In June of 1994, a nine-year old girl from Augusta, Georgia was preparing to live out her summer dreams. It was the first Monday of summer vacation, when Tiffany Nelson rode her bike down to a corner convenience store just a few blocks away. She was last seen at that gas station at approximately 10:00 AM, filling up her bike tires with air. When she went missing, very little was done to find her - or to investigate any of the potential offenders living in the area.
February 28th, 2018 Micheal Whelan
In the summer of 1994, the world was in the middle of a culture shift.
In January, the trade agreement NAFTA was established and President Bill Clinton delivered his first State of the Union address. In February, Tonya Harding's boyfriend, Jeff Gillooly, pled guilty to attacking fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, while Green Day was releasing their critically acclaimed debut album, "Dookie." In March, the People's Republic of China connected to the internet for the first time. In April, the body of musician Kurt Cobain is found in his Lake Washington home, outside of Seattle. In May, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa's first black president, while John Wayne Gacy is executed via lethal injection in the state of Illinois.
June of 1994 would see the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and the subsequent arrest and highly-publicized trial of OJ Simpson.
However, a week before Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered, another mystery was unfolding on the other side of the country, almost 2500 miles away, to a much smaller audience.
It was June 6th, a day that usually sits on the onset of summer vacation. A day that, for children, usually comes with an expectation of freedom and fun.
A month before the Fourth of July holiday, and just a couple of weeks before the official summer kickoff, the temperature in Augusta, Georgia was in the lower-80's. It was a warm, but not uncomfortably humid day.
It was the first Monday of Summer Break. Nine-year old Tiffany Nelson wouldn't have to worry about heading back to school for at least two months.
She set off early that morning, saying goodbye to her aunt and guardian, Ora Parrish. She rode her bike down the block, to a nearby convenience store. The trip was only a quarter of a mile, two corners away, and Tiffany was last seen at the gas station at approximately 10:00 AM.
Tiffany was never seen alive again. This is her story.
Tiffany Elizabeth Nelson was born on October 21st, 1984. Her father wasn't very active in her early life, so she would be raised by her mother.
Tiffany was seen by everyone as a sweet and kind little girl. Her father, Vernon, was only able to see Tiffany occasionally, when she would go over to the home he shared with his sister.
Tiffany's cousin, Benita, describes Tiffany as a bit of a tomboy: a girl that would ride her bike rambunctiously while wearing frilly, girly dresses. Benita, who was older than Tiffany and had a young daughter of her own, recalled memories of Tiffany taking the time to read bedtime stories to her daughter during their many sleepovers.
Stephanie, Tiffany's niece, considered them to be more like cousins... or even sisters, because of their closeness. She has many childhood memories of Tiffany, which she can recall even today.
Tiffany, who grew up with and was close with her mother, had to endure a personal tragedy before her own disappearance. In 1992, when Tiffany was just seven years old, her mother passed away. Her family had to step forward and take a more active role in her life. Her father, Vernon, began to spend more time with her, inviting Tiffany over to his home once or twice a week, and offering to get her anything she needed.
It was Tiffany's aunt, Ora Parrish, who would take over as the guardian of the young girl, and raise her in her home on South Augusta's Getzen Drive.
This is the home where Tiffany would spend the next two years of her life, becoming close with her aunt, cousins, and other relatives that wanted to provide a comforting figure in the wake of her mother's passing. Despite this tragic undertaking, Tiffany never let her mother's loss get her down - she was always kind and compassionate to those she came across, and provided a warmth that her mother would remain proud of.
However, this neighborhood - named Faith Village - is the area in which Tiffany would disappear from just two years later.
On the morning of June 6th, 1994, nine-year old Tiffany Nelson woke up. It was the first Monday of summer vacation - a time which most of us are familiar with.
That first Monday of summer vacation comes with a certain aura, a feeling that you - a child - are finally beginning to experience freedom. Freedom from the stresses of taking a bus to school, freedom from having to worry about bullying and teasing, unshackling yourself from the burden of homework. Personally, I get nostalgic goosebumps recalling those early days of summer vacation, where you begin to feel like the possibilities of this world are endless.
Perhaps still getting used to the idea of summer vacation, Tiffany woke up early that morning. She spent some time with her aunt, Ora, before heading out on her bike.
Family describe Tiffany's bicycle, a ten-speed red bike, as an extension of Tiffany herself. Whenever she had a moment to spare, she was likely on that bike, riding around her neighborhood, Faith Village.
The tires on Tiffany's bike had started to get a bit flat, so that morning, she rode her bike down to a nearby gas station and convenience store.
The home she was living in, 2208 Getzen Drive, was on the corner of the street, so she only needed to ride her bike a short distance. She passed a few houses as she rode down Neal Street, and then took a left on Ruby Drive. There, it was only a couple of houses before she reached a busier road, Richmond Hill Drive. She took a right, and rode down to the street corner of Richmond Hill and Lumpkin Road.
This area is not a very thriving hot-spot for commerce, but it is a relatively busy intersection. Tiffany would have to ride her bike carefully along the shoulder of the road, especially in the early morning work rush. It was a Monday, after all, and while traffic would be lessened by the absence of school buses, there would still be plenty of people on their way to work.
Tiffany would pull in to an Amoco gas station, on the corner of Lumpkin Road and Richmond Hill Drive, at around 10:00 AM that morning. That Amoco station has since been re-branded multiple times, but it still stands on that street corner.
Witnesses saw Tiffany using the air pumps to put some more air into her bike tires, but this was the last place that Tiffany would ever be officially seen by anyone.
Tiffany's aunt, Ora Parrish, reported Tiffany missing shortly after she failed to return home.
The next day, on June 7th, 1994, the Augusta Police Department and Richmond County Sheriff's Office conducted a door-to-door search for Tiffany. They tried recreated her trip from her home on the corner of Getzen Drive and Neal Street, to the corner convenience store that she had disappeared from.
They also conducted a search in the woods behind the Amoco gas station, to no avail.
Police noted to the media that Tiffany had been wearing a multi-colored flower shirt and blue-and-white denim shorts, along with blue-and-white Air Jordan sneakers. Her picture was distributed to local media outlets, and they made sure to highlight the blemish-type scar Tiffany had under her right eye, as well as the thin scar on her forehead, above her left eye.
At least, this is how newspapers would later recall the search for the missing nine-year old. Family of Tiffany Nelson would later recall that police were less than enthusiastic to investigate the case, and that the detective who handled the case - the same detective that handled the 1990 disappearance of Dannette and Jeannette Millbrook - also applied the runaway label to Tiffany.
Police received a tip on Tuesday, June 7th, from a woman whose grandson had allegedly sighted Tiffany that Monday morning.
This eleven-year old boy claims to have seen Tiffany in the backseat of a two-door car, being driven by a man who was wearing a hat. This alleged sighting happened off Barton Chapel Road, roughly four miles west of where Tiffany was last seen.
More details of this tip have not been released, but police apparently didn't find it credible because there wasn't enough information to go off of.
The search for Tiffany Nelson was struggling early on, and it would fail to make any real inroads in the coming weeks and months.
On Tuesday, June 16th, 1994, cadavar dogs from nearby Fort Gordon's K-9 unit searched a wooded area near Richmond Hill Drive and Lumpkin Road, hoping to pick up a scent or track of Tiffany. Unfortunately, they were unable to pick up anything useful.
A couple of days later, on June 18th, Tiffany's story was featured on America's Most Wanted. Police and Tiffany's family were hopeful that this program would light a fire under the search to find this missing nine-year old, but it seems to have not done much.
A five-man investigative team continued to work the case for the next few weeks, conducting door-to-door canvasses of the area, hoping to find anyone that had seen Tiffany in the time period of her disappearance. Unfortunately, because of the timing of her last sighting - 10:00 AM on a Monday morning - not many had information to share.
Also, police had yet to turn up one of the most important pieces of evidence: the ten-speed red bicycle that Tiffany had been riding when she went missing. Just like Tiffany, the bike had disappeared, meaning that wherever she went, the bike had likely gone, as well. Bikes aren't easily transported, meaning that someone had likely had a truck, or a size-able trunk to transport it within.
Comments by the Richmond County Sheriff's Office indicate that they treated Tiffany's disappearance as a missing persons report, but didn't immediately suspect foul play. Because of this, they didn't really develop any early leads.
For the next few years, Tiffany's case would basically remain in stasis. As the Augusta Police Department merged with the Richmond County Sheriff's Office in 1996, the case files transferred over. Officers and detectives continued to take a look at the case notes, hoping that a new round of questioning would spark something new for the case.
But it wasn't until 1999 that police began to seriously look at Tiffany's disappearance again, almost half-a-decade later. That is when another child from the Augusta area went missing.
In April of 1999, a six-year old boy named Keenan O'Mailia was riding his bike in North Augusta, which stretches from Georgia into South Carolina.
He was riding his bike along a dirt road, not far from his home, while his mother cooked dinner inside their apartment. When he failed to return home that evening, he was reported missing, and a search was launched to find the young boy.
Immediately, comparisons were made between this case and that of Tiffany Nelson. Both were children under the age of 10 that had disappeared in the Augusta area while out riding their bike.
However, unlike Tiffany Nelson, the body of Keenan O'Mailia would be found a day after his disappearance. Police had begun the search for Keenan with the possibility of him injuring himself along the dirt path, but after finding his body about one-hundred yards away from Riverview Park, began investigating the crime as a sexual assault and strangulation.
The investigation soon received a tip, which put a man named William Ernest Downs on their radar.
William Downs was a man in his early thirties, who had just moved to Augusta two or three months before the murder of kindergartner Keenan. He had a history in the town, having moved away to Albany, Georgia a few years beforehand, but returned when he discovered that a prior romantic fling had resulted in a child.
William Downs was arrested just a week after Keenan's murder, on April 25th, and charged with sexual assault, kidnapping, and murder. Prosecutors made it clear that they were pursuing the death penalty in this heinous crime, and began to question if Downs had any more involvement in Augusta-area crimes.
You see, William Downs had lived in the Augusta area for most of his life, putting him in the area until the mid-1990s.
During the various interrogations, Downs confessed to the rape and murder of Keenan O'Mailia, and also confessed to another Augusta-based cold case.
In March of 1991, another Augusta child - ten-year old James Porter - disappeared while riding his bike to a nearby convenience store. His body was found in the Savannah River two months later, in May of 1991, and because of the state of his body, very little evidence could be recovered. Police had ruled his death an accidental drowning, but revisited the case after William Ernest Downs' confession.
This now marked two cases where a child had been riding a bike, only to be abducted, sexually assaulted, and murdered by William Downs. However, both of the children were boys, which as we know, Tiffany Nelson was not.
However, another stark difference between the crimes remained the location, the means of which they were carried out, and the confessions of Downs himself.
Both Keenan O'Mailia and James Porter had disappeared from North Augusta, bordering South Carolina, while Tiffany Nelson disappeared from South Augusta, close to the town of Hepzhibah. The body of James Porter had been dumped into the Savannah River after his death, and William Downs confessed to hiding the body of Keenan under leaves. He had planned to go back and deposit the body of Keenan into the river, but the police had already begun their search for the young boy, so he quickly abandoned that idea.
Police questioned Downs about Tiffany Nelson, and he seemed to have no idea who she was, or any details of the case. In fact, due to his constant moving around the area, he wasn't even sure that he had been in Augusta during her 1994 disappearance.
"We brought up the name, and he didn't know what we were talking about. We don't even know if he was in the Augusta area," said Richmond County Chief Deputy Ronald Strength.
Downs was also questioned in the 1985 disappearance of Jeremy Grice, another missing child from Augusta. However, he would have been a teenager at the time of that case, and despite easily confessing to the murders of the two other boys, he shared no details of that case.
In 2002, Downs pled guilty in a South Carolina court for the sexual assault, kidnapping, and murder of Keenan O'Mailia. During sentencing, he addressed the the possibility of his own death:
"I think it would be disrespectful to the family and disrespectful to the whole world if you did not give me the death penalty."
Downs was given the death penalty, and would spend the next couple of years awaiting his fate. In the meantime, he was found guilty in a Georgia court of the sexual assault and murder of ten-year old James Porter, and if he tried to appeal either of his sentences, he would open himself up to a second death penalty.
On July 14th, 2006, William Ernest Downs was executed via lethal injection. Police have since claimed that they don't believe him to be guilty of any of the other crimes in the area, since he was ready to confess when arrested, and seemed to show genuine remorse. However, it's possible that Downs may have had some secrets he took to the grave, but it's impossible to tell now.
A year before the execution of William Ernest Downs, the family of Tiffany Nelson received news.
It had been over a decade since the mysterious disappearance of the nine-year old, and her friends and family had all come to the understanding that she was most likely no longer with them. However, they still held out hope for some answers, or at least the possibility of putting her to rest.
On May 16th, 2005, two men were walking through the woods along Farmers Bridge Rd., roughly fifteen miles south from where Tiffany Nelson had disappeared from. This is the area where Parrott Lane now sits, which - at the time - was mostly undeveloped woods.
One of these men, a forester, stumbled upon an object that looked like a bleached turtle shell, as he described it. However, upon further inspection, he quickly realized that he was looking at a human skull.
Police were called, and an excavation of the area revealed a shocking sight. This body, which was severely decomposed, had been buried in a shallow grave less than one-hundred yards from the roadway. Most noticeable, however, were the blue-and-white Air Jordan sneakers found in the grave, which matched only one missing persons case from the area: Tiffany Nelson.
Police were fairly certain that they had finally discovered the body of Tiffany, at long last. They would try to make sure that some of Tiffany's blood relatives could give samples to conduct DNA testing, which would take a little over a month to confirm.
Tiffany had gone missing from Richmond County, but because this body had been discovered in neighboring Burke County, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation - the GBI - was brought in to oversee certain parts of the investigation and oversee the forensic testing.
On June 24th, 2005, Gary Nicholson of the GBI announced that mitochondrial DNA taken from the skeletal remains matched samples taken from Tiffany's maternal relatives. In his statement, he declared:
"When you take into consideration Tiffany's age at the time of her disappearance, the age of the skeleton, its size, its locaton and other factors, you have a very strong case that this was Tiffany Nelson."
The forensic investigators were apparently unable to locate Tiffany's cause of death or uncover whether she had been sexually assaulted before her death, simply because of how decomposed her remains had become in eleven years.
While the larger mystery about Tiffany Nelson's fate still loomed, at long last her family were able to put her to rest.
In July of 2005, a $5000 reward was announced for any information that could lead to answers regarding Tiffany Nelson's case, and police began to finally investigate foul play in her disappearance and death.
"Based on forensic evidence, we feel fairly certain that this is a homicide, and we're investigating it as such," said Sergeant Richard Roundtree, a member of the Richmound County Sheriff's Office. This is the same Richard Roundtree that would be elected Sheriff in 2013.
The police put out a notice for volunteers to help comb the wooded area where Tiffany's remains had been found. More than 50 volunteers responded, and agreed to meet up at Hepzhibah Elementary School early on a Saturday morning.
Some of these volunteers included Tiffany's family members: such as her father, Vernon, who had since moved away to Girard, Georgia; her cousin, Benita, who still lived in the area; and her niece, Stephanie, who was of a similar age to Tiffany, and had come home from her freshman year at Georgia Southern University to participate in the search.
On August 20th, at around 7:00 AM, all fifty or so volunteers met up, and began searching the woods where police were hoping to uncover a clue or two. They were hopeful that they could find a piece of evidence, such as Tiffany's missing red bicycle, some missing bone fragments, or other items of clothing.
Using rakes and garden hoes, the volunteers searched for almost six hours, in the middle of Georgia's humid summer weather, but were unable to uncover anything that led to further answers. News reports indicate that they found some bone fragments and sent them away for testing, but none of these tests told them what they didn't already know.
A week later, on August 27th, a funeral service was finally conducted for Tiffany Nelson. The memorial was presided over by Reverend Perry Daniels at the Magnolia Baptist Church, and Tiffany was buried in the church graveyard.
There have been several theories developed in the years since, many of which stem from related cases and the lack of any information brought forth since by police.
Sheriff Sergeant Richard Roundtree stated in a 2005 article: "There were no suspects developed back then." He is referring to the fact that the early investigation didn't investigate Tiffany's disappearance for any foul play; meaning, of course, that they didn't seriously investigate any suspects in the area, not even the sex offenders and child predators that lived in the area where Tiffany disappeared from.
"Unfortunately, because of the amount of time that has passed, it is a very difficult case to solve. But we feel it is a solvable case, someone knows something," Roundtree continued.
As I stated, a $5000 reward was announced for information that could lead to answers in the case of Tiffany Nelson. But nothing I can find since the mid-2000s validates that reward still being active. In fact, outside of some archived news reports, there is very little information out there about Tiffany or her case. I can not find an instance of either Richmond County or Burke County discussing the case since the 2005 developments, and reports seem to vary on who the case is being openly investigated by.
Many online and in the true crime community have theorized that Tiffany's disappearance bears similarities to other cases. Most notably, a story I covered in the prior three episodes, that of twins Dannette and Jeannette Millbrook.
The Millbrook twins disappeared from the corner of 12th Street and MLK Boulevard, approximately four miles away from where Tiffany disappeared from. They, too, had last been seen at a corner convenience store just blocks away from their own home, but had disappeared later on a Sunday evening.
The area that Dannette and Jeannette Millbrook disappeared from was a few miles away from Tiffany's neighborhood, but both were just a block or two away from the same highway system.
The area that the Millbrook twins went missing was a short distance away from what is now Gordon Highway - Highway 78. Meanwhile, Tiffany went missing just a stone's throw away from Peach Orchard Road - Highway 25. Both meet up at a junction not too far away, which merges Highways 10, 25, and 78.
It's a drive that can be made in mere minutes. Even if you avoid the highway, you can travel down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Deans Bridge Road, and then Richmond Hill Road to match the same travel time, give or take a minute. It stands to reason that someone who was familiar with the area, or perhaps an offender that had moved in the interim four years, could have been responsible for both disappearances.
Other than the Millbrook twins, investigators and reporters have made connections between the story of Tiffany Nelson and the abduction and murder of a girl from Greenwood, South Carolina. The girl, named Malakia Logan, was an eight-year old who was riding her bike at around 8:00 at night when she disappeared. Her bike was found at the apartment complex, but Kia - as she was known - was gone.
Her body would be found in 1990, but police wouldn't identify her through DNA until 1998 - ten years after her original disappearance. A man was charged with her murder, but later acquitted.
This is a case that I'll be getting to in an upcoming episode, but many point to it as bearing many similarities to Tiffany Nelson. Both were young black girls that disappeared while riding their bikes, and whose remains were hidden in the surrounding woods outside of the town they disappeared from.
It's easy to point to these separate cases as bearing many similarities to Tiffany Nelson's abduction and murder. However, something that I can't get out of my own mind is the fact that nine-year old Tiffany disappeared from a gas station in the middle of the day. Whoever took her, and later buried her in a shallow grave in Burke County, managed to convince her to get into the car with them. They also took her bicycle with them, implying that they had the means to do so. A smaller vehicle wouldn't be able to accommodate a ten-speed bicycle, at least not without attracting attention.
I find it very possible that whoever took Tiffany on June 6th, 1994, was someone that she was familiar with. Someone that knew her. Someone that lived in the area, and possibly knew when and where to find her. If not, and this was a random kidnapping of a child... I don't know what to think. It's hard to figure out which possibility is more terrifying.
If you have any information about this case, you should contact the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Their hotline can be phoned at 404-244-2600, and the $5000 reward leading to helpful information still stands.
As of this episode's recording, the story of Tiffany Nelson is still unresolved.