Video: Disappeared

NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Josh Mankiewicz Correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/10/2005 3:08:52 PM ET 2005-10-10T19:08:52

She was here for just a moment... and then, at only 24, Tamika Huston was gone. She simply vanished.

Left behind are both her family’s anguish and the words of the man who admits killing her.

This collision of two lives came to a terrible end in late May of 2004. Tamika had quit her waitressing job and was looking for something better.

She loved to sing, and even tried out for the TV show “American Idol,” and though that didn’t work out, Tamika had decided to set her sights beyond the life she was living in Spartanburg, South Carolina. But she lived alone and it was several days before anyone realized they hadn’t heard from Tamika in awhile.

Rebkah Howard, Tamika's aunt: She wouldn’t just disappear.  She knows without question that our entire family would be just, you know, devastated at not being able to find her.  And I don’t think that she would ever put us through that.

Rebkah Howard sounded the alarm that sent police to Tamika’s home, where they found her dog, her cell phone, some uncashed paychecks, but no Tamika.

Howard: It was basically a year-long search for her. Very little clues— it was just heartbreaking.

But while other missing women were featured prominently on national newscasts, Tamika’s story was not. That was despite the best efforts of her aunt Rebkah Howard, a Miami-based public relations executive. And so Tamika’s case came to be a kind of emblem of what was missing from the national news media, and it sparked a discussion of the role race plays in deciding which news stories to cover, and which to ignore.

When we first brought you the story of Tamika Huston, we told you police had a suspect in her disappearance. But at the time, investigators had no body and no proof that a crime had been committed, and so police asked us not to reveal the identity of the suspect, and we agreed. Now, that investigation is nearing an end, and tonight, we can name the person charged in the murder of Tamika Huston.

His name is Christopher Hampton, a young man who’d been in and out of jail, he apparently began seeing Tamika just a short time before she disappeared. That is why her family members didn’t know his name, and couldn’t point investigators in his direction.

Spartanburg police lieutenant Steve Lamb had heard from Tamika’s friend that she had recently started seeing a guy named Chris. But detectives had no last name.

Spartan Police Lieutenant Steve Lamb: They had only been dating a short period of time, less than a month. In this case, we were fortunate, in the next case, we may not be.  But if there is a lead, or a possibility, we try to follow it, and try to find the truth.

An answer to the question of what happened to Tamika would take investigators down a twisting path. A few days after their investigation began, they found her car and in it, a key that didn’t fit either the car or Tamika’s home. Through a local locksmith, Spartanburg police traced it to an apartment complex, and eventually to the lock on the door of an apartment that, at the time Tamika vanished, had been rented by Christopher Hampton.

Now, add to good police work a piece of good luck: Lt. Lamb went looking for Hampton and found him in the federal lock-up on a parole violation.

Lamb: Christopher Hampton was already in jail, and was going to be in jail until around August.  Instead of rushing in this case and going in, signing warrants on him for murder, we had time to prepare, time to build, and time to make a strong case against him.

Inside Hampton’s former apartment, on the carpet, was a bloodstain. Tests matched it to Tamika’s DNA.

County prosecutor Trey Gowdy: [A case] Being solved and being prosecutable are two different things. 

What became significant after the blood evidence was found was the laughably inconsistent stories that the defendant told as to how that stain got there.

First, Hampton told police the stain was tabasco sauce, then said someone had vandalized his place, dumping ketchup and mayonnaise on the carpet. He even volunteered that he’d rented a carpet steamer to clean it up. Even stranger, Hampton made many of these claims in letters he sent to investigators from inside federal detention, long before he was charged in Tamika’s disappearance.

Gowdy: He attempted to exonerate himself.  That is unusual for folks who are not connected with crimes to write a letter and say, “Hey, by the way, I just wanted you to know I had nothing to do with this crime.” 

On the day Hampton was to be released from federal custody on his parole violation, Lt. Lamb felt he had enough. Christopher Hampton was arrested and charged with the murder of Tamika Huston.

Hampton led police to Tamika’s remains, in a remote, wooded area where he had buried her. He confessed to killing Tamika, but said it was an accident— something he said during a jailhouse interview with Alexander Morrison, a local newspaper reporter.

According to Hampton, he and Tamika had an argument while he was ironing his work uniform.

Hampton: I just got mad. I just, just threw an iron... It happened so fast, I looked, I can’t believe it. I was, I just walked out of the room.

He says that when he returned, Tamika was dead.

Reporter: If you could tell her family anything right now, what would that be?

Hampton: To be forgiven. I didn’t mean for it to happen.

But Hampton’s actions after Tamika’s death raise more questions. By his own admission, he hid Tamika’s body in his closet. Police also say that very night, Hampton had sex with another girl— just a few feet away from the woman he had just killed.

Howard: So, he has intercourse with the young woman who was actually 15 years old at the time, while Tamika is stuffed in a comforter in his closet. It was just a heinous crime.  It was literally our worst fears realized.

Tamika’s aunt Rebkah Howard doesn’t buy Hampton’s story of an accident.

Howard: He said in that interview to the newspaper that he wasn’t a monster. I mean, if that’s not the actions of a monster, I don’t know what is. We have no idea how long Tamika was alive. We don’t know if she died instantly. We don’t know if she died over the course of the night in his home while he left there on the floor bleeding out, or when he stuffed her in the closet.  We’ll never know.  We’ll never know.

Christopher Hampton has pled not guilty. He goes on trial in April.

Tamika Huston’s funeral is scheduled for November 5th. Until then, this secluded place where police found her remains is the only memorial for a woman whose family demanded that her story be told... no matter what the ending.

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