08/15/04 — Beth-Ellen murder remains unsolved

View Archive

Beth-Ellen murder remains unsolved

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 15, 2004 7:28 AM

The 1994 murder case of 17-year-old Beth-Ellen Vinson remains unsolved.

Her parents say they have come a long way in coping with the loss of their youngest child, but the pain is still there.

Monday marks the 10-year anniversary of her disappearance. A rising senior at Southern Wayne High School with aspirations to be a dancer, her life took a series of missteps when she moved to Raleigh and attempted to make enough money for her career pursuit.

She found work with an escort service. On the day of her disappearance, she reportedly left her apartment at 2:30 a.m. bound for a hotel where she was to dance for a client of the service. She never arrived.

Her car was found at about 5:30 a.m. in front of a car dealership on Capital Boulevard, a few blocks from the hotel where she was expected. The driver's door of her car was open, and the radio was playing.

Her right shoe and purse were inside the car.

One week later, on the morning of Aug. 23, her body was found covered in cardboard in a ditch behind a business about a half-mile away from where her car had been. She had been stabbed numerous times.

Large portraits of her still adorn the entryway and den of her parents' home in the Grantham community.

Bill and Penny Vinson say some would probably have preferred that the pictures were put away and conversations about Beth-Ellen stop. But for the mother and father who have outlived the life of the daughter they brought into the world, that isn't going to happen.

"We don't regret Beth-Ellen's life," Mrs. Vinson said. "We regret losing her. But it wasn't a life that can be forgotten."

She says her daughter touched a lot of people in her brief life. She remembers her as a dancer and a beauty queen, but also one who at times was tortured by thoughts that no one liked her.

"She told us that she had no friends, that no one liked her at school," she said. "I can't tell you how many times she cried because no one liked her. And yet, at the funeral, the church was filled with young people."

She credits the grace of God, her family and her church family with providing comfort in the early days after the loss.

"I don't know how people get through a tragedy without a church family," she said. "They're God's moral support.

"They come in and take over your house, making sure you eat and everything is put away and the phones are answered. They just take care of things. That's what family does."

Going out in public proved difficult, though. Mrs. Vinson said she would see people in the grocery store and make eye contact, only to have the person quickly look away. She said she felt as uncomfortable at times as those she encountered.

"The first time we went out to eat, we felt like everybody was looking at us," she said. "We felt so conspicuous, like we shouldn't be there. Our daughter was just killed.

"They probably weren't thinking anything at all, but it felt like they looked at us like, 'their daughter was just murdered; they shouldn't be eating out.'"

As hard as things got, she says, she found it much easier to deal with her own pain than that of her husband's. While she is an outwardly emotional person, she called Bill a straight-line person who feels deeply but doesn't always show it.

"You're angry first of all because somebody did this to your child," she said. "You're dealing with another kind of anger because you're angry with her for putting herself in a situation when you knew that was the wrong place for her in the first place.

"But you're angry with yourself. What else could I have done? What if I had said so and so or hadn't said so and so? Was it my fault?"

And then, she says, guilt sets in. Her attention turned to her husband.

She said the thought, "Does he blame me for Beth-Ellen being killed?" ran through her mind.

"You can actually start doubting your relationship," she said.

Such doubts and fears could have splintered the couple and the family, or at the very least polarized everyone.

"We were two different people trying to deal with the same tragedy in two different ways," she said. "Because he gave me my space and I gave him his space, we're stronger for it.

"I think now we can face anything that comes our way."

Not that the couple didn't consider moving away from the home where their daughter's laughter still echoed.

"On the day of the funeral," she said, "we were sitting in the swing out back before we left, and Bill said, 'Do you want to let's sell the house? There's too many memories here.'

"I said, 'I don't want to sell the house because I love those memories.' A lot of people make a lot of mistakes by making those decisions in the first year. We never talked about it since."

Something else happened that day that proved helpful. Before leaving for the funeral, a man they recognized but did not know knocked at their door.

"He said he had had a very difficult time trying to find out where we lived, but that he had to come and talk to us because his son had been killed, too," Mrs. Vinson recalls. "'I know how you feel,' he said.

"Our house was full of mourners but not one of them that was here could relate to us like he could."

It was then that Vinson told his wife, "Now you know what we have to do."

The couple became very involved in the support group Parents of Murdered Children. They have worked hard to help others who have experienced similar losses.

Mrs. Vinson says she prefers to talk about her daughter's life and not her brutal death. She said the summer Beth-Ellen left home was a bad time that she prefers not to dwell on.

"Basically, our standards were the same for all of our three children," she said. "Beth-Ellen chose to rebel and to listen more to friends than to us, so we can't really blame ourselves.

"Of course, we have and still do, but if we were to have it all to do over, there's not one 'no' that we would do over."

Mrs. Vinson said she is often told by people, "I don't know how you do it."

"I'm sure that they're thinking that they wouldn't be able to," she said. "But you get through it because God holds you up. All the chaos, all the heartache and all the mourning, there's a peace that only God can give that allows you to do what you need to do."

She says she will probably always grieve for the loss of her child. She says she feels it would be unfair to Beth-Ellen if she didn't think of her every day.

But it is no longer the first thing that crosses her mind when she wakes in the morning or the last thing before she goes to sleep.

"Everything still reminds me of her but the thoughts are not as haunting," she said. "I might have an hour a day that I don't think of her."

She said her husband once skeptically asked her, "What's this 'closure' that everybody talks about? Will it bring my daughter back?'"

He says now he doesn't think there is any getting through it or getting over it.

"You just learn to live with it," he said.

Even so, wouldn't they prefer to see the case solved by police?


"Beth-Ellen deserves that," her mother says.

"The person that left my daughter on a ditchbank with 28 stab wounds should be punished," adds her husband.

Mrs. Vinson said that even if the person were punished, it would not be as violent as what her daughter experienced. But that is not why she wants things resolved.

She says for her it is like trying to find the final piece to a puzzle.

"You can't quit until it's finished," she said. "If there's a piece missing, you're going to tear the house apart to find it. You have done the puzzle; you know it's solved but there's a piece missing.

"There's someone walking around who brutally murdered a 17-year-old girl. He may even have a family of his own. But if he's caught and publicly admonished for what he's done, the puzzle will be finished."

The Vinsons will not give up hope that one day enough answers will come to put the "cold case" to rest.

"Lt. Chris Morgan (of the Raleigh Police Department) has done an excellent job and it was a cold case when he took over," Mrs. Vinson said. "Someone else will come along down the road, but this case is going to be solved in God's timing and not in our time."