner last year. She accused him of stalking and trespassing in January. Those charges are pending.

In March, Tanner took out a temporary restraining order against Hamilton, writing: “He has repeatedly called my job; threatened me to damage my car. He threw a bottle at my residence balcony window.”

Richardson said her sister got the restraining order because Hamilton “had been aggressively pursuing her, sending her all types of messages, after she tried to distance herself from him.”

Hamilton said Thursday afternoon that he had not been interviewed by police and that he had nothing to do with Tanner’s disappearance. He said he was in Greensboro over the weekend and has been on the road for his job as a truck driver since Monday, making a delivery to Massachusetts.

Hamilton said the restraining order and the criminal charges were all the result of a misunderstanding with Smith, who didn’t want Tanner to remain friends with Hamilton.

Smith declined to comment to the Observer.

Hamilton said he and Tanner met in September and were friends for nearly five months, although he had hoped they would begin dating. Their relationship soured, he said, when she met Smith at N.C. A&T’s homecoming.

Hamilton said he grew angry over a debt that he said Tanner owed him. “I told her I just want my money and if I don’t get it, I’m slashing somebody’s tires.”

A few days later, Hamilton said he was served with a temporary restraining order and was facing charges. The order was not extended at a hearing eight days later.

But Richardson painted a different picture of her sister, a voracious reader who was ambitious, witty and had a good sense of humor.

Tanner knew from childhood that she wanted to be a teacher. “She really had a passion for it,” Richardson said.

“We were eating lunch at Chick-fil-A and one of her old students who is now in high school ran up and gave her the biggest hug and told her how much she loved her and how she was the best teacher she’d ever had.” Staff researcher Maria David and staff photographer Isabella Bartolucci contributed.