Decades-old murder remains unsolved, but case to stay open

Posted: January 31, 2014

The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER — The fruits of a multi-jurisdictional grand jury’s labor were not realized in the more than 34-year-old unsolved murder of a 16-year-old city resident.

“What we were hoping for was to find a witness who would be able to resolve unanswered questions in the case, and that just didn’t happen,” said Marc H. Abrams, a special prosecutor in the case and deputy commonwealth’s attorney for the Winchester office.

More than 20 witnesses testified over the course of more than two years while the grand jury furthered an investigation into the case — which began March 28, 1979, when a motorist discovered the body of a young woman in a ditch along Papermill Road in Frederick County.

The victim had marks on her neck indicating strangulation, and a medical examiner ruled that she had died of asphyxiation.

Four days after being found, she was identified as a missing Winchester teen named Sheila Stead.

Her home, the last place she was known to be alive, was two miles from the spot where she was found dead, according to court documents.

Winchester Evening Star articles from that time state that Stead had left her Shawnee Drive home late on the night of March 27, but was not reported missing until almost 12 hours after her body was discovered.

Five days after Sheila was found, Frederick County Sheriff’s Office investigator Robert Edmondson told The Star that he had identified suspects and planned to make an arrest within the week.

More than three decades later, however, no charges have been filed, and according to a court document, “the grand jury was unable to resolve the issues necessary to bring this case to trial and believe all leads currently available have been exhausted.”

“It is recommended that this case remain open, so that if at a later date additional evidence is uncovered or a witness should come forward, this unresolved murder of a 16-year-old girl can be fully prosecuted,” the document states.

Abrams and Winchester Commonwealth’s Attorney Alexander R. Iden agreed Thursday that the case would not be shelved forever.

“If you think about a closed investigation, you think OK, let’s put it on the shelf and nothing’s ever going to happen to it again, and that’s not where we hope this to be,” Abrams said. “There are still witnesses out there that may have a change of heart or that know something or remember something that they hadn’t previously recalled.”

He said a big problem in a case as old as Sheila’s is that memories fade and the tools that were once available to investigators are no longer.

Officials never commented to the press about what sparked a request for the special grand jury in 2011, but it was likely related to new evidence that emerged the year before.

In August 2010, county Maj. Robert Eckman said that after a 2010 Winchester Star article profiled Sheila’s case, his office received new information about the murder — almost enough to solve it.

It was never clear what information they were given, but a search warrant filed a couple of months later revealed the direction the investigation was moving in.

“One of the primary suspect focuses in this investigation were the parents of Sheila Stead,” Detective K.C. Bohrer states in the search warrant affidavit.

According to the search warrant, Bohrer uncovered information indicating that some of Sheila’s family members were sexually and physically assaulted by her mother and stepfather, Shirley and James Stead.

In the warrant, Bohrer requested access to the medical records of Sheila, her mother, and the possibly abused family members.

Another investigator in the case, former City Sheriff Lenny Millholland, has said in the past that law enforcement officials know who committed the crime but didn’t have the evidence to prove it.

Bohrer, of the Sheriff’s Office, has been working on the homicide since 2008 and remains assigned to the case, along with Craig Smith from the Winchester Police Department.

Bohrer declined Thursday to comment on the current status of the case and, along with city police, referred questions to Abrams.

Abrams said Thursday that family members apprised of the grand jury’s findings, or lack thereof, had mixed reactions.

He said that some would have wanted an indictment returned and others did not want the case re-opened.

Sheila’s brother, Dennis Stead, was one of the family members who testified before the grand jury last year.

He said in a Thursday phone interview that he didn’t know about the grand jury’s decision, but he had his doubts about whether or not they would return an indictment.

“Of course everyone would like closure,” he said. “My biggest hope is that they can finally put the case to rest now.

“Every time they reopen these things, it just tears a hole in your heart.”

Stead — who was 12 when his sister was murdered — didn’t know how much help his testimony was but said he and other family members tried to do the best they could to help the prosecution.

“I was so young at the time [of Sheila’s death],” he added.

He did not say what his testimony was.

When asked what it had been like reliving the case after so many years, Stead said he didn’t know how to describe it.

“It was really hard when it happened,” he said, adding that the case would die down for so many years and then start up again, creating a painful cycle. “You think something is going to happen and then it doesn’t. It’d be easier if they just let it go.”

Stead, who now lives in Sharpsburg, Md., said most of his family has moved — albeit not far — from the area since Sheila’s death.

Their parents, Shirley and James Stead, also divorced years later. Stead asked that his mother not be contacted about Sheila or the grand jury results and said she was in nursing home in Strasburg and in poor health.

As for his sisters, he said they didn’t stay in good contact.

“That’s one of the casualties of something like this,” Stead added.

Efforts to reach James Stead, who now lives in Keyser, W.Va., and one of Sheila’s sisters were not successful. One of her other sisters declined to comment about the case.

Abrams said the grand jury, law enforcement officials and the Commonwealth’s Attorneys Office are still hopeful that the case can be brought to justice one day.

He encouraged anyone who may still have information about the case to come forward.

Anyone with information about the murder of Sheila Stead may contact the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office at 540-662-6612 or Crime Solvers at 540-665-8477.

— Contact Melissa Boughton at mboughton@winchesterstar.com