It was a day filled with tears, but also laughter and a feeling of hope, as dozens of people in the community joined friends and family members of missing University of South Carolina student Shelton Sanders on last weekend to remember him and to raise awareness of his case in an effort to locate his remains and to, one day, find closure.
“We will never give up,” Shelton’s sister Wilveria Sanders said through tears at the event. "We will keep going until all searches are completed, no stone left unturned.”
Saturday, June 19, 2021, marked 20 years since Shelton disappeared from Columbia, South Carolina in 2001. He was 25 years old.
In June 2001, Shelton was a student at the University of South Carolina where he was studying Administrative Information Management. He also worked as a computer programmer for the school’s Neuropsychiatry Department School of Medicine.
His sister, who was only 11 years old when her brother disappeared, told Dateline he had dreams of owning a consulting business as a computer programmer, get married, have children, and raise cattle.
“He was a hard worker - always had been,” Wilveria told Dateline. “And he had a bright future ahead of him.”
But that all changed on June 19, 2001.
Shelton’s sister Wilveria told Dateline the day began as a typical one for her brother, who was living at home in Rembert and commuting from Sumter County to school and work in Richland County. That day, he attended classes at USC-Columbia. He then went to work at the medical school.
Before driving home, Shelton had plans to reserve some hotel rooms in Columbia for a bachelor party he was planning for a friend. His former college roommate, Mark Richardson, volunteered to go with him to the hotels to help reserve the rooms.
Shelton’s mom, Peggy, told authorities it was around 8:30 p.m. that night when he called from his cell phone to tell her he’d be coming home late. But he never showed up.
An investigation conducted by the Sumter County Sheriff’s Department later revealed that Shelton and Mark were seen at Wellesley Inns & Suites in Columbia around 9:30 p.m., then at the Embassy Suites in Columbia at 9:51 p.m. and at the Residence Inn just after 10 p.m. They returned to Mark’s residence between 11 and 11:30 p.m.
According to the investigation, it was around that time when a neighbor heard three gunshots coming from the area of Mark’s residence and walked over to find out what happened. Mark stated to the neighbor that everything was all right and that his car had just backfired.
The next morning, Shelton’s parents William (Bill) and Peggy Sanders woke up to a phone call they would never forget.
“It was so heartbreaking when we found out he was missing,” Peggy said. “It was unbearable, I just lost it.”
The family filed a missing persons report with the Sumter County Sheriff’s Department and a search was launched. Over the next several weeks, multiple people, including friends, family members, witnesses and neighbors, were brought in to the sheriff’s department to provide statements.
Tips regarding Shelton’s murder, where his body was disposed, and where his car was dumped, came flooding in to the Sumter County Sheriff’s Department, Columbia Police Department, SLED, Crime Stoppers, and even to Shelton’s family. Authorities told the family they followed up on every tip they received, but each led to a dead end.
For nearly two and a half years, there was no trace of Shelton. Until April 26, 2003, when his white 1988 Oldsmobile Regency was found backed into a parking space at the Greenbrier Apartment complex in Columbia.
With the discovery of the vehicle in Richland County, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department began their investigation on Shelton’s case. Mark Richardson, the last person to be seen with Shelton, was called in to provide another statement.
Sergeant Shawn McDaniels, an investigator with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department on the case, told Dateline that Richardson made statements that led investigators to focus on him as their prime suspect.
According to Sgt. McDaniels, Richardson asked the investigators, “Let me ask you a hypothetical question? Is there such a thing as an accidental death in the state of South Carolina?” After he was told he’d be given the opportunity to explain, Richardson also asked, “How can I explain getting rid of a body?”
Sergeant McDaniels told Dateline that Richardson appeared frustrated and said he helped look for his friend. He then refused to say anything else.
In addition to the statements made by Richardson, Sgt. McDaniels said investigators were able to place Richardson right where Shelton’s car was found on the night he went missing.
“We triangulated his cell phone records and we were able to, on the night that Shelton Sanders was last seen and heard from, we were able to put Mark Richardson’s cell phone records right where the car was found,” Sgt. McDaniels told Dateline.
In October of 2005, Mark Anthony Richardson was arrested and charged with murder in connection to Shelton's disappearance - and in April 2008, he stood trial. The jury was unable to reach a verdict, with seven jurors voting guilty and five jurors voting not guilty or undecided, and a mistrial was declared.
The outcome was devastating for Shelton’s family.
But since the day Shelton went missing, they have not stopped searching.
“I’m looking for the one clue, the one answer that will bring him home,” Shelton’s father Bill Sanders, a Sumter County Magistrate, told Dateline. “We need our son home.”
At the Sanders home, there are dozens of pictures of Shelton and newspaper clippings chronicling the coverage of his disappearance - a constant reminder of their goal to bring Shelton home.
His case, which is being investigated by the Richland County Cold Case Squad, is listed as an unsolved cold case. But Sgt. McDaniels told Dateline he’s hopeful of solving it soon and believes they have the evidence to once again take Mark Richardson to court.
“He most certainly can be tried again,” Sgt. McDaniels said, adding that there is significant evidence against him, and he is considered the only suspect at this time. However, investigators and the family believe there are other people who have information about that night and the whereabouts of Shelton’s remains.
The family’s effort to find answers is evident all over South Carolina where they have utilized fliers, billboards, t-shirts, masks, and other eye-catching ways to spread awareness of his case.
It has consumed his sister’s entire life.
Shelton was a teenager when Wilveria was born, and he immediately took on the role of big brother and protector. And she always looked up to him. Wilveria told Dateline she has a favorite memory of him that was captured in a photo. Her brother is pictured in a cap and gown at his graduation in 1993. A tiny Wilveria is clinging onto his leg.
“He was my whole world,” she said. “And he still is. I have dedicated my entire life to my brother.”
About 10 years after Shelton disappeared, with the case turning cold, Wilveria and her parents took it upon themselves to be unofficial investigators. They set up the Facebook page “Finding Shelton Sanders,” created the hashtags #FindingSheltonSanders #JusticeForShelton, established a tip line, conducted interviews with local and national news outlets, increased their reward offer and continued to plead with anyone who has information to come forward.
“We’ve forgiven anyone who’s had any dealings with the murder or disappearance of my brother,” Wilveria said. “We just want to bring him home to a proper burial spot, where he belongs.”
On June 19, 2021, the family held an event in their latest effort to raise awareness of Shelton’s case and other missing person cases in the area.
“There are 20 missing persons in Sumter County," Wilveria said at the event last Saturday. "Seventeen missing persons in Richland County and over 200 missing persons in the state of South Carolina. So I’m asking the community to support our families as well.”
The support for Shelton was apparent both in the community and on social media. The case even caught the attention of former Dallas Cowboy Emmitt Smith, who recorded a video message offering prayers for the family and urging the public -- especially Cowboy fans -- to come together for Shelton.
“We just want to know where he is - his remains,” Shelton’s father told Dateline. “Then we can finally, finally bring him home to his family. That’s what we are asking for.”
The family is offering a $25,000 reward for information that leads to the whereabouts of Shelton’s remains.
“The search for my brother is not over,” Wilveria said. “Our fight for Shelton is not over.”
Anyone with information about Shelton’s case or the whereabouts of his remains is asked to call the Richland County Sheriff’s Office at (803) 576-3000 or the Shelton Sanders information hotline at (803) 427-4209.