Even though it has been more than twenty years since Brooke Leigh Henson went missing, police in Travelers Rest, South Carolina haven’t stopped searching for her. Nor will they stop. Just last month, they searched the local water treatment plant with ground penetrating radar in response to a new tip in the case.
Initial reports indicated Henson went missing from her family’s home on Henderson Drive on July 4, 1999 after taking off on foot in the middle of the night. Earlier that evening, she hosted a party with friends while her parents were away at a concert. There was talk of an argument with her boyfriend that prompted her 2:00 a.m. departure to buy cigarettes – even though the store was closed at that hour.
For many years, these few details framed Henson’s disappearance. Contrary to the early accounts, though, that wasn’t the last place she was seen. Travelers Rest police chief Ben Ford said Henson was spotted later that night partying in the River Falls area.
“We have statements that say she was seen at other parties in another part of the county that night,” Ford explained. “So we believe that even though she walked away from her residence that night, someone picked her up and she continued to go to other parties.”
For a long time, the only person of interest in the case was Henson’s boyfriend, Shaun Shirley, a man with a criminal record who refused to cooperate with police. When Shirley died in 2019, the Greenville County sheriff’s office determined the official cause of death to be an accidental drug overdose. But, Ford has his suspicions. At that time, police were investigating new leads at the house where Henson grew up – the same place she lived at the time of her disappearance – and word of potential developments in the case were quickly spreading across the small community. Tired of being accused of killing Henson, Shirley had reportedly indicated he was going to talk to police and reveal all he knew about her disappearance, according to a statement one of his friends provided police. Before that could happen, though, he was found dead.
“My theory is she never made it through the night and she’s buried somewhere in River Falls or the water treatment plant at Travelers Rest,” Ford said.
While the cause of her death is unknown, it has long been rumored Henson’s body was hidden at the water treatment plant – which covers an estimated 27 acres. Absent more specific information, locating her there could be difficult.
Last month’s search with ground penetrating radar was prompted by a very specific report, but so far it has not yielded results. Still, Ford said he is going to keep following every lead until Henson is found – and can be properly laid to rest.
For this police chief, the search for Brooke Henson is personal. Ford attended the same high school as Henson. He has family members who knew her well. He still remembers the day she went missing.
“This whole community remembers Brooke, so I do not want her to be forgotten,” Ford said.
Twenty years old at the time of her disappearance, Brooke Henson was a flower child – a free spirit. She was a happy girl who lived in the moment and did not dwell much on the future. Ford said her death may have been accidental. But, whatever happened to cause it, he believes more than one person helped conceal her body.
The story of Henson’s disappearance made national headlines and became the subject of two episodes of 48 Hours in 2007 and 2009 after her id was used by an imposter to get into college – and to try to get a job. A prospective employer was surprised to find the girl’s name on a list of missing people and alerted the authorities.
Sadly, this attempted fraud led family members to believe Henson was alive and well.
Ironically, the imposter – Esther Reed – also went missing in 1999. Fleeing difficult circumstances in her home state of Montana, she took on the identities of others to avoid being detected. It was a modus operandi she employed for years without getting caught. She used Henson’s identification to get into Columbia – and to rack up student loans in her name. When confronted, Reed insisted she was Henson. When asked to take a DNA test to prove it, she agreed but then fled again – leading authorities on a nationwide manhunt.
The story of Esther Reed – and the manhunt that led to her capture – is detailed in a podcast called Deep Cover: Never Seen Again by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jake Halpern.
Reed’s capacity for recreating herself – and avoiding authorities – caused some to wonder if she was a spy. Others suspected she had something to do with Henson’s disappearance. The fascination with Reed’s story often overshadowed that of the South Carolina girl whose identity provided successful cover for such a highly intelligent runaway.
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For Ford, though, the case has always been about Henson. Finding out what happened to her is a priority for the police chief and he hopes members of the public will come forward with whatever information they may have. Ford is convinced that there are several individuals who have information about the events leading up to her death on the night of July 4, 1999 – and her final destination. As police in Travelers Rest get ever closer to the answers they seek, this information could help bring peace to Brooke’s surviving brother and other friends and family members who are missing her still. He is asking those who know to help conclude the search that has lasted longer than her life.
Unsolved Carolinas – sponsored by our friends at Bamberg Legal – is a new series 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 hoping for 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 email@example.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Callie Lyons is a journalist, researcher, and author whose investigative work can be found in media outlets, publications, and documentaries all over the world – most recently in the Parisian newspaper Le Monde and a German documentary for ProSieben. Lyons also appears in Citizen Sleuth – a 2023 documentary exploring the genre of true crime.
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