For four long decades, the chilling mystery of 51-year old Elma Lee Defee’s murder has cast a shadow over Florence County, South Carolina. On a gorgeous spring day in 1983, the mother of five left her job at a local sporting goods store – driving her 1972 Chevy Impala with her husband in the car immediately behind her.
It was a seemingly ordinary day, with DeFee running an unexpected late afternoon errand prompted by a phone call from a nearby florist.
On May 24, 1983, Defee was working at Irby Street Sporting Goods store when she received a call from the Palmetto Floral Shop. The florist wanted to let her know the arrangement she recently ordered for a relative in the hospital couldn’t be delivered because the relative had been discharged. Elma told the florist she would drop by and pick the flowers up so she could deliver them in person.
Her husband – Morrell Defee – had just picked her car up that day from the repair shop and agreed to meet her at the sporting goods store at 4:40 p.m. There was no time to waste. The flower shop closed at 5:00 p.m. so she quickly swapped cars with him and turned left – heading northbound on South Irby Street. Morrell was behind her in his car and followed her for almost a mile-and-a-half. That’s when she turned left onto Elm Street to take the back way to the flower shop. The two – married for 33 years – waved at each other as she made the left-handed turn.
Morrell Defee – headed to a nearby filling station – proceeded northbound on South Irby. He never saw his wife again.
Around 8:00 p.m., Morrell Defee phoned the couple’s five children and told them Elma had not returned home as expected. As Elma was a creature of habit, the family immediately became alarmed and contacted the Florence County Sheriff’s Office (FCSO) – which initiated a search.
Over the coming days and weeks, the results of that search gradually came into focus.
On May 26, 1983, just two days after she disappeared, Elma’s car was located in the back parking lot of a dental office on the 400 block of West Cheves Street – just around the corner from the florist’s shop. The driver’s side door of the Impala was unlocked and the interior of the vehicle appeared undisturbed. After it was located, investigators asked Elma’s daughter to sit in the car as they were similar in height. According to her daughter, the seat was pushed as far back as it could go and there was no way Elma could have reached the pedals to drive it. Investigators canvassed the neighborhood around where the car was found to no avail.
On June 1, 1983, Elma’s purse was discovered near a dumpster outside of the Big Star grocery store — now the Harris Teeter — located on West Palmetto Street. Inside the purse, Elma’s identification and other personal belongings were recovered – apparently untouched. Later that same week, investigators found Elma’s eyeglasses. They were being worn by a known “dumpster scavenger,” according to former FCSO sheriff Billy Barnes. According to Barnes, this scavenger admitted to finding the purse in the dumpster and removing the glasses for his own personal use prior to abandoning the purse.
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Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) ran forensic tests on the evidence deputies found – but nothing useful was revealed.
In late June – scarcely a month after Elma’s disappearance – tragedy struck the Defee family once again. Fifty-four-year old Morrell Defee – who had been cleared by the police in connection with his wife’s disappearance – died suddenly of a heart attack. He had recently retired from his position as manager of the same store where Elma was working and had a history of heart problems. His wife’s disappearance added heartbreak to a heart that was already stressed. On a Wednesday morning at a hunting property while with his son, Eddie, and some friends, his heart simply gave out.
His last moments were shrouded in the uncertainty of his beloved wife’s fate.
“The person who killed our mom is guilty of not only one murder, but also guilty of our dad’s death,” Morrell and Elma’s daughter, Gail McFee Hubbard, told the Florence Morning News in 2003.
After Morrell’s death, the investigation continued and on November 6, 1983, Elma’s body was finally discovered near Lowthers Lake in Darlington County. Investigators noted she was still wearing all of her jewelry – indicating that robbery was not the likely motive. An autopsy was ordered and the medical examiner determined her cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head. Decomposition made it nearly impossible to determine a possible weapon.
Deputies continued the investigation in earnest for years following the discovery of Elma’s body. The lead investigator assigned to the case – Bobby Elvington – eventually became an agent with the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED). In an interview given twenty years after Elma disappeared, he told the News the case still haunted him. During the course of the investigation, Elvington developed a list of twenty possible suspects and he believed strongly it was solvable through either advancements in forensic science or continued coverage jogging someone’s memory of that day.
In 2003, Elvington and former Florence County sheriff Kenny Boone presented the case to the Vidocq Society in Philadelphia. This non-profit organization consists of volunteer forensic experts and investigators who serve as confidential consultants to assist law enforcement in solving difficult cold cases. Its members include profilers, criminologists, forensic scientists, medical examiners, active and retired law enforcement agents, prosecutors, polygraph examiners and others with skills that aid in solving the cases that seem unsolvable. Boone was optimistic – stating at the time that Elvington’s meticulous investigative file was what “kept the chances of solving the crime alive”.
Two decades have elapsed since then, though, and the initial optimism has waned. This news outlet reached out to FCSO to inquire about any potential updates regarding the case. Their public information officer, Mike Nunn, responded promptly – noting that the most recent investigative work on the case had been conducted by SLED. The majority of the original investigators from the sheriff’s office have since retired, but they expressed their willingness to grant us access to review the case files once they are retrieved from storage.
We will be reviewing those files as soon as they are available.
When Elma Lee Defee tragically passed away, she left behind four devoted daughters, a son and six grandchildren. In the four decades that have transpired since her brutal murder, the family has grown larger, yet the void left by her absence endures. Even after 40 years, their optimism remains undiminished as they hold onto hope for justice on behalf of their beloved mother – and father.
ABOUT THIS SERIES …
Unsolved Carolinas – sponsored by our friends at Bamberg Legal – is a new series by FITSNews devoted to shining a spotlight on cases which have fallen off the front page. We hope to tell the stories of those individuals who are seeking answers and justice on behalf of their lost loved ones. We will dive deeper into their stories, get to know them through their families and friends and hopefully help find answers for those they have left behind.
In every unsolved case, someone out there could know something that provides a missing link – a critical clue that could bring peace to a family in pain and help them write the next chapter of their stories (even if it is the final chapter). If you know someone who is missing – or has been a victim of an unsolved homicide – email their story to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The more stories we share, the more hope we can spread …
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Jenn Wood is FITSNews’ incomparable research director. She’s also the producer of the FITSFiles and Cheer Incorporated podcasts and leading expert on all things Murdaugh/ South Carolina justice. A former private investigator with a criminal justice degree, evildoers beware, Jenn Wood is far from your average journalist! A deep dive researcher with a passion for truth and a heart for victims, this mom of two is pretty much a superhero in FITSNews country. Did we mention she’s married to a rocket scientist? (Lucky guy!) Got a story idea or a tip for Jenn? Email her at email@example.com.
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