WAKE COUNTY - Yesterday marked the 15th anniversary of the murder of a 17-year-old beauty queen and dancer, who left her home in Goldsboro for Raleigh, with dreams of becoming a Broadway dancer. Beth-Ellen Vinson's parents begged her to wait until she finished high school, even promised her that if she graduated, they would set her up in apartment in New York and support her until she caught a break.
Fame couldn't wait. She hadn't been getting along with her mother and wanted to make her own rules, so she and some friends decided they would move to Raleigh and quickly save enough money to move to the city. Her friends got cold feet so Beth-Ellen went alone.
She lied about her age and signed on with an escort service, vowing that she would only dance for them, nothing else. Her dreams were short-lived - within
six weeks of moving to Raleigh, her car was discovered at 5:30 a.m. on a Monday morning, on a service road off Capital Boulevard. The radio was blaring, the
windows were down and her right shoe was on the floorboard.
By Monday afternoon, a feeling was starting to swell in the Raleigh Police Department that this involved more than just a missing girl, said John Lynch, one of the original detectives on the case. On the night she disappeared, she left the apartment she was staying at off Avent Ferry Road with plans to visit a client at a hotel on Capital Boulevard. Her car was abandoned about a mile and a half from the hotel.
Investigators spent hours interviewing Beth-Ellen's boyfriend, Rick Heath, as well as the client at the hotel, and were not able to eliminate either
of them as suspects. Her body was found a week later. A businessman who worked in a warehouse on Wicker Drive discovered the girl in a wooded ditch. She had
been stabbed more than 15 times and covered with a piece of cardboard; the site was less than a mile from where her car was found. It had rained every day
that week and temperatures topped 90
It took months, but police finally determined that Beth-Ellen never made it to the Innkeeper Motel to meet the client that night. Initially there was much
confusion on that point - the client had been on a binge of drinking, drugs and prostitutes. Several women had been called to his room over a 24-hour period
and from the outset he couldn't say whether he had ever seen Beth-Ellen.
As for Beth-Ellen's boyfriend, no physical evidence linked him to the crime, leaving many detectives speculating that Beth-Ellen crossed paths with the wrong stranger on the night she was killed.
A headstrong beauty queen
More than a decade has passed, and Bill and Penny Vinson still toss and turn at night wondering what happened to their daughter. They remain angry - angry at her killer, angry at her and angry at themselves. They wonder if they could have done anything to save their daughter. She was headstrong, and when she ran away that July they wanted her to learn for herself that life wasn't as easy as it seemed. She had an upper-middle-class upbringing and hadn't worked a day in her life. Everything had been easy for her, her parents said, and they blame themselves. Still, they were happy to provide for her and don't know, looking back, what they would have done differently.
Beth-Ellen was talented and was used to living her life in the center stage. She had studied dance with Gregory Hines and Savion Glover in New York City, and Gregory Hines had told Beth-Ellen that she had great potential. A former dancing colleague, Marisol Litzinger, maintains that her old friend likely would have found success as a professional dancer if she had lived long enough to give it a try. Despite her beauty and success, Beth-Ellen was privately insecure and feared no one liked her. Penny remembers her daughter crying and at times feeling isolated from her peers. It was the life she chose, Penny said, one where weekends were spent at recitals rather than parties. Beth-Ellen shunned the pop music of the day in favor of Broadway tunes and the Beatles. She loved John Lennon and was obsessed with Marilyn Monroe, and solemnly told her mother that she feared growing old. She wanted to be just like Marilyn, and die famous and young.
Not long after Beth-Ellen's 17th birthday, her life was turned upside down. It was Easter weekend, and she drove over to her friend's house in her Mustang convertible to go for a Sunday drive with the top down. She crashed the car and her friend Heather was seriously injured. Beth-Ellen changed after that, eventually rejecting her circle of friends for a new crowd, Penny remembers. She became more reclusive at home, started wearing different clothes and chopped her blond locks in favor of a short, dark hairstyle. By summer, she was defying her parents' rules. On a sunny July morning, she told her dad she was going outside to clean out her car and she drove away.
"Penny and I talked it over at length and we really, we came to the conclusion that the only way for her to come back and stay back is for her to
come back and stay back. In other words, we could go get her and drag her back but at the first opportunity we felt like she'd be gone again," Bill
said. "We felt like this was a real maturing process; it's something that she needed to go through, something that she needed to handle on her own.
I wish many times I had gone and got her back now."
The journey to Raleigh
Bill and Penny were uncomfortable about Beth-Ellen living in Raleigh, but their minds were somewhat eased because she was staying with a friend's step-uncle. At least she wasn't in Raleigh by herself. Rick Heath was a 21-year-old student at North Carolina State University and had attended Southern Wayne High School with Beth-Ellen. A relationship developed quickly, and Rick was soon telling family members that he had found his soul mate.
Family members and friends can only speculate whether Beth-Ellen would have stayed in Raleigh, moved to New York or returned home to finish high school. One thing is for sure - the escort service was quickly proving to be a disappointment for her. She wasn't making any money and, by the time she died, had still not paid the service's meager $10 registration fee.
Friends are convinced that Beth-Ellen was quickly disillusioned with the escort service business, and at points was frightened by the clientele and their expectations of her. She confided in a friend that she had been raped by a client, but police investigated the claim and weren't able to substantiate it.
Despite strong suspects from the outset, police find themselves 13 years later no closer to solving the murder than they were in the first few days after she was killed.
Investigators have a pretty clear idea about parts of Beth-Ellen's last night. They know she got a call from the escort service just before 2 a.m., and that she left about 30 minutes later for the Capital Boulevard Hotel. They know she pulled her car onto a service road just south of Interstate 440. They know someone took her from her, probably by force and certainly by car, and drove her about six-tenths of a mile to a secluded spot off Wicker Drive, where she was stabbed among the trees and left to die. Although it's impossible to say for sure because of how decomposed she was by the time she was discovered, police doubt she was sexually assaulted.
She didn't have many valuables with her that night, all but ruling out robbery as a motive. Still, police have never found her purse or three rings she had with her that night. Just last year, the FBI put Beth-Ellen's case in a national briefing they send to law enforcement across the country, and included composite sketches of the rings and purse.
The case has been the subject of college classes on how to work a murder investigation, and although John Lynch maintains a profound disappointment that it remains unsolved, he said he knows that he and others turned over every stone, and worked every lead they got.
Beth-Ellen's homicide has stumped investigators, but it has devastated her mother and father and two brothers, who pray that one day their daughter's killer will answer questions they've struggled with for years. More importantly, they pray that he will finally be made to answer for the murder he committed nearly 13 years ago. They know it won't bring her back, but it just may help them salvage a shattered sense of justice.